SUNSTAR TRAVEL: New York City In The Time of the Coronavirus.

NEW YORK CITY 

IN THE TIME OF THE CORONAVIRUS 


Here we are, entering the fifth ceaseless week of the lockdown. I’m writing from New York City, but that opening sentence might well be true where you are of the city you’re in as you read this. For the first time in history, all of us on the planet are talking about one thing at once as we live through this scourge. 


Yet once again, NYC has become its own unique experience. As has happened repeatedly in history, the Big Apple is Ground Zero city in ground zero country. I remember the start of doomsday, a lady on a bus complains about West Side Story being canceled, saying it’s kind of overkill to shut down Broadway. Then in a blur, the mayor utters “shelter in place,” and my boss summons me to a meeting in his BMW in the middle of chinatown. The mission: buy all the masks you can find in every street corner, “This is history in the making.” 


Two months later, more than 20,000 New Yorkers have died, many of those in lower income neighborhoods like the immigrant communities along the proletariat 7 Train line in Queens. Hardest hit areas include Jackson Heights and Corona where many live in multiple family apartments, as the virus tends to spread among dense clusters. Fewer people are infected in wealthier neighborhoods of Manhattan, its citizens evading the pestilence  fleeing to their vacation homes in the suburbs. 


One warm spring afternoon early during the lockdown, i defy the quarantine and e-bike to Times Square. Shed of its denizens of costumed characters and tourists, hawks and pigeons take their place. Birdsong reclaims the soundscape of the city. Zen takes place in Central Park resonating with the thrum of ruffling leaves, water running over rocks, and the fauna that inhabits its 840 acres. Grand Central takes aspects of sleep, the only startling noise i hear was my camera clicking at a scene of absent humans. These public spaces are emptied out for now, a necessity to ensure public health. The emptiness is a quiet reminder of how we New Yorkers have once again heeded the calls of our leaders to sacrifice the aspects of our lives we take most seriously, our impulse to commune with each other, and unnaturally stay away, for the common good. 


Our buses still run, now for free and many times empty. The trains still serve, ostensibly for essential travel only, but at times occupied by your humble writer gingerly trying out a trip to the city to photograph or just walk around, to pick up a pint of papaya ice cream from Morgernstern, pick up a bucket of Chicken Joy, or a bahn mi on Grand Street, or take out a slice of pizza at Philomena’s. These activities seem trivial, but for a New Yorker they are essential, especially now that we have to stay apart. 


No one knows how long New York will stay on hiatus, but it will open one day. We’ve been through tribulations: 9/11; the day the market crashed. This time, it’s more horrific what we’re going through, but as sure as the sun will rise, New York will be back, and it will be the moment we return. 


INVISIBLE CITIES/MANA CONTEMPOARY/ #WIP SLIDESHOW

A few weeks ago, I showed “Invisible Cities,” at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, at the first #WIP Slideshow along with some great works in progress from photographers whose work I really dig. Magda Biernat, Drew Levanthal, Timothy Lyons, Luis Alberto Rodriguez, and more. 


The photographs were workshopped at Mana Contemporary with the photographer  Gregory Halpern, who recommended the short stories of Italo Calvino and fiction by the Argentine writer Borges. The title Invisible Cities is taken from a short book of fiction in which Calvino imagines conversations between Genghis Khan and Marco Polo, where the Italian voyager describes to Khan the cities that he’s been in. 

In the slideshow as in the book, the photographer/voyager is a foreigner, a migrant in a foreign land, the member of a diaspora long displaced from homeland. In it, he longs for the familiar and scavenges for reminders of his childhood home, family, country and playground. But he no longer finds it, limited by physical distance and by the passage of time. 

So instead, he photographs places from countries other than his own, the names of the countries are kept undisclosed  from the audience but they all contain aspects of his home country . The photographs transform into visual poems that can be seen as parables or meditations on culture, language, time, memory, death, desire ,or the shared nature of human experience. 

At some point, the photographer realizes tlike Calvino, that the places he photographs are not places in the way we normally think of the word. Places, countries , cities , landscapes — are constructed not of steel and concrete but of ideas. Each city and photograph  represents a thought experiment, or, as Polo tells Khan in the Italo Calvino book at one point, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

The photographer uses familiar tropes of travel photography but also attempts to deconstruct the genre. It begins quite literally: views of cities, roads, oceans; but ends in dream-like photographs that become more fantastical, like Borge’s fiction. The images are a self reflective reverie on personal memories, embedded in the ability of photography to suggest or instigate ideas, to depict the un-photographable aspects of memories, the foreigness of unpossessed places. 

Here, a passage from Italo Calvino’s book that guided this project; 

“I could tell you how many steps make up the streets racing like stairways and the degree of the arcades curves and what kind of zinc scales cover the roof; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this but of relationships between the measurements of the space and the events of it’s past. The city does not tell its past but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the grading of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the pulse of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”



CASA JULIAN

Contrary to cookbook presciption, Matias Garrotxetagi smears his chuletas in a healthy, copious layer of coarse salt on one side, then tempers the unsalted side slowly as he, without any hint of qualm or apprehension, places  them in contact with the live wood fire.  He is not afraid of a flare up and lets the flames embrace the chops. This is critical for the formation of the crust. The chops stay longer over lower heat, unlike the standard 800-900° steakhouse style of searing preferred in a certain Brooklyn staple.


In time, this technique that the patriarch uses at his steak house in little-visited Tolosa, Guipazcoa, has become religion. It is endorsed strongly by his son Iñaki who mans the grill nightly; and by its results: very juicy chops, crunchy crust, and a tender and hot interior.  In this house, the standard is the “chuleton de buey,” cuts from the large ribs of old cows aged not longer than 25 days. Our waiter said, “we do not only know the farmers, we know the animals.”

It is the only thing on the menu, and it will be served a smidge above rare. (“y cuyo punto jamás lo determinan a capricho los clientes, sino el maestro asador.”) They are cooked with a thick strip of fat on them which are trimmed off when the chop is carved on the butcher block. The butcher block itself is a thing of beauty (see below). The trimmed off fat is used to strategically cause the flare ups at specific areas of the grill. The salt is scraped off but it has left its mark. 


We have it with jumbo white asparagus served with a gobsmacking béarnaise, the hearts of a local lettuce sprinkled on top with black salt ash, and the Robin to the Batman, roasted piquillo peppers that arrived piping hot on a flat ceramic plate.  The cheapest wine on the menu is a Chivite, (20$) so we pick it. And boy…


Casa Julian is simple cooking, and Don Matias keeps it real. 


GETARIA 2

The winding road on the approach from  Zarautz (or from Zumaia) lets you in on a little prelude to an idyllic weekend on the Cantabrian Sea. The verdant hillocks of the Rat of Getaria, a slight  mountain in the shape of a fallen rodent, rises over the fishing village that was the birthplace of explorers (Juan Sebastián Elkano, who sailed with Magellan), fashion icons (Cristóbal Balenciaga), cooks (Pedro y Aitor Arregi), mothers of opera stars (Plácido Domingo’s) and fishermen (all of the townsfolk). The surf crashes against the breakwater.


Getaria is a little town: there are four old villas, a jai-alai fronton,  five cobblestone streets, two beaches, some boats, and that’s about it. You won’t need anything else to enjoy the village 25 kilometers from San Sebastian. 


The accidental tourist can give in to the famous Basque propensity for gaiety. Taking a walk down the pier.  Entering a co-op shop where the delicious preserved Cantabrian anchovies are made. Visiting the Balenciaga Museum. Touring the church of San Salvador and its sloping floor. Crossing the passage of Katrapona, an old vestige of the medieval and walled Getaria. Smelling the aromas that come from the grills, set up in the middle of the street. Taking a dip in the fresh and calm sea. Tasting an outstanding txakolí and some calamari on the terrace of the Itxas-Etxe. Working between collar and belly of a turbot, slowly, or a monkfish or a hake’s neck, in any of the sanctuaries of good food that proliferate here like mushrooms in the forest: Elkano (the temple of turbot), Kaia-Kaipe, Iríbar , The Shipyard. 



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For centuries, this village was all about the maritime life. Go down the wooden staircase through the viaduct, and take a walk along the marina to find fishermen taking in their catch, or mending the nets. Their catch of the day might go straight to the grill baskets and on to the tables. Then head out to the beach and jump into the calm waters… 


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