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Non-Shopping Visitor Pass

September 12, 2010

I arrived on Friday, at midday. Penn Station was swarming with people that could be swiftly assigned to one of two teams: commuters trying to get to/ from work; or, tourists with no fucking idea where they were going, standing at the tops of stairs and escalators, in clutches just beyond (and therefore fully blocking) doorways. Probably there was a third group, since I couldn’t be the only one: people who’d been to New York often enough to know the subway was either this way, or that way, not quite sure, but one thing’s for certain, keep moving while you figure it out and don’t stop just beyond the turnstile while you figure it out. The plan was to hook up with C., drop my luggage at her midtown office, then kill time till she finished her day. Then, wine and snacks at the Spotted Pig before catching the train to Brooklyn, where we’d shop for supplies and cook dinner on her roof. I called a couple times, and when she didn’t pick up, I figured the trick of New York is to just keep moving. And so I did.

In Soho, I caught my breath over mussels and viognier at a place just large enough for six tables-for-two, a counter, and the sketchiest bathroom I have ever seen. No stranger to the squalor that is the New York City ladies room, this one achieved new lows of raunch, from the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling and ensuring the light was too dim to truly appreciate (and avoid) how filthy the room was, to the soap bar jutting from the wall on a long metal bolt. A bastardised version of soap-on-a-rope, the thing generated lather when gripped in a wet hand and rubbed like turning a doorknob or administering a (very poor) hand-job. I’d seen one of these things before, when a friend posted a rather awesome essay about her friend’s at-home bathroom. Somehow, the idea of a handful of house guests rubbing your soap knob is funny; hung on a public restroom wall for all to touch and lather? Dangerous and unappealing!  Lunch was delicious at any rate, and I would highly recommend it, as would I also recommend washing up elsewhere before your meal, or just giving your hands a lick and a promise and skipping the soap altogether.

At a little shop down the block, I bought a bikini that made me feel like a trapeze artist, and a little deeper into the East Village, I purchased the first of what would prove to be many chocolate shop gifts to bring home: a four-inch tall Jesus fashioned from chili-infused beans and coated in gold leaf. The proprietor generously offered to watch my suitcase until I was ready to meet C. at 5 PM, and I’m sure she and her offer were completely legit, but somehow this seemed like the set-up to a “how fucking stupid are these hicks from outta town?” joke, where I’d return two hours later to discover the store closed, sign torn down, sandwich board folded and nowhere in sight, and all I’d have to show to support my claim would be a tiny little half-melted Christ, which I would clutch in my left hand while I gesticulated with my right. “I swear, there was a chocolate shop here an hour ago! She said I could leave all my stuff! She seemed super nice!” And so, I continued lugging my bikini and my Jesus and my satchel full of what I’m certain had transformed from socks and toothbrush to stones and anvils…from East Village to West, to the subway and to the other subway, down one hill and across a side-street, and up five flights to C.’s top-storey dream home with a view of the Manhattan skyline like none I’ve seen before. A view such that photos really do not do it justice.

During my visit, C. has other weekend guests, not just me, and as we get to know one another, telling stories over a lingering late supper, my conversation skills waned, and I nodded over the plates and wine bottle and basket of bread (we bought far too much). Between the sheets I shifted once, perhaps twice, then dead-asleep. I didn’t know it then but Saturday would bring many things: first, my ATM and Visa cards get frozen because I failed to inform my bank that I would be spending the peak long weekend of summer travel season traveling to one of the most popular spots to travel to and which is only a short two-hour travel from my hometown…instead, the bank security department will assume someone has stolen my wallet and is whooping it up in NYC. Fifty cents in my wallet, I will spend two hours on my cellphone while wandering the Lower East Side, convincing them that if I can find a bank branch open and a teller willing, they ought to release me a cash advance…in due course this comes to fruition and I am able to purchase a coffee (at noon) and re-begin my day. Saturday will also bring a cute fall jacket that folds up to the size of a pickle and costs only $10 at a Japanese design shop. This pickle-sized coat bears a tag that gently suggests “Japan sizing! Please you should try bigger than usually you would like to wear!” Also, Saturday will bring a long walk through hot streets, which is something I really love to do, and will kick off my love affair with olive oil cake, thanks to the sweet little wedge I will be served at Abraco.

And, best of all, Saturday will bring a long-overdue hang-out with J., who never fails to give me a tour of common and well-traveled spots, but each with a twist. A few summers ago, he introduced me to El Sombrero, aka The Hat, and its not-quite-secret (or at any rate, not secret enough) “one to go” illicit margaritas served in waxed-paper cola cups and topped with a good glug of tequila. A couple years before that, J. was my escort on my first New York visit and showed me the ropes re: bringing my own beer to Indian restaurants, using the grabbing stick to reach things from high shelves at the bodega, and negotiating with a bar-full of bears to get me into a dance party at which they preferred no girls allowed. This hang-out would prove no exception, with a glass of prosecco at a boiling-hot café then a short walk and a well-crafted cocktail at a hole in the wall where we watched people order our monthly rent’s worth of martinis and where our own drinks came garnished with smoked sprigs of thyme. Simply dreamy pizza, then a couple hours strolling the High Line as the sun went down. If Saturday were a storybook character, it would be Baby Bear’s bed, chair and porridge: just right.

By Sunday, my amazingly comfortable never giving me trouble super fantastic stretchy fabric with not a single seam in an awkward blister-causing location nice and breathy sneakers were totally letting me down. Which is really just the tip of a more general question: why why why do New York ladies look fucking fantastic, always, no matter the weather and no matter the height and pinchiness of their footwear, while I look like an instant pile of crap the moment I step out the door and hit the streets? I have single-handedly supported the American Apparel chain over the course of six New York vacations, purchasing replacement shirts because I have become so sweaty and revolting that I can no longer sit next to others in restaurants, or saddle up to any bar, no matter how ghetto-skeezy, nor board any subway (never mind that the entirety of Metropolitan Transport Authority property smells pungently of urine) until I have changed my clothes. And so, feet feeling like someone’s been pounding a hammer against my toes, I lie low, meet C. and A. for lunch in Park Slope, and even take a delicious rainy-day nap when the day turns soggy mid-afternoon.

It seems wasteful to spend even a few moments of a four-day trip sleeping with a book in my lap, but one of my favourite things to do, on any holiday, is to pretend this is my life. This is my home. This is what every day looks like. I have endless amounts of time to be in this place. Shed the manic urgency of just moving, moving, moving, like a land-locked shark that will expire if it stops plowing through urban streets. There is, admittedly, a certain luxury to this Toronto-New York connection. The proximity, the convenience, and the relatively low expense. I have friends to crash with once I get there, and the Toronto airport is practically at the end of my street. It’s not like there was an ocean to cross or a year of saving up to sleep in a hotel for three nights. And so, while commuters gush out of Penn Station and swim through midtown with ties noosed around their necks, and tourists who’re here now and might never come back again hold map books in front of their faces and tick off their itineraries “done done done done next!” I snap pictures of cute signs and hit my seventh bakery just to check out the wares, and stock up on chocolate race cars and gold leaf garnished Jesuses and lie on the grass in Central Park trying to reverse engineer Abraco’s lemon curd shortbread and decide whether she browned the butter before baking the cookies or just let the dough get a bit crispy in the oven.

But, if a place isn’t your home, then you never really settle into the “I live here” thing. If this were my home, I’d have saved the $20 from my lunch of mussels and wine, and would’ve spent it on a week’s worth of subway trips. I’d probably live somewhere sketchy and might not feel good about walking home late at night in my affordable but icky neighbourhood. If I lived here, I’d be working today instead of browsing for cupcakes and bikinis. If I lived here, I would’ve known the hospital was south and not mistakenly pointed the guy with the broken-down map in his hands aimlessly north. It’s the little things that remind you this is a holiday and not an everyday. Like the neon badge I had to wear on my shirt before they’d let me accompany C. into her local co-op market. Non-Shopping Visitor Pass it said, and I had to show my passport to get it. Seriously. My passport. Stamped with a good-today-only date and obtained from a counter in a special booth beside the entrance, it was nearly as complicated to get into the co-op as it was to gain admission to America in the first place.

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