This week I celebrate an anniversary that is dear to my heart. My New Yorker-versary.
Eleven years since I made this city my home. It feels like a dozen lifetimes ago.
When I first arrived in the city, it was clear to me that I had discovered the place in which I was always meant to be. It was, as Rufus Wainwright puts it, as if I had "cracked the code of living life to the fullest." In honor of this proud and splendid day, I am sharing a piece that I wrote this past winter which was published in Julie's collective, Seasoned:
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MY FIRST WINTER IN NEW YORK CITY
Billie Holiday crooned from the jukebox and smoke swirled slowly into great plumes, reaching up past the yellow-tinged walls towards the tin ceiling, as I made my way through the candlelit cafe. I was eighteen, and alive, and fresh off the plane in the land of my dreams, New York City. A tiny little apartment on a narrow downtown street was my palace, and a job waiting tables in a beautiful dusty french cafe was my thrill. The characters who filed in and out of my tables all night were a gritty and beautiful bunch of crazies, and artists, and old-timers, and visionaries. And as if in a dream or a cinematic old play, they beckoned me to join them in conversation and to sit for a glass of wine and to step through the magical strange door of the downtown world. Enchanted, I leaped. And hence I was introduced properly to New York City.
Yes, that quaint little cafe quickly became my office, my living room, and my stage. Over a cup of coffee or a piece of buttered french bread I met, and experienced, the lively souls who would later grow to become my friends, teachers, lovers, impromptu therapists, and collaborators in wild youthful adventure. It was there that I discovered truly inspirational music and literature and art, and there that I allowed myself to delve into my passion for each. It was through that picturesque cafe’s immense windows, overlooking the trash-strewn sidewalks out front, that I first glimpsed the hatted smiling face of the man who would, years later, become my husband. And it was through those very same windows, fogged over by the heat from the radiators, that I witnessed, for the first time, snowfall in the city.
It was nearing closing time on that wintry night. With so few people in the cavernous room, a chill began to spread through the cafe, and a sense of calm and stillness set in. The charming Brazilian boy whom I worked with sipped a glass of wine while I leaned against the old wooden bar, and together we conjured up grand plans for that night’s post-work escapades. Suddenly, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Half laughing and half shrieking, he ran towards the heavy old doors and pushed them wide open towards the street, letting in a frigid rush of air that wafted with all of the glorious smells of the city and that was peppered with... snow. It was the first time in his life that he had seen snow.
Then he grabbed both of my hands.
And pulled me outdoors.
And we danced, and leaped, and screamed, as the nonchalant customers at our tables watched, cigarettes in hand, from the window.
And just like that, I was properly introduced to winter in New York City.
The winter, so quietly pretty and enchanting at first, soon fully emerged in all of its cumbersome and glacial glory. I became accustomed to wearing plastic bags over my socks inside my holy secondhand boots to keep my feet dry, to not being able to feel my fingertips, and to drinking an ungodly amount of coffee throughout the day just to keep from shivering (it took me a few years to realize the importance of having proper cold-weather gear). That first year, the winter seemed to go on forever, but I didn’t mind. Stepping out of the apartment each day, scarf wrapped tight and subway token in hand, meant another opportunity for a new and exciting adventure- new people to meet and hidden alleys to wander and places to discover and photographs to take. There is just something so inviting about a snow-covered city. And at the end of each day, tuckered out and freezing cold, I would find myself back at the cafe with friends old and new, sipping our drinks and dreaming out loud together. And, inevitably, every evening, before the night was through, someone would have ordered the flourless chocolate cake.
Oh, that chocolate cake.
The first time I tasted it I was certain that it had been invented just for me. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before and, to my young eyes and taste buds, nothing short of exotic. A cake without flour, yet so decadent and refined- what an anomaly! I was proud to serve it, and felt privileged to indulge in it. And indulge in it I did. That cake saw me through my first wondrous winter in the city. A new opportunity, a word of good news? Let’s eat cake! A broken heart, a shattered dream? We’ll feel better with cake! Had to wake too early? Have a piece of cake! Slept past noon after a rambunctious night? Brunch of chocolate cake! Raining, snowing, a blizzard outside? Warm up with cappuccinos and cake! And whenever I wanted to impress anyone, I would take them out to “my” cafe for a little slice of the heavenly dessert. It became a prized secret of mine, and an accompaniment to making each and every blustery day a celebration of one kind or another.
As I fell head over heels for New York City that winter, I also fell for that miraculous flourless chocolate cake. And after months of begging, I finally convinced the chef to scrawl the recipe on the back of a napkin for me. Over the moon, I rushed to the Key Food on Avenue A after work that day, only to find myself standing in the baking isle and staring at a list of ingredients that were listed, in true French form, by metric weight. Determined, I did my best to convert the measurements, and carried on. Later at home, I realized (about halfway through mixing the batter) that the recipe had also been measured out not for a single cake, but to yield a restaurant-size batch of cakes. My first attempt at baking my dream dessert was, to say the least, an utter failure.
But back-and-forth pleading with one fussy French chef, and trial-and-error marathons in my itty bitty tenement apartment kitchen, and lots and lots of dedication and patience finally led to a simple little recipe that worked. And with each passing year I cherish it more and more. Each year as the chill sets in, I turn on the oven, put on a record, and whip up a flourless chocolate cake. To each birthday party of a dear friend, I bring one. Each time I want to celebrate the present, or remember the past, or treat my children, or surprise my husband, I bake one. To me, a slice of chocolate cake embodies the magic that is New York City. I sensed it as a single and penniless wide-eyed city novice in that first winter years ago, and I sense it now as a wonder-filled mother, wife, and seasoned New Yorker.
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So cheers to eleven years! I think I deserve a piece of cake.