Friday, October 19, 2018

New York Stories #5: Miznon

New York City
    So how does the Miznon in New York City measure up to the one in Paris? Not quite as well, I'm afraid to report.  At least not cauliflower-wise.
    Last year, visiting our older son at the Sorbonne, we ended up in La Marais, "The Swamp," the old Jewish quarter, (birds of a feather...) where we jammed ourselves into Israeli chef Eyal Shani's outpost of "Mediterranean street food." (The original, not the second one opened earlier this year).  It was wall-to-wall—commotion and aroma and a mild roar of French and Hebrew. But we claimed a spot at the bar, and ordered the speciality of the house, despite its unpromising premise: roasted cauliflower.
Miznon, Paris
     You wouldn't order it, would you? I sure wouldn't. But it was, I was firmly told, what people order. You have to. It's obligatory. Always surprising what you'll do when told you're supposed to. "Get the bucket of raw cow brains—Buzzfeed said it was exquisite..."
    Maybe that's because people know. The wisdom of crowds. The roasted cauliflower was an epiphany.  If you can't imagine eating and entire cauliflower with a knife and a fork, well, trust me, it's that good. The broccoli I had insisted on also ordering—I like broccoli—was an anti-climax, superfluous and sad. My wife viewed the vegetable as if it were a personal flaw of mine, after that superlative cauliflower, which we not only ate, in transport, but then cherished the memory of eating, and tried reproducing the wonder ourselves at home but couldn't come close. We suspect it's somehow treated—steamed, soaked, something—beforehand.
     When I saw that a Miznon opened earlier this year in Chelsea Market, not far from my older son's law school ("It's following him!" I said) giving it a try was my primary mission during our trip to New York.  See the boy, then get that cauliflower and, oh I suppose, go to a museum or a play or something. I couldn't tell if I wanted the jet-setting joy of going to both locations (there's also an outpost in Tel Aviv) or just wanted the pleasure of tasting that roasted miracle. 
New York
Paris
   You can't go home again. Maybe the surprise of that first perfectly prepared cauliflower can never be recaptured. Maybe the vegetable itself wasn't as good (although it should have been; cauliflower are in peak season in the fall). My wife pointed out that this didn't have the delectably-charred leaves. We still gobbled up the thing (well, I did, as she pointed out, without a smile, later). We also ordered the "bag of beets"—roasted beets, which weren't that bad. Or at least I wasn't blamed for them.
    The restaurant was very loud—some kind of DJ blaring some kind of sounds, music apparently—and we quickly moved on try out a nearby taco place that had received high marks. Having been to Tel Aviv once, that's plenty for a lifetime, and I have never been tempted to go back for any reason. Not until I realized that if I go, I could complete the hat trick, Miznon-wise. Suddenly, the Promised Land beckons. I can be strange that way.
   


Thursday, October 18, 2018

New York Stories #4: Washington Square Park





     Every university has a quad, an open green space for students to relax in. New York University's just happens to be Washington Square Park. A public space for more than two centuries, originally as a cemetery—some 20,000 bodies are thought to rest somewhere beneath its hexagonal stones.
     Famed New York developer Robert Moses wanted to extend 5th Avenue right through the park—the sort of monstrous deference to the automobile that so hobbled cities in the middle of the last century. He failed, but even then cars could drive under the arch until 1971.
     Speaking of the 1970s, I have grim associations with the park—I remember pausing to watch someone shoot up in a car right outside it, the waxy white arm gleaming in the dim light from the street. It still has its expected cast of addicts and lunatics—one went berserk while we were walking past and ended up lying in West 4th Street, shirtless, screaming at the traffic, while we averted our eyes and hurried on.
     But generally Washington Square Park has a more sedate vibe, helped during our final stroll before heading to the airport by this gentleman and his piano. I never got a look at his face, so can't confirm my suspicion that this was Colin Huggins, "The Crazy Piano Guy" who sometimes shows up in the park with an 800-pound baby grand. It could be him. Or not. When I asked him if it was difficult to drag the piano around, he replied, "What's difficult is the years it took me to learn to play so I could do this," a very New York answer.
    Though honestly, as singular as Huggins is, I like the notion of there being multiple Washington Park piano players, all vying for the same real estate. That's New York for you.

   

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

New York Stories #3: Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge



     Two very different songs came to me in Brooklyn.
     The first was perhaps inevitably, given my generation, when I realized we were not only in Brooklyn, but Brooklyn Heights.
     "But Patty's only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights...." 
     The "Patty Duke Show" theme song. My wife was amazed I remembered it. But I have a mind for that kind of thing.
     The other came as we shopped around for bagels. That was the idea—take the subway to Brooklyn, sample bagel places, return walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Edie had Googled "best bagels in Brooklyn" and had a list, and I was following along. As good a way as any to pass a Saturday morning, though we decided that none of the actual New York bagels were as good as the ones at New York Bagels on Dempster Street.  Too big and airy, not dense and chewy enough. 
     We ended up walking down Montague Street. I noticed a plaque—here was where Arthur Miller wrote his first Broadway play. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with the information, but it did drive home what street I was on, and evoked a line from Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue."
     "I lived with them on Montague Street, the basement down the stairs, there was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air."
     Must have been nice. But don't look for a plaque—while Dylan lived in Greenwich Village (on 4th Street, hence "Positively 4th Street") I couldn't find any evidence he lived with anybody on Montague Street, which dead-ends into the riverside promenade. It was just a story he made up.
    My wife and I took a right, then found our way to the Brooklyn Bridge and walked across.
    For some reason we were surprised to find it crowded, though of course it would be. How many sights in New York are famous, historic and, oh yes, free?
     Jammed, the pedestrian half anyway, with enough bikes blowing at top speed along the bike lane to keep walkers packed onto their side.  Someone is going to get killed there, one of these days, if they haven't already.
     We bought a bag of cucumbers and a bag of mangoes to munch. 
     Halfway across the bridge I noticed something truly extraordinary: a plaque to Emily Warren Roebling, who completed construction of the bridge after her husband, chief engineer Washington Roebling, became ill, a victim of the bends, it is believed, having taken over from his father, John Roebling, the bridge's designer, who died, of tetanus. after his foot was crushed while surveying the site, one of dozens of men who perished during its construction.
     The New York Times, in their series of belated obituaries celebrating overlooked women, included Emily Roebling, even though she was not overlooked, in her time. “How the Wife of the Brooklyn Bridge Engineer Has Assisted Her Husband,” read the headline of one article after the bridge opened—she was the first person to walk across the completed bridge, carrying a rooster—it is said—for good luck.
     I pointed out the plaque to my wife, worried she would take the epigram, “Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman," in the wrong light. But she seemed unperturbed by it.


     


   

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

New York Stories #2: The Accessibility Project



    You can't go to New York and not see a sign that, well, just encapsulates its attitudinal, 24-hours-a-day, go-go-go sensibility.
    For years, there was that wonderful, "Don't even THINK of parking here."
   Or this update on the familiar handicapped access sign. I never considered just how static the neutral human figure in that chair really was until I saw this. Just as Chicago can seem like a hopping place until you hit New York.
     As with all good graphics, the second you see it, you know what it is intended to convey: that disability and dynamic action are not incompatible.
     Of course there is a story behind this symbol. It isn't exactly new.  Newish.
Showing its age
     The original "International Symbol of Access" was created in the 1968 by Danish design student Susan Koefoed.  Around 2010, the Accessible Icon Project began collecting more dynamic symbols, such as those at the MOMA and Marshalls, of all places, which showed a speeding wheelchair with little motion bars.
     Since then, they've been promoting the updated logo as a kind of guerrilla art project, slapping new versions over existing signs.
     Progress is slow. The status quo has its own weight and momentum. Despite eight years of promotion, the old symbol still predominates—I'd never seen the new one until I came to New York—New York state officially adopted the more active logo for its public buildings in 2014.
     Still, this seems like the future. Something you can't embrace if you don't know about.
   


Monday, October 15, 2018

New York Stories #1: Caffe Reggio



     I'm working on a big project for the paper this week so, in lieu of the column, I'm presenting some observations from my recent visit to New York City.

     Once I visited an old Italian barber in Sandburg Village.  This was years ago. He surprised me by serving an espresso and a biscotti while I had my hair cut. It seemed very civilized, the tiny cup and saucer, the hot liquid, the sweet biscuit, the snip of the scissors.
     I didn't think of the nexus between barbering and espresso again until last week, in New York City.
     The cab from LaGuardia dropped off us at West Third and MacDougal, in front of the law school. We had time to kill—the boy was at class. 
     "Let's wait there," I said, pointing to a bright green storefront across MacDougal, "Caffe Reggio." My wife and I rolled our suitcases in that direction.
      Inside was a small, dark, space. Metal ice cream parlor chairs, white marble tables, black marble floors. Dark oil paintings. Busts. Pleasant classical music playing. My wife ordered a latte. I ordered a double espresso and a pair of the small round cookies I had noticed in the case. They serve a glass of water with your coffee—civilized. The orange-rimmed china cups and sugar bowls are emblazoned with the name of the cafe. Civilized.
     And so it began. Five, count 'em, five mornings in a row, begun at the Caffe Reggio, founded in 1927 by Domenico Parisi, the man—it is said—who introduced cappuccino into the United States.  Originally he ran a barber shop in the space, selling espresso to customers as they waited for their haircuts. Balancing the 20 minutes of work to give a haircut, and the one minute to prepare an espresso, both costing 10 cents, Parisi eventually let the barber shop go by the wayside. The space was elegant yet casual, compact yet spacious. It felt like we had stepped out of the stream of time, into another dimension.
     "It's worth coming to New York just to sit here," I said, on the first day.
     A small door to the left of the counter, with a hand-painted plaque above it. The profile of a man—Dante, clearly. I went over to read the words printed there: "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate..."
     I don't speak Italian, but I recognized the phrase, and the Canto number above confirmed my suspicions. Among the most famous lines in literature: "Abandon all hope, you who enter here." The inscription above the gates of Hell. A bathroom joke.
    Our son arrived, all smiles—he had never been here before, why would he?—and we departed for his quickstep tour the campus.
     But the next day we were back. My wife had a plan—walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, sample Brooklyn bagels—but we needed caffeine to send us on our way. I opted for coffee, and it came in a huge cup. Biscotti this time. Branching out.
     "Do many customers notice the Dante joke?" I asked the waitress.
     "Every second person," she said, flatly. Ouch. Pedantry is punished.
    The third morning we had breakfast: sharing a "Crepe Reggio," filled with fluffy ricotta cheese. Delicious. The fourth day we met a friend there for breakfast and sat talking and catching up for almost two hours. Nobody rushed us. An omelet this time.
     Back in Chicago, I delved into its history. Bob Dylan was a patron.  So was Jack Kerouac. The room had cameos in movies such as "Godfather II," "Serpico" and "Shaft"—Isaac Hayes' famous soundtrack includes a song, "Cafe Regio," a reminder that musicians are not known for their proofreading skills. The place figures into Andre Aciman's "False Papers." The Egyptian author would return, sometimes several times a day, trying to master the ache caused by a girl he courted at Caffe Reggio, "Seeking to recover something I felt I lost there."
    To me, it was the opposite. I felt I found something there, a certain calm, a place of temporary belonging. Edie immediately understood. "Every day we have coffee there is a happy day," she said, on the last day, when we made a point of heading there before meeting our son for lunch.
    Four out of five days I sat in the same chair, facing the open green door. There was always a customer tucked next to the door, and I took to slyly snapping a photo of the patron. Chicago has much to recommend it, but there is no place like this, where time has stopped or, rather, is measured out in coffee spoons. Nothing remotely like it.






   


   
   

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Saturday Snapshot #10

 
Photo by Tony Galati

 
     The Saturday Snapshot kinda got bigfooted by news yesterday. Originally, I had just intended to run the photo of the Lyric strikers and call it day. But a musician pal called me, and I spoke to him, and an orchestra spokeswoman called me, and I spoke to her, and before I knew it the thing had developed into something more. 

    For a few hours I left the "Saturday Snapshot" headline, thinking it wry, a more-bang-for-your-non-buck kind of thing. But then it just seemed silly, a slight on the juicy content below, and I wrote something more descriptive, not that it churned the media waters.
    Turning my attention to today, I just was experiencing a rare frisson of what-the-fuck-do-I-write-now? when faithful reader Tony Galati offered up this lovely photo of a leaf-strewn road in Oneida County, Wisconsin, which he describes as "West of Eagle River, east of Minocqua, south of St. Germain, north of just about everything else in the state."
     When I told Tony I would run it today, he replied:
     "Sometimes I lose track of what day it is when I'm up here, but I'm pretty sure tomorrow is Sunday. Sunday snapshot? Is that allowed?"
     I assured him that I had checked with the boss, and it was indeed allowed. To be honest, I kinda like the idea of the Saturday Snapshot running Sunday. Given the insanity of our times, it seems a welcome departure from norms that doesn't harm anybody, for once.

    Autumn is a great time of year, with color everywhere, reminding us that things change, continually. Sometimes even for the better. A notion to embrace.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Real life drama comes to the opera: union musicians on strike

Cellist Sonia Mantell, left, and bassist Greg Sarchet picket Thursday in front of the Lyric Opera.

     I have friends among the musicians of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, and also know people in its management, so would hate to take sides between the hard-working artists who create the magic and the haughty taskmasters who control it.  Both sides merit equal consideration, and besides, my opinion is probably colored by the way I am often treated by the Lyric back office as I try to write about their productions—indulged when I'm singing the party line, given the backhand if I write something that displeases them. I've taken 100 readers to the opera every year for the past decade but decided, this year, that it's just too much bother, and let the practice drop, not that anybody at the Lyric seemed to notice or care.
    And now, as it turns out, there might not be a season anyway, due to the strike that started Tuesday, so no loss to the paper's readership, except as part of the greater loss to the city's cultural life. which is considerable.
    It was in this spirit of utter neutrality that I stopped by the musicians' picket line Thursday afternoon to assess the situation. It was not as dreary as most picket lines, because of the high spirits and continual music which the Chicago Federation of Musicians strikers offered to passersby for free, an arrangement that their overseers would no doubt like to continue. I posted a brief video of a brass quartet of strikers performing Le Jeune's "Autant En Le Vent."
     The issues are complicated, and are set out at the orchestra union's web site here. Chris Jones also wrote a typically-excellent analysis of the situation in the Tribune here.
     I did my part by speaking with Amy Hess, spokesperson for the Lyric orchestra.
     "We are on strike because we truly believe a world class opera company like the Lyric needs a world class orchestra," she said. "Management has been demanding cuts that would forever diminish the quality of the orchestra and the quality of opera the company can produce."
    The nub of the issue is reducing both the size of the standing orchestra and the frequency of performances—a decade ago it was 90 a year, this season, 56. The radio broadcasts are also being scrapped.
     "We the musicians feel the slash and burn agenda management seems to have is going to destroy the company," said Hess.
     The Lyric opera management of course feels differently.
     "Lyric’s proposed terms would preserve musicians’ jobs that are among the highest paid and best working conditions in the region," the management said, in a statement. "Stated simply, the contract changes we seek are necessary for the financial future of Lyric. We urge the CFM and its members – our musician colleagues in this great artistic endeavor at Lyric – to accept our offer before further financial losses force a different outcome. It is the only path forward."
     You can read the full statement here.
     I don't want to be too flip about this situation. I'm assuming it'll be resolved sooner than later, that ill feelings will be put aside and joyful collaboration will return. But anyone who has seen his or her share of Verdi and Puccini knows that the potential for tragedy is always lurking around the corner with opera, and this situation feels a bit more fraught than usual.  

     The Lyric Opera is a tremendous asset to the city—when Boeing decided to locate its headquarters there, its executives picked Chicago over other candidates such as Denver or Dallas because, they said, they liked our opera. The greatest talents of the past 90 years have sung—and played—their hearts out on stage and from the pit at the Civic Opera House. It's a shame to see the magnificent facility fall silent when it should be alive with music and make-believe heartbreak. I'm hoping my union brothers and sisters who work hard to stay at the pinnacle of their profession, and the Hunger Games Herods setting the rules, can come to an understanding soon.


From left to right, musicians Mark Fry, Mark Fisher, Bill Denton and Matt Comerford, striking members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, perform Le Jeune's "Autant en le Vent" at their picket line in front of the Civic Opera House, Oct. 11, 2018.