Sometimes, I think I’m getting this New York business down. I haven’t taken a subway in the wrong direction in eons, for example, and when I jaywalk, I try to saunter like I’m thinking great philosophical thoughts and not mentally cringing over a taxi that’s bearing down on me, horn honking, driver screaming, my own death imminent.
But then, something always happens to remind me my city pretensions are deeply shallow. A couple of weeks ago, I was boasting about my wild pedestrian ways to my friend Peggy, who’s a veteran New Yorker. She nodded and told me that real New Yorkers always slow down when crossing the street if a taxi’s barreling toward them. “Just to show how unworried they are,” she said.
Great, just great, I thought. I was never going to make the grade as a New York pedestrian. Similarly, I realized I was a rank amateur compared to some subway riders I’ve seen — the kind who stick a limb into a closing door so they can make a train. I mean, I don’t want to catch any train that badly; I’m kind of fond of both my hands.
But the real blow came the other day when I was out shopping with my friend Katey. She and I decided we were starving to death and needed to eat quickly. We were walking up Madison Avenue when we noticed a bright unpretentious-looking restaurant. It was called Nello, which sounded vaguely familiar to me. Familiarity is always a good thing, right?
We walked in, even though there wasn’t a menu outside, and were welcomed and graciously seated by a maitre d’. The waiter came over and began extolling the virtues of all that day’s delicious specials. He didn’t tell us the prices of any of them, which always annoys me, but it isn’t like that’s a capital offense or anything.
I started prowling around the menu and quickly developed a stomach ache. My God. Salads were $18. Pastas were $30. Entrees — well, who the hell knows? I was too close to a coronary to continue.
Katey continued to look around placidly.
“Have you seen the menu?” I hissed.
She shook her head. “I’m just getting that lobster salad special,” she said. “It sounded good.”
“Do you know how much it is?” I said. “The lobster bisque is $42.”
The waiter, sweating and unctuous, reappeared. “By the way,” I said, “how much is that lobster salad special?”
“Fifty-four dollars,” he said.
I suppose at this juncture, we could have walked out. But you know, we were there already. And hungry. So we each ordered a salad, all the time fending off suggestions about bottled water and wine. We ate our dumpy, skimpy little salads and were still hungry — so ordered two desserts and coffee. I mean, I was thinking, how expensive could that be?
Once we got the bill, we learned the coffees — plain, old coffees, not cappuccinos or lattes or anything fancy — were $9 apiece. The barely adequate creme brulee was $18. Our bill for a tiny amount of not-terribly-good food was more than $100.
I walked out of the restaurant, furious with myself for being such a chump, fuming about being ripped off. When I got back to our apartment, I described the whole situation with such outrage and great detail to my husband and our visiting daughter that our daughter told me I was becoming boring. So, I started sniffing around the Internet for vindication.
Oh, hell. No wonder Nello sounded so familiar to me. Sam Sifton had just skewered the restaurant in one of the funniest restaurant reviews I’ve ever read in The New York Times. Similarly, on Trip Advisor, patron after patron begged readers not to go to this “appalling” restaurant with its “preposterous” prices and poor food. I read more and more, still feeling like a chump and a rube. But thank God we’d avoided the zillion-dollar bottled water and had drunk nothing alcoholic.
I get it now. I finally get it. In my mind’s eye, I was trying to be a sophisticated, seen-it-all New Yorker like Peggy had described. The yellow Nello taxi was bearing down on me and I’d slowed down to show how unconcerned and completely in control I was. After it had run over me with a couple of thumps, I’d looked up and noticed the car’s bumper sticker: “Congratulations! You can’t come to New York without being ripped off at least once!”
Nothing to do but pick myself up, dust myself off and be grateful I still had both hands.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts on the week our recycling schedule changed and ruined our lives