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Plate It Up Tough
posted: 03/27/07

Well, I'm not sure how interesting this is going to be to anyone not expressly mentioned herewith, but, for those folks...

I'm back from Brooklyn, and, in a slightly larger geographic (and gastronomic, as we'll see) sense, from New York. Fun. Tasty. Exhausting.

Let me bore you a bit. Or a bit more, I should say, as apparently I'm late to my own party where at least a few of you are concerned.

Let's see... Up at o' my God it's early Wednesday, hopped in the rental (so low to the ground), made my way south. A lot of coffee and one potty break got me to the New York state line, where I went in search of an Italian joint near Playland beach, in Rye. Turns out the place is gone, but the market on the corner was pretty good. A "Healthy Turkey [#4]" and an unhealthy bag of salt and vinegar chips and I was good to go. Headed over to the beach house, which I hadn't seen in a decade. Scarfage and sittage. Good time. Now movage.

Despite MapQuest's best efforts to keep things on the straight and relatively narrow, I had transposed two important figures in my head: 287 for 278. One's gonna take you where you wanna go. The other one is gonna take you toward the Tappan Zee and/or Jersey. We don't want the latter[s]. Thankfully I took the time, while sitting in the lot at the beach, to double-check the map. 278-W takes us to Brooklyn. This we want. Here we go.

To backtrack briefly, though, I'll mention that I lived in Brooklyn (the exodus, phoenix rising from the flame, exploding espresso machine, various), in Park Slope, for one blessed year, in 1995. This was after living in Manhattan (the preamble) for a number of years until things fell irreparably apart, and before moving to Westchester (a hazy transition), and long before D.C. (a sometimes rocky second act), and almost a decade prior to moving to Maine (dénouement). I loved it - utterly - in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn saved my life.

As I drove across the Triboro onto the BQE without much traffic, or at least without much insanity, catching the Manhattan skyline off to the right most of the time, when I wasn't coming around some bend or ducking under some overpass, I thought to myself, having driven this stretch perhaps only twice before in my life (I had no car for nearly a decade while living in New York): "Hey, oddly enough, [the condition of] the BQE isn't that bad these days."

Which was true. For about 300 feet. And then I was dodging foxholes in the asphalt. Just like always. Some things don't change (though there was bona fide improvement there for 300 feet, I'm sure of it).

I rolled in to my friends Cabot and Lorca's apartment in the early afternoon. Gorgeous skies and temps. It was truly wonderful to be back. And back I was, after driving all day, having a nice bite on the beach, and schlepping my bags plus three guitars across the street, up a stoop and a flight of stairs, and around two very furry kitties.

A brief hour or so of shuteye on the couch and I headed to a gig I'd booked at a lovely little place called Night & Day, owned by Judy Joice of the Lion's Head and Robin Hirsch of Cornelia Street Cafe. Fifth Avenue in the Slope has become truly happening. The restaurant is great, with a beautiful adjacent club called The Skylight Room. Simon, the chef, is doing fantastic work. I went for a simple breast of chicken, but hoo boy was it faboo. My friends Adam and Rob joined Cabot, Lorca, their friend Beth, and I for a fantastic meal all around. Highly recommended. Thanks to Justin at the club for being so cool and helping out with everything.

I went on a little past 9pm, playing for a small but appreciative audience. I made a few new friends that night, and other than being frankly completely thrashed from driving and lack of sleep and free-associatively jabbering [far more so than usual] between the tunes, I had a most enjoyable two sets under the moonlight. Brooklyn, yo. I still love you.

night and day, brooklyn, ny. photo by

A sincere thanks to folks for coming out and listening. I hope to be back again soon. Thanks to Reginé for shooting the set.

After (much later), at C y L's, much talk of real estate over Tecate. And then, around 2am, drifting off, and sleep. Sorta. I'd forgotten about the street cleaning and the car moving dance, but was reminded before hitting hay. One of the many reasons to not have a car in New York. I'd of course only been able to find a spot on the side that needed to be moved in the morning. As I lay there trying to get 40 winks, or even four, there was a constant throb in my subconscious. No, not even that deep. Fully conscious. It was similar to the way I'd feel before an alpine start in the mountains. Getting up at 2am in the cold and dark, pulling on layers of crap, choking down oatmeal, scared as hell, dreading getting out the tent and actually having to try to climb something. Like that. Except slightly warmer and no oatmeal.

At 5am, while staring at my forearm at close range, I heard a car start up out on the street below. I got up off the hide-a-bed and through the window saw a parking space open up. I hopped across the room, pulled on some pants and ran downstairs to the stoop, where I saw the spot... which I then realized (talk about delayed reactions) was on the same side on which I'd parked. In other words, sure, it was a better spot, closer to the door. But I'd still need to move again in 3.5hrs. Basically: I'd gotten up for no reason. But, just then, on the other side of the street, a man was getting in his SUV and was pulling out. Quelle chance! Except for the fact that his wife just squealed around the corner in their other car and was taking the newly opened spot, this time on the side of the street that counted, before I could even start the rental.

No matter. There was another spot just up the block. I snagged it. But it was still one of those things... I'd been away too long and couldn't recall all of my city survival skills. I was filled with outsider doubt. Why, exactly, did I find a spot? Yes, it was near a driveway, but was not, in fact, a driveway. We're cool there. It was not next to a hydrant, either. And it wasn't a bus stop. All seemed right. But, really, could it be?

It's 5:10am. I am on a sidewalk in Brooklyn. Completely helpless.

Damning it all, I go back upstairs and bury my head in a pillow. I'm confident my rental will be towed. Any second. Of every second. Of this entire, sleepless morning.

I finally drag myself from bed a little after 8am and join my hosts for morning rituals. Cabot has recently given up coffee for tea, but offers me some ground espresso from a french press, which I drink. Two cups. It was like liquid sausage. Link-o-licious. He and Lorca said adieu and I slowly got myself together and all of my gear back in to the car, which was, of course, still there (but why?). I took a leisurely drive back up to the old neighborhood. Seventh Avenue. Heart of the Slope.

Here's what you do (except not today because the place is closed in protest). Ten years ago you're down on your luck but thankful to be alive, you've just moved in to a tiny studio apartment you can finally call your own after bouncing around from couch to couch and floor to worse for months, and you go in to a little hole-in-the-wall called La Taqueria, on the corner of 7th Ave. and Berkeley Place. You order an East L.A. with the last bit of cash you have left over from your paycheck, after you've paid all of the bills you can afford. And it is the best freakin' burrito of your life. A decade later you go back in and you order another East L.A. and it is still the best burrito on earth. And it's still $4.75 and the size of a baby leg. You go, yo.

I head over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. I drive up the FDR, which is, surprisingly, quite a civil little jaunt. People even drive within 20mph of the 40mph speed limit (this driving in New York thing is new to me, remember). Driving crosstown, this is another story. It's never easy, and today is no exception. Half an hour to go three avenue blocks. It's only 2pm. I do the valet thing and for once (and I mean that), I have the bellman help me upstairs with my 37 guitars, 52 framed self-portraits (Caruso/San Francisco Earthquake reference), various steamer trunks, hatboxes and vanity. It was worth it.

I try, again, to get a little rest, but it doesn't work. I'm thinking it's the rocket fuel - er, coffee - but hey, who needs sleep? I decide to go downstairs and, while waiting for my wife to meet me at the hotel entrance (she's been travelling and is alternately in and out of town), I walk around the block about 49 times.

And of course I manage to miss her on arrival.

Even so, we catch up, however briefly. She has another event to attend tonight. I have my own plans.

For months I'd looked forward to it. I'd booked the reservation as soon as I had a confirmation on the Brooklyn gig. Adam and I were going to Les Halles, chef Tony Bourdain's joint - well, one of them - in midtown. We'd booked an early dinner, because we had more plans for later. I got to the restaurant about 15 minutes early. I walked in to the place, an open room without pretense done in classic French brasserie style (yes, you read right, and it is possible), checked in with the hostess, and then plopped down at the bar, where I ordered an unimpressive but adequate for my purposes bourgogne. My purposes, I should make known, were to have a good time, eating and drinking merrily along the way.

Adam shows up, we're seated near the back of the restaurant (which is fine; it's much quieter), and we scope the menu. We know we have limited time, so we forgo an appetizer. We order a bottle of 2003 Chateauneuf du Pape Promenades. And we settle on the simple but effective hedonism of cote de boeuf. Cooked and served for two. "Which I will share with my lovah," I tell our waitress (who only came by briefly, turning things back over to a waiter who had taken our drink order), gesturing to a horrified Adam.

We gorge ourselves on pain, beurre et vin. Before long the steak and all of the fixings arrive. It's just like Bourdain details in his cookbook. A big, wooden plate is wheeled out and the beef is sliced from the bone by a compactly built Bangladeshi with a huge carving knife, high drama included. Mixed greens, pomme frites and tasty cow are plated up. And we eat. Like men.

We even went after scraps from the bone. Democratically. Sorta.

It was disgusting. It was carnage. And it was freakin' delicious.

And yes, I was a touron and actually asked our waiter if Tony was ever at the restaurant these days. And of course the waiter said he was. And we shook our heads at one another, I said, "Oh, cool," and we both knew it was meaningless, lie or no. I had a half bottle of fantastic red wine in me, along with quite a lot of bovine goodness. He was getting paid to tell me what I wanted to hear. It was easy for both of us.

Back to the food. Except not. We'd have no dessert, either. Not that we'd left room anyway. We had plans. My buddy Rob had come to my show the night before. I wasn't about to miss his show tonight. The final performance of "Rick Murphy is an Asshole." Adam and I have half an hour to get to the performance space on Bond Street. We decide to hoof it. What could go wrong?

Before leaving the restaurant I'd stopped in the boy's room (really high urinals, fwiw). The usual. Everything seemed to be fine.

But by the time we'd hit 14th Street something was... not... right... In the gut[ish] area. It would come, it would go. I hoped it would go.

It would not.

Not yet, anyway.

One of the worst experiences one can have in Manhattan is the need, no, the urgent need, for a toilet, when said toilet just won't present itself. Yes, there are Starbucks everywhere now, but I'll be damned if you can find an unoccupied toilet in any of them. Tower Records, by the way: you suck. You think your toilets are so precious. Your video store sucks too. In case you wondered. My ass isn't good enough for your john? Can you not see that I'm serious? Bite me.

By the time we got to the show, 10 minutes late due to complications, I still hadn't found a toilet. And I needed one. We paid for our tickets upstairs and I pleaded for access to a toilet, any toilet. I'm told that there is a toilet, actually. But, minor point, it's behind the stage. And there's this small matter of a certain show going on on that stage.

It's the little things. That's how they get ya.

I'll get this out of the way. I don't think it was dinner. I'll go to Les Halles again. The combined richness of the food, maybe it encouraged things to, you know, work their way out prematurely. But I honestly think it had a lot more to do with two days with little to no sleep, really, very strong coffee and a lot of it, a massive burrito choked down in four minutes during lunch, and half a cow munched half an hour previous. Oh, and a lot of wine. Adam, on the other hand, was holding up okay, all things considered.

We walk in to the small theater and take the only available seats, in the front row. Rob, Laura and Rick Murphy are just starting a bit set in, you guessed it, a restaurant. Every time Rob uttered a line about "duck confit" my stomach roiled. They finish up, the set is struck, and a short film is played on a projection screen. As it comes to an end, I see a guy come out from behind the curtain and sit down next to me. It was now or never. I ask him if there's a bathroom back there. He confirms that there is. I bolt into the stygian maw of the theatre's rear. (That sounded far more carnal than I intended.)

In the darkness, across the stage, through an entrance in the curtain, down a short, darkened hall, I find a doorway, painted black. Actually, everything is painted black. This is subterranean. I am in Hell.

I open the door to what is presumably the bathroom. I'm hoping. I think. Now, it's not exactly that scene from Trainspotting - The Worst Toilet in Scotland - but it's close. There's something vaguely resembling a shower in the corner. In it, a red lawn furniture cushion, a hair brush and some white plastic sunglasses. Kinky. I distinctly recall looking at the toilet and hoping, very seriously, that it was hooked up to something and was at least functional. I didn't think the performers wanted to go for a swim is all I'm saying. This is probably already too much information. Here's only a bit more. I flushed twice.

I'd seen the short film that was playing as I did my dirty business, and I knew I had to get the timing right. I stepped out of the bathroom into the hall between it and the dressing room. The movie had ended and a new skit was being peformed onstage. It certainly sounded funny. Rob came up and very quietly asked how I was doing. Sweating now, I told him I'd been better. He asked if I'd hang around for drinks after the show (this is all happening behind a curtain while the show is going on 10 feet in front of us). I can only manage the following: "If I can hold it together, Mr. Bob." Things were not going well for me. I asked Rob if I was going to be able to get back out to my seat, he said there was another a movie coming up, the lights went dark, and I ran back out across the stage to find Adam still sitting in the front row. Like he wouldn't be, but still.

We watched a very funny short film featuring a gerbil and certain not entirely subliminal references to an actor known for his work on behalf of Buddhism.

Rick came back out in camo garb and got nearly naked. We watched.

Perhaps coincidentally, my stomach did another flop, I knew this wasn't going to get better (my gut, not the show, which was quite funny), I told Adam I'd call him the next day, and I ran back up the stairs to the street. It took me about 10 minutes to finally get a cab, and another 10 minutes to get back to the hotel. I spent the next two hours "sitting," to euphemize, and then I faded off into a deep sleep, only briefly opening my eyes when my wife entered the room around 10pm to mutter the following in her general direction: "Sick. No. Other end. You quiet."

The next morning, feeling... well, lighter, we grabbed a very, very late brunch. No, it was lunch. Fully lunch. We ate this lunch (I, having no idea what to expect from my intestines but determined to eat something) in Bryant Park. Then we walked down through Chelsea to the Chelsea Market, foodie heaven and location of Food Network's studios. And then over through the West Village to the East. Just marking time. And then we went back to the hotel to get pretty.

In late December of 2003 my wife (then girlfriend) and I went to River Cafe in Brooklyn Heights for lunch. After that lunch we took a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, the structure that links our two former homes (we met in New York in 1995 but lost track of one another for many years). On that walk, I stopped at the first buttress (I'd hoped to make it to the middle of the bridge but nerves and heatstroke - yes, it was in the 60s that day and I'd worn a heavy coat for various reasons - prevented a longer walk). I got on one knee and asked her to marry me.

no saturday night fever.

And that all worked out quite nicely, I think. I even got a record out of it.

What, you might ask, did she get out of the deal? Why, a guy who craps out expensive meals at most inconvenient junctures, of course.

So for her birthday we went back to River Cafe for dinner, and it was fabulous. And the best part is that it stayed in my stomach. At least for the typical digestive song and dance.

On Saturday we took a stroll through Murray Hill. I don't think I recall ever walking through Tudor City while living in New York. Kinda cool. A little bit bizarre. And spendy. We had a late breakfast and I got on the road back home.

I talked to Adam (he's fine) and Rob a few days later. Over the years Adam and I have gotten sick at a range of restaurants together. That he made it through two nights of meals at the same restaurants at which I ate probably means that I'm just a wimp. Rob's theory is that I've been eating too healthy up here in Maine, and that I need to get out more. "We plate it up tough here," Rob said.

That they do.

Next stop, Montréal. I have a bone to pick with a pig there.

Au revoir, yo.

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