I have a confession to make: I don’t like New York City. That seems like sacrilege to so many people, particularly those in the writing/entertainment/artsy fields, which, due to some weird twist in my life, I now identify with. Instead of talking mining, construction, foundation design or other such manly pursuits, I now find myself in strange, convoluted discussions on writers block, or “Where do you come up with your ideas?” I tell myself daily that I actually used to be manly, but I am afraid that many of the men that I now write about would be horrified by my career choices. Once upon a time, not that long ago, I was more comfortable with an axe than a keyboard, now the prospect of intense manual labor makes my arthritis ache. What was once a strong back is now a canvas for strange knots and pain. Like a man I once knew said long ago, “If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself when I was younger.”
But that has little to do with NYC. The Big Apple. The destination of choice for so many that are in my line of work, the foodies, wanna-be-writers, restaurant critics, fine diners and tourists. Personally, I would rather be set on fire and forced to eat at 7-11 than go to NYC. Yet, with some strange magnetic pull, I am about to make my seventh (or is it the ninth?) trip to this horrid place.
The one place that I hate more than NYC is Northern Virginia, or NOVA, as you so call yourselves if you happen to have the ultimate misfortune of living there. NOVA is more horrible than any other place on earth, or at least more horrible than any other place that I have been. It is a place utterly lacking in character, ransacked by crazy single females and dreams of a day without traffic. What was once an extension of the Shenandoah Valley and part of the proud heritage of the South and the Valley and Ridge Province no longer bears any resemblance to what it once was. It is now a festered hell of strip malls, townhouses, depreciated condos and software conglomerates. No one in their right mind would call such a region home, yet so many do. In a recent education class, a pitiful (in that I took a brief pity for her plight, until I realized she was proud of it) soul proudly ensconced that she was from NOVA and missed it so much, for there was so much shopping to be done there.
As she ranted and raved about how wonderful NOVA was in comparison to SWVA (Southwestern Virginia, not to be confused with Southern West Virginia, trust me, you’ll just make everyone mad if you make that mistake) I began to feel a bit betrayed. After all, she had chosen to move here for some reason, right? If shopping is a priority, then move back to NOVA. I said as much, but she didn’t stop talking. I’ve noticed that about people from NOVA. They don’t stop talking. Ever. It’s annoying. I suggested once again that she move back to NOVA – and she ignored me once again. I then chose to ignore her back, which worked wonderfully. I no longer had to listen to her. Who needs shopping? I have the internet, when it’s working at my house, and I can log on in quick bursts to order things that I need from Amazon, who delivers in two days. TWO DAYS!!! Who needs a store when I have one-click buying power? Ha! Take that, NOVA!
Back to NYC. I’m not sure which I hate more – the tourists, or the people who live there. On the one hand, you have badly dressed, overweight, mostly white people with “I heart NY” t-shirts and overpriced, underperforming cameras draped over their narrow shoulders vaulting off buses to shamble about snapping digital pictures of things that their friends informed them that “They just HAVE to see” reminiscent of some badly filmed zombie move. On the other hand, you have slim, badly dressed (I feel that designer flip-flops and $200 white t-shirts are a sign of absolute stupidity), smug, I-Phone using natives rushing to some destination that they simply must get to RIGHT NOW as they snap pictures of the overweight tourists with the afore-mentioned phone for self-righteous entertainment later with their like-minded friends in an over-priced 300 square feet apartment. Whom to hate? Both. The presence of either herd of people is a sure sign that you will have to search high and low for good food.
Yet, that is ultimately why I continue to frequent both places. NOVA, that terrible hell of a place, is home to large groups of immigrant people, who have been kind enough to ignore our propensity to food that is mass produced, frozen, thawed and heated in a microwave. Instead, they cook the food that reminds them of home, introducing amazing cuisines in the enclaves of the different ethnic groups of people. The best Vietnamese Pho I’ve had in my life is in Centreville, VA, smack in the middle of everything I hate. Traffic, hordes of people, overpriced housing – yet there it is, in a tiny strip mall, a Mecca of Vietnamese food.
The best Mexican food I’ve ever had is in Bethesda, MD, just outside the Beltway of our nation’s capital. There are six so-called Mexican restaurants within driving distance of my house, and each and every one of them serve the same blasphemous mix of beans and rice with mystery meat and cheese sauce. Are they giving rural Americans what they want or are they making fun of us? All I can say is that every single day, every one of those restaurants is packed. After all, you can get all you can possibly shovel into your skull for $4.99, not including a 60 ounce drink. In contrast, the restaurant in Bethesda serves authentic chicken with mole sauce for about the same price along with a host of other wonderful and delightful dishes.
Despite my hatred for both places, NYC offers some of the best cuisine on earth. Hike off the beaten path, get away from the two groups of people described above and you will find authentic food that will grow your soul. Laura and I watched a tiny little Asian lady make dumplings at nearly the speed of light one morning in Chinatown and it was almost orgasmic. Hell, it was orgasmic. We were nearly salivating over the tiny, doughy morsels of goodness as we gobbled them on the sidewalk, awash in a sea of throngs of people hurrying to their destinations. We ate Peking Chicken, and then flipped the town for homemade pasta in Little Italy. We had the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life, and then endured massive throngs of tourists on our way back uptown.
So, I am preparing to venture once again outside my comfort zone. I will leave my loft office and my SWVA home and endure a flight to NYC. I will be angry and comforted, pleased and confused, lost and satisfied – all at the same time. I will eat amazing cuisine, have a near-confrontation with someone I don’t know, embarrass my wife and learn yet again to appreciate the unfamiliar and the amazing. NYC, brace yourself. Here I come.