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WORLD WITHOUT MEN

Photo by Katrina Del Mar

Photo by Katrina Del Mar

I recently spent an afternoon with independent filmmaker Katrina del Mar while she cooked a stir fry and talked about the girl gang films she’s been making over the last decade. The movies, whose titles include Gang Girls 2000, Surf Gang and Hell On Wheels, Gang Girls Forever, are peopled by scantily-clad women who surf, skate and fight turf wars. They’re aggressive, athletic, territorial and merciless toward one another. In many ways, they’re just like men, which is interesting because the films depict a world without men.

Del Mar told me she’s been honing her all-girl vision since coming across photographer Helmut Newton’s book, A World Without Men, as an adolescent in a midwestern book store. Disappointed by the fact that the book’s content contradicted the title (like mercury, men were present in trace amounts) she took it upon herself to create that promised man-free land in photos and eventually film. The photographer-turned-filmmaker explains she’s not anti-men, just pro-women. Rather than “afterthoughts to the exploits of men” she says, “I show women doing their own thing.” Having seen all three films during their recent New York premier, I can say Katrina Del Mar’s gang girls have at least as much fun playing pool and arming for gang war as regular girls have shoe shopping and primping for dates.

THE HEARTBREAK MAP OF MANHATTAN

I asked twenty to thirty random people about their brushes with heartbreak while preparing The Heartbreak Map of Manhattan and a related feature that eventually appeared on Nerve.com. Eliciting painful memories from strangers is easier than one would expect. Given enough time, most New Yorkers can give a public account of emotional stranding without falling apart, which is good. It shows the wound has healed and the heart continues to beat.

I’m grateful to all those who shared their stories. Props to Noah in Washington Square Park for recapitulating the fatal blow delivered by his first love in an NYU dorm. Those left untouched by his story are a cold-hearted bunch. A much older man named Eric told me about breaking a young lady’s heart in the courtyard of the nearby law school. “This is not funny, this is serious,” he warned. “We were having a lovely affair and unfortunately the woman’s father died and it was just too intense. I had to break it off.” Some would call him a schmuck but the gravity with which he told his story bespoke a lingering sense of remorse. I’m reminded of the song Diamonds and Rust in which an unexpected call from an old lover takes Joan Baez (and later Rob Halford) back in time to a crummy hotel near Washington Square. Despite the recent facelift and the legions of tourists, undergrads and acoustic strummers who’ve crapped up every walk I’ve taken through it since the mid-1980’s, tired old Washington Square continues to resonate with the stories of spurned hearts.

The same cannot be said of Thompkins Square. Almost none of the pretty young things I approached there would admit to firsthand knowledge of heartbreak. Was it pride that prevented the little-Ivy blondes and hoodied slackers from sharing stories of having been screwed? More likely it was youth and good fortune. Thompkins Square has had an extreme makeover since the days when Daniel Rakowitz (aka “The Butcher of Thompkins Square”) paraded his pet chicken through the park’s rambling homeless encampment. Today it’s an urban greenspace where young parents and recent grads walk their kids and puppies. There’s not much heartbreak in the new capital of cute and I started to feel like a creep hanging around there seeking it out. When I finally found a young woman with a story to tell, it was about a canine custody visit in the park’s celebrated dog run.

Interestingly, Harlem seemed to be another heartbreak-free zone. Despite hours of internet searching, an open Facebook call and interviews at the Lenox Lounge and the Studio Museum, I couldn’t document a single brownstone death pact or speakeasy split-up. Evidently, Harlem hearts are broken in private and with little fanfare. Either that or all the stories lie buried in the blues.

Some may see Ground Zero as a notable omission on a map charting heartbreak in New York City. I decided it was outside the immediate scope of the project. But having gone down there on the third anniversary of 9/11 and seen the widows weeping along the cyclone fence, I will say this: there is a world of heartbreak in that hole.

Given the city’s recent history, I was surprised by the number of middle aged New Yorkers who were unable to recall a single heartbreaking experience. How did they get through life with their hearts intact? A woman I approached in Central Park put real effort into trying to remember a heartrending experience. “You can’t think of a single place that reminds you of a person that was once a part of your life but no longer is?” I asked. She couldn’t. Eventually we both gave up and she moseyed off wishing me luck. On one hand, I envied her sunny disposition. On the other, I wondered if she had ever grown up.

My own heartbreak places pepper the city: a gallery near Washington Square, The Port Authority Bus Terminal, the downtown 1 from Harlem. Heartbreak hits us where we live and these places, along with a half-dozen others, will always remind me of the people I passed through them with. And like Angela who I met walking along the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge, I find comfort in them because heartbreak has marked them with an indelible tag: Staceface was here.

THE FOOD LIFE

Anyone who’s set foot inside a Fairway is familiar with the Bon Appetite-meets-MAD Magazine tone of the signage. I suspect Steve Jenkins writes a lot of those signs. In addition to being one of New York’s foremost cheese aficionados, Jenkins is a respected food writer who recently published his second book, The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway. If you’ve read it, you’ll recognize the voice — somewhere between A Prairie Home Companion and Larry King Live — that perfectly captures the ridiculous-to-sublime Fairway experience.

The Food Life turns the supermarket tabloid on it’s head and invites consumers to consider a rare literary thing: a sensational supermarket memoir, virtually free of bold-faced names.

It tells the story of a bunch of New Yorkers with moxy who worked hard and made it to the top of the city’s fancy food layer-cake. In that regard, it also serves as a brief history of New York’s rise as a world-class dining city.

Jenkins himself started out as a small town kid who came to New York with stars in his eyes and took a job behind a cheese counter to pay the rent between acting jobs. In the late-70’s, he rose to head the cheese operation at Dean & DeLuca’s flagship Broadway and Prince Street store, ultimately moving to Fairway to become the man responsible for importing many of the cheeses (and oils, and olives, and vinegars and nuts) New Yorkers and, by extension, Americans, enjoy today.

Among other things The Food Life is Jenkins’ paean to food. In the hands of Fairway’s #1 cheesemonger a typical grocery list reads as follows:

“…fresh wild mushrooms; block butters from Normandy, Brittany, Poitou-Charentes, and upstate New York; bulk creme fraiche from Normandy, mascarpone from Lombardy; mozzarella di bufala from Campania; Ben’s fresh, gumless cream cheese and baked farmer cheese and pot cheese…”

Yes, it’s the kind of mouthwatering prose that’s currently referred to as “food porn” but Jenkins seems less like a panderer than a literate guy who’s been thinking about cheese for the last 30 years. And he calls it as he sees it, never shying from the politically incorrect or indelicate. The book is full of hilarious observations like the fact that Pecorino Romano smells like throw up.

I recently conducted a short interview with Steve Jenkins in Fairway Market’s cheese department and produced an interview between Steve and Zach Cohen, a devoted foodie and blogger.

FUNKY FARMHOUSE

Farmer StefThe Labor Day weekend was spent in Central Pennsylvania touring wineries for a travel story and visiting the homestead of Farmer Stef, a friend from my Bronx Zoo days.

Stef left the zoo last spring (just before the widespread layoffs that resulted from cuts in state funding) with her sights set on an unusual growth area: the Susquehanna Valley farm where her mother’s family has lived for five generations. She decided to develop the property as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, a subscription farming model that’s gaining popularity around the U.S..

Early this spring, Stef and two friends from Rutgers University’s sprawling, student-run, Cook Farm began building up the soil and planting seeds to see what would grow. Lots of rain made for a good harvest. During our visit they were selling eggplants, watermelons, tomatoes, corn ears, peppers and other produce of a quality that would make the average NYC food couturier weep. Next year they will begin selling shares in their farm. They plan to market organic produce under the name of Wooden Hill Farms in Harrisburg and the surrounding area.

Farming’s a hard, all-consuming pursuit all spring and summer but I understand fall and winter bring time to rest and recharge. Check out the video below for more on the upside of farming.

Read more about Stefanie and Wooden Hill Farms in the story I wrote for Central PA Magazine.