Things are bustling at B & H Dairy at noon on a weekday, the staff behind the tiny counter working to keep up with the steady stream of customers all wanting overstuffed sandwiches and soup. “With bread?” the waitress says each time, as if she has to ask. In fact the Latino sandwich makers/soup servers/all around everything staff wear shirts that say “Challah por favor.” I order a bowl of borscht and savor the heat and flavor. The jack of all trades behind the counter gives me a little attitude when I ask for sour cream while he’s in the throes of other multi-tasking, in the brusque but ultimately kind and decent way of many New Yorkers. I feel completely consumed by the clamor: the constant orders, the deft handling of challah bread to make sandwiches, the steady ladling of soup to full yet never overflowing. Just right. I feel so pleased to be part of this perfect urban scene. Since 1938 this little place in the East Village has served vegetarian food at modest prices. Egalitarian and delicious. Just right for a post-election day lunch. I pay, say thank you and continue walking and eating my way through New York.
This week I’ve had a special treat of staying in the city at a vacation club, gifted by my sister-in- law C. She had hotel points that expire this month and I was happy to oblige her generous offer to let me/us use them. It’s such a wonderful break from my usual suburban caregiving life. I’m in a sweet little room in Midtown with a view of the Empire State building. It is so nice to be away although I’m not far. So refreshing to wake up and not have to deal with the morning routine of rousing V from a deep sleep, getting him bathed and dressed and downstairs where he is often half awake and not interested in breakfast, yet likes school enough that he runs eagerly onto the bus that comes at 8:25. I’m so grateful to C for this wonderful opportunity to be in the city. And T for handling V’s needs so I get a break for a few days.
Self-care can involve peaceful space alone and quiet contemplation but it also can be a break from enervating routines, so being in the thick of the city is self-care in its own unique way, giving a life-affirming energy. I thought of going to museums and making plans with a couple of people but opt to be untethered to any schedules or meetings during these few days alone, to simply have hours of walking through familiar yet changed streets (where did that favorite restaurant/store/cafe go?), which has been so rejuvenating.
I walk for miles each day, taking in a few touristy sights as well as old familiar neighborhoods. And I visit the former homes of my great aunts and grandmother, the family I used to visit most weekends when I lived in Manhattan. I walk the High Line, a public park built on a freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West side. Saved from demolition by neighborhood residents, it’s a public space with wonderful landscaping, lots of art and hoards of tourists. On a weekday morning there are so many people if we weren’t out in the open I would have felt claustrophobic. I get off in the West Village and walk down to the building where my Aunt Annie lived for decades, a building that became filled with a few celebrities along with all those lucky enough to win the real estate sweepstakes and have a lovely one bedroom with a river view like Annie had. She would have loved the High Line, so near to her home, one more fabulous feature in her wonderful neighborhood. So much has changed in the West Village, once a Bohemian haven now financially out of reach for all but the richest few. Still, it’s physically beautiful and I savor every moment of my time there. Then I walk back hugging the river and checking out the new parks and island and grow wistful for all those years when I used to hang out on the dilapidated piers back when none of this was here.
On Wednesday I head down to the Greenmarket at Union Square near my old apartment, a place I used to visit every week. I buy an apple to eat as I marvel at all the produce and flowers and baked goods. There is no kitchen in my hotel room so I stop myself from buying the stunning greens on display. I walk down to the Strand bookstore and browse for a while. So grateful for these landmarks that remain in the cityscape, that not every wonderful thing I love about New York has been demolished. Then I head down for that bowl of soup and continue walking, down to the former DeRoberti’s, the Italian bakery and cafe I used to love that is now a bagel shop. I walk in just to see the space, how some of the booths where the old Italian men used to gather over espressos have been preserved. Still, it’s not the same and I continue my journey to Stuyvesant Town where my grandmother lived and then head west to the apartment where my Aunt Dina lived near Gramercy Park. My family would like that I visited them like I used to do, that I acknowledge what an imprint they made on my life. They would like that I am still a city girl at heart, and the part they played in nurturing that.
Each day after walking for hours I go back to my room and rest for a while. It is so great to be unencumbered, to be free of my usual duties and able to enjoy this mini-vacation so close to home yet so far from daily life. Then I head back out for more walking and eating. Miso soup. A slab of pistachio halvah, things that I no longer eat but can’t resist for reliving old memories, like Greek spinach pie, and a semolina fennel currant roll from Amy’s Bread. So much to eat, so little time. It’s great to see the city at dusk when the lights go on. My trips to New York all happen during the day when V is at school so it’s a special treat to be out and see the town all lit up, to come back to my room to see the Empire State Building flooded with colors for Election Day.
On Wednesday night T takes V to the respite group home, where he stays for two nights so that T gets a break and gets to come in and join me. It is V’s third visit since August and T says he seems completely at ease there, which is such a godsend. Then T comes in on Thursday for the final night in the city. We take the subway to Brooklyn to visit friends and go out to eat at our favorite Japanese restaurant we haven’t been to in years. It’s a wonderful final evening though by the ride home gazing at the Brooklyn Bridge from my seat on the Q train I have that bittersweet feeling when a vacation is ending all too soon. Friday we have our last walk, down to the river again and back to the hotel. Goodbye Empire State. Goodbye city outside my door. It was a great vacation and I leave with gratitude and the good type of tired, worn out yet renewed from all the walking and people and food and sights, savoring the memories of my city time.