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OUTDULGENCE in Action: A weekend in review: generosity in NYC
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It’s been more than four years since I started saying unambiguously rotten phrases like “my oncologist” and “these side effects aren’t so bad,” and “I can’t do my work because of these treatments so I’ll have to resign.” In this new world of cancer and self-employment, time is elusive, and days collapse upon each other.
I count backwards from the little number on my watch or the tacky Habitat for Humanity calendar on my office wall and--bam!--something slams on the breaks and throws my consciousness into the windshield. My psyche, now bloodied and contorted from the crash, tries to understand how it is that in so little time so much can happen. Or is it that in such a long time so little can happen?
But there it is, my Outlook says so--in just a few months, so much awful, foolish, mind-numbing and even evil rottenness transpires, and in those same few months so much good and kindness graces us--if we look for it. But as time at once grinds on and passes at breakneck speed, I’m reading Ecclesiastes again, so know how little of either really matters.
And yet, through all that passed in these past years, every moment was altered--no, “altered” is too benign—every moment was transformed, made early whole by three short days of kindness and indulgence.
Three short days: an eternity of grace that lingers like yesterday.
That moment of transformation?
For a weekend in July, we went to New York.
For three days at the end of July, we escaped to New York City (take that John Carpenter!) and for three near-miraculous days we two threw off the humble restraints of our ever-lowering lower-middle class lifestyle and lived for a moment like the nuveau riche (tho’, I hope, without the sense of entitlement), celebrating all things rich and kind and generous and indulgent and ironic in all the correct measures.
It was perfect, and all because of the kindness of New Yorkers.
New Yorkers and kindness? I’d read the books and magazines, seen the Yankee fans and their fuck the Red Sox t-shirts, been in the taxicabs, been jostled and stepped on in the subways, and knew the score. New Yorkers are not kind?
The truth is, since traveling back and forth to the Big Apple during my tenure with Habitat for Humanity through to the last few years as a communications consultant to non-profits, I’ve known nothing of NYC but the grace of good friends and the kindness of strangers. And our weekend last July only confirmed this experience; our vacation was filled with too many generosities and good things to count.
It’s a funny what makes you swallow your pride. My Risky Business realization (“Sometimes you just have to say ‘what the fuck’”) happened as I prepared for my wife Sheri’s 35th birthday. Something snapped and I swallowed my pride, and schemed and I started making calls.
Sheri’s 35th birthday was July 17, and I wanted to do something special for her. One problem, however: for the better part of the last three years, my health had demanded I be largely work-free, and when I did have a contract or too, I managed to under-value and under-charge. In short, the rings and jewelry and trips I envisioned in celebration for her landmark day were just that—dreams and visions.
And so I schemed. I planned a party, asking guest to bring cash instead of gifts--we’d take the bounty and send Sheri to a spa for a day or two. When the night came, we did well, but not enough to satiate my own gift-giving jones.
Back in my days with Habitat, I did some work with Jon Paul, the VP of communications/TV/brand management for a famous national travel magazine. JP, along with helping us create a piece about volunteering with the home building ministry in the magazine, sometimes arranged for my Habitat colleagues to get deals on NYC hotel rooms, making our trips to New York budget-possible on our paltry nonprofit travel budgets. We also became fast friends, and since then we’ve stayed in touch, shooting the odd note back and forth, and visiting on business trips to the Big Apple. And up until last summer, I had never, as a matter of principle, ever asked a personal favor of him.
But my desperation to honor Sheri last summer changed all that. I hadn't seen Jon Paul much since my diagnosis, and yet after all of that absence--and without a good "cause" to pitch like when we first met during my Habitat days--I wrote him a note, apologized for being a weenie-sphincter-muscle-friend, and then just made the ask:
Can you call on your connections and get me a deal--help me get an expensive hotel room cheap, and some spa stuff for Sheri too?
What followed was the first miracle of the weekend. A day after my note, JP wrote back.
“How’s Le Parker Meridien to stay in, then maybe The Four Seasons for Sheri’s spa treatments?”
Uh, honestly JP, even with the deal you can get me, I doubt we can afford the Parker. It’s perfect, exactly what we want, but maybe we should shoot for something a bit less upscale?”
An email came back.
“This is taken care of, Dwight. You’ve been comp’d.”
Seemingly, with just a simple flip of his hand (or perhaps a few phone calls), Jon Paul had conjured our entire vacation from thin air. This guy, along with being a gem of a friend, is apparently a magician too.”
And so it began. Our perfect weekend.
There is nothing--absolutely nothing--better in the world than a Friday night in New York in the summer. You check in to your hotel around 3, unpack, brush your teeth, then wonder out into the glories of the city, and let it lead you.
First, it’s a few blocks of i>hands-in-the-pocket-whistling-a-happy-tune loitering down 57th Street, then down 5th Avenue at bit to window shop at places that are unimaginably expensive, then back up again to wander around the bottom of the Park (that’s Central Park to the uninitiated). The Park is its own universe, an island of rich green and vibrant color in the midst of the concrete and steel of the city, its beauty unrivaled for miles from Manhattan.
At the southwest corner of the park, across Broadway and 58th at Columbus Circle are the stunning twin-towers of the new Time-Warner center. There you can loiter in an expansive Whole Foods Grocery Store (“wow, this is bigger than our Whole Foods”), or rummage through some fairly typical upscale clothing and “modern living” home stores, and that’s fun enough. But oh, the joy that awaits those willing to play a little subversive, confuse and confound them class-warfare! Clad in very un-deliberate jeans and t-shirts and looking very, uh, downscale, we elbowed your way into Thomas Keller’s Per Se (the French Laundry chef’s lovely, minimalist new restaurant, whose mere 16 tables generate about $350/per meal--before drinks!) for no other reason than to see the look of horror on the maitre 'd's face as she prepared to tell us that we were not appropriately dressed and that, besides, there were no table available. We left to spare her more befuddled embarrassment, but not before asking, for no other reason than our own perverse pleasure, if she had something the next night, maybe around 8. (The truth is, tables are reserved about 5 months in advance.)
We were in town to indulge, true, but that didn’t mean we should give up the struggle, right? So what if we’re staying in a $400/night hotel, it’s bright, straight lines of cherry and maple and flat screen TVs and Herman Miller Aeron chairs and sleek, low, feather-bed creating an atmosphere of serene, unpretentious elegance that nearly begs you to sleep, or at least just chill? Disguised as scruffy aristocrats, we winked and laughed and enjoyed our brief moment of troublemaking.
We left Columbus Circle to loiter more, but not before returning to Le Parker to change. Our weekend of pretense and pretend demanded good clothes, so we got ourselves all funky and took off again to graze the midtown happy hour and Tapas menus, eventually graduating from food to wine, and then to a late night stroll, all the way to the.
Bathed in the sock-in-the-pants “my marquee is bigger than your marquee” oddly mythic (and silly) beauty of Times Square, we held hands, laughed at the foolishness, and made our way back “home” to the Parker.
Like I said, it was a perfect weekend, and it had only just begun.
Saturday morning began with the unfettered and aimless joy of a steamy, humid late July early morning mid-town walk in search of coffee and a good bagel (“a spoonful of carbo helps the morphine go down in the most delightful way”). Our simple little breakfast was followed by (for Sheri) a morning of exceptional spa treatments at the elegant but not ostentatious mid-town Four Seasons Hotel Spa. Now, as I said, we’d had a bit of money given to us for this part of our weekend, so Sheri had called ahead to get a particular treatment reserved. When she called, she was told that one treatment had already been taken care of. Jon Paul. Cool. Armed with this bit of lovely info, she ordered a second, and prepared for a morning of utter indulgence. When she finished her treatments, however, the manager at the Four Seasons informed her that both treatments were comp'd, and said something about how honored they were to be able to do something good for her on her birthday. (They wouldn't even let her tip.)
Meanwhile, as Sheri was rubbed and pampered, I sat on the Herman Miller chair in our room (all those with bad backs should know that these things are worth every penny of the $600+ they cost--if you can afford them), reading the Saturday Times while occasionally looking out from our 29th floor park-view room over the endless expanse of green at Central Park, guarded on either side by one after another of the city's amazing parkside apartments and condos whose beauty are a complement to all that is godly and glorious about architecture.
When she returned from her treatments, Sheri was glowing with that post-exfoliant/just had a rubdown radiance, all slippery-slidy (she says "soft") like that poor little female cat in the Pepe le Pew cartoons, except she wasn’t trying to slide out from under my embrace.
Apparently, however, reading the paper and going to the Spa expands our appetites, and so we ventured downstairs and treated ourselves to brunch at Norma's, the hotel's slightly post-modern, subdued and elegant upscale diner. Norma's menu is as decadent, imaginative, expensive and spectacular as I have seen, and the food passing our table as we sat only confirmed that we were in for a treat. For one as indecisive as I am, the menu was near-torture.
Eating at Norma's, however, is torture of the very best kind, evoking, alternatively, either the kind of aching normally kept for the private realms of the bedrooms and frozen elevators or that "holy moley-gee-wiz-yummy-goodness” that just makes you grin all dopey and wide, overcome and slightly giggly like you're a school girl after the quarterback winks at you. Except there's not a hottie in sight; nope, you're all worked into a blather over Eggs Benedict (over artichokes and porcini mushrooms) or the decadent simplicity of any of the best buttermilk pancakes you’ve ever had or the pure, architectural wonder of their "The Wise Dr. Schmatkin’s Mandarin Orange French Toast."
Honestly, the guys that write and draw The Simpsons must have come here to get that famous drooling, uhhhhhgggggg sound Homer makes in the presence of all things bacon.
(Take a look at this review for another opinion.)
Aside from the credit check neccesary to eat there, this was nearly perfect. Truly.
But perfection would have to wait for evening.
Indeed, the weekend’s icing on the cake, the "guilding of the lily," so to speak, that one extra little kiss on the mouth of our delectable weekend away was supplied later that night by the amazingly kind and unexpectedly generous proprietors of New York's best Italian restaurant, Babbo, owned by TV chef/entrepreneur Mario Batali (c.f.: TV Food Network's Molto Mario).
A little back story is called for.
If you know NYC's food scene, you'll know that there might be two or three restaurants in the entire city harder to get into on a Saturday night than Babbo. Now, there are all kinds of reasons for red velvet ropes and month-long waits to get a table in New York, and they usually involve the likelihood of seeing Paris Hilton’s tits or a Hip-Hop shooting spree. But the long lines at Babbo are a function of its food, not its trendy location, hoity-toity snooty-tooty clientelle, or food-of-moment qualities. It's all about the simple, elegant qualities of the food, food that got Batali on TV, not the other way around.
And so when we found out we'd be coming to NYC, I asked Sheri where she wanted to go for dinner. We’d been to Batali’s seafood restaurant, Esca, in 2002 for my 40th birthday, so I wasn’t surprised when she told me, without hesitation, that her first choice was Babbo. With little hope, I called to get a reservation.
Not surprisingly, I couldn't. On the last weekend of July, they'd been booked for a month. Imagine a good weekend in the Fall!
I then did something I've never done before:
I wrote a shameless, grovelling, pathetic fan letter. In this letter, I told Chef Batali our story--the whole thing--about my disease and my desire to do something good for Sheri--my need to do something good to treat her for her birthday and why I couldn’t. And then, to be honest, without saying anything that wasn’t true in any way, I did a bit of first class ass-kissing. In my best adorned prose, I told Chef Batali how much I admired his cooking style--how making elegant (and even decadent) dishes through the simple pairing of simple ingredients in simple ways, doing very little but drawing out their "essence" (and all without a bam! in sight) was close to the heart of God.
Now, note here that I did not ask Mr. Batali for anything free. I simply asked that the folks at Babbo give us a pass and let us cut in line: that somehow, some way we could get a table at this restaurant.
I wasn't disappointed, really, because I know now crazy busy these guys are, and it's not like we'd go without or anything. There were plenty of fine places all around uptown where we were staying. We made our mind up to loiter and graze all night, popping into fine restaurants and exploiting the cheap prices in their bar menus--and this was perfectly thrilling for us.
Except that at noon on Saturday my cell phone rang. It was a NYC number.
"Mr. Ozard," said the voice, "this is Pamela, Mario Batali's assistant. We received your letter and we're very moved by it, and we wanted to confirm when you'll be in the city so we can get you and your wife a table."
Gasp. Sputter. Wha?
We're here now.
Pamela was quiet a second.
"Yes, I see that now in your letter. Can I call you right back?"
Sheri, having just run down to the drug store post-Norma's, walked back in the room, and I told her who had called. The phone rang again before we could talk. It was Pamela.
"How's 8:15 tonight?"
More sputtering and pathetic coughing. Fine. Great. Fantastic. Wow. Thanks. I think that will work
And so, that night, after an afternoon of more spectacular New York City loitering, we went to Babbo, and had the meal of our lives.
Seriously, but honestly, how do you describe something so close to perfect? Where to start?
Well, here: They were kind. From the time we arrived and Maitre 'd John Mainieri welcomed us at the door until we left over three hours later, the staff at Babbo made that night in July one of the best nights of our lives.
Everything was at once perfect and over-flowing with generosity. Indeed, their attentive staff went out of their way to make our night special. It started when John made sure that the Sommelier helped Sheri get the perfect glass of Red while we waited, and continued through every aspect of the night.
When we ordered our appetizers (take a look at Babbo’s menu for a good look at their standing dishes), they added a third, compliments of the kitchen. We both encountered a dish passing us when we went to the restroom before our meal, and its aroma was so intoxicating that we didn't even look at the primi selections on the menu, and just ordered their pasta course special of Papardellie with Black Summer Truffles and Castelmagno Cheese. (Honestly, it was the best, most simple food I've ever eaten. I'm in no hurry to leave this world, but I could have died happy after that course.) For our secondi (main) course, Sheri had an amazing cod special and I had a rabbit roasted two ways, and both left us making funny, deep, gutteral noises of delight. The end of our feast was again supplemented by an additional plate, compliments of the pastry chef, as well as a couple of glasses of dessert wine from the bar.
We were overwhelmed.
And very, very happy.
The entire meal was stunning, rich, and yet simple--as elegant a meal as I can imagine, but absolutely free of any of that French stuffiness that can make "fine dining" an intimidating process for those of us who aren't exactly from "the upper crust," but who love fine things.
Go figure, huh?
And so, to all at Babbo--Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, David Lynch (beverage director) Frank Langello (executive chef), Gina DePalma (pastry chef), Alfredo Ruiz (General Manager), David Massoni (Service Director), Jim Logan (Service Director), John Mainieri (the amazing and kind, sad-eyed Maitre 'd) and finally, our waiter, Jack Begonja--THANKS!
Thanks to you all for letting us cut in line, and for pointing us in directions that led to previously unimagined delights and for managing to make a night out to eat the best imaginable meal of our lives.
Truly, the entirety of this weekend was an exploration in all this is over the top, much more than expected, so much more than necessary, so much more than just plain old-fashioned kind or generous. This was comic book-super hero kindness. In fact--and I'm serious here--we ought to come up with a super hero who roams Gotham in search of strangers who have cared for difficult and/or infirmed loved ones without thought of payment or reward or even much griping, and upon finding them, bestows upon them things like back rubs, hotel rooms, fattening meals and surprise parties.
Whaddya think? Can we get a name for this new hero? Better yet, can we just do it ourselves?
Now, nearly a year later, this is finally edited and posted, and I remain overcome by the weekend and the kindness of all involved.
See you soon, New York!