Through Tourist Colored Glasses

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul’s love of the Big Apple is rejuvenated by visitors—and a celebrity chef.  Guest star: Lidia Bastianich.

Stumbling through Times Square yesterday, in a post-election fog I had been trying to out run on the New York Sports Club treadmill, I suddenly found myself smiling.  Not because my iPhone was blasting Glee TV stars Rachel and Kurt’s “Happy Days Are Here Again,” but because I had been stopped in my tracks by two tourists desperately trying to compose a photo of themselves in front of the theater for Million Dollar Quartet.  Never mind that they were in the way of thousands of hurried and unhappy commuters making their way to Port Authority, or that they were in danger of being swiped by yellow cabs careening down 41st street.  These tourists were in the thick of love with New York City—they saw and wanted to capture a part of that Big Apple magic on a side street that most residents ignore.

with Uncle Cleigh

It often worries me that after 15 years, I can become numb to the excitement and glamour of New York.  But thankfully, Chef and I host a steady stream of visitors—spending time seeing the city through their eyes is like a renewal of our Big Apple love vow.  Often, it’s the smallest thing that we take for granted.  My 82 year-old “Uncle” Cleigh from Austin has more spunk (and better outfits) than me.  Last month on his semi-annual pilgrimage, we took in a Sunday evening performance of the outrageously hilarious Charles Busch’s Divine Sister.

Afterwards, he was hungry and I fretted that I had failed to scope out dining options in the area.  After a recent hip replacement surgery, Uncle Cleigh might not be up for an aimless wander in search of the Holy Food Grail—a cute downtown establishment with no line out the door.  Not to worry.  Uncle Cleigh gave a dramatic toss to the cape around his shoulders and a tap of his cane and lead the way, within minutes we turned the corner to a little side street.  After seeing a curb piled high with garbage, I just knew we were headed in the wrong direction.  But Uncle Cleigh’s eyes lit up—he’d look past the refuse to a plate glass window of the charming little restaurant Salt.

“This is the New York I love!” declared Uncle Cleigh.

Inside, the food was good, the wine flowing, the service delightful, and the company even sweeter.  And to think initially I had wanted to run the other way.

But even with restaurant reservations, I can be jaded and suspect.  Last year, our friends Tony and Christine were visiting from Sydney, and they were excited about taking me and Chef to dinner at Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia.  Lidia’s new cooking show had just debuted Down Under and Tony was a huge fan.

“Maybe she’ll be at the restaurant and can sign my cookbook,” Tony enthused.

I felt like it was my duty to lower his expectations.

“Don’t get your hopes up.  It’s a Sunday night in the summer—most New York chefs are gone.  Besides, it’s not one of her newer restaurants.  I’m sure she doesn’t spend any time there,” I advised.

When we arrived, the host refused to sit us in the main dining room and said the only table available for us was in the front window, by the bar.  I was displeased.

“Typical, treating us like tourists,” I said to Tony.  “Try to not let it ruin your evening.”

“I won’t. This is a better place to spot Lidia.”

I rolled my eyes and buried my head in the menu.

And then somewhere between opening cocktails and first appetizer, a sweet lady with thinning red hair and glasses in a chef’s jacket appeared at the bar.

“Oh my god, there’s Lidia!” I practically screamed.

Chef, Tony and Christine applauded in excitement.  And the next thing we knew, Lydia was at our table talking about how much she liked Australia.  Taking pictures.  Signing autographs.  And later sending out a whole range of desserts on the house.  Bless the Australians and their fresh, hopeful, optimistic outlook.  They had conjured up a little of the Manhattan magic.

That last experience had slipped my mind, until I got a call a couple of days ago from my friend Aimee in Afghanistan.  I know, right?  I just like saying that.  Aimee and I have been friends for many years in New York and she’s now on assignment working for an international organization in Kabul.  In a funny stroke of luck, our paths had crossed this summer when I was in LA on the Alphabet City Book Tour and she was on leave, just about to head back to help rebuild Afghanistan.  Aimee called to say how much she loved Alphabet City that she had just finished reading, and, and then wrote me a note later as a follow-up:

“I knew I’d enjoy your book no matter what, b/c, well–it’s you. Normally I just love talking to you and hearing things that happen, like when Lydia unexpectedly showed up at her restaurant to the amusement of your tourist friends (who fully expected her to be there) and all sorts of things that happen to you on a day-to-day basis.”

So thanks Aimee, and Uncle Cleigh, and Tony and Christine, and all those tourists flooding the streets of Manhattan—for giving me the perspective needed to keep loving the Big Apple, and all its surprises.

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