“So, where’s the best Chinese food in New York?” we naively asked our native-New Yorker friends Marc and Marina Friday night.
It seemed like a perfectly legitimate, straightforward question to me. I was wrong.
“What kind of Chinese food?” Marina asked.
I was about to elaborate by saying, You know, the kind of food you use chopsticks with.
“Do you want Hong Kong style? Sichuan?” Marina said. “It depends.”
“Or Cantonese,” Marc said. “There are lots of different kinds, you know.”
No, of course, we didn’t know. We looked blank and slow-witted as they regaled us with all our different choices. In Texas, your choices of Chinese food are a little more basic. As a matter of fact, I didn’t fully recover my confidence until Marc made a casual remark about barbecue. “What kind of barbecue?” I demanded, happy to be on familiar turf.
New York affects me like that. There’s so much to know, so much I need to learn. We’d just finished seeing an incredible play Friday night, “Ruined,” which won a recent Pulitzer. Based on interviews of some of the countless women who were raped — then discarded and scorned by their own families — during warfare in Congo, I realized how little I know of Africa, its histories, its troubles. I wondered, too, what drives this culture and acceptance of rape during times of war. And what about the women who got pregnant after rape? Did they feel they were bearing a child who was half-human, half-monster? How could they ever forget how those children were conceived? Read more about it, I lectured myself. You don’t know nearly enough.
Two days later, on Sunday morning, we wandered through a street fair that stretched along Amsterdam. (Restaurants on the 20 or so blocks of Amsterdam we frequent were referred to as “paeans to mediocrity,” by The New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who probably knows Chinese restaurants better than we do, too. Paeans to mediocrity? There’s a phrase that dampens my appetite.)
Then, we walked through Central Park, passing swarms of bicyclists who mercifully don’t seem to take themselves as seriously as bicyclists in Austin (Lance Armstrong is to blame, I fervently believe), families walking, people walking dogs, dogs walking people, runners. Here and there, on the broad green lawns, people stretched out getting sun and reading thick books. I felt like I was in a Woody Allen movie — the kind I used to enjoy before he took up with his stepdaughter.
A matinee performance of “West Side Story” was amazing — heartfelt, beautiful, stirring, emotional. Afterwards, we ate Thai food with another pair of old friends in Hell’s Kitchen, the site of the original West Side Story, they told us.
Then my husband and I walked back home, stopping for half an hour to watch an HD outdoor showing of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” at Lincoln Center, but not staying to see young love come to ruins twice in the same afternoon, though. As we stood there watching and listening, the sun set and the sky turned an opal-blue and lights began to come on in the surrounding buildings and the music soared, and I thought about how lucky we are to be here.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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