Monday, December 27, 2010

Snow Day!

Snow in Manhattan is a funny thing. In case you haven't heard, we've been getting a lot of it. Like several feet. I actually love, love, love walking through the city in the snow. Especially when the streets aren't plowed and I can stroll right down the middle of Broadway at a leisurely pace. Everything is muffled, almost no one is out, and I can point and laugh at Southerners and tourists who don't know how to walk without slipping on icy patches.

Coming from upstate New York, I am extremely used to snow. In fact, a bit too used to it. It's a badge of honor to say things like, "In the Ice Storm of '91, I didn't have power for two weeks!" or "The snowdrifts in the Blizzard of '77 were taller than I am!" Snow is an extremely regular occurrence upstate, and in fact, schools are rarely closed unless we're buried under at least two feet. Or the temperature drops so violently that it's unsafe for children to walk to class. Seriously. In addition to praying for a Snow Day, upstate kids can also pray for a Cold Day.

As a general rule, urban dwellers are complete wimps when it comes to snow. They hear there might be three inches and panic ensues. Everyone rushes to Food Emporium or D'Agostino's or their local bodegas and load up on water and canned goods. It's like Y2K. But somehow, no store owner ever thinks to pre-salt his sidewalk. Get a grip, people! I had to shovel at least three inches from the driveway before school every single morning between November and April. Or, to be honest, my father did. He warmed up the car and started shoveling while I was inside shoveling Cinnamon Toast Crunch into my mouth and carefully moussing up my permed hair. I only sprinted to the semi-warm car after he yelled my name for the third time.

Speaking of hair and winter, I must take a moment to mention the idiocy of my high school building. It was brand-new when I was a freshman, but for some reason, it was designed with an short-ish outdoor breezeway, which was unfortunately right next to my locker. Meaning that I often had to walk on an outdoor sidewalk for about 40 feet in order to get to my next class. (The rumor was that our school building was a duplicate of one that was built in Florida. It also had a giant sickly palm tree in the center atrium.) This outdoor stroll was, of course, a major annoyance on freezing cold upstate days. But it became a catastrophic annoyance when I had gym class first period. Especially when we were in our month-long swimming unit. Ladies, there were ZERO excuses to get out of swimming. If you missed a class for any reason, you had to come after school to make it up. And while we're on the topic of swimming, I must mention that the public middle school also had a pool with mandatory swimming. Now, I don't know this info first-hand because I attended Catholic school, but I've heard tell that you were forced to wear bathing suits provided and laundered by the school. That was disgusting in and of itself, but the really awful part was that they were color-coded according to size. So if you wore a Large, your size would be broadcast to every catty girl, and through them to every crush-worthy boy in school. But I digress. The whole point of this aside was to mention that when I had swimming first period, I would have to walk through the great outdoors with dripping wet hair on the way to my next class. Luckily, I had Spanish second period and our lovable but slightly scatterbrained Senor never really noticed when I took a 15-minute break from class to blow dry my hair in the girls' bathroom.

I was actually dripping wet when I got home from work last night, but it was due to snow, not swimming. Though I did feel like I had to swim through the snow. I trudged through the streets filled with knee-high drifts in my warm puffy coat only to realize that the entire front half of my hair (which was hidden in a deep hood) was wet, and my cell phone (which was hidden deep in my pocket) had snow on it. After blow drying my hair and my phone in my bedroom, I noticed that there was also snow INSIDE my windowsill. So I blow dried (blew dried?) that as well.

In a nutshell, it's been a bad storm. Planes, trains, and most automobiles are not running and many businesses are closed, which almost never happens around here. At the moment, I'm watching a taxi spin its wheels on 45th Street and a cold-looking fellow shovel out his front tire at an intersection on Ninth Avenue. So I'll give those urban wimps full permission to have a major snow freak out. Panic away, friends! Enjoy this holiday period of winter amnesty while it lasts because I will be back to making fun of you next time you leave work early due to a one-inch snowfall.

Like the snow showers, my thoughts in this blog post are both frequent and scattered. Since I have heat, hot water, food, and nowhere to be until 4pm, I'm completely enjoying the entire situation. And that's the lovely, lovely thing about snow that those from warm climates never get to experience. There is nothing cozier than a snow day. It's kind of like fake calling out sick, but you feel fine, have tons of new-found free time, and no one can fault you for falling behind on your work. So as long as I don't have to shovel, drive, or look cute, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Things I Carried

I have this problem. My eyes are bigger than my muscles. Whenever I pack a bag, I pack more than I can possibly carry. This may seem like an insignificant problem, but when you realize five blocks into your 60-block day that your bag is ridiculously heavier than you thought it was, it becomes an extremely significant problem. I’m not sure if the problem is a result of ignorance, optimism, or stupidity. In my most impressive feat, I carried a full-size put-it-together-yourself desk from Rite Aid to my apartment unassisted. Why did I do this, you may ask? Because it was on sale for 90% off and the male Indian cashier said, “Do you have a boyfriend here with you? You're a little girl. You can’t possibly get it home by yourself.” I think his nametag read, “Hello, my name is Chauvinist. How may I help you?”

I was reminded of this carrying dilemma when I decided to make Christmas cookies last week for a cookie exchange. Sounds like a nice suburban activity, right? Well, if I lived in the ‘burbs, I would probably have recipe books and baking goods at my disposal. And if not, I could easily stop at Wegmans on my way home, buy all the supplies, and be back in my car in ten minutes. Of course, it wasn’t nearly that easy in Manhattan.

After begging my mother to send her recipe for my favorite of the professional-looking Christmas cookies she makes every year—cherry bon bons—I stopped at the Food Emporium on the way home from work. I easily found the flour, powdered sugar, and milk. I couldn’t find maraschino cherries anywhere in the baking aisle, so I consulted an employee, who first brought me to the chili aisle. After I told him that I was not looking for chili but was in fact searching for: “Cherries. CHER-RIES. You know, those little red things with a stem???” I was not feeling very patient that day. He next referred me to the ice cream sundae fixings. Not there. Then he walked me all over the produce section, and finally he consulted another employee, who found the cherries with the alcoholic drink mixes. It was a production, I tell you. And I was still short some sprinkles.

Regardless, I paid for these baking purchases and headed to my apartment, which was three and a half blocks, one avenue, and 97 stairs away. I felt pretty good about my purchases when I was in the store, but as soon as I walked a block, I realized that the 5-pound bag of flour, 1-pound packet of powdered sugar, half gallon of milk, and glass jar of maraschino cherries were much heavier than I anticipated. Especially in combination with my backpack, which contained my 5-pound laptop, power cord, sneakers, makeup, and change of clothes. I could feel all that weight compressing my spine with every step. By the time I got home and dropped all the bags in my doorway, I found red marks on my shoulders from the backpack, I had angry red stripes on my palms from the plastic bags, and I wished that I had never heard of cookies, exchanges, or Christmas.

Luckily, baking went well, almost making me forget the blood, sweat, and tears that it took to locate all appropriate ingredients. (Incidentally, I also had to trek to Whole Foods to find sprinkles. To make the trip worthwhile, I over-purchased there, filling my backpack and canvas tote with things like canned tomato puree and frozen pizza dough. I almost cried on the 15-block walk home.) Considering the fact that I can count on one hand the number of times I had previously made cookies, I was quite proud of myself for the final product. I put the bon bons in Tupperware for our journey to the Upper East Side.

Since I had learned on previous occasions that I am incapable of carrying Tupperware in a plastic bag without tipping it over, I put my cookies in a big Macy’s paper shopping bag with a flat bottom. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into account that said shopping bag may rip in half if you hurriedly dig through your purse for your Metrocard in order to hop on a train that appears just as you reach the turnstile. Sigh. I had to carry the Tupperware in my hands for the ensuing subway ride, raising odd looks from fellow passengers who had apparently never participated in an urban cookie exchange. Having one less layer between food and subway germs made my skin crawl.

In the end, everything worked out. Even though things didn’t go smoothly, I got the supplies to my apartment, I made the cookies, and I carried them to the exchange. And because everything worked out, I will continue to make the same mistake in the future. I will, without fail, put way more items in my backpack/large purse/canvas shopping bag than I can possibly carry comfortably, giving myself sore muscles, juvenile arthritis, and scoliosis in the process. It’s just a fact. I’m certainly not going to make two easy trips to the store to get the items I know I could carry in one uncomfortable trip. And I’m guessing that all the non-independently wealthy people from the Seaport to Washington Heights feel my pain. Manhattan isn’t just The Big Apple. It’s The Big 50-Pound Apple you have to double bag and carry up and down several flights of subway stairs by yourself because you would obviously never ask a random stranger-slash-potential thief to help you.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tree, Glorious Tree!

I just bought my first Christmas tree, and I'm ridiculously excited about it. Just thinking about it makes me feel like Skittles are shooting out of my fingertips. Most people over 30 probably don't have this reaction. They've probably purchased Christmas trees before. Probably a number of trees. And they probably put them in the living rooms of the houses they own. As for me, I am just excited to have my very own tree in the living room/dining room/common area of the apartment I rent with three other people.

Growing up, we always had a tall, full, gorgeous tree in the front window of our Victorian house. The whole family would load into one of our two matching Taurus station wagons, and we would head out to several garden shops, the Boy Scouts' annual Christmas tree sale at our church, and, of course, Chase-Pitkin, which was Wegmans' version of Home Depot that has now gone out of business. We would go to all of these places, you see, because we had to find the biggest, best Christmas tree at the most affordable price. I come from a long line of bargain shoppers (one of my father’s aliases is Findasale, for Pete's sake), and we cannot make a decision until examining every single available option. At each location, we would look the trees in our price range, pull them out to see their shape, shake them a bit to see if the needles fell off, then move on. If you're a kid, that process can really drag on. Ultimately, we would choose a tree that was not necessarily the biggest, best, or most affordable. We picked the tree that was reasonably full and affordable at the time we all started getting irritable and hungry. 

I had never purchased a tree for my apartment because it seemed like a waste of money. Why bother? I would just go upstate and admire my parents' tree later on, especially in the mornings. Ever since I was young, my father has turned on the tree lights before I wake up so they will greet me when I walk downstairs. It used to make waking up at 6am for high school a tad more tolerable. And now it's just fun. But since I can't go home to admire their tree this year, the time has come for me to turn on my own tree lights.

Manhattan obviously doesn't have tree farms, like the one my friend's family visits to chop down
their own tree every year. I've never seen Boy Scouts here, and there aren't that many garden shops big enough to hold trees. Instead, trees are sold in alcoves, street corners, and anywhere there’s a free square foot of space. I particularly love the tree stand on 56th Street and 9th Avenue because trees line both sides of the sidewalk. When I walk through, I feel as though I've entered a Christmas wonderland. Until I come to the end of that 40 feet of piney goodness and find myself on the very spot that I was once pooped on by a pigeon. In any event, I decided to make that stand the first (and hopefully only) stop on my tree trek. I didn't need a giant tree to find Christmas joy—I just wanted a little (meaning, cheap) one. So I asked the grimy middle-aged hippie with multiple piercings who was running the tree stand the cost of the small, 20" tabletop trees.

 He told me that they cost THIRTY DOLLARS EACH.
Now, I've always heard that Manhattan prices are outrageous for everything except manicures and hookers, but that blew me away. The Boy Scouts would have given me a whole seven-foot tree for that price, so there was no way I could justify spending $30 on five twigs barely holding on to a skinny trunk.

I came up with a brilliant plan. Plan B. I figured that the further from Times Square I went, the cheaper the trees would be. The less the demand, the lower the price, right? So I got up early and dragged my roommate-slash-tree carrier over to the Chelsea Garden Center on 11th Avenue. The street is pretty desolate, so I was pretty confident about getting a good deal. Well, apparently the Chelsea Garden Center only caters to the rich and famous because we couldn't find a tree under $79. What?! There goes my Plan B. I needed a Plan C.

Many NYC Christmas trees are sold at delis. Delicatessens. That's right—you can buy your coffee, bagel, newspaper, and Christmas tree all in the same place. The trees aren't in the store, of course. They are on the street corner, next to the $8/dozen roses. We went to the 52nd Street deli, where a tiny, squat foreign man encouraged me to forget the tabletop trees and move on to the almost-regular size ones.

"I like this one," I told him. "How much is it?"

"Fi-bee," he said.

"Fifteen?" I said.

"Fi-bee," he said.

"Okay, so fifteen?" I was a bit distracted because I was mentally decorating the tree as I spoke.

"NO," He said. "Fi-bee. FI. OH." And he held up five fingers on one hand and made a fist with the other.

Ohhhh...$50. Argh! My stomach dropped. This tree excursion was getting pricier than I thought. But I had cash. And a willing tree carrier, who was probably still drunk and definitely still wearing the clothes from the day before. So I needed to make something happen. Fast. "Do you have anything for around $25?" I asked.

Luckily, my little Hispanic Christmas elf did! He pointed to a five-footer that was already bound for travel. It ended up being $30. The stand, of course, was an additional $10. But he agreed to cut the trunk and put it in the stand for me. I was so thrilled that he was solving my tree crisis with a minimum of cost and effort on my part that I yelled, "SOLD!" and handed him my cash, much to the later chagrin of my parents, who, when I told them the story, were visibly appalled that I would make a purchase without surveying the merchandise first. (I mean, I only told them about it via phone, but I could totally tell they were visibly appalled.) In all honesty, I was on a schedule. I was wearing my pajamas, and I only had 30 minutes before I had to leave for work and/or my half-drunk roommate got bored and went to Starbucks for a breakfast sandwich. I didn’t have many options at that point.
(There's my elf in blue!!)

So we walked the six blocks to my apartment, my roommate carrying the tree and pretending to almost poke pedestrians in the fanny with it (violating a number of my rules of sidewalk etiquette). Once he carried the tree up those 97 stairs to the apartment and we cut the bindings off, we could see that it was a shockingly gorgeous tannenbaum. My Hispanic Christmas elf didn't lead me astray! We had a tree skirt and energy-saving tree lights (not nearly as satisfying as the energy-wasting kind) in the apartment—the former had adorned our two-foot tall fiber optic tree the previous year. Another roommate added candy canes, and I purchased 40 feet of metallic red garland and box of ornaments at the sketchy dollar store on 46th and 5th. (There is a dearth of dollar store chains in Manhattan. There are only sad, sad random 99-cent stores with peeling linoleum and loose ceiling tiles.) I didn't have a star and didn't feel like purchasing one, so I made a star out of tin foil and cardboard from a leftover Domino's pizza box. 

I can't say that this kind of thrown together mish-mosh of a tree is the tree I'd always dreamed of, but I can't help but feel an earth-shattering, all-consuming love for it. Like I gave birth to it or something.  That tree is there because of me. And my distracted tree carrier. And my Hispanic Christmas elf. It’s truly a thing of energy-saving, thrown-together, collaborative, Stone Soup beauty. Sometimes I walk in the common room just to stare at it. I may not have a house or a driveway or even a real kitchen table…but doggone it, I have a tree!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Bills Make Me Wanna Shout! (but not always in a good way)

Q. What do the Buffalo Bills and a possum have in common?
A. Both play dead at home and get killed on the road.

Q. How do you keep a Buffalo Bill out of your yard?
A. Put up a goal post.

Q. Where do you go in Buffalo in case of a tornado?
A. To Rich Stadium--they never touchdown there!

(Thanks for the jokes, Patriots fans.)

The people of Buffalo and the surrounding areas have become supremely adept at losing. First, Walt Disney decided to build a theme park in Orlando instead of Niagara Falls, then virtually every industry fled town, and now the Buffalo Bills lose football games on pretty much any given Sunday.

Okay, so I have never professed to be a football superfan, but I have watched quite a few games in my day. My comprehension rate is approximately 85%. If you live in Niagara Falls/Buffalo/Rochester/Syracuse, you basically become a Buffalo Bills fan by default. There’s not much else to do on snowy Sunday afternoons. It's a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation. In fact, if you live in Buffalo and you're not a Bills fan, you'd better hide your face on game day.

The thing about the Bills is that they’re not a completely hopeless football team. Sometimes they play almost efficiently. But they always find a way to hand over the game to their opponent. Often gift-wrapped with a pretty bow on top. As you can imagine, this makes being a Bills fan a completely exhausting experience. In fact, one of my cousins recently said to another cousin, "I know you're just getting into football. Can I recommend not rooting for the Bills? Pick another team; it's just heartbreaking." Of course, she can't pick another team. Being a Bills fan has already been programmed into her genetic code.

But like the Goonies, Bills fans never say die. They will show up to tailgate at Rich Stadium at 8am in their red, white, and blue station wagons, minivans, and school buses (yes, full-size school buses) with coolers full of fattening food and trunks full of six-packs. And if you haven’t heard, there’s even one ridiculously dedicated fan that passes out bowling ball shots. You heard me—that’s Polish cherry liqueur served in the thumbhole of a real live bowling ball. He also has a red 1980 Pinto on which he grills meat, a pizza oven made out of a filing cabinet, and a chicken wing-cooking mailbox. He’s the MacGyver of Bills fans.

Sadly, there aren’t any bowling ball shots in Manhattan, but there are a surprising number of Bills fans. Organized by a group called the Buffalo Bills Backers, fans gather in a couple of designated bars around the city to watch the games (which are rarely shown on local stations), and reminisce about the good ol’ days of Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, and Buffalo’s own personal hero and almost-savior, the great Jim Kelly. When you step into a BBB bar, two of which are in “Little Buffalo” on 42nd and 2nd, you’re stepping about five hours upstate, since 99% of the attendees are from Lewiston, Henrietta, Gates, and other western New York towns. It truly feels like home. It’s inevitable that you’ll meet people who went to your college, or grew up next door to your aunt, or went to the same church as your sister-in-law's cousin's mother. In fact, if you ever encounter a person at a BBB event who hasn’t lived upstate for a significant chunk of time, the only appropriate response is: “Then what on earth are you doing here?”
Because “here” is where Bills fans get all-you-can-eat wings and all-you-can-drink beer for $20. “Here” is where everyone agrees that Bison French Onion Dip is the best dip in the world. “Here” is where you discuss the expansion of the Wegmans empire and dream of the day that a Wegmans will finally appear near a subway line. “Here” is where you sing the Bills’ version of “Shout!” with every score and shake your head with every critical fumble/turnover/missed field goal attempt that ultimately loses the game.

Here is what "here" looks like every Sunday:
Because the Bills’ terrible record essentially wards off any would-be fans, it virtually guarantees that there are no Bills fans who are not from upstate New York. There are no bandwagon fans because there hasn't been any wagon to speak of, band or otherwise. In fact, even though the Bills are a New York team, you can't purchase Bills merch in the city. But you can find gear for the Eagles and the Patriots, which seems incredibly insulting. 

It’s kind of genius when you think about it. The Bills inability to win has created a tight-knit group of deluded optimists. You really have to hand it to Bills fansthere is no real incentive, no wins, no payoff. You pour your heart and soul into a team that doesn't delivereverand yet there's no other team you'd rather root for. You remember the promise of those four Super Bowl games and hold on to that tiny seed of hope. Whenever I see fans in Little Buffalo sporting Zubaz pants or tourists wearing Bills hats, I know the exact heartache they’ve suffered. The way they died a little death when Scotty Norwood went wide right at Super Bowl XXV in ’91 (see below). And I know they believe with all their hearts that, like the South, the Bills will rise again. 

A scarily accurate commercial...

Poor, poor Scott Norwood...