Tuesday, March 21, 2017
It’s been almost three years. At this rate, the project might never be possible because new stations open faster than we visit the existing ones. I might learn Chinese from fortune cookies before I explore all the city’s subway line ends. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the journey, right?
New York City has enjoyed at least two major subway expansions in the last few years: the 7 train extension west to Hudson Yards and the Q train expansion up Second Avenue. I wrote “New York City has completed” at first, but then I remembered the state runs the MTA, which runs the city’s subways. They sure feel like a city program. I might have said city in past posts. Forgive me, Albany. And then after I published this a friend told me New York City did pay for the Hudson Yards expansion. It’s all so confusing. Or as our president might say, “nobody knew transportation could be so complicated.”
In any case, the Second Avenue expansion, which was proposed 98 years ago, is theoretically only the first step of a larger project, but it’s already carrying 200,000 passengers every day. You don’t want to know how much it cost. Since it opened January 1, lots of my friends have posted photos of station art by Chuck Close (who I just found out has prosopagnosia!) and other artists. I figured I’d be needing to ride it soon enough, but it turns out I just don’t get to the Upper East Side that much. Damaso, on the other hand, actually needed to be up there for some reason, so that’s the station we chose.
His sojourn in Barcelona ended a while ago, and he’d moved back to the city and gotten a full-time job at the News Literacy Project, for whom he had volunteered in the past. I can’t imagine anything more timely. He mostly works from his home on the Upper West Side though, so he had some timing flexibility but not enough to trek out to the far reaches of the Bronx or whatever, so exploring the new Q terminus would be perfect.
The outside of my subway car was filled with gorgeous but disconcerting graphics celebrating the new line. Gorgeous because of their simplicity and color but disconcerting because letters appear in colored circles, but not according to the subway color-letter codes that every New Yorker knows. For example, the final “AY” of “SECOND AVENUE SUBWAY” appear in a green circle, but everyone in Brooklyn and Queens knows a green circle means the “G” train. The inside of the train is also entirely devoted to itself: “We’ve been anxiously waiting for this to open. It feels great,” says “Zen Master Samu Sunim, Zen Buddhist Temple, Upper East Side” on one poster. On another, “Irene Nesbit, Upper East Side resident” states breathlessly, “We’re a great city and we need great transportation like the Second Avenue subway will deliver.”
Besides the city denizens quoted on the posters, the car is full of commuters who don’t look quite as breathless or excited. The bench next to me is occupied by a sleeping man with one foot in a walking boot. Having spent quite a bit of time in walking boots over the course of two foot surgeries, I’m sympathetic. Plus, he doesn’t even smell.
We agreed to meet at the uptown edge of the platform at the last stop. Another major change since the last time we did this is that the MTA now provides free wifi and cell service at every station in the city, so we knew it would be easy to find each other. I exited a few minutes early into the wide, open platform. It doesn’t look like one of the old stations with the I-beam pillars, but it doesn’t look particularly interesting either. It just looks like a Metro North or Long Island Rail Road station. I walk to the front of the platform and discover the escalator is out of service. I wonder whether it is already broken or hasn’t been fully installed yet.
The next train arrives, and I see Damaso about half way down the platform walking away from me taking pictures. I walk towards him, and he says he’s been there a while. Not like us to both arrive early.
The art in this station is by Sarah Sze, but at first it doesn’t grab me. It’s a mural or mosaic of what looks like white pieces of paper blowing around on a blue background. As we ascend from the platform, the wall around the staircase bears a more attractive blue and white image. The colors make it look like a blueprint, but the image doesn’t look architectural. I don’t stay to figure it out. I was vaguely disappointed that the subway tiles aren’t subway tiles.
We exit to the broad expanse of upper Second Avenue and walk, as usual, in the direction the train was going. Ahead of us, we see the barren expanse of Metropolitan Hospital, and Damaso says the city’s best tamale vendor is often there. He says he’s been getting into tamales, and this woman makes particularly moist ones. I, on the other hand, am almost always disappointed by tamales, because no matter what exotic fillings they advertise, they’re mostly just corn meal. There used to be a tamale shop by my old apartment on West 14th Street that identified its tamales by purported country of origin. I can’t remember any of the specifics, but I remember that I never believed the fillings had anything to do with those countries. For example, maybe Guatemala was raisins, goat, and cumin and Ecuador was chicken, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes. I’m just making up those correlations, but I do remember raisins, goat, olives, and Guatemala were all represented. And I do love street food, although for some reason I feel like the project demands sitting down and taking our time somewhere.
When we get to the hospital entrance, there are female tamale vendors on either side of the gate, and Damaso doesn’t recognize his source. He remembers that she used green banana leaves and her tamales were moistest. He approaches one vendor and asks, in Spanish, whether she has tamales. She tells him she has spicy chicken and non-spicy chicken. He translates for me, which amuses me because when I visited him in Barcelona, I was still translating for him. Fair to guess his Spanish has overtaken mine in the intervening years. He gets a spicy chicken tamale, and it comes in a green wrapper.
Since we still don’t know which is the good vendor, and admittedly because I’m thinking that they’re all probably exactly the same or if they aren’t, any of them are as likely as any other to be good, I order from the other vendor, who has chicken with mole or chicken with green sauce. I ask for the green sauce, and my tamale comes wrapped in yellow banana leaves. Uh-oh. I take a bite, and it’s almost exactly what I expected. Well, the tamale part is exactly what I expected, a dry mush of cornmeal with a tiny bit of chicken inside. Not exciting. The part that’s unexpected is that the chicken has neither green sauce nor mole. Just chicken. Damaso says his vendor is definitely the good one. I’m defiantly sure they’re exactly the same, but then we trade bites.
His tamale is delicious. It still has the drawbacks of a tamale, meaning it’s mostly all corn meal, but the corn meal is grainy and moist, steaming in the banana leaves and quite flavorful. He offers me more, but I just finish mine even though I don’t really like it that much.
We circle north of the hospital and walk east towards the East River, thinking we might find someplace nice along the water, but we’re cruelly disabused. The landscape is barren and industrial. We don’t bother to walk all the way to the FDR, but we head back on First Avenue and hope we can find something on 96th Street. Nope. Back to Second Ave, where we finally decide on Vinus and Marc, which I see now described on its Google blurb as a “stylish, clubby venue pairing craft cocktails & wine with elevated French-Latin fusion plates,” but which we walked into because it said “bistro” and then we immediately wondered what made it a bistro. Mostly it serves burgers.
The restaurant was long and narrow and fairly dark, with a wood bar along one side and a red wall with giant mirrors on the other. We sat at a round four-top in the front window. I have no idea how someone would have gotten into the chairs facing in, I guess they would have had to pull out the other two chairs and the table, but since we were the only ones there, we sat facing out, with the empty chairs between us and the windows. My unsweetened iced tea was huge, which made me happy, and cloudy, which made me nervous is was coffee or lattéed or something, but the waitress said it always got cloudy from being in the refrigerator, and that made me happier because it meant it wasn’t newly brewed hot tea watered down and still tepid, which is what I’m often brought.
I’m supposed to be on a diet, but I never seem to eat differently or less. Damaso, as usual, said he was trying to eat better but unlike me he actually does something about it and ordered a house salad, so I did that too. He didn’t even get any shrimp or chicken or whatever on it, so I didn’t either, but all I could think was that it wasn’t going to be enough food and that I’d be hungry. The salads were lovely with red onions, carrots, and cucumbers on a bed of mixed greens under a semi sweet house vinaigrette. I could have eaten five of them. I reminded myself that I’d just had a tamale, which together made it a reasonably sized lunch.
The waitress, who was lovely, gave me a free refill of my giant iced tea. She had a little speck of something green on one tooth, and I debated whether to tell her. My rule, instilled at a young age by Miss Manners is never to tell people when you notice problems they aren’t likely to be able to fix (mismatched shoes, run in stocking) but always to tell people about things they can do something about, but while spinach in teeth falls squarely in the latter camp, the combination of stranger and server threw me off, and I didn’t say anything. Nobody else came into the restaurant while we were there anyway, and it was on my side, so I doubt Damaso could even see it. Yes, I’m rationalizing. If I have spinach on my teeth please tell me. But see, now you know what I prefer, so I’m making it more comfortable. Oops, rationalizing again.
Anyway, we didn’t linger long. Mr. Newly Employed graciously tried to pay for our lunch after, but I didn’t let him. He headed off to find a print shop, and I decided to wander slowly down to Bryant Park to meet the Tuesday after-work juggle. The walk was fantastic, but that’s a whole other story. Let’s just say it was the first (and last for a while) beautiful day of spring.
Photographs by Damaso Reyes
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