Archive | May 2018

New York: Accept No Substitutes

I was in Atlanta for work this past week and I wanted to go someplace for lunch. I was working in a very modern office that had some free pizza for lunch, but I wanted something healthier and to get out of the office for a little while.

Atlanta is not a pedestrian friendly city and my options were limited unless I wanted to take a cab someplace. A coworker recommended a shopping center a little way up the hill in the corporate park where we were, so I walked there.

My options for lunch were a Subway (no, a Subway worker once tried to put mayonnaise on a meatball sub and once you get past a certain age the smell of their bread is disgusting), a salad place, and a New York-style deli. For some reason, I picked the New York-style deli place. I thought maybe they would have good sandwiches.

The walls were painted with images from New York: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the like. It was a poor imitation of a New York deli. People waited too long at the counter and too long for table service. Maybe they have brilliant pastrami or hot dogs but the sandwiches I saw pass by were pretty paltry and would not have made it across the counter at a quality deli in the Big Apple.

I tried to eat a healthy option so I ordered a salad and a side of cottage cheese. I also ordered an egg cream because it’s rare to find those anywhere, so when I see one offered on a menu I feel I should order it. The egg cream was only OK: again, it would be way below par at a place like Ray’s Candy Store, where I’m proud to have taken people for their first egg creams.

This kind of fraudulent “New York” is not limited to outside New York. But if you’re within the five boroughs or even within a hundred miles of the city and you stumble upon a restaurant or deli that makes grand pretention to how “New York” it is, you can usually count that as bogus. If you’ve got to advertise it, you’re not the real deal.

Atlanta, and the South in general, has some of the best food in the world. I’ve been to outstanding barbecue restaurants, had soul food, Cajun food, and many varieties of Southern cuisine that are mouth-watering just to think about. I know there is better fare on offer in Georgia. Sadly, the metro-Atlanta area has undergone rapid growth that has scrubbed away meaningful culture, leaving it with a lot of the mundane corporate subdivision architecture. You see what this kind of consolidation has done to the New York suburbs and parts of the five boroughs as well: there’s an Olive Garden making money in Times Square while independent Italian restaurants in Little Italy struggle to get by.

I did not find an authentic New York restaurant in Atlanta. Maybe I never will, but that’s OK. The search for the real New York is enough of a herculean task at home. My children may have a radically different idea of what makes for a true New York experience than I do. As generations make changes and the demographics of the city churn through neighborhood after neighborhood, what counts as a true measure of culture fluctuates.

I made it back to the office after wolfing down my salad and cottage cheese. I had to get more work done before flying back to New York.

 

The savage madness of New York City Pre-Kindergarten

Having children in New York City means a life of deadlines and bureaucratic navigation. While every child is guaranteed a public education, it takes immersion into byzantine administration in order to ensure your offspring can access the best schools available, and the grapevine is full of horror stories and cautionary tales of kids being sent far from home to sub-par schools.

My wife and I are waiting to hear where our older girls will attend preschool. Universal Pre-K started several years ago and it’s free to all kids the year they turn four years old. We are lucky in that we live in an area that has good local schools. A lot of younger couples have kids and then find themselves racing a clock to get to a better neighborhood in or out of the five boroughs that has suitable education choices.

I am blessed with a great asset in making sure my kids get into a decent Pre-K: my wife. She was the one who did the research and learned how to traverse the absurdist labyrinth of rules and applications (e.g.: applying to only one or two schools won’t work, if you do that, the system will automatically fill in the other choices for you, so your attempt to limit the choices may backfire big time). She figured out which ones were closest and had good ratings, and came up with a list of preferences that will mean our older girls are likely to be in a good place.

The schools we applied to include both public and private schools close to where we live that run public Pre-K programs.

One of those public/private Pre-K schools is a place called Holy Mountain. This school does not have any religious affiliation that we can discern. It has a mostly Asian student population, but so do most schools in our area (we live in Flushing, Queens, an area known for its large Chinese immigrant population; it has a large Korean population as well).

But the name Holy Mountain will always first make me think of the 1973 Alejandro Jodorowski film, The Holy Mountain, which I first saw projected onto a wall during a punk rock show many years ago. It is an art film filled with strange and bizarre images, even watching the trailer many years later is to step away from reality for a few minutes.  One of the most well-known and memorable images of the film include a parade of crucified dogs that have been skinned and disemboweled.

So now whenever my wife and I discuss Pre-K for our kids and we note that Holy Mountain was one of our top choices (it’s nearby and it has high ratings with a Montessori-based teaching style, so what if it has a weird name), all I can think about is my older girls parading down 31st Road in gas masks while carrying crucified dogs.

This week, the results came in: and our girls will be headed to Holy Mountain in September. Mutilated canine parade, here we come! I now need to watch that film again. I’ll have to find a time when the rest of my family is asleep, as I am the only one in my household who has this big a taste for eccentric cinema.

We are lucky to live in an area where such services are available within walking distance. For the value it returns, no investment in public education can be too big.

When you become an indifferent monster

I was at a conference for work where people were going to be talking about important things that could affect my job, the line of business I work for, and the company I work for. I had to be there for certain speaking panels and a regulator’s speech. I had to take copious notes and report on what was said. I needed to be there to talk to any journalists that might be asking questions of our company’s executives.

I work in corporate communications. I like to think I’m good at my job, or at least have a good work ethic and honestly try to do my best. It was after lunch and I was loading up on coffee to make sure I stayed alert. Since I had consumed enough caffeine to give an elephant a heart attack, I really wanted to try to get to the restroom between two panels that I had to be present for.

To my luck, the program at the conference added an extra speaker between these sessions and I saw this as my chance to head to the bathroom. As the conference organizers asked us to stay for this speech, I was darting out of the conference room to get to the men’s room.

Outside the auditorium, closed-circuit televisions were broadcasting what was happening inside, and I saw that I had walked out on a young teenager who was recovering from a horrible form of cancer. People in the lobby watched the young man on television recount his struggle to live a normal life while fighting a horrible disease.

I stopped for a minute to listen, feeling like the worst kind of corporate monster for walking out on the most heartfelt talk of the entire event. But nature, and my need to be back in time to take notes on the next panel, called, and I continued with my plan and made it back to the auditorium with just enough time to not miss the required discussion.

Cody Strong for a Cure is a charitable organization that helps support children with cancer and their families and raises money to fund research into pediatric cancer. I missed a brief talk by the inspiration for the charity, Will Cody, who is thankfully in remission after being diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia two years ago.

After priding myself on having good priorities and not being blinded to the truly important things in life, I had become the indifferent monster I had always despised. I consoled myself in that I had already donated to the charity raffle at the event, using all my raffle tickets on the prize for a free trip to a Rangers game (I didn’t win).

There are times when life gives you a punch in the gut that reveals how unimportant so much of what we think about is, and our carefully tended self image comes crashing to the floor in a jumble of jagged shards. This was one of those times. No matter what was said or done at the conference that affected my job or the company I work for, none of it amounts to jack shit compared with a child stricken with a terrifying illness.

I stayed up late that night typing up my notes for work, and I have no idea how many people read them. One of my colleagues said I did a great job with them, but they will always be stained with a dark self-knowledge. At some point in our lives, we see a side of ourselves that we despise.

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