Before I start, I need to set a few things straight, for the record. Let me just say that New York is a fantastic city, full of fantastic things, fantastic people, yadda yadda yadda. Bottom line: it’s fantastic. I just want you to know that I recognize this about New York. I recognize it as one of the vibrant hubs of the universe, just in the same way that I recognize that Jackson Pollack was an extremely important and innovative influence in painting.
That doesn’t mean I like either of them.
I commuted into New York from Princeton (about fifty miles away) for three and a half years. Starting in May of 2001, I would get up every day, Ann would drive me to the Princeton Junction train station in our trusty, if uninspiring, Toyota Corolla, and I would ascend the steps to the platform and perform the Ritual of the Commuter.
This morning, I drove Ann to Princeton Junction so SHE could perform the ritual on her way to help man the booth for my publishing company at a conference of philosophers in the Hilton in New York. I followed her a few hours later so we could meet up for lunch with my Aunt Bernadette, who I hadn’t seen since we moved to the Netherlands.
Have you ever done something that you didn’t want to do, something that made you feel bad inside, which you wish you hadn’t done, and you try desperately to erase from your memory? Now, imagine that you did that thing again. That’s exactly the kind of low-level shame/disgust/self-loathing I felt as I parked the car in the dirt lot in Princeton Junction, walked up to the machine, and bought my RTX (round trip) ticket for New York Penn Station. I had a vague feeling of shame and disgust.
Punching in the code for Penn Station (code 000) again I felt the way I imagine a kleptomaniac who is trying to go straight feels as he reaches for that pair of sunglasses and shoves them in his bag. I numbly walked up the steps and worked hard to fight the urge to count the breaks in the cement. See, when I was a regular commuter, I would count the breaks between the cement slabs on the platform because I knew exactly how many breaks I had to walk before I was in the exact spot that the train doors would grind to a halt at.
That’s the sick kind of commuter knowledge you accumulate over years of taking the New Jersey Transit into Manhattan. You, and all the other regulars, clump together on the platform in little bunches on a wide open platform. It must look quite funny to anyone on the other side of the tracks, to see an entire expanse of open platform punctuated by little groups of people standing tightly together.
Why do we do this? Because we know that the train is ten cars long, and that the doors between cars three and four will stop exactly there, and then you can jump in and get a seat close to the doors so that you can jump out again when the train pulls into Penn station and you will be right at the bottom of the escalators and can get up into the hot and steamy bowels of Penn Station before all the other commuters start to pack together like so many fleshy lemmings at the bottom of the stairwell.
So you can see why engaging in this kind of behavior on my vacation is not something I prefer to do.
Anyway, I meet Ann and Aunt B in the lobby of the Hilton and we decide to eat lunch in the café of the MoMA museum. Sounds great. Until we get there, and every tourist in New York and all the surrounding states is also there trying to get into the museum. Aunt B is a corporate sponsor, so that saves us the ticket line to get in, but the bag check line takes half an hour to get through, and then we get up to the café, and the wait to get a table is half an hour. It is now an hour since we left for lunch and we are just sitting down.
Here is where the story takes a turn for the better. The waitress is cute and perky, just dying to help us out and smiling more than a Disney customer service agent. The menu is fairly limited, but it all sounds exotic and chic, and we order appetizers and entrees. Ann and I get a $15 plate of 5 cheeses, all of which are great. Aunt B gets some soup with a scallop which is tasty. Then we get the entrees. Aunt B out-orders everyone with a dish of boneless spare ribs which are so soft they dissolve in my mouth like lamb from a stew that’s been cooking all day. I get a smoked trout dish that comes with “pear carpaccio” which actually makes a great combination. Ann gets a dish of soba noodles with shrimp that she also says is great. But then come the desserts.
Wow. That’s all I can say. Aunt B has a caramel, coffee, and cinnamon ice cream sundae which is delicious. I get a chocolate tart which is nice and rich but not so much so that you can’t devour the whole thing (which I do). Ann gets some pistachio tart concoction with layers of marzipan which is the most pistachio-y thing I have ever tasted (other than actual pistachios). Like the rest of New York, the desserts are fantastic.
I spend the rest of the afternoon talking to the other editors in the Springer booth at the philosophy conference and trying to convince Aunt B that every philosophy book she picks up is really not something she needs to buy. “Aunt B, a treatise on the philosophy of painting by Leornardo da Vinci is good…. for PAINTERS!”
All in all, it was a highly successful culinary visit to New York. We had to endure the packed NJ Transit ride back to Princeton, but it’s much easier to take on a stomach full of fantastic food.