Alas, it is our last evening here before an early trip home to Georgia tomorrow. I didn’t blog as much as I wanted this trip–my students put me to shame (probably because they receive grades for their posts :)) There was so much more I wanted to reflect on: how the South might just reside up in Harlem; how Coney Island always restores my soul; how I seem to always reconnect with old friends in this city; how I think I may have learned how to interact with New Yorkers on my very last evening here; how this Southern girl (unlike hometown girl Carson McCullers) ain’t ever leaving her region, not even for the cultural capital of the world. I’m going to use this excuse for my lack of posts: we’ve just stayed so busy, which means more experiences and less time to write about them. Instead, I’ll offer you some photos and let you see through my eyes what this trip has meant to me…(after all, this isn’t only a literature trip but a photography and arts trip, too).
Category Archives: Food
Two days ago, I went to lunch in the New York University dining hall with a few of my classmates. After they left I stayed to work on a few assignments. The struggle was very real.
There was a girl who was walking behind our group earlier. She moved from her seat behind us (now me) to the booth next to mine. She carried with her a plate of French fries with mayonnaise along the side and a backpack holding her laptop. I continued my work as I myself scattered my belongings on the booth table. I had my camera, laptop, and 3 plates of wonderful food. After a brief moment of much needed silence, I heard chomp. Chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp. Slurp. Chomp, smack, gulp. OH MY GOSH. I looked up to see this same girl engulfing her french fries like she has never consumed a morsel of food in her life. I could not believe my eyes. I tried to focus on my work and could not help but to be interrupted by this never-ending sound, chomp.
She finally released her seat, leaving her backpack but grasping the now empty plates in her hand. I became the epitome of happiness as I watched her walk away, thinking she was about to leave. Oh how wrong I was. I simply got used to the peaceful sounds of nothing. I was able to work without interruption for about five minutes. I wondered where she went because she left her backpack sitting in the chair without worry.
She returned professionally balancing three enormous plates of food. I waited for someone to sit with her. They never came. One plate was packed with what looked like 6 pieces of full-sized grilled chicken. On the second plate housed at least 3 handfuls of French fries with a separate mini-plate for mayonnaise. The third encompassed several waffles stacked on top of each other with ice cream dripping down the sides. She submerged her face into these plates.
After she left the third time, I sat curiously wondering if she would return with additional food because she once again left her backpack sitting on the booth. She returned carrying two more plates filled with fries and goodies from the dessert bar. At this point I was becoming concerned and contemplated asking if she was okay. Instead, I figured she was just really hungry.
Much Love (to her at least),
Remember I said that thing about missing home and seeing it everywhere? Maybe it’s that I look for it everywhere. Even before I got here, I started looking for it. While I’m from South Carolina and I currently live in Georgia, I spent seven formative years in South Louisiana getting my Ph.D. at LSU. Sure, I left there, but somehow I didn’t really leave there—LA is in my heart, especially New Orleans. Part of the reason for that is because I love the music so much. So, when I saw that Kermit Ruffins was playing at the Brooklyn Bowl on the first Saturday after my arrival, it was a no-brainer—I bought my ticket straight away.
But, as should be expected, I didn’t just go dance the night away and lose myself in the music. I reflected (ah, the life of an academic—unable to NOT reflect). And what I reflected on this time was the exportation of southern culture, which seems to be in line with the trip theme of “Southern writers in New York.” Some might argue that Kermit Ruffins is the essence of popular New Orleans music these days, and some—like me—might argue that New Orleans music is the essence of southern music. So, when I got to the Brooklyn Bowl and saw lines outside the door, I was heartened. When I talked to some folks outside who were jazzed (excuse the punny phrasing) to see Kermit play, I was moved that so many others appreciated the music from my “heart” city of New Orleans.
And then someone asked me if I’d tried the fried chicken at Brooklyn Bowl because they are known for their fried chicken.
I don’t know why that simple question set me off thinking, but it did. I wanted to answer that just about everybody I know fries up his/her own chicken with a special recipe and that there are probably 20 or more restaurants that serve the “best” fried chicken in the town where I live. I started to feel like I was in a place where fried chicken and traditional jazz were exotic. I started to think that maybe these folks were fetishizing the South, coming to Brooklyn to eat fried chicken and dance and sing along to “Marie” as if they were in New Orleans or some other Southern locale. Somehow, it also felt a little unfair that they only experienced the best aspects of the culture without understanding how the centuries of violence and oppression came to inform these aspects. When you live in the South, it is much harder to ignore that history and its reverberations. In some ways, I could connect this experience to the Kara Walker installation—there was a strangely discomforting distance between art and audience.
But maybe that’s just the way—art cannot create authenticity for us; it is, after all, artifice. Maybe I should be happy that people are just searching for a hip Southern experience, that they want to eat southern food and see Kermit Ruffins (because there are plenty of Southerners who don’t want to celebrate our rich culture). Still, I left a little disappointed because seeing Kermit in Brooklyn is not anything like seeing New Orleans music in New Orleans. The place is intrinsic to the culture—the music and everything else—and there’s a spirit that is not transportable. As Tom Piazza (a native New Yorker) writes in his memoir, Why New Orleans Matters, “New Orleanians are attached to tradition, which is fused to a sense of place, to the ground itself…” (104). Much of this “tradition” is also born from the horrifying and complicated history of the region. So, if you’re seeking New Orleans culture or Southern culture of any kind, it’s best to just go there and dance in place, listen for the reverb, and maybe even fry your own chicken.
John Cameron Mitchell and Wallace Shawn: A Good Read.
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Tuesday, June 03, 2014. 7:00 PM.
Table 0, Seat 311.
We began the evening by meeting our group in the lobby of our dorm rooms. I made an exceptionally wise decision to visit Starbucks before departing on our interesting yet unique night. I ordered a delicious Grande java chip Frappuccino with a fresh tasty mozzarella pretzel. For some reason I felt as if this brief outing was going to be enjoyable. I walked with eagerness through the rain as water soaked through my boat shoes. My beverage was shared for my peers to experience the crunchy goodness of java chips. My pretzel however was devoured quickly with zero trace of existence.
When we reached Joe’s Pub, I looked upon with awe at how elaborate the architecture compared to my expectation was. I thought it was supposed to be a pub. I guess pubs are fancier in New York. We received our tickets and walked through the doors into a dark candlelit room full of people waiting for the show. Brittany, Jeremy, and I were the only ones seated at the bar. The waiter asked what we wanted to order. I said water. He replied with, “There is a minimum purchase policy here at Joe’s Pub. You can either order two drinks adding up to $10, or food adding up to $12 or more”. I took this opportunity to expand my horizon and try food I have never tasted. I ended up ordering crispy calamari. I interrogated Jeremy before ordering to make sure I was not going to regret my choice. He described calamari as “rubbery”. He said I would “appreciate the food after realizing I was eating octopus”. The poet reciting began and I heard Rex from Toy Stories voice. I had absolutely no idea Wallace Shawn was going to be there. It made the next 10 minutes bearable. I received my “starter” and questionably tasted a first bite. It smelled delicious. The breading tasted fabulous. The actual calamari tasted like rubber.
Jeremy, Brittany, and I did not understand the numerous jokes told every few minutes. The whole crowd would laugh and we would sit in our seats, wondering what was so funny. Jeremy and I decided to laugh with the crowd as if we understood their humor. We experimented with various laughs including our regular laugh, the rich man laugh, a gay man’s laugh, a woman’s laugh, and deep and high laughs. These brief moments of laughter kept our sanity intact, but barely.
Overall we experienced a once in a lifetime night. Wallace Shawn and John Cameron Mitchell will never be reciting poetry in Joe’s Pub again. The calamari, pretzel, and frappuccinowere good, I got to see Rex, and we bonded as a group.
Here are additional details about our experience from Mindy Bond:
“As famed writer and director John Cameron Mitchell readies his Hedwig and the Angry Inch sequel, he has a side project he’s working on with Joe’s Pub called A Good Read. The ongoing series finds Mitchell curating readings of classic works of prose and poetry. For the second installment Mitchell has invited actor Wallace Shawn (Vizzini in The Princess Bride) to join him for an evening of Russian metafictional absurdity. In what should be an extraordinary literary feat, the pair are set to perform two-hander adaptations of works by Vladimir Nabokov.” -Mindy Bond
When you’re trapped on a train for 30+ hours, you have plenty of time to think and reflect. When will my next hot shower be? Next hot meal? Will I ever see my dogs again? My friends and family? Who will panic first: me, one of my students, the four-year-old sitting five rows up? What did I forget? Who did I forget to buy a souvenir for? Did I lose any weight from all of that walking? Was this really the right time to quit smoking? (Turns out “no” on that last question, so don’t get too excited). But of course, as a writer, I was mostly thinking about what my last post would look like—how I would sum up this trip, how I would convey what I’ve learned and experienced overall. And this is how it turned out—a return to an old lesson again.
I was nervous about this trip when we started talking about it last August, but by May, when everyone had paid his/her money and it was absolutely official, I was physically ill with anxiety. There was the planning: excruciating for someone as disorganized as I can be. There was the fact that I had never spent more than three days in New York City, and now I was going to have to navigate it…with 21 other people. 21 other people that I didn’t know that well: 19 students, 2 faculty members. It turns out that this is the lesson. It’s never about the place; it’s always about the people. No matter where you are, people have the potential to ruin your experience or to enhance it. I’m not talking about the helpful (and sometimes rude) strangers I encountered. I’m talking about our group—our family of 22.
I was also privileged to catch up with two old friends while I was on this trip, one that I hadn’t seen in months and one that I hadn’t seen in several years. Sitting on a rooftop in Williamsburg, I confessed to one of these friends that I didn’t feel very open anymore—that maybe this inability to be “open” was dragging down my self-esteem a good bit. She calmed my fears by telling me that this was common with folks our age—she’d heard plenty of people in their mid-thirties and forties express this sort of anxiety. I was still thinking about that conversation, along with the rest of the trip, as I struggled to survive the long road home. I sort of knew that, once I got back to Georgia, I was going to realize that I now feel more open. And that this wasn’t only because of three weeks spent immersed in the arts in New York City, but that this was actually mainly because of three weeks spent with an open and endearing group of people.
Let me tell you about them. On our second day there, one student expressed that her favorite thing about the city was that she didn’t feel like a minority there, that no one asked her “what are you?,” that she felt accepted and a part of something. On the third day, one faculty member laughed the entire time we had to pay INDIVIDUALLY for 22 Metrocards, which saved me from a near-panic attack and taught me not to worry so much about the details. Another student—of legal age—remarked that he had been to only one bar in his life before this trip and now he was out with his peers every night. My other colleague researched and led us on a lovely tour of Greenwich Village and the East Village, reciting poetry to us at nearly every stop (my favorite was a recital of the Ramones at the old CBGB’s). More than once at a museum, I overheard an art student explaining the significance of a painting to an English student. On my own, I conversed with art and English students about the importance of Jack Kerouac, the real “story” of hip hop, the experience of eating Ethiopian food and soup dumplings. We talked about music, about writing, about reading, about art and photography, about shoes and shopping, and sometimes just plain old life B.S. I did plenty of eavesdropping, and on their own, this group talked about relationships, their families, their goals and pursuits, their adaptability to what was around them. The students seemed to fall in love with the city—or at least certain aspects of it. They seemed to fall in love with each other, mostly metaphorically, and treated each other with respect. Then one of them literally fell in love with a New Yorker, and I wondered if he’d get on the train with us. And then two of the students didn’t. They didn’t get on the train. They found an apartment in two days. They stayed in New York City to pursue life dreams (or just some summer fun), very Carson-esque, even if they don’t realize it right now. All of this—ALL of it—comes with openness, an openness to the place and an openness with other people.
It occurs to me that, in 1940s Brooklyn, this is what the February House was all about. A grouping of artists that lived together, discussed life, became inspired and reflective because of these discussions. Sure, there was competitiveness, disorder, arguing, even some loneliness and some lostness, but as author Sherill Tippins sums up, each of them had been inspired either to create or did create some of the greatest work of their lives. And they formed lasting friendships, lasting memories. So, now, left to look at the trinkets brought back with me from the great city of New York, I am most moved to consider the people that lived with me for three weeks and inspired me to cultivate their openness. To lose the anxiety and just adapt. To live fully with curiousity. Thanks, y’all.