Sunday, September 13, 2009

Happenings: The 9-11 Reading, From Behind The Barricades

As a resident of Lower Manhattan, every 9-11, I am reminded in a very immediate and poignant way of the events of that tragic day via the tributes and memorials that are happen around me. The tribute in lights, the many bouquets of flowers inserted into breaks in the construction site wall as the former WTC site, the dozens of police and firefighters dressed in their dress blues, remembering their fallen friends and colleagues, friends and families carrying photographs of their lost loved ones, the stand of flags bearing victims' names at Bowling Green park, and the reading of the names, the sounding of the bells and the moments of silence marking the falls of the towers.

This 9-11 was a rainy, cold one, as many remarked, a very different day than the same date in 2001. Having lived down here for a few years, I had never before gone to see the reading of the names, which I usually watch on TV, but this morning, I turned off the TV and decided to walk down to Zucotti Park, across from the WTC site, where they were holding the tribute and see if I could experience it in person.

News trucks lined the street. as well as firetrucks and police vehicles.
Unfortunately, Zucotti Park had been barricaded off to the public. A very regal line of police and firefighters formed the back line of the park on Broadway. Only family and VIPs, I assume, were allowed into the enclosure. Along Broadway, I joined dozens of stangers who were braving the rain to watch from behind the barricades, but you couldn't hear anything more than muffled words from there, so the crowd was loose and uncommitted. Though at 9:59 am, I did hear hear the bells commemorating the fall of the second tower. I left a few minutes later and walked home.

I find it sad that the public isn't allowed to come together and commemorate this day in a more organized way. Why can't they hear the reading of the names in person? Is it due to a lack of suitable space for congregation? Are they waiting for the memorial to be built. It's been 9 years already. Do we have to wait ten more years to pay our respects properly? In the meantime, it would be nice to have a place to go to be as a community and reflect on what 9-11 taught us. Barricaded streets are an unfulfilling tribute to the victims of that day, both those who've passed and those who still bear the pain and trauma of that day.

Happenings: Fashion Night Out

Thursday was the beginning of Fashion Week and also marked the first ever NY Fashion Night Out. With fall-like temperatures in the 60's, it was a perfect night to be gallivanting around the city admiring the art of fashion...and do a little shopping. Stores stayed open late throughout the city, baiting fashionistas with cocktails and hors d'oeurves, live-DJs, freebies, limited edition items and celebrity appearances. Everywhere you went, crowds and lines of fashionably dressed men and women twittered with excitement.

Miss Fashion, our navigator for the evening, and I met at Opening Ceremony a few minutes before they opened at 6 pm. Already the sidewalk was crowded with fans. As soon as the doors opened, the crowd milling about rushed through the door, ostensibly to grab some of the limited edition items (as displayed in this convertible parked outside the store).Outside the store, this adorable Hearts Challenger ice cream truck (they opened in June 2009 and can be found around the city, but also rented for parties) sold ice cream on a stick, as well as candy and toys, from all over the world. I had green tea mochi ice cream.
Brooklyn-based Van Leeuwen was giving out free samples of its very original ice cream flavors - I had earl grey ice cream. Very tasty. Miss Fashion had ginger.Momofuku Milk had a treat "Thai" truck (get it?) from which they were selling ties (you had to pay inside however) and giving out very tasty, very buttery Thai tea and mango cookies.

Miss Fashion got a limited edition Rodarte t-shirt, Kurt Cobain tote and notebook. I bought a fabulous Opening Ceremony dress. By the time we left, shopping bags in tow, there was a long line of people waiting to get in.Next stop: Bergdorf Goodman. We were naively thinking we could catch the Olsen Twins bartending, but by the time we got there, the line wrapped around the block into oblivion. The people at the end of the line were facing at least a two-hour wait. Not worth it. On to Madison Avenue.Charlize Theron was supposed to be at Dior, signing copies of the September Issue of Vogue with her face on the cover. Again, there was a line when we got there, but it seemed to moving pretty quickly. We soon found out whey. Charlize had finished her appearance and been escorted out the back. She's gone, we heard people whisper throughout the crowd. Nonetheless, a big crowd in the store anyway, all oriented to the back room. What were people were waiting for? A mystery still. By the time we walked out five minutes later, the line had dispersed.Other stops: Chanel - where you could design your own Chanel bag and have a Hollywood make-up artist make you over.Louis Vuitton, where we ate a couple tasty hors d'oeuvres and Miss Fashion bought a fabulous pair of pants!
Burberry, where had shared a glass of champagne.

Happy, we had dinner at one of my favorite midtown clutch restaurants - Menchanko-Tei on 55th St between 5th and 6th Ave- for perfect bowls of Hakata Ramen (half portions) and rice balls. Yum!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Great Find: Bia Garden

I'm typing this while in a food and beer coma, but I'm so pleased after a perfect night out that I had to share. Tonight Book Babe and I went to Bia Garden, Michael Huynh's beer garden inspired Vietnamese street food restaurant in the Lower East Side (Orchard between Stanton and Rivington) and had a perfect al fresco meal on one of the nicest nights of the summer.

After weeks of anticipation in foodie circles, Bia Garden was finally open last week. When we arrived at 6:30, a piece of white paper on which someone had written "Bia Garden" was stuck to the window as identification, but you could have guessed by the line that this was the place.
The place opens at 6:00, but according to the host, there was already a line at a quarter of. At 6:30, the line of people extended down the short stair case and into the small space that serves as the take out/delivery space of Bia Garden. From that vantage, it was impossible to see the beer garden itself, as the steel refrigerator door conceals the passageway to the garden, so it was hard to gauge what kind of a wait we could expect. But we decided to wait 15 minutes and see if the line moved.

Some people left, discouraged, but others left their names with the host, who was willing to call people when tables opened up. We stayed and took in the take out menu (which is different than the eat-in menu includes Bun) and Asian snacks (shrimp chips!) being offered at the take out window.It's a good thing we stayed b/c within 10 minutes, we were happily escorted through the steel refrigerator to the garden in the back, through the beer-bottle lined passageway. The journey to the patio passes the kitchen and is a bit treacherous - a lot of "watch your step's" by the host. The patio, which reportedly seats around 50 people, was packed. The clinking of beer bottles and happy hour chatter filled the air. A large Vietnamese family seated at the large table in the center of the space seemed to be enjoying themselves--an auspicious sign for a Vietnamese beer garden.The garden has wooden painted tables, for both small and large groups, on which chopsticks and napkins are stuck in empty Cafe Du Monde coffee tins for easy self-service. Menus looks like they were printed just that morning on someone's office printer.Our waiter, possibly one of the nicest waiters I've ever been served by, came by and took our drink orders. The way it works is you order a six pack (or more) of beer bottles off their Asian beer menu, which features beers from all over Asia, and they bring it to you on ice. You're only charged for what you drink. We ordered the "33," a Vietnamese beer, on our waiter's recommendation. A mild, nutty beer. Very nice.So far so good, but how would the food be? Dishes are arranged on the menu by size - the small dish category had the most items, then the medium dishes, and finally, the large, which featured a lobster.

We ordered the green mango salad, shrimp summer rolls, and spare ribs off the small dish menu and the berkshire pork belly off the medium dish menu. Let me tell you, I'd go back for the pork belly and the summer rolls alone - they were that good. Here's more about each dish, in order of my preference:
  1. The pork belly was PERFECTLY cooked - moist and fatty on the inside and a little crisp on the outside. The dipping sauce, which had the sweetness of a fish sauce, was a perfect complement to the saltiness of the pork. This was by far the standout of the meal. This pork was so good I had to close my eyes and shut up in order to savor its flavor. It was so good I had to pace myself so I didn't eat it too quickly.
  2. Shrimp summer rolls are a difficult thing to distinguish yourself by. They are pretty standard Vietnamese fare, but these summer rolls were the epitome of freshness. First of all, the peanut sauce they came with was so perfectly balanced - not too chalky or peanuty or salty or sweet - and then, when you bit into the roll, you got a hit of the fresh mint and the perfectly cooked shrimp. A great way to start the meal.
  3. The green mango salad was full of flavor - tangy, salty pickled green mango, fish and shrimp flakes, tiny slices of hot pepper. This dish was saltier than I would have liked for a stand-alone salad, but it worked well as a condiment (kind of like a kimchee) to the other dishes.
  4. Our least favorite dish was the pork spare ribs. You could tell there was a nice sweet marinade in the meat, but it was overpowered by the charring on the spare rib. Also, the meat could have been moister. We wanted the meat to fall off the bone, but I had to work to hard to get at it.
Three out of four is not bad, and pork belly....seriously good. The beer and the garden atmosphere just adds to the fun. And all for under $35 a head (mind you, we're girls and we only had one beer a piece). In the winter, Bia Garden will be covered and heat lamps will be used, so it'll be a nice place to come back to when I need another casual night out.

Stuff I've Learned: Last Minute Trips Out of NYC

City Guy, bless his heart, has a demanding work schedule that never allows us to plan a vacation more than a month ahead. Years ago when we got married, I was even worried that he'd have to cut our honeymoon short due to work (luckily, that didn't happen ).

The thing is, we love to travel, and by travel we mean, get outside the US. So over the years, we've had to scramble to get last minute trips planned. Our trips to Bali, Mexico, Egypt, Paris--all planned two weeks or less out. So yesterday when City Guy called and said it looked like he could actually take Labor Day weekend off, my trip finding machine went into high gear.

Within a few hours, we were booked into the hotel of our choice in Turks & Caicos, two reasonably priced plane tickets (with first class seats on the return!) and I had a name for the best dive shop on the island. Here's what I've learned that helps me with last minute travel:

1, Always have a wish list handy. I store websites for hotels or articles about destinations I' interested in in my Delicious bookmarks so I have them handy when I hear "go!" I also have a top destinations list on my computer. Of course, when you're booking so close to departure, you don't always get your first choice, so be willing to compromise a little. But you'd be surprised, especially in this economy, how often hotels still have availability. Flights are also sometimes cheaper closer to the date of travel, as surprisingly they were for this trip to Turks & Caicos.
2. Know what destinations are close to NYC. For trips of under a week, I don't want to spend more than seven hours on a plane. Here are some of my top close destination picks. Hours listed are for nonstop flights.
  • 7-8 hours: London, Paris, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Peru
  • 5-6 hours: Iceland, Costa Rica
  • 4-5 hours: Barbados, Mexico
  • 3-4 hours: Jamaica, Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Puerto Rico
  • 2-3 hours: Bermuda
  • 2 hours or less: Montreal
3. Use to find the best air fare. Kayak will list airfares it finds and then transfer you to other sites to book. If you can't book a flight through one of the discount sites it sends you to(Travelocity, Expedia, etc.), go directly to the airline sites. Their systems are more up-to-date and accurate for flights that are quickly booking up.
4. Use Trip Advisor to find the best hotels, and to learn from traveler reviews what to expect when you get to your hotel. Once I book a hotel, I read the reviews again to figure out things like what part of the resort is best, what activities are can't miss, and any other recommendations from past travelers.
5. Have a good travel agent to call for upgrades, difficult itineraries or when you're losing your mind.
6. Have a reputable source for travel insurance. City Guy and I are divers, so it gives us peace of mind to pay $20 per person and know we're covered for medical evacution, in case something happens. The policy we get through Medex has a hazardous sports rider, which covers us for activities like scuba diving.

We make this work for us because we have to, but we envy those of you who can plan in advance...and spend weeks at a time traveling. Some day. For now, I'm just so excited to be going away. Too many staycations this year, though those can be nice top. Ever notice how quiet the city gets on long weekends? Wherever you are, here or afar, have a great Labor Day weekend!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Happenings: Jury Duty - Day 3

It's over folks! I'm free at last. Boy, what an anticlimactic experience. Here's how it went down:

9:30 a I arrive to find my fellow prospective jurors holed up in the "lunch room," hiding from the "new kids" who have reported for their first day of jury duty. I feel like a kid who's been held back a year in school. We listen as a guy we've never seen before gives the new kids the same instructions we got on Monday.

10:15 a After a lot of waiting around, the juror administrator finally takes attendance for our little group of 35. There are a couple no shows, people who made it clear (and not always politely) that they couldn't serve on the trial if it went until Friday. Did they get excused? Or did they just decide not to show up? We're finally allowed back in our windowless room.

11:00 a The lawyers seem more efficient today. They still seem to ask some pointless questions, but they're finally done with their questioning of the first 16 jurors. How exciting! They leave the room to confer and pick their favorites. They meet with the judge. The juror administrator comes in and tells five lucky people they've won the lottery (not!). The rest of the 16 are let go.

Questioning resumes for the final three. Not as entertaining as yesterday. When questioning is done, we know who they'll pick - the nice little old lady in the corner, the sweet fashion designer and the amiable girl with the red hair.

12:00 p We're done! But wait, you didn't ask me any questions, I want to say. (Prospective jurors 24-35 didn't even get questioned). I had my spiel all prepared. We didn't even have a chance to share our most personal details, like the others did--where they went to school, what they did for a living, how many kids they had, if they had a boyfriend, liked to drink, ever was a victim of a crime, ever was sued or sued, where they lived and for how long, what they liked to do on weekends...On second thought, it's best I never had the chance. In any case, we were right. They picked the three nice women, rewarding the obstreperous and the rude with an afternoon off.

The women are told to go to lunch and come back at 2 p. The rest of us are dismissed. The juror administrator passes out or proof of service. "Don't lose this," he says. I won't. It feels good to be done...and it's even nicer knowing I don't have to serve again for six years.

P.S. I forgot the most hysterical part. One of the jurors accosts the plaintiff's lawyer as he's trying to leave, "Did you see this article in the Times? Let me read it to you. Fretful or angry jurors are a concern for plaintiffs’ lawyers in civil suits... because the plaintiffs brought the suit and are more likely to be blamed by the jurors for any inconvenience that jury duty caused them. See, you should be careful!" Funny enough, that morning, the Times had published this article on how people are more anxious about jury duty in these hard economic times.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Happenings: Jury Duty - Day 2

Today was supposed to my day of liberation. If I got past day 2 without being picked for a jury duty, I'd be off scot free for six years. I was very hopeful.'s my story.

9:20 a Arrived a bit early for my 9:30 call time. Used the restroom. Found a seat on the aisle. Atmosphere to today is less tense. More jeans and polo shirts. People dressed in casual weekend wear. Also seems to be fewer people today for some reason.

9:40 a Roll call begins. 10 minutes of names called and people answering "here." A handful of no shows. After roll call, dead silence. I read my magazine.

10:30 a Men dressed in suits approach the administrative counter. This means someone wants a jury. Sure enough, woman gets on the mic. "This is the moment you've all been waiting for," she says. She calls out 30 names, each with a seat number assigned, which takes about 5 minutes. I'm relieved and happy when my name isn't called. Whew! Back to my reading.

11:05 a More suits - this time both men and women. A new panel is called. This time 35 names. My heart beats anxiously. And there it is, my name called over the loud speaker. Ugh. I can't believe it. Those whose names were called are asked to write their juror number on their questionnaire and bring it to the counter, then wait for instructions. We shuffle up to the counter and are told to go and have lunch and be back at 2 pm for jury selection.

2:00 p After a 3 hour lunch, I'm back. The prospective jurors from my case are the only ones left in the assembly room. Everyone else seems to have been let go for the day. I overhear confused murmurings about where we should be going - were we supposed to wait in the assembly room or go to the selection room? I wait in the assembly room.

2:05 p An announcement that the prospective jurors on my case should now go to the selection room behind the Statue of Liberty mural at the back of the room. I'm expecting to go to a courtroom, like I did in both my cases in LA, where a judge will preside over selection, but instead, we shuffle into a windowless white walled room stuffed with numbered chairs and one long wooden desk where the opposing counsels will sit uncomfortably close to one another during voir dire.

The judge, who curiously isn't wearing his robe, just a suit, stops in briefly and tells us we're breaking at 4:30 p, no matter what, and we may have to come back tomorrow. Groan. Then he leaves, leaving the attorneys to deal with us. I feel like I'm back at school, except the teacher's left the room.

Attorneys says they need some time to look through our questionnaires and study us. I feel scrutinized. I try to remember what I wrote on the questionnaire.

3:00 p Attorneys are finally ready to question us for jury selection. They are looking for 6 jurors and 2 alternates out of 35. My odds of getting off are not bad. He asks if anyone can't serve on Friday. A bunch of hands shoot up. Everyone seems to have some excuse. Argh. My odds are getting worse.

Plaintiff's attorney gets up and starts explaining and questioning. The impatience in the room is palpable. The natives are getting restless. Some jurors talk back to him. Others make disgruntled murmurs as he questions people. A man and women in the back almost get into an altercation. The attorneys are already mad at each other. When they leave the room to confer with the judge, the room erupts in derisive chit chat. This is a rowdy crew.

The attorneys return. The plaintiffs counsel resumes, looks flustered at times. Then it's the defense's turn. A Joe Pesci lookalike and a woman who whispers to him, but never speaks to the jury. More questions.

For an hour and a half, lots of questions from which it's hard not to get a picture of what the case is about and what the lawyers wants us to think or not think. They stick to questioning the first 16 prospects only, leaving the rest of the group bored and restless. The 16 think they'll be off after today if the lawyers decide to let some of them go. But no such luck....

4:25 p The attorneys thank us for our time. What!? The natives are restless. Do we have to come back tomorrow? they ask. They run to get the judge.

4:30 p The judge tells us we ALL have to come back at 9:30 tomorrow. People are upset, esp those among the 16 who thought they were done. People start walking out as the judge is talking.

I'm disappointed. I can't help thinking if this were happening in a courtroom, with a judge dressed in a robe, keeping order--as, by the way, it happened in LA--the natives wouldn't be so unruly. Then again, these are New Yorkers. So far, my jury experience in NYC is not as awe-inspiring as it was in LA.