Fresh Mozzarella

This is how I came to live in the East Village.

In high school and college, I fancied I knew my way around Manhattan, and mostly I did. My most familiar haunts were the Upper Sides, East and West, with a dash of Turtle Bay thrown in. I ranged from Urban Outfitters on the East Side to Tower Records on 66th and B’way and Amsterdam Billiards with great regularity, stopping at the Sheep’s Meadow in between, and then on, to points further, thanks to my high school friends who had parents wise enough to live in Manhattan. A constant traveller to and fro, I knew exactly how long it took to walk from, say, 48th and First Avenue to Grand Central, to make whatever train home I needed to make. Thanks to my home-county roots, which some of my friends never let me forget, it was never without a surge of nerves that I approached a doorman for announcement upstairs. What if I was rejected? What if the the scent of non-Manhattan washed off of me and polluted the marbled floors? Indeed, I loved being in those grandiose lobbies, and relished the discomfort of not being from there, knowing that someday I would be of there.

Downtown was even more mysterious. Drawn like a clip to a magnet, I started going there as soon as I could convince my parents that I was old enough to shop alone in the city, which was in the 8th grade. Of course, whilst granting this permission, they also forbid me to go south of 42nd street, an order I immediately disregarded with blithe abandon. Oh, it was so strange and wonderful downtown! Once, we were chased up Lafayette Street by a man who stopped to vomit every few feet, like a creature from zombie apocalypse! Still, I persevered, and soon I had a circuit of must-stops, consisting mostly of the various vintage boutiques lining Broadway south of 8th street (where the good Antique Boutique was) with Urban Outfitters to the west on 6th ave, and Todd Oldham and Anna Sui to the south in SoHo, still gentrifying and full of weird. On 8th street itself was my favorite place of all: Patricia Field, where if it was quiet enough, the drag queens that worked there would have their way with me, showering me with glitter and pressing upon me articles of clothing and accessories that might not have been the best use of allowance money. A micro-cropped top with Rolling Stones lips across the chest? Yup! An otherwise innocuous t-shirt with a butterfly silk screen in a size meant for a 3 year old? 100%. I was 98 pounds soaking wet, and four of those were boobs! We had fun. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was taking my sister there too. We had matching glitter pack backs. I wish I still had mine! I think she still has hers.

I didn’t differentiate downtown by neighborhood. It was all “Greenwich Village” to me. All I knew was, I wanted to live there. In the fantasy I had of my post collegiate life, my real life, I lived in a picturesque brownstone on a tree lined, yet prettily gritty street, in a small but charming apartment, with a claw foot tub in the kitchen. In sort of an amalgamation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the Parker Posey classic Party Girl, and of course my beloved “Friends,” with a soupcon on “Sex and the City” thrown in, my neighbors would all be fascinating artists on the outer cusp of success, far enough to dream but close enough to smell it. There would be: the loyal and funny gay BFF, who was a fashion designer, and of course I would be his muse; the funny, brash outspoken Broadway type, who was for all intents and purposes Katie, my college best friend, crossed with Bette Midler in Beaches; perhaps a scientist, like Ross, but with Chandler’s sense of humor, who was in love with me, but who I loved like a friend; maybe someone in graduate school studying something obscure who was destined to win a Guggenheim or a MacArthur grant; a computer nerd; and most of all there was a scruffy waiter/actor who was a movie star in the making, and who of course was also madly in love with me, the funny little Carrie Bradshaw across the hall, scribbling away in her amazing vintage clothes. We would all gather on our stoop, and drink cheap wine out of boxes or beers, and smoke cigarettes, and say witty things, and I would no longer pine for my life to start, because this would be it and it would be fabulous and soon we would all be featured in the NY Observer… even though as I write this, I realize that sitting around, drinking cheap wine and smoking was what I was already doing… only the cast of characters had changed, for this imaginary bunch and fictional me were far more clever than real world me and mine… and does the Observer even still exist? It does not, though unfortunately Jared Kushner still does.

As soon as college ended, three of us- two just graduated, one already in situ- decided to start our apartment hunt. For my part, it was suffocating to be stuck in Westchester every day, waiting for the phone to ring, with Conde Nast on the other line. (In those days, I sent out actual cover letters and resumes to HR departments, on thick paper, and a person actually called to follow up!)

One hot summer day, one of the future roommates and I set out to see our first round of places. It was not encouraging. Everyone spoke about New York City apartments as being small, but in my (very sheltered experience) they, in fact, were very livable! Sure, they had small rooms, but it was so charming to have a doorman, and the view onto Central Park from the fifteenth floor of Columbus Avenue was worth the lack of stretching room. After all, the park was right there.

What did I know? Well, soon I knew this; there weren’t a lot of classic pre-war sixes downtown, much less for less than 1500/month. I explained this all to my dad, dejectedly, as he floated around his pool on warm day in his favorite inner tube, the Yankees game on the radio in the background. This was the sound of my childhood summers.

“Why not just live here?” He asked, blissful in the heat. “This is great!” And to him, it was. It was a paradise he had made for himself. What’s not to love about that?

“Dad!” I said, hand on hip. He could not be serious. This was great… for him. But I had things to write and future-movie-stars to woo.

“Well, how do you plan on paying for this dream apartment?” He asked, smiling, “oh, jobless one?”

“Well, you’re going to pay rent for me, of course.” I told him.

“But, Michelle, you can live here!” He grinned, and punctuated the air with a jab of his forefinger, the way he does when he feels he’s been particularly clever. “I won’t even charge you rent!”

“Um…” The sun dappled down through the trees. Our dog barked. A mower mowed, the clarion call of suburbia, and all that was dull. “No. I am moving. You are paying.”

A fountain of mirth burbled forth from the inner tube. By the time he was able to collect himself, I understood the picture.  The message was loud and clear. If I wanted to move A.S.A.P, I’d have to get a J. O. B. Not wait for a call from one of the magazines I was waiting on. N.O.W. Maybe I cried. And he laughed some more.

Despondent, I called a friend of mine who had a small Internet company (this was 1999). As luck would have it, he needed a receptionist. And he was willing to pay me a fortune, in those days and terms: I believe I made 15$/hour. Ka-ching. That was not nothing. Not even close.

 Soon after, I had a bank account full of enough money to get out, and had also shed a roommate. I won’t go too into the whys or wherefores, but I was definitely at least half to blame for that falling out. I was focused on one thing and one thing only and that was moving. What were someone else’s financial issues to me? Especially when she was making so much more money than I was? No, I was a dick. But then again, it turned out she had been mad at me for a year about unrelated friendship matters so there was nothing I could do about that. What was done, was simply done.

Also, it turned out she did not want to live in the Village at all. Much less the East Village, where we had now focused our search. It freaked her out. Why this gritty-ish neighborhood, with addicts in the pocket square park, near nothing we knew, when we could live in a clean cookie cutter building in Murray Hill with a doorman? Near a thousand other people just like us? But we other two desperately did want to live there, in the EV, because those thousand Murray Hillers were exactly who we already were and what we were trying our hardest to get away from; one of us a young gay man (no, not me, I’m afraid), the other an aspiring (to this day) writer. Both of us suburban, and middle class, and with nary an edge to our name.

 As summer turned to fall, my remaining roomie and I would meet at the coffee place on Avenue A and 9th street, Café Pick Me Up, to debate the livability of what we had just seen. It was mostly less than zero percent, and we really needed at least a 1%. Like we’d accept roaches if there were two real bedrooms with windows. We seriously considered a place on E9th Street that had one bathroom only accessible through a bedroom. I shudder to think what we would have seen. We’d also sit and watch the neighborhood go by. Everyone that passed was interesting looking and interestingly dressed and fascinating, even though we didn’t know them. They were our friends to be. Girls that looked like boys and boys that looked like girls and lots of high spindly heels and flared pants and piercings and tattoos, none of which I had or wanted, except for the pants and heels, but all of which I did want to live amongst!  I hoped they didn’t realize that I had to catch the Croton-Harmon bound Hudson line home in an hour.

 Finally we found our dream place, and looking back, it was a dream. It was on the corner of 10th street and First Avenue, and oh la la, it was amazing. We secured it with a basket full of beauty products and by declining to insist on having the peeling place painted. It was otherwise rather grand; high ceilings with moldings, windows in every room, a separate kitchen and living room. The bathroom was tiny but had a step in it! And an old fashioned milk glass door. All the rooms had transoms. It was wonderful. I happily took the small room, just big enough for my new full sized bed, pushed up against the window, from which I could see the street scape of that lovely corner, with the Twin Towers in the distant background, looking painted on, grey against dusky grey, like a film set, reminding me that I really was here. LIVING here! I was home.

 It was one of those few times in life when the reality was even better than the expectation. My office was in Times Square; I had a job (a miserable job) at a fashion magazine. Stepping out of work every evening, into the bright lights of the center of the universe, jumping on the N/R train, and ten minutes later, exiting on Broadway & Astor Place was worth everything. Strolling down E9th street, past small stores, whose owners leaned in the doorways smoking, chatting with neighbors, small dogs at their feet, I felt truly at home. Up First Avenue, I’d swing, past the strange, never open herbalist’s shop, and cross the avenue to my door. But before climbing up… I’d often stop.  

For to the left of our sweet little wrought iron door (no stoop steps, I’m afraid,) was one of those lovely vestiges of NYC long past. On the brick wall next to the door was a mural painted with images of prosciutto legs, fresh bread, and of course, fresh mozzarella, the words “Fresh Mozzarella” painted in green script across the mural. In the middle of this funny wall, there was a door that led to a very small shop. To one side there was a crammed deli counter filled with all sorts of Italian meats and olives in every color and shape, and cured vegetables, and roasted vegetables by season, and fresh ricotta cheese wrapped in paper tucked in tin cans, all lorded over by a giant wheel of Parmesan, which sat in stately gold on the counter top. Behind, there was a rack of fresh breads, and to the side, a case filled with prepared foods. Lining the rest of the store were shelves packed with olive oils, vinegars, canned and bottled delicacies from across Italy, and dried pastas. Presiding over this 10 x 10 kingdom, cigarette dangling, was a small, balding, pot bellied man, leaning against his table next to the register, upon which were two large metal mixing bowls, one with fresh mozzarella and one with smoked.

 I’d like to tell you that he was gregarious and friendly and gave me lots of stuff for free. But no, he was shyer than shy, even though chatty me made it very clear that I lived in the building and couldn’t wait to treat the place as my own personal restaurant. And I did! I’d buy cold eggplant parm, or meatballs, or fried chicken cutlets. The little man could never understand why I wouldn’t let him microwave it down there… but part of it was the thrill of heating it up in MY apartment, with MY bottle of wine, and sinking down onto the blow up arm chair that was our one piece of furniture at that moment, in front of the TV. I’d buy olives and bread and sundried tomatoes and sauce and pasta. And there was the fresh mozzarella.

 I’d buy it, even though I had no idea really what to do with it. So I just picked at it, hacking a way a slice here and a slice there… I had to remember to buy the salted kind, which was tender and soft and a little salty on the outside and creamy and chewy on the inside. Unsalted was just bland and chewy. Sometimes, for a change, I’d get smoked mozzarella, which was sometimes perfectly smokey-salty-sweet, and other times hard and chewy. All of it went well with the cheap red I’d buy down the block. How grown-up to enjoy a glass on my own!

 As I roamed around the neighborhood and gained my bearings, I began to notice many of these little spots, cut into the sides of buildings. Imagine it! What are now juice bars were then little palaces of milk fat and Italian treats. There was one on 11th street between First and Second avenues, near Veniero’s. There was a large one across First Avenue from me, that had an amazing selection of cheese. I couldn’t believe when it closed, it was always so crowded. The more I walked, there more I’d see, or maybe the word is “notice”, these little tucked away places, and as time passed and real estate boomed, the less.

My life was nothing at all like I expected it to be- there was no gay fashion designer bestie, or waiter-yet-to-be-discovered movie star. My job, at the magazine, was monotonous and painful and even humiliating. Sometimes, I was very lonely. There were beautiful days Spring days, when the lights stayed on later, and which called for drinks alfresco, days that in Madison I would have had a choice of social events to pick from, but that here, in the city, I had no one to even call. There was no Library Mall or Paul’s Club to head to to find a crowd on command. I became good at going places alone (a lesson I’d learned in London a few years earlier.) When you go places alone a lot, you never quite feel of them, do you? Especially if you don’t know that many people, not really. I wasn’t facile. I had friends that were great at this- if you met them once, they were your friends, but I didn’t think I was memorable enough to withstand the week of new memories that had passed since our last meeting.

One thing, the most important thing, exceeded my expectations, however: living downtown. I loved my funny little corner of New York City and it was the best to be there, with lots of friend or without. Who cared about the imaginary? The reality was harder, yes, but also sometimes exciting, and once in a while… better. After a time, and a job change, there were new and some returning old friends. We never did go to smoke on the stoop, as there wasn’t one. Just a step, and sometimes we did sit and smoke on that. Or we leaned out the window. Or just opened it. I had a handsome downstairs neighbor, who had a handsome dog, and also a series of handsome girlfriends, until he packed up and moved west just after 9/11. And unlike in college, I couldn’t just go to a bar… but then again, we had parties. People came to visit and stay in that big apartment, and we met more people. And we went to bars together and stayed out very late, and there was a club under the Manhattan Bridge called “Fun” and there was Veselka at 4 am. There was the time one of my great friends was in town from Los Angeles and we went to the Chelsea Hotel for drinks, after getting ready at her friend’s place up the block on 3rd and 16th Street- her friend, a young starlet who only said “Baby wants to fuck” all night, and who somehow made this very funny and charming. We spent the evening flirting with a number of the cast of “Dazed and Confused” which was essentially the apex of all that was good in the world, and that night too, a young fashion designer I’d heard of told me she’d seen me around at some parties and loved my skirt. It was all happening… and that was just a random Tuesday night. And, exhausted after work on Wednesday, the little door in the wall shop- a literal hole in the wall- was as close as I got to homemade anything: some eggplant parm someone else’s mom made, some fresh bread, some wine, some fresh mozzarella.

 There is still Faicco, which is more of a butcher, on Bleecker Street. And there is still, of course DiPalo’s, which stands in for the rest of all of them. But my little place is now a nursery, where you can buy air plants to hang in your window. New York is still magical. It’s just a different kind of magical, as it always is. Basically, the moral of the story is always buy salted mozzarella.