My cousin, Katie, is funny as hell. She lives in Midtown Manhattan, and smells of adventure—that, and the faintest hint of cigarette smoke (she’s forever quitting). I was ecstatic to stay with her last summer.
Until I wasn’t. Right before my visit, sad circumstances pulled Katie to the West Coast.
The thought of spending three days in New York City was daunting, but I was locked in.
My interior design friend, Laura, suggested the swank Crosby Street Hotel.
Luckily, I scored a killer last-minute deal at the Soho Grand on Hoteltonight (great app!).
After indulging in way too much orange soda at my Grandmom Rosie’s 100 year-old rest home rager in Philly, I hopped an Amtrak for NYC. I got off at Penn Station, hopped the A train to Canal Street, and arrived at my hotel too early to check in. I dumped my bags, and wondered: What now?
My growling stomach led me to Momofuku Noodle Bar. On the way I got lost half a dozen times. Finally I arrived, sweaty and disoriented.
Perched on a stool at the counter, the Friday lunch rush swirling around me, I realized I’d forgotten to bring reading material. So I just sat there awkwardly wondering where to look. Should I glance at my waiter drying glasses behind the counter? The guy to my right with his face buried in the Times? Or out on the packed floor, where it appeared everyone but me was seated with a gaggle of ramen-slurping buddies?
Just then a woman to my left turned in my direction, her diamond nose stud twinkling in the light. I perked up. She was going to engage!
“Pass the hot sauce?” she grunted.
“Sure,” I replied.
As I waited for my lunch, I remembered our fun family visit a few years back when we cheered Jimmy on in the NYC marathon, and scored the trip’s best eats—steamed Chinese buns slathered with hoisin and filled with crispy pork belly—right here at Momofuku.
But this time, my taste buds were unimpressed. It could have been my subway pass nestled between that pillowy wrapping. I knew the problem wasn’t the chef; it was me. I’d lost my appetite. The daunting prospect of spending three days—and countless meals—alone in the City had sunk in.
After lunch I rode the subway to the High Line, an elevated subway track converted into a gorgeous mile-long popular park. The path was packed with families and tourists lounging on the grass, snapping Selfies and marveling at the sights. Yet I had no one to ooh and ahh with over the lime green hydrangea, or the “Stop praying. God’s too busy to find you a parking spot” billboard, or the metallic, block-of-ice high-rise that would have made the perfect lair for a James Bond villain.
Hours later I finally checked into my hotel. Plopping onto the bed, I wanted so badly to grab a Corona and peanut M’n’Ms from the minibar and turn on Bravo tv, but it was dinnertime. A friend had recommended La Esquina which I yelped from my bed. Apparently it was a hip NYC haunt, patronized by the likes of George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Kate Hudson.
The minibar was looking better and better.
Then came my inner-pep talk: It’s Friday night. You’re in NYC. Would Carrie Bradshaw cower in her room binging on M’n’Ms? Hell no! She would strap on her Manolo’s and make it happen.
So I pried myself from the sheets, donned my cutest outfit and headed down to the lobby to ask the concierge for directions.
The concierge was a ruffled, Mark Ruffalo look-a-like. He pointed me toward Spring Street, and offered to call ahead and put me on the wait list for the bar.
A wait list? For the restaurant bar? Dorothy, we weren’t in Los Gatos anymore.
“Um,” I balked. “I guess so.”
My heart pounded inside my jean jacket the entire five blocks. Then I turned a corner and saw La Esquina’s glowing red neon sign. From the outside, the former dumpy deli didn’t look intimidating at all—so far, so good.
As I stepped through the entrance, a burly bouncer body blocked me at the door.
“Name?” he said.
“Um,” I stammered. “Kim. Kim Ratcliff.”
He eyed me as if I’d come in with a Nikon camera the size of a microwave strapped around my neck…
“Name?” a second bouncer demanded.
I repeated my name. He stared me down. “Okay, go ahead,” he said. At the bottom of the stairs, a trio of bitchy hostesses awaited.
“Hi,” I chirped. “I’m headed for the ba—”
“That way,” Bitch #1 said, jerking a red lacquered talon toward a door.
Um, are you sure? I thought. Because that looks like the kitchen. I walked through a steam-shrouded kitchen, deeper into the labyrinth. After a few more twists and turns, I entered the subterranean dining room. Candlelit chandeliers illuminated the dim, cavernous space and its Day of the Dead decor.
I sunk into a comfy communal sofa and waited for the cocktail waitress. But guess what? La Esquina doesn’t offer cocktail service, so I took a deep breath, and elbowed my way to the bar.
Fifteen dollar marg in hand, I beelined back to the sofa. After my eyes adjusted, here’s what I did not see: George, Kate or Julia. Still, once I pounded my marg, I fled the boisterous bar for the safety of my hotel room where I climbed into bed with Andy Cohen and my chorizo-yucca tacos.
Compared to La Esquina, brunch the next morning at chic French brassiere Balthazar was a piece of cake—or should I say piece of brioche. Thanks to Mark Ruffalo, who’d secured a ressie the night before, I got right in.
The clink of silverware and soft classical music was mediative. Wall St. Journal in hand, I devoured my eggs benedict, and thought, maybe I can handle this traveling solo thing. Then, after brunch I passed a woman in the West Village walking her golden retriever. I felt a pang of loneliness. Back home I was never alone. I had Jimmy, the boys, a golden retriever glued to my side. Someone was always demanding a ride, or sex, or chewing on my Jimmy Choos. Someone always wanted a piece of me. And I was a bit of a lost soul without my pack, my wonderful, pain-in-the-ass pack.
I dragged my sad sack self back to the hotel, freshened up and rode the subway to 42nd Street. Swallowed by a sea of tourists out in Times Square, I felt ever more alone. At the theatre I waited silently in the long line for Kinky Boots. Inside, I took my seat and greeted the woman sitting next to me. We chatted about my kids and her Arizona garden boutique. Then, the lights dimmed, and for the next two hours, we whooped and cheered in tandem.
If I’d been with Jimmy and the boys, they would have been horrified, shushing me as usual, but I felt so free. After the show I walked to the Flatiron district. Entering the madhouse that is Mario Batali’s Eataly on a Saturday night, I snagged a seat at the Il Pesce counter.
Although I had both reading material and a bird’s (fish’s?) eye view of the chefs in the tiny, open kitchen, a woman from Ann Arbor who was traveling with her 14-year-old, introduced herself.
Sipping our Chardonnay, we shared city stories. After I spied Ann Arbor sprinkle sea salt in her virgin olive oil, I did the same. We dunked our fresh, rustic bread into the concoction, and I swore nothing could taste more delicious.
After dinner I walked back to Soho. Stopping every few seconds to marvel at the Empire State Building glowing purple in the dusky sky, I realized I’d found a rhythm and had finally begun to relax. Yes, I missed my family, but they would be waiting when I got back with hugs and gluten-free dinner demands, so why not milk my time alone for all it was worth?
Of course I wasn’t really alone. The streets teemed with energy. Lovers ringed the fountain in Washington Square Park; a piano man serenaded the crowd on a baby grand. As usual I got lost multiple times. Two young Frenchmen righted me as I made a wrong turn out of the park, creating the sexiest human compass in the City.
In the end, it took a village—Greenwich Village—to get me back to my hotel.
On my last morning, I woke up early and rode the train uptown. I got off at Columbus Circle, where there waiting on the sidewalk was cousin, Katie, chomping furiously on a piece of Nicorette.
We rented bikes and explored Manhattan, top to bottom. We rode past Central Park, through Columbia University, down the West Highway, laughing, talking, breathing in the City in all its sewage-y, Sunday morning glory.
By the time our adventure ended, I was so famished I was eyeing Katie’s Nicorette as if it were eggs benny at Balthazar. “I’m sorry plans didn’t work out, you staying with me,” she apologized.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Everything worked out perfectly.” And I meant it. During my travels I’d rediscovered the feeling of independence and embraced it. Comfort zones are just that, comfortable, but not always exciting. And we all need some excitement in our lives.
Katie and I hugged goodbye, and I made my way to Ma Peche, Momofuku’s sister restaurant. Sunday Times in hand, I sat down, and ordered.
The pork buns arrived, and the crunch of pickled cucumbers, tang of hoisin, and crispy pork tasted exactly as I remembered—delicious.
I sat and devoured them, at home with myself at last.