I know that for some, “old” equals crappy, broken and dirty. Something to ditch and replace as soon as possible.
If you’ve only had other people’s used stuff — and not by choice but through financial necessity — or had to use your own things until they broke or wore out, even after much maintenance and multiple repairs, the allure of antiques may be completely lost on you.
Some things are nicer bought fresh and new, unstained and pristine, (linens, shoes and intimate apparel, for example.)
And if your aesthetic hews modern, then many early styles of silver and wood, glass and ceramic will leave you cold.
I love haunting antiques fairs, flea markets, consignment shops and auctions on a treasure hunt. Once you know your stuff, (how a teacup from 1780, 1860 and 1910 differ, for example), you’re set to find some amazing bargains from those who don’t.
Not for me the joys of Ebay or other online sites — I want to see stuff up close, to touch and hold it and know for sure what I’m buying, or not. Practice, lots of looking and study helps. I really enjoy talking to dealers who are as passionate about their stock as I am. I learn something new every time.
New York City, like Paris and London, holds annual antiques fairs, some selling their wares, literally, to museums. Admission is usually $20 or $25, and the quality on offer is astounding. If you love history and the decorative arts, to see and touch Egyptian or Roman objects, or marvel at a medieval manuscript, is a thrill in itself.
The dealers — no matter how wealthy most other shoppers are — are almost always friendly and gracious, even when it’s clear I won’t be pulling out a check with sufficient zeroes on it.
The teacup pictured above is a recent splurge.
I spied the tea-set at a Manhattan fair, in the display case of a British regional dealer whose prices were surprisingly gentle, (unlike the $18,500 ceramic garden stool nearby.)
The set included a teapot, creamer, two serving plates, a bowl and 12 cups and 12 saucers, a rare find all together and all usable except for the teapot, which has a hairline crack inside.
I drink a pot of tea, or several, daily and sit at an 18th century oak table my father gave us. I love 18th century design and this tea-set is likely late 18th or early 19th century. You can tell by its shape and by how light each piece feels in your hand. The bottoms are plain white, unmarked by a maker’s name.
I hadn’t spent that much money on anything fun in many months — only on really boring stuff like physical therapy co-pays and car repairs.
This was just a hit of pure beauty, and one we’ll use every day.
A bit giddy and nervous about making so large a purchase, I sat in the cafe there for a while to ponder, sharing a table with a well-dressed woman a bit older than I, both of us sipping a Diet Coke. One of the pleasures of loving antiques is meeting others who also love them and she was there to add to her collection of armorial porcelain, a specialized niche I know as well.
Turned out — of course! — we were both from Toronto and had both attended the same girls’ school, although she was a decade older than I.
I appreciate the elegance, beauty and craftsmanship of finely made older things and feel honored to own them, wondering who else sat on these chairs and used this table — definitely not while writing on a laptop, but likely a quill pen, writing by candlelight.
Because so many people now disdain “brown furniture” and hate polishing silver, there are some tremendous bargains to be had, all of them costing less than junk made quickly in China.
We’re only passing through.
In their quiet, subtle way, antiques remind us of that.
Long-time readers of Broadside know this is an annual tradition. I love scouring the Internet for a few lovely things you might want to give others, (or hint for for yourself!)
I don’t include gifts for children/teens, sports/outdoor gear or tech toys as they’re not my areas of expertise or interest.
The thing everyone seems to want now is a great experience — an adventure to remember, not more stuff.
What one person loves (Mozart!), another hates, so I’m reluctant to make many specific suggestions here, but I agree.
How about giving a museum membership?
A subscription series of tickets to ballet, jazz, classical concerts, a choral music series?
Gift certificates to hotels, travel, spa days?
Even offering to head out for a monthly hike or long, lazy lunch with a dear friend, and sticking to it. That’s a gift to both of you.
Prices for this year’s list range widely, as usual, but many are less than $100, and some much less than $50.
I hope you’ll find some inspiration and fun!
1. Most essential this year? Give of yourself: your time, skills, expertise, hugs. Offer a package of home-made coupons to a friend, family member or neighbor for dog-walking, massages, baby-sitting, soup-making. If the disturbing rise in hate crimes in the U.S. has you concerned, donate to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood or any of the many groups fighting hard to protect civil rights.
2. The British website, Plumo, has long been a favorite of mine, offering women’s clothing, shoes and accessories — and some home-focused items. These small gray ceramic housesare perfect to hold a votive candle; imagine a miniature village on a pale linen tablecloth or lining a mantelpiece. $15.83 each (plus shipping) Also in black, $31.66 (plus shipping.) And a taller, more ornate version in olive green$19.79 (plus shipping)
3. So many people are now worn out — and, worse, misled, by fake news. We read widely, and one of our favorite reads is the London-based but utterly global in scope, the Financial Times, which we read on paper. It’s unabashedly pro-capitalist, but nonetheless smart and insightful; we keep the weekend edition for weeks on end as it takes us so long to read through and enjoy it all: book reviews, travel, recipes, wine, interviews and profiles.$4.79 week for the digital version, including the weekend FT.
As someone who also writes freelance for The New York Times, (here are 22 of my stories, a fraction of what I’ve done for them), and has for many years, I’d also urge you consider buying someone a subscription to this American/global newspaper,especially for a high school or college student, or someone who’s never read it before. Someone who really needs to grasp the crucial difference between fake news and deep, fact-based reporting. Yes, their bias is liberal. But, more than ever, (they’re soon to cut staff again), deep fact-based reporting, comment and analysis relies on — and rewards — financial support. Only $3.13 a week for the first year, doubling a year later.
4. How can you resist the two major food groups contained in this jar — cognac and butter? From Fortnum & Mason, that elegant London emporium, cognac butterto slather on a hot scone or a waffle or a pancake or…$14.95
6. Love this white and denim blue cotton rug, clean and simple, but not boring. Reminds me of sunlight on water. It would be great a in a room with lots of crisp blue and white with color hits of lemon yellow, apple green or chocolate brown. $187.95 (8 by 10 size, comes in many different sizes.)
9.My favorite bookfor anyone aspiring to making art — dance, theater, literature — “The Creative Habit” by choreographer Twyla Tharp. She’s tough! Lots of great, practical ideas and very low woo-woo quotient. Used hardcover copy, from Powell’s in Portland. $10.50
12. Regular readers here know I’m a huge fan of using candles, all the time, in every room. This gorgeous, unusual candlestick, designed for tapers, comes in two heights. This, the lower version, is $48
14. You can never go wrong with a bud vase: perfect for a bedside table, or a grouping of them in the middle of the dining table. $8-18.
15. Nothing makes me feel more organized than a fistful of lovely sharpened pencils. Like these. $14
16. We’ve all got a nasty little umbrella we bought for $5 on a street corner when desperate one rainy day. But what a delicious luxury to own a beautiful, and beautifully-made umbrella, with a smooth but lightweight wooden handle and a wide, protective span. I love this one, (I snagged mine at a discount store version of Longchamp, in burnt orange); here in a warm creamy beige and a few other options. $195
17. I love this other French luggage brand, Lipault, and use their chocolate brown satin backpack when I travel. I really hate logos and prefer something classic and simple, yet well-made and not boring. That’s a lot to ask of a backpack, but here’s Lipault’s answer:in red, deep purple, black, turquoise or ruby, at $54.
18. Watches are still cool. I really like the simplicity of this one, suitable for a man or woman, (38 mm in diameter), with a tan webbing strap, glow in the dark hands, black face and European/military time as well. (But I confess confusion — why isn’t 2:oo p.m. marked as 1400 hours?) $110
19. My wedding earrings from Joselook just like these— I wear them everywhere, every day. These are from Neiman-Marcus, simple, clean and, yes, diamonds! $750
20. Hell to the yes! For a man. For a woman. For your teen (s). A gray sweatshirtwith one key word on it — Feminist. $20.
21. Why would anyone want to sit in total silence for days at a time? Because it will totally shift their relationship to words, action, social behavior. I did a seven-day silent retreat in the summer of 2011 and it was both challenging and life-changing. Here’s a list of six places around the U.S. to go for this experience. (It was my birthday gift from my husband.)
28. Bonjour, Monsieur! The quintessential Frenchman’s style is a muffler at the neck of a blazer, tied with rakish nonchalance.This one is on a woman’s site, but is perfectly unisex, navy blue with a thin white stripe. So chic and so damn cheap. $36
29. This season’s color is copper.This large, flat leather pouchis perfect as a small clutch handbag or (as I do with mine), for stashing my phone, charge cord and earpieces so I can find them easily, and keep them clean and organized. $88
We need beauty as much as we need food, water and air, whether it’s visual or auditory. Ignoring that fundamental need parches us.
In a time when so many people spend their lives staring at a screen, encountering beauty in real life — a flower, a bird, a sky filled with stars, a painting or piece of music — can be transformative.
We’re lucky to live in a small town — pop. 10,000 — 25 miles north of Manhattan, named one of the nation’s 10 prettiest by Forbes magazine. If you’ve seen the films Mona Lisa Smile, The Preacher’s Wife or The Good Shepherd, (one of my favorites), you’ve glimpsed our handsome main street in each of these, filled with Victorian-era shops and homes.
Our apartment has great views of the Hudson River, tree-tops, acres of sky and clouds. We savor spectacular sunsets and birdsong, butterflies and fireflies in the cool, green dusk.
In New York city, we have access to museums and art galleries and parks, grateful for every bit of it.
Here are some of the things I find beautiful, that nurture and calm me…
Beautiful architecture — this is Union Station in D.C.
Color, design, elegant neo-classical murals — part of the Library of Congress, in D.C.
Every patch of earth, if you kneel down and really look closely, is a tapestry of color, texture, growth and decay
More neo-classical fabulousness — this, a corner of Bryant Park, midtown Manhattan
I’m crazy about textiles — the purple floral is now curtains in our sitting room
Pattern is everywhere! This is in Soho, Manhattan — glass inserts to allow light into a basement of an early building there
Nothing unusual — lawn furniture in autumn — but I love the symmetry of it from above; this at Hovey Manor, Quebec
I love this painted tin wall, one of the shops on our main street in Tarrytown, NY
I love this view — Bucks County, Pennsylvania — out the window of a 1905 farmhouse a friend used to rent
Every year I wait with bated breath for this lilac tree near us to bloom. Swoon!
Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti — but its wooden houses are amazingly colored and cared for
Where in your daily life does beauty manifest itself?
A collection can be three (or more!) of pretty much anything. Group them together for impact
The large black horse, hand-carved folk art, was found in an antiques shop in Port Hope, Ontario and the little wooden one at auction there. The little metal guy? I can’t remember.
Three of these, the angular ones, we bought in Mexico City, pewter; one is silver plate and one…not sure!
Years of collecting have given me a decent collection of silver and silver-y objects
It’s always tempting to buy cheap stuff because…it’s cheap!
But waiting, saving up and paying a little more for better-quality fabrics, better furniture construction and classic design means you’ll be able to enjoy your things for years, maybe decades.
Classic doesn’t have to mean boring!
I still love the three antique painted rush-seat chairs I sent home from a country auction in Nova Scotia to my then home in Toronto — using them many years later.
Thrift and consignment shops, especially those located in upscale neighborhoods or towns (i.e. drive if necessary!) can be a treasure trove of amazing quality. Craigslist and Ebay, of course, also have a wide range of offerings.
If you know what you’re looking at — (is it a real antique or a reproduction? Oak or maple? Wood or laminate? sterling or silverplate? glass or crystal?) — tag and estate sales are another great source.
Invest in the best-quality framing you can
It forces you to be highly selective once you start using a frame shop, as even the smallest piece can cost $150 for a custom-cut frame.
It’s money well spent to preserve your favorite things, whether a letter from a grandparent or treasured photographic prints (make sure the mat is acid-free and the glass UV-resistant.)
I like the wooden frames from Pottery Barn (on sale!) and Anthropologie has some quirky and charming ones as well; Pier One can be a great source for more ethnic/rustic styles.
Study every room — what shapes are in it, and how does each piece relate to others?
Most furniture is inevitably square (tables, chairs) or rectangular (beds, chests, sofas.)
Before you know it, you’ve filled every room with big fat chunks of stuff, now looking crowded and tedious. Sigh!
Think about including a variety of shapes (ovals? circles?) and scale (large, small?)
Does each room also include a variety of height (chairs, chests, armoires, etc) so your eye moves around it easily?
Make sure you have at least 24 inches between every piece or you’ll always feel hemmed in and irritable as you keep bumping into things.
Our living room — which faces northwest and gets a lot of light — has two mirrors in it; our sitting room has one, and our bedroom has one as well, all decorative.
The mirror pictured above came out of one of my favorite antique shops, in the town of North Hatley, Quebec; it’s clearly Middle Eastern and was filthy…took an hour of Windex and Q-tips to get most of the dust out of all that fretwork! It cost about $225.
A pretty mirror fills a few functions nicely:
1) it fills up a dead wall; 2) it reflects light into and around the room; 3) a lovely frame can add color, interest and texture relating to the rest of the room; 4) you can see yourself!
Of the four mirrors we own, only one was bought new (from Anthropologie); this one. It’s very affordable — $128 — for a lovely and intricately hand-carved wooden frame that feels exotic and vaguely Indian or Celtic.
It now sits on an apple-green wall so there’s a nice contrast between the background and the wood.
The rest came from antique stores.
Several favorite sources for stylish new mirrors include the websites Horchow, Wisteria, and Ballard Designs.
Mirrors are also more versatile than highly-colored artworks, and can easily be moved from room to room as your tastes change.
I’m obsessed with style, the ability to make our home comfortable and memorable, usually on a budget.
Our home is full of books on design, art, art history — and stacks of interior design magazines. I also studied it in the 90s and now teach at my old school, The New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan.
I was lucky to grow up with parents whose visual sense, always, was strong, eclectic and interesting — from Eskimo sculpture to Japanese uki-o-ye prints to faded wool rugs from the Mideast. Mirrored pieces of bright cotton from India, woven shawls from Peru, early silver.
Having studied art and antiques has also helped me recognize good/old things cheaply and quickly when I find one — like the teapot from 1780 I found upstate for $3, (whose exact twin made the cover of House Beautiful.)
Then I married another highly visual man, a career photographer whose own home when we first met was filled with quirky details and strong colors.
Today, 16 years into our marriage, our apartment is a mix of objects old and new, photos and drawings and posters, things and images we’ve collected on our various travels and adventures, from Ontario to Paris to Mexico.
We even bought our hand-made hammered copper bathroom sink in a small town in Mexico — for $30; knowing the exact dimensions we needed allowed us to buy it with confidence, (and bring it home in our suitcase.)
Here are some images and some ideas…
Pick a few colors and start collecting textiles, art and objects that relate to one another
It might be bright yellow or hunter green or pale blue. Once you’ve chosen your palette, your eye will start to see it everywhere and you’ll know it will fit nicely with what you already own.
Breakfast on the balcony — everything in the photo acquired through a mix of retail stores on sale (pillow covers, blue bowls), auctions (vintage blue platter, creamer), antique stores (tablecloth), flea markets (coin silver spoons, blue transferware dish and silverplate cutlery) and on-line sites.
Our main living room colors are sage green, a Chinese red, black and cream, echoed across the sofa, rug, throw pillows, curtains; the bedroom a range of soft blues and greens. The living room and hallways are painted a soft yellow-green (Gervase yellow, Farrow & Ball) and the bedroom the crisp green of a Granny Smith apple.
We live on the top floor, staring at tree-tops — inspiration!
Mix old and new things
If you love clean, simple minimal design, mix in some older elements to soften the feeling of all that metal, plastic and glass.
You can often find gorgeous bits of silver, glass, crystal and porcelain at local thrift and consignment shops for very little money.
A mix of textures helps as well — linen, wool, velvet, cotton.
Brown furniture is currently deeply unfashionable — hence cheap — and often of terrific quality
Flea markets, auction houses, tag and estate sales and thrift and consignment shops are full of this stuff, often inherited.
One of my best finds, a reproduction Pembroke table, (a style with a drawer and two leaves), came out of a consignment shop in Greenwich, CT. It wasn’t super-cheap ($350) but in excellent condition and is light and versatile.
If you really hate a brown piece of furniture, but it’s well-priced and handsome, you can always paint it.
Keep your eyes peeled
You never know where you’ll find just what you’re looking for, and sometimes in the least likely spot.
We recently dropped into West Elm — a national retail brand known for modern pieces — and found, on sale, four metal brackets to hold wall-mounted plants for our balcony. We also scored three faux branches of mountain laurel, for the price of one week’s fresh flowers.
One day, out for lunch in small-town Ontario, we stopped in at antique shop across the road. Boom! The perfect small lamp we needed for a corner of the bedroom, an early ginger jar, in an unlikely shade of gray. (I had a new white linen shade made to fit.)
Five red goblets — $10 — at our local thrift shop. Score!
I found two large wooden storage boxes at a local plant nursery. I’m not sure what they were supposed to be used for, but I stacked them and made them into a side table. A former grain measure (I think!) now holds magazines.
When I needed a lot of fabric, cheaply, I found a couple of printed cotton shower curtains on sale and used them for curtains, a headboard cover and a table cover.
Keep a tape measure handy and use your camera phone
The only way to be sure that a piece of art of furniture is going to fit into your home, (and play nicely with your current belongings), is if you know exactly what dimensions you need.
If you see something you love in a store but aren’t sure, snap images of it from every angle and measure it carefully.
You can have things shipped
Two of my favorite pieces came from very far away — a great vintage Chinese chair I found in New Orleans and shipped home via UPS and a teal armoire (possibly 18th century) no one wanted (!) when I bid by phone on it through a regional auction house I used to visit when I lived in New Hampshire.
Even with the shipping charges, it cost less than a new piece on sale, made in China.
One of my favorite belongings is a photo I found in Sydney, Australia and sent home to wait for me.
Don’t forget the charm, color and texture of live flowers and plants
We keep fresh flowers and/or plants in every room year-round.
Invest in a few frogs (metal and glass holders for floral stems) and some blocks of Oasis (the green foam florists use to make arrangements), and you can use almost any container to make a pretty display.
Nothing is less expensive or as easy to change if you need a new look — and it can be a chair or stool or box, not an entire room.
If a wooden floor is hideous, paint it!
Don’t be terrified, as so many people are, of: 1) using color; 2) choosing the wrong one. There are tremendous design websites all over the internet to help; I like Apartment Therapy.
A few things to consider: 1) what direction does the room face? (north light is colder); 2) how do you want to feel in that room? Revved-up? Soothed? (choose accordingly); 3) remember that the floor and ceiling are also “colors” in themselves; 4) choose the right finish — glossy is a nice touch here and there, but matte finish usually looks more elegant.
Keep it clean and tidy
There’s no point creating a lovely home if it’s dirty, dusty and cluttered.
It’s easy to say…why bother? It’s a rental or a dorm room or I’m only here for a few years.
It’s your life! It’s your home, whether shared or solo.
Let its beauty nurture you, every single day.
There are people who couldn’t care less about how their home looks — but some of them are simply freaked out by the whole idea of decorating or home improvement: Where to start? What to choose? I’m broke, dammit!
Every image, every bit of light and shade I see, can inspire me visually. It might be the symmetry of an allee of trees or the curve of a Moorish arch. It might be the bubbled glass of a 17th century window.
Put down your phone/computer and really look, long and thoughtfully, at the world around you.
I’ve been coming here since I was 12 — even though I grew up in Canada — as I had cousins living near the capital, (whose father ended up being the U.S. ambassador to several countries.)
It’s such a different city from New York!
Manhattan is a grid — avenues and streets. Dead simple!
Not D.C., with its circles (roundabouts) and hub/spoke configurations and sections like NW and streets with letters and streets with numbers…I actually got lost a bit walking only a few blocks and had to use a statue of Hahnemann as my landmark (albeit one of three statues all within the same two blocks!)
A fellow journalist on my fellowship pulled out her phone and said “I’ll use GPS” and the voice said “walk southwest” and we had no idea what southwest was.
I asked the hotel doorman instead.
And, in summer, when the temperature at midnight Saturday was still 74 degrees, walking around in the 88-degree sunshine can be exhausting.
The scale of the city is meant to awe, and it does, certainly anywhere near the White House, The Capitol, the Library of Congress and its many monuments.
My hotel was a block from 16th street and, as I stared down its length it terminated in a building I was sure had to be a mirage.
But it wasn’t.
It was the White House.
If you’ve ever watched the (great!) Netflix series House of Cards (the American version), the cityscape will be familiar, even eerily so.
But you’ve also seen these iconic buildings in films and on television, possibly for decades. To stand in front of one, let alone walk into it, is both disorienting and amazing.
I was there a few days after the Orlando attack; this was a memorial service outside the offices of the Campaign for Human Rights
It’s a city filled with men in dark blue suits, white shirts and polished black shoes, all wearing a lanyard or ID badge. The subway cars are filled with soldiers in uniform, a rare sight in other cities. The streets throng with eager young interns, many of them long-legged blondes wearing expensive clothes.
Here, you walk past places you normally only read about — The Brookings Institute or Johns Hopkins University or the National Geographic Society — (where I was lucky enough to meet with two editors and hope to do some writing for their travel magazine.)
The place vibrates with power.
It feels like everyone is either lobbying or being lobbied or about to be.
But it’s also a city filled with serious, intractable poverty.
I got onto the 54 bus heading down rapidly gentrifying 14th Street — now all cafes and bars and high-end furniture stores, (the pawnbroker now closed, the liquor stores still in business) — with a woman clearly homeless, carting all her clothes and belongings with her, even in broiling heat.
A woman with a paper cup held the door at a convenience store two blocks from my hotel (charging $259/night) and Union Station, which is one of the most beautiful, clean and well-organized train stations I’ve seen in the U.S., had many homeless as well. It’s a shocking and strange feeling to be in the center of political power, the gleaming white dome of the Capitol easily visible, and see the effects of the nation’s thin and fraying social safety net.
These are some images of my week here, the longest time I’ve ever spent in the city; (only 3 days of which were leisure, the rest spent in a financial planning fellowship with 19 other journalists.)
I attended the 95th annual White House News Photographers Association annual dinner, cheering for my friend Alex Wroblewski, who won Student Photographer of Year
Love this shop — Goodwood — on U street at 14th. Gorgeous and affordable antiques, furniture and vintage-looking clothing and jewelry. (Sort of like a real-life Anthropologie.)
Had lunch at the counter at this fun, enormous eatery — Ted’s Bulletin — on 14th street.
Gorgeous, minimalist men’s and women’s clothing at Redeem on 14th Street
The D.C. Metro is in terrible shape — slow, needing a ton of repairs, but it’s still working. The stations always make me feel like an extra in Blade Runner!
This was a real thrill for me — I met with several editors there and hope to write for National Geographic Traveler.
The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress
This is why I went to the Library of Congress — a powerful and moving show about the Danish journalist, photographer and social reformer who received essential political backing from Theodore Roosevelt, first as New York’s mayor, then governor — then U.S. President. Riis, an immigrant, was key to illuminating the appalling poverty in New York City during the Gilded Age (late 1890s.)
One of Broadside’s most faithful followers — Rami Ungar, whose blog is here –– is moving into his first apartment on his own as he starts his first post-college full-time job.
The view from my friend’s studio apartment on East 81st, in Manhattan
How do you make rice? Boil an egg?
I’ll never forget (does anyone?) my first apartment where I lived alone for the first time. A studio, with a sleeping alcove just big enough for my double mattress (on the floor), it was on the ground floor of a building facing an alleyway in a not-very-good part of Toronto.
The rent? $160/month — while my monthly income was $350.
I was so broke! But it was mine, all mine, even still sleeping in my childhood bed, under my red and yellow and blue patchwork quilt.
I was an undergrad, in my second year at University of Toronto, an easy walk to our downtown campus.
It was really, looking back, a terrible choice for a single woman, not safe at all.
I ended up having to move out within six months after one spring evening, when — my bathroom window open to the breeze — a man (yes, really) leaned into my bathroom window, at his waist height, and tried to pull me out of the bathtub.
I moved next into a gorgeous studio on a much nicer street, on the 6th floor, with a balcony facing over the lush treetops of a nearby park.
No one could get at me.
Ever since that first first-floor home, I’ve lived on a building’s sixth, and usually highest, floor, usually facing trees — both beautiful and with zero possibility of a stranger accessing my door or windows.
But living alone is such heady stuff!
Everything is up to you: when and where and what to eat. Buying and cooking groceries. Learning to cook. Deciding who to bring home for how long and how often. Are they safe?
Doing laundry. (Or lack of same.)
You’re now negotiating your home’s care and safety directly with strangers — your landlord, maybe a superintendent or janitor.
Your rent is due exactly when they expect it. Every month. In full!
I was out on my own at 19, which, in retrospect was pretty young to be on my own in a major city. But I didn’t want to live in a dorm — after years spent sharing space with people at boarding school and summer camp.
Some people loathe the solitude and loneliness of solo life. For a while, I loved it.
Now, having been with my husband for 16 years, I really cherish the comfort and company of married life. I’d find it difficult to be alone now. (Not to mention his help getting things off those higher shelves.)
It’s a nice place for a sleepover. The 302-square-foot unit I stayed in rents for $2,670 a month, furnished, which includes convertible and small-space objects from Resource Furniture. That company’s sofa-wall bed combination called Penelope (my destiny?), made in Italy by Clei, is the linchpin of the space: a Murphy-style bed, surrounded by deep cabinets, that unfolds over a diminutive charcoal-gray sofa.
I spent a good half-hour practicing opening and closing that bed, which is heavier and trickier than anything Bernadette Castro ever tackled, but much, much more comfortable, because it has a proper-size mattress and a firm base. (The two photographers who had accompanied me on my mission declined to help, perhaps taking their journalistic ethics too seriously.)
I know, I know….that’s about the size of some people’s walk-in closets!
I also loved the writer’s nostalgia for her first apartment:
My first single-person’s apartment in New York City was a studio on Christopher Street, in a prewar tenement building with a hallway that smelled of cat and scorched garlic. There was a kitchen of sorts in a cubby space with a tiny Royal Rose stove, a sink and a mini fridge — but I never cooked there.
I was no Laurie Colwin (I don’t recall owning a pot) and anyway, the Korean market on Bleecker Street was my cafeteria. It was 1984; on weekends, the young men who came downtown to showboat kept me awake until 5 a.m., but I didn’t care. When I wasn’t cursing them, I loved watching the performance.
The kitchen and bathroom windows looked out onto a grimy air shaft, and right into my neighbors’ apartments, so at night I did a lot of ducking, being too slack to install a shade or even tack up a sheet. If you closed the bathroom door, you’d be stuck until a PATH train rumbled past and shook it free. (My first night in the apartment, I spent two hours trapped in there, having closed the door firmly to clean the black and white herringbone tile floor.)
Mostly, my tiny apartment was a launching pad, and I was thrilled to be living alone.
You can always see the famous icons of New York City, on postcards and T-shirts and in movies and television.
It can make you feel like you know the city even if you’ve never been here.
But, like every major city, it’s a place of many facets, most of which tourists will never see.
One of the coolest aspects of New York — and one so easy for pedestrians, drivers and tourists to forget — is that it’s a busy, working harbor.
The East and Hudson Rivers are as crowded with marine traffic as there is vehicular madness on the FDR (highway on the East Side), the BQE (heading out to Brooklyn and Queens) and the West Side Highway.
Every day dozens of tug boats are pushing barges somewhere — or guiding enormous cruise ships through a harbor filled with treacherously narrow and shallow channels.
I spent one of the happiest days of my work life here aboard a tug boat and came away in awe of these workhorses, each worth a ton of money and able to keep the city moving in ways no other craft can.
One of my favorite sights is seeing a tugboat at night, its lights stacked high like a mini wedding cake as it chugs along the river.
Broadway is still a real treat.
Despite crazy-high prices and the impossibility of getting tickets for some shows like Hamilton, seeing a performance in one of these classic, small, intimate theaters is well worth doing and can create a lifetime memory.
My favorite? Attending, of all things, Mamma Mia, with my husband’s Buddhist lama (yes, really)…Namaste on Broadway!
And Lincoln Center; this is the David Koch Theater. What a pleasure to wait for the house lights and the jewel-shaped lamps fronting each balcony to dim, the hush as the curtain rises on another ballet.
The entire building is delicate and lovely and ethereal — very early 1960s with all that white marble and gold — and makes an event there feel, as it is, like a special occasion.
This is a classic! One of my favorite shopping streets, East Ninth.
There are, still, a very few streets left in Manhattan, (more in Brooklyn now), that are funky and filled with quirky independent shops.
Rents skyrocket daily, forcing many long-time renters and businesses to shut and leave, sometimes to close for good.
A gas station at Houston and Broadway, one of a very small handful of gas stations in Manhattan, is soon to be torn down and replaced with….what else?…more million-dollar condominiums.
Hey, who needs gas anyway? Just thousands of working cabbies, to start with.
One of my favorite cafes, Cafe Angelique, (now on Bleecker’s eastern end) had to vacate its spot in the West Village when the landlord jacked the rent to…$45,000 a month.
Find — and support — the indies while you can!
Never forget — this is a city of incredible, rising income inequality.
The photo above, of a space that dwarfs airplane hangars, is filled with food, all of it destined for the city’s poorest inhabitants, many of them elderly.
You can enjoy the High Line and Times Square, dear tourists, but it’s only one tiny sliver of New York City.
The film-maker of The Wolfpack literally found her documentary subject on the sidewalk — passing this group of handsome young men — and wondering who on earth they were.
Their story is almost unimaginable, raised inside their Manhattan apartment by a fiercely controlling father.
If you like shopping, you might enjoy a visit to Saks Fifth Avenue. I like eating lunch there, and enjoying this view.
Or, getting up to dance with 800 strangers at 7 in the morning.
Yes, I’ve done it, several times.
If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see all sorts of elegance and beauty in the least likely places. This is a lamp on a private college campus in Brooklyn.
And this tea and coffee shop, here since 1907, makes me happy. I stagger out every time laden with pounds of beans and tea.
The pattern of a metal plate on a Soho street…This is a city that still truly rewards a close look and sustained attention.
The back of a store on Spring Street in Soho. Speaking of quirky…
My birthday month…a facade in midtown Manhattan. Note the twins of Gemini.
A firehouse. How gorgeous is this?!
Nope, not Rome or Florence or Paris…Soho, Manhattan. The cast-iron facades downtown are a terrific reminder of the city’s past, not just the gleaming multi-million dollar condo towers.
And for those who still dream of becoming journalists…Columbia Journalism School.
I studied here in the 1990s — now I teach writing there!
How can you resist? The city is filled with delicious bakeries and temptations…
If you come, make time to walk sloooooowly and savor all these sights.
“The digital era gives us everything to own, but nothing to touch” — Stephen Witt, writing in the Financial Times
Do you own a collection of vinyl, aka records aka LP’s — short for long-playing?
I do, but hadn’t been able to listen to it for a long time after ditching my college-era sound system more than a decade ago. They sat, forlornly ignored, in a pile in the hall closet, and I longed to hear them: Genesis, lute music, koto music, Juluka, Joe Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones. All of it!
For Christmas this year, my husband finally bought us a turntable and all the digital stuff needed to listen to my music again and I’m so happy!
But it’s also been an odd and sometimes deeply poignant experience, because my vinyl, which I haven’t added to since the 1980s, is a mini time capsule. Listening to it whisks me back to my 20s and the jumble of complicated feelings — intense, professional ambition, wanderlust, moving within six years from Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire, unrequited love — I felt throughout most of that decade.
When I put on Hejira, Joni Mitchell’s 1976 classic, a gift from someone, I’m back in my second year of university, living alone in a tiny, ground-floor studio apartment in a not-very-good-neighborhood of Toronto. I’m scared, broke, starting to freelance for national publications, even as a sophomore attending a very demanding school full-time. I have an answering service.
I eat a lot of tunafish and can still remember all the clothing I then owned, as there was so little of it. Her songs of one-night stands echoed my life at the time, flailing about romantically and wondering when I’d ever feel safe.
I discovered the terrific South African band Juluka and have never tired since of their anthemic music. I went to see Johnny Clegg performing near me about two years ago and danced non-stop through the whole show.
Listening to the legendary French chanteuse Barbara brings me back to the house lent to me by a friend there at the end of my Paris-based journalism fellowship, and where I savored her eclectic music collection. I had never heard of this singer, and love this live double album.
One of my favorites is American guitarist Leo Kottke, who I interviewed many years ago. His voice is a bit of a foghorn, but his music is timeless.
And Canadian Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn), who morphed from gentle folkie to rocker and is still performing and touring 40 years into his career. I love his early work, like Salt, Sun and Time — and the first track, All the Diamonds (2:41), makes me cry every time.
If you live in Colorado, he’s playing two dates there later this month.
I’ve been a huge Genesis fan since high school — prog-rock anyone? If you’ve never heard their double album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, give it a try. Many people have since heard of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, both of whom were initial members of this seminal group. It’s an astounding set of music, based on a story about Rael, a Puerto Rican kid living in New York City. Voted one of the best prog-rock albums ever by Rolling Stone and NME.
Anyone remember Kate Bush? Apparently thousands of people, as she performed 22 shows in London in 2014 — and her last ones had been in 1979. If you haven’t heard her music, check it out. I love Running Up That Hill — which was chosen for inclusion in the closing music of the 2012 Olympics in London.
And Joan Armatrading, another British singer, who recently played the music hall in my town.
It’s a totally different physical experience playing vinyl again after years of cassettes, CDs and downloads. Only cassettes, like LPs, had actual sides, and you had to participate in turning them over, as I now have to do again. I love the rituals of turning on the turntable, sweeping the grooves smooth and gently lifting and dropping the needle.