It’s snowing today and our region is, as we say in Italian, “in tilt.” It’s more than the gentle flakes or even the short blizzard of flurries, if there can be such a thing. So for awhile we were out of power. I didn’t have an unread book handy, so I got my trusty laptop, which I can use for days without charging, and looked through old files on my hard drive.
Scrolling through my digital detritus, I found this essay that I’d written pre-Covid pandemic. I have no idea why I wrote it, what, if any, audience I was thinking of—whether, for example it was for this blog or not. It looks as though I wrote it quickly, right after the dinner I’d gone to. And boy, it rings even truer today than back in 2019. So I hope you don’t mind if I recycle it here, slightly edited to fit my current writing style:
I HAD DINNER WITH friends the other night in Lower Manhattan near the South Street Seaport. Dinner was at Barbalu, the successor to a place I’ve been going to for almost ten years; the original version of the chic restaurant/Italian market was flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It’s a friendly place; I know the owners and this later version features authentic modern Italian food in a rustic yet sleek setting.
I live on Staten Island, so I took the ferry across the harbor and walked about 20 minutes up to Barbalu. As far as commutes go in New York City, it’s painless and even scenic. When I had a regular day job, I took that ferry nearly every workday for some 30 years. In my last decade of trudging to a newsroom, my daily commute tracked my trip to the restaurant, except that the walk to work from the ferry was a little shorter. I’m a native New Yorker and have lived in the city just about all my life.
But that night, I felt like a tourist.
I can explain. I’m in New York for what seems like a fleeting visit. My wife, now retired, and I bought a country house in the Italian region of Umbria a couple of years ago. We’d planned to stay there sporadically, whenever I could get away. We were thinking of retirement, and retirement at the time seemed like something that would happen in the future. A couple of years away at least, in fact.
But our staying in the house for more than a quick week or two at a time came much sooner. Like many media professionals, I was excessed a couple of years ago along with about 20 of my colleagues. I’m not really supposed to talk about it, but the move supposedly was part of a sweeping redesign of our news operation, and as one corporate officer told me during what was surely a scripted phone call, “Your position has been eliminated.” (It wasn’t; they merely changed the name of it for a few months, then back to the original after we’d signed our severance agreements.)
So I, along with my comrades in words, had to reinvent ourselves. I became a freelance writer, and I don’t need to be anywhere in particular physically to do my work. Hence, Italy for at least a few months a year, in my spare euro-modern office or, better, at a garden table watching the view as I procrastinate.
Inevitably, our country stays got longer and longer, and now amount to half the year. We can do this because of a precious gift from my immigrant father: an Italian passport. So we’ve been busy integrating ourselves into our little community. It’s a big change for a city boy like me. We live in a mountainous area in the foothills of the Apennines, the mountain chain that forms the spine of the Italian peninsula. Our neighbors are some 125 sheep and the people who own and care for them. When we take a walk, we amble down our road, waving to the hardy old—and retired—people who’ve lived in the town all their lives, and I’m sure their families have been there for centuries. Or, since we’re located in the middle of a network of hiking trails, we go exploring the hills when I’m done with my work, trudging up and down mountain paths and occasionally finding a ruin or wild asparagus in the woods.
But we’re in New York now [OK, I was in April 2019], and I have to say that I’m shocked that I feel so odd walking around my city. I was on the ferry that night, and I watched the tourists and the orthodox Jews and their families enjoying the ride during the week of Passover. And I realized that I’m a tourist too these days, here in town for only a few weeks.
The realization hit me viscerally, and this strange feeling of psychological distance stayed with me as I navigated streets that I’ve walked thousands of times. For one thing, since I stopped working in the neighborhood two years ago, a lot has changed. There’s a Hilton Garden Inn on Water Street, a truly strange name for a bland building that’s nowhere near a garden.
There are lots of new restaurants and lunch takeout spots, something normal in a town where eateries fold and open at a rapid clip. There’s something odd about the new places. They advertise their wares in their simple names, like Greens and Fresh. I’m an addicted menu reader, and their food seems to come from nowhere but some Californian notion of “natural” food: lots of kale, grains, an Asian overlay in the flavorings, bowls. The word “bowl” makes me smile; in four letters it manages to connote a lively lifestyle, clean living—lots of bike riding and yoga classes.
I SUPPOSE THAT I’m an old curmudgeon. But curmudgeons aren’t necessarily alienated from a place—just from a period of time. Walking through the oldest part of New York that’s busy remaking itself, I felt conflicting emotions, happiness that I would escape to my mountaintop soon, but a kind of sadness for feeling somewhat uncomfortable in the city where I was born. The contradiction actually made me feel queasy, as though I weren’t just pulled in a couple of directions emotionally, but physically.
That feeling stayed with me over dinner with my friends. I worked with them some 20 years ago and that alone probably contributed to the weirdness. Seeing them made me think of a time when New York was my city, my hometown. I had a part-time restaurant reviewing gig on the side back then, and it meant hanging out at hot new places, tasting everything. Now I was a part-time interloper, listening to people talk about their current jobs, their current president. I’m an American, but I also have another country’s politics to think about, and to fret over. While I participated in the conversation, I couldn’t help but think that I can just get on a flight and not spend much time thinking about Donald Trump’s latest escapades.
And the prices…really, people, restaurants, even places I love, are ridiculous. My tablemates, knowing I’m a wino, sorry, make that someone who knows a thing or two about wine, especially those from Italy, had me choose. I looked at Barbalu’s list, and it’s a good, selective one. But the prices sent me into alienation mode again, when the cheapest bottle is around $40, and I know that I can go to a decent restaurant in Umbria and pay a few euros for a nice carafe of whatever’s local. I know that restaurateurs have to price drinks like that in New York; it pays the rent. I suppose that when people are using corporate cards it doesn’t matter much, but how can regular people afford to go out?
They don’t. They take the ferry and the subway back and forth every day and night. And that night, the weather was clear and warm. I sat on the back of the boat and watched the tourists take snapshots of the skyline as we sailed across the harbor. Soon they got tired of the view and went over to the side to see the Statue of Liberty. Right about then, an African-American girl with a distinct city kid accent sat next to me. Two boys, somewhere around 14, stared at the harbor view, which is nice enough during the day, but truly stunning at night. They laughed, they joked, they wisecracked like the city kids I’ve known all my life. They danced around, obviously flirting with the girl and competing for her attention and approval.
I’ll miss the place when I finally leave.