Bright Lights, Big City

My first, my only New York: One year later

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye." *

This city has been good to me. It's brought me new friends and exciting experiences. It's delivered to me perspective and fulfillment of a long-time dream. It's even provided me the opportunity to rub eyeballs with three of my four personal idols, and then some.

New York gives me courage, humility, and not-occasional-enough fear. But mostly, it's home. And has been for a year — as of Sunday, that is. So, happy All-My-Wishes-Came-True-iversary to me! Except, I won't be climbing into bed with a Funfetti cake and season two of Game of Thrones this weekend to celebrate. (Have no fear: I'll save the binging for another day.)

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are instead reserved for much different pageantry (such that will, sadly, not include slices of Funfetti cake).

As one of my dearest friends saunters down the flowery aisle this weekend, beautiful in white, to forever take the hand of her soon-to-be husband, I'll be too busy pulling tissues out of my cleavage to even consider the year that has been.

Sandwiched between their birthdays (hers on Friday, his on Sunday — adorable, I know), the wedding serves as [what I hope is] this year's [one and only] big change.

You get it by now: My life never seems to stand still for more than a few minutes. This column was born out of a massive change, and serves as a bi-weekly, 500-word reminder of that.

Case in point: One year ago, I was interviewing the famed kissers in the World War II "V-J Day in Times Square" photo for The Frederick News-Post. Now I'm regularly walking the same block on which George Mendonsa and Greta Friedman were caught celebrating. (Actually, I avoid that block, and those within a one-mile radius, as often as possible. But in theory...)

Like a stroll past the bakery can transport you to Grandma's kitchen flush with fresh-baked cookies, each annual season sends me rocketing back to times past: Freshman year of college (spring), high school band camp (fall), my parents' car driving through local neighborhoods lit up for the holidays (winter).

And now that summer is in the air, my blood pumps a little harder each time I step into the sun and am overcome with the same anxiety and excitement that came packaged with my New York City move one year ago.

Fingers crossed that fulfilling my bridesmaid duties this weekend will help keep my mind off of those feelings. The festivities will, inevitably, instead fill me with a new sort of sentimentality; there's a sad joy in handing one of your closest friends off to her new husband.

Still, there are only a handful of moments in this lifetime with which I'd be more pleased to share the anniversary of my biggest life change. So, take a moment this weekend to raise your glass — to Lauren and Kyle, to a lifetime of happiness together, to an endless supply of Goldfish crackers. And to new beginnings. For us all.

*Not usually the first words I turn to in reverence of New York City, these come directly from the wondrous (if not only slightly overrated upon second viewing) F. Scott Fitzgerald in the terrific (if not only slightly overrated upon second viewing) "The Great Gatsby."

———

Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

It’s a small, small, small, small world

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

In a city so big, it is truly amazing just how small the world can be.

Is it really any wonder that New York's World's Fair was the inaugural home of what is now one of Disney's most-recognized (and most repellent) attractions? "It's a Small World" debuted during the 1964 event as a salute to the children of the world, ushering boat riders along a route that highlighted various regions and their indigenous people, to the recurring ear worm of a song that I don't even dare type a lyric of.

That trying and repetitious sentiment never truly took hold for me, until recently. Sure, it'd have been "a small world" if I'd been skimming through Facebook only to realize that I could reunite with a childhood friend at a Frederick restaurant, meeting for burgers and fries or perhaps a walk through the park.

But, like finding a needle in a hipster haystack, New York City quadruples (five-tuples?) the possibilities. Unexpected possibilities. Like finding a Friday afternoon to catch up with an old friend. A very old friend.

As I stood outside of the bar, watching passersby — hoping I wasn't looking the wrong way down the block, searching through throngs of people who weren't looking for me — my heart pounded. I could almost taste it; but couldn't pin down why I felt so nervous. It had only been 13 years. What's a decade between old friends? It felt like I was going on a blind date (not that I've had experience in that field; I'm making an educated guess). Like I was meeting someone for the first time, and we'd have to make small talk, learn at least three things about each other to report back to friends.

But as my childhood pal strolled up to the restaurant, I felt like I could suddenly breathe again. She looked the same — it was true what she'd said in her Facebook messages. Nothing had changed, save for hair color and a few inches in height. She smiled, we hugged, and I almost felt like I was back in the hallways of Silver Trail Middle School, carrying my flute case and walking to health class.

We went through the obvious motions: How'd you end up in New York? Whaddaya do and how do you like your job? Where are you living? Oh, Brooklyn? I spend so little time there, but you love it? Great. Beyond the pleasantries, there was talk about local animal shelters, the NFL Draft, and old friends — who got married, who moved away from home, yada yada.

But during the entire hour we spent catching up on 13 years of our lives, I couldn't quite wrap my head around the fact that I was standing in front of one of my closest childhood friends, with whom I'd lost touch when my parents pulled me out of the Sunshine State and moved north, where humidity didn't reign and where I found a new life. It made me feel ages older than I am (a ripe 27, thankyouverymuch). It felt surreal, like we should have been carrying backpacks slung over one shoulder and listening to Blink-182. Where were our grocery-bag-covered composition books with our crushes' names scrawled across the inside flap? Why weren't we talking about algebra homework and that upcoming band concert?

No matter, we'd reconnected, and it was all thanks to New York City (and Mark Zuckerberg, I guess...).

But my world was about to get even smaller.

On a lazy Sunday, the morning after a few hours spent on the Upper West Side celebrating a friend's birthday, I got an email from my mother.

"I noticed that you have a friend named Amy Zainfeld. Find out what her parents' names are. Grandma [my mother's mother] has friends named Zainfeld and I'm wondering if there's any possibility that they're related."

Any possibility? Any possibility?! ... Actually, yes, there was a possibility, that in a city of 8 million people, one of the four with whom I'd become closest in one year is the granddaughter of my family's long-time friends.

The email chain continued: me confirming her father's name (Dave); my mom excitedly calculating the current age of the David she knew growing up on Long Island; me reporting back, after an awkward text to Amy, that she does in fact have an aunt by the name of the sister-of-David my mom remembered.

Mind. Officially. Blown. Amy and I exchanged excited, almost confused texts, laughing at the situation, while both decreeing its illogicality. "I knew I liked you for some reason," she joked.

"I called Grandma and told her, and just as expected she got a big kick out of it," my mom wrote back. "She says she hasn't spoken with Amy’s grandparents for a while, but now she is definitely going to call them. ... I love small world stories like this."

We've all heard the "it's a small world" tales: Two people meeting on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, realizing they worked cubicle-by-cubicle in the same office 25 years ago. High school acquaintances running into each other at a party, in a state in which neither currently lives, almost 10 years after graduating.

But when you're shuffling about in a crowded bar, clinking glasses with someone you haven't spoken to in more than a decade, the surreal becomes real, and the city glows a little brighter.

———

Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

There’s no business like watching show business

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

It's a rare moment that I utilize a public space (newspaper column, social network, airplane banner) to share my thoughts on national events. But Monday's tragedy in Boston, as well as the subsequent manhunt and capture, deserve a couple inches of space.

Without explanation, people were killed, injured, and left scared and shaken. Some of the latter are people I love. The week's non-stop media coverage wouldn't allow the effects to be muted or turned away from. It wouldn't allow the country to forget what people are capable of — be it creating weapons of mass destruction, or running the extra miles to help strangers in need.

My friends are OK. They checked in on Facebook, ate some tacos, and went back to work. But not everyone has been so lucky to snack on Mexican food and relax on their couch in the wake of horror. They caught him. The manhunt is over, but the story isn't. If you can do something, do it: Donate blood, money, prayers (if you've got 'em). Just because the police commissioner announced it and the president praised it, doesn't mean people aren't still in need.

There is so much good in this world; moments like this simply give that goodness the spotlight it needs to shine.

* * *

There's nothing like live theater.

In its purest form, that is — not the line of mentally unstable men on a park bench debating the merits of a Burger King menu. (Though that scene certainly lends itself to a community theater-level Tony nomination.)

The reality of live theater is sitting in the front row of a stunning 110-year-old theater, wiping away the spittle that flies from Nathan Lane's lips. It's watching the heat of the spotlight keep up with actors dancing across stage without missing a beat. It's being in the presence of true greatness as Tom Hanks returns to his on-stage glory days by making his Broadway debut to a standing crowd.

But more than the wild exhilaration that brings tears to your eyes as America's favorite son enters stage right, live theater means knowing you're bearing witness to two hours of human existence that only a handful of other people (perhaps including Tony Bennett and Tom Brokaw, as I can attest) will experience.

That intimacy is the pure essence of live theater — be it Broadway, off-Broadway, Frederick's Weinberg Center for the Arts. But it can also be what brings a show to its knees. See: The crooning audience of "Motown: The Musical." Don't get me wrong, I love Smokey Robinson tunes as much as the next just-that-side-of-middle-aged woman. But I have the self-restraint (sense of courtesy…?) to keep those choruses to myself. Still, the warbles emanating from behind me for two hours and 25 minutes weren't enough to completely sully the experience. Especially not when the superlative Raymond Luke Jr. took the stage, belting out his part as the youngest of the Jackson 5. (Google him. … You're welcome.)

* * *

Part of my right of passage into womanhood (along with reciting a long-forgotten portion of the Torah and being hoisted in a chair by four not-altogether-muscular men) was sitting in the Broward Center for Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, one maternal grandparent on either side, watching six merry murderesses in Prohibition-era Chicago sing and dance in what is probably one of the more inappropriate shows for a 13-year-old.

It was my introduction to the wonders of live theater. And seven years and four touring musicals later, my first trip to New York City earned me an official Broadway carrying card. In the most cliched visit to the Big Apple since "Cats" closed, my newbie friends and I — under the advisement of my unofficial tour guide uncle — donned our best summer dresses, dined at the Times Square Bubba Gump restaurant (Hi, my name's Stephanie, and I'm obsessed with Tom Hanks), and made our Broadway debut in the audience of "Phantom of the Opera."

Honestly, I remember very little of the actual performance, aside from my friend's cell phone vibrating loudly in her purse during the first act, and being truly amazed by the chandelier crash as The Phantom vows revenge against Raoul during the "All I Ask Of You" reprise. And come on — How'd they get that boat to "float" through the foggy sewer river?

Oh, no big deal — that's just the magic of live theater.

Before I began waking up every day in a mid-rise apartment in Manhattan, I made occasional trips to The Great White Way, waiting in the TKTS line for half-price tickets, racking up Playbills, and learning how to spot the theater's stage door. Almost every visit revolved around a Broadway experience. December 2007: The Aaron Sorkin-penned, Hank Azaria-starring "The Farnsworth Invention." April 2008: Clay Aiken's surprisingly terrific coconut-clapping turn in "Monty Python's Spamalot." December 2008: The I'll-never-regret-it-because-I-saw-Sutton-Foster-and-pre-"Smash"-embarassed-Brian-D'Arcy-James-perform stage version of "Shrek."

In six years, I scored tickets to seven Broadway shows, and had the distinct opportunity to tag along to see "Wicked" at D.C.'s elegant Kennedy Center and "Hairspray" in the show's own hometown of Baltimore.

Yet, once immersed in this marvelous city, it took only 10 months to double that number.

* * *

"There's nothing like live theater," I said to the woman next to me, patiently losing feeling in her limbs as we stood outside of the Broadhurst Theater two weeks ago, both celebrating our third attempt in two days at snagging an autograph from Tom Hanks.

She nodded her head and smiled. "Nothing like it."

———

Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

Just one of the Jews

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

It's Easter Sunday. And as most of you are devouring a spiral-cut ham while extended family clad in bow ties and cardigans discuss college basketball brackets, I sit alone at a Panera table — the same pastel-yellow of the plastic eggs hiding in your bushes. And I can guarantee I'm not the only Jew whiling away another Sunday afternoon in New York City — another Sunday afternoon that is just the same as any other.

Growing up in the embrace of my family, most of whom are full-bloodedly Jewish, there were Passover Seders and Chanukah presents and Chinese food on Christmas. I spent many a childhood evening at Hebrew School, learning about the 10 Plagues and Kristallnacht, literally surrounded by miniature Jews, reciting the Alef Bet and sniffing Pixie Sticks (that wasn't part of the intended education, but it was a quick lesson).

A rather formidable six years in southern Florida helped — my elementary and middle schools weren't exactly overflowing with curly-haired, big-nosed kids, but the senior citizen population more than made up for the waspy local neighborhoods. High school in Maryland offered only slight modification. But when I plunked myself into middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania to get a college education, I finally understood just how diverse my world had always been.

Western PA isn't what most would call a hotbed of cultural understanding. At age 19, I was the first Jewish person any of my newfound college friends had ever met. Literally. The first one. They'd surely heard of our existence, of the hardships we've suffered and the revelries we've enjoyed. But like discovering a new species of tree frog, they were curious and prodding.

Of course, as I've long joked (stolen from the hilarious routine of a stand-up comedienne I saw during my first trip to the Big Apple almost a decade ago), I'm really only Jew...ish. So, inquisitions about my people's belief system and traditions were largely directed toward Wikipedia.

For most of my adolescent life, road trips to visit family on Long Island were the closest I got to being regularly immersed in Jewish culture: The deli meat piled high between two slices of rye bread, washed down with a handful of thick, chalky after-dinner mints waiting at the diner register. The synagogues littering the suburban streets like Starbucks and Duane Reade.

As I've grown older, I've become farther removed from the religious life in which I was ensconced for the majority of my first 13 years. At the same time, I have found a new interest in understanding the history and cultural impact of Judaism. I may be hesitant to put my name on the list at the temple only three blocks from my apartment (and mouth-wateringly close to the 24-hour IHOP), mostly because I can't spare the funds to participate in weekly services or monthly singles' events (that sound you hear is the collective sighing of every Jewish mother). But the synagogue's proximity and availability alone are more than any of my former Maryland hometowns could boast for their handful of local Jews.

* * *

INTERIOR: UNION SQUARE PANERA — MID-AFTERNOON A twenty-something woman glares at her male cohort sitting in a booth between two occupied tables. WOMAN Nice choice of the brown polo today. The twenty-something Schlub slouches in his seat. He looks down at his shirt, readjusting it slightly. SCHLUB It felt like a brown sorta day. WOMAN ...It's Easter. Brown is like the opposite of Easter. The Schlub shrugs and stares blankly back at the woman. SCHLUB I'm Jewish. I don't care.

* * *

Spend a few hours in any Frederick eatery, and those words will nary be spoken. Meanwhile, at any given moment in New York City, Jewish jokes are thrown around like a Frisbee in Central Park in late June.

I may have unwittingly worn pink on Easter, but I'm much more comfortable facing this city every day in a brown polo.

———

Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

How I learned to stop worrying and be a tour guide

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

A trip to New York City was never complete without my uncle's infamous tour.

Oh, no one outside of my family has ever heard of the tour, or, likely, my uncle. He isn't a professional guide, doesn't read from the pages of Zagat or Frommers. But apparently 50 years of living outside of the city and bussing in family and friends is enough to rack up a compendium of insider knowledge that even Eugene Fodor couldn't boast.

So what does that mean for me, a New York newbie, only nine months into my stay here? I can't offer the same chauffeured trips from one end of the island to the other. Wanna visit the September 11 Memorial, then stop for photos outside of the famed Tom's Restaurant? It'll cost you the better part of a day, and probably some uncomfortable moments on the 1 train.

Living in The Big Apple comes packaged with a certain sense of responsibility — that is, once I finally convince anyone to actually visit this big, bad city. After the initial, week-long apartment cleaning process, dizzying obligation sets in.

Will they have a good time? How long before my absent sense of direction gets us lost too many times to be considered beginner's-luck-adorable? Will the three restaurants I know offer enough culinary options? Can I keep them occupied long enough to not notice the dust bunnies still living behind my TV stand?

Some come prepared, with a list of trendy restaurants their favorite celebs have been caught in and specific instructions to hit Central Park and specialized museums. Others show up with one intention, and one intention only: Make it to that downtown jazz concert or Broadway show that cost more than the train ticket to the city.

But once the fanfare of the bright lights fades, what's left? Me, you, and that homeless guy sleeping under a box on the corner. Not everyone wants to spend an afternoon slinking through "18 miles of books" at my favorite Manhattan retailer. (I'm still waiting on a visit from my brother, with whom I can happily take a five-borough bookstore tour.) Most people actually wantto put their lives and sanity on the line to catch a glimpse of Times Square. And it turns out a movie marathon in my insufficient apartment just doesn't cut it when the most exciting city in the world flickers on around us. Nope, not even a Blu-ray player can replace the real thing.

With one foot out the elevator door, the options loom like those life-sized children's characters wandering 7th Avenue with tip bags and ceaseless grins. And, much like sidling up next to one of them for a photo that will end up as your new social network profile picture, choosing the right direction is often a highly debated decision.

There's the obligatory "You pick, you live here"/"No, you pick, you're the visitor" face-off, before the inevitable stalemate is met with another wave of obligation.

But get it right and, boy, the satisfaction will lift you higher than the Empire State Building. It helps, of course, that my friends are admirably low maintenance, perfectly content sitting on a chilled park bench, chugging 1.25-liter bottles of soda, cooing at passing pooches.

There's an entire labyrinth of Google results with what amount to step-by-step instructions for entertaining guests in NYC. But I'm a New Yorker. I don't need anyone on the Web — or the West 45th Street sidewalk — telling me which comedy club to visit or when to hop onto or off of a bus. So much of the joy of hosting friends comes with parading out my city smarts, proving that I've got this place figured out better than any two-day tourist could.

I may not yet have reached my uncle's caliber of tour-guiding, but as he now works on perfecting his own Chicago junkets, I have plenty of room to cultivate my New York City course. So, next time you're in town, give me a holler; I could use some willing test subjects. Just remember, folks: Tip your guide, and have a wonderful day.

———

Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

Check out the freak show on 44th

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

"Excuse me."

I peer up from my paperback, a collection of Nora Ephron's published essays, and catch a glimpse of a tall, golden man.

It was as if an Oscar statuette had come to life — slightly less regal, topped off with a baseball cap and sneakers — and was pushing his way through closely arranged Panera tables. Not even a splotch of dark skin leaked through the makeup; the spray paint that touched everything from the very tip of his disheveled head to the soles of his hightops (clearly pulled from a teenager's closet in 1997) left a lingering scent that snuck through the scarf pressed up to my face.

He was polite. He was quiet. He was pushing a gold-stained grocery cart through the restaurant to a corner table, where, for once, he didn't have to put on a show, didn't have to pretend he's a carved sculpture, holding so still that a sudden twist in his seat scares the kids inching closer for a poke. No, for now, he was simply a man, enjoying his lunch break on a chilly Sunday afternoon.

And everyone in the restaurant treated him exactly that way. (Everyone from the fountain soda machine to the bathrooms, as far as I could see; the always-friendly cashiers may have reacted differently, though it seems unlikely.)

In New York, there is no such thing as a double take. People don't stare or ogle or think twice about the elderly woman shouting obscenities from the sidewalk, or the teenager suspiciously holding his unbuckled belt as he wanders through the subway station. They are just another piece of furniture, worn and invisible.

"Yes!!" a friend exclaimed recently when I mentioned the subject of this column. A simple yawp, as if she'd been waiting her entire life for someone to finally publicly acknowledge the overwhelming eccentricities that are the blood pumping through New York City.

This town, though, would be nothing without those oddities. It would just be another overcrowded city with sky-high buildings and posh restaurants, and the country certainly doesn't need another Chicago. No, what makes this city stand out is that feeling you get walking down Fifth Avenue on a crisp early March day, somehow knowing that you are ensconced in a world that doesn't exist anywhere else.

This is an island that celebrates the weird and unconventional — like a TLC reality show. Step right up, folks, and see the freak show "New York!" But we wear it proudly.

A multi-pierced woman wearing a live boa constrictor as a necklace shoves up against you in the subway car; an old man crosses the street at Broadway and Fifth, wearing a leopard print dress and mismatched Velcro-strapped shoes: Not an eye batted.

Meanwhile, the guy riding a two-level bicycle through Frederick's Baker Park elicits pointed fingers and oohs and aahs; the woman decked out in full "Showgirls"-like attire in the cheese aisle of Wegmans garners the up-down, then whispered judgments. In the Big Apple, it's just another Saturday night.

The fact is, the very same thing that makes this city so intimidating is also what makes it so special: the abnormal.

Maybe I should drop a quarter into that golden guy's cup the next time I pass him in the Union Square subway station.

———

Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

Just keep swimming: How I survived Snowstorm Nemo with the flu

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

Today, the sun is shining and birds are soaring above a chilly city, where the only traces of a recent snowstorm are dirty packages of frozen condensation resting at the foot of street signs.

But life two weeks ago wasn’t so carefree.

By Wednesday afternoon, meteorologists and weather forecasters were sending a panicked chill down the city's spine, tipping an uncertain “three to 30 inches” of impending snow. Snow that would have set The Frederick News-Post reporters into overnight-at-the-office mode, and scared local residents into hoarding sidewalk salt and prepping for a school-wide snow day.

New Yorkers are no calmer than Fredericktonians: The metered line outside of Trader Joe's on 14th lasted for at least two blocks, and my teacher-roommates kept their fingers crossed for a Friday spent home from work. City dwellers dusted off the snow boots hiding in the back of the closet and battened down the hatches, preparing to be wowed by a blizzard named after a Pixar favorite.

But wowed no one was. As a few inches of fluffy white condensation carpeted the city Friday, the subways continued to run, the bars continued to hand out alcohol, the office buildings continued to buzz. It wasn't enough to stop me and a visiting friend from trekking through slushy puddles for French toast and a six pack.

The incessant bug eating away at my immune system, however, was enough to knock me out like a heavy wind toppling an unsteady power line to the ground.

As one storm swam into town, another was brewing in my warm, humid body ? a sickness that climaxed Friday night with my this-must-be-death proclamation and frantic calls to an absent doctor. Unlike Mother Nature's wrath, the malady came over me without warning: There were no text alerts reminding me to stock up on liquids and medication; no one standing in front of a green-screen pointing to imminent levels of stomach pain and headaches.

When I did leave my apartment — a few hours of reprieve from the box that held me for the next four days — the city came to my rescue. There was no need to leave my car running while the defrosters work their magic, my hands losing feeling with each passing push of the ice scraper. No reason to shovel heaps of packed-in snow from around my vehicle's tires while hoping my back doesn't give out. Never a care about tires losing traction or hitting a patch of ice that sends me and my killing machine into a frenzy. Just a Metro card, a pair of gloves, knee-high boots, and a frozen smile.

As the snow washed away, so did my flu symptoms, leaving only a whisper of my voice, a whooping cough, and muscles too weak to contract. And once I felt capable of riding the subway without trembling legs and a dizzy spell, I rejoined the world of the living ? the same world that had just awoken from a snow-capped dream.

By now, as the birds chirp overhead and sunlight washes over my pink-from-the-cold face, the two-block walk from the subway station to my apartment displays little of winter, save for the smoky breath pouring from the mouths of passersby.

And one day soon even that will pass. Though, judging by my track record in this city, another storm is never far away.

———

Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

Give me your tired, your poor — just not your epicurious

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

Before you read another word, pause for a moment of celebration: Today is my father's 60th birthday (sorry for spoiling the illusion, Dad!). To the man who makes me laugh so hard I need a puff of my inhaler, always answers my calls for important paperwork help, and makes solo trips up the east coast to ride the Coney Island Cyclone and eat Famous Nathan's hot dogs with me: Happy birthday! And many more, Pops.

* * *

You don't actually know what food is until you spend time in New York City. (And even then, it's still a complete deep-fried, gluten-free, organic mystery.)

A couple of weeks ago, I spent an evening out with a friend: dinner and a movie -- what would be a fairly innocuous adventure for most Fredericktonians. Grab a bite at Brewer's Alley. Chomp down on the best burgers south of the Mason-Dixon Line at Wag's. Splurge on a hefty check from The Tasting Room.

But New York has turned the life-sustaining task of eating into an art form worthy of a permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Accepting my limited understanding of city eateries, I left the task of choosing a pre-film dining spot to my friend -- a New Yorker of four years and an expert at deciphering indistinguishable menu items.

"What's *insert fancy food name here*?" I ask, at least seven times per meal, pointing to each item with a disgusted look on my face and yet hope in my heart.

So when I told her to pick a restaurant fairly close to the theater where we'd be watching the re-released "Beasts of the Southern Wild" later that night, she responded with a perfectly innocent "Do you want to go to Jacob's Pickles?"

Excuse me? Jacob's what? Like any good Jew, I love me a good pickle. But when did the free deli side dish become a snack that merits its own restaurant?

I know dill. And kosher. Even bread and butter. But that's where my knowledge of the dried-up cucumbers ends. So you can imagine my astonishment at a menu boasting a list of at least four types of pickles formerly unknown to me, and probably 98 percent of the human race. There is no doubt that our waiter's dirty look as I ordered my dinner was the result of my query about which of the establishment's provided pickles would be best suited to replace the spicy option normally accompanying the honey chicken and hot sours.

Sure, the pickles turned out to be delicious -- But has the food industry gone too far? Or is Jacob's fine establishment just the beginning?

I've been out for grilled cheese and tomato soup at a tiny storefront that offers nine "super fancy" variations of the delicious lunch ... And nothing else. I stopped for a plate of mac and cheese from famed hole-in-the-wall S'Mac, where I had the choice of 12 menu items, each and every one with varied ingredients, and macaroni and cheese. And then there were the pickles.

According to Wikipedia -- every good journalist's first bookmarked source: Foodies [are defined as] (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foodie) people with "an ardent or refined interest in food." "Gourmets," if you will.

"A foodie seeks new food experiences as a hobby rather than simply eating out for convenience or hunger," the entry goes on to say.

That's right: Food is now a hobby. Something people set aside time to complete, and subsequently pat themselves on the back once accomplished. Alton Brown and The Barefoot Contessa have led the way for an entire nation to feel at home in their not-so-guilty pleasure of turning a snobbish nose up at your store-bought creme brûlée.

But back in the Big Apple, people are donning their thick-rimmed glasses and messy haircuts to visit the two-day meat festival or stand in line to celebrate the re-re-opening of the bagel shop-turned-Chinese buffet-with-Asian-fusion celebrity-backed restaurant.

Ethnicity really has nothing to do with it. Chinatown. Little Italy. Korea Town. The 184 Indian and Thai restaurants that populate the East Village like Starbucks does the West. I can appreciate a good Greek gyro once in a while. The heart of the matter is the fact that there is a rice-pudding-only nook on Spring Street, when that could have been a walk-in clinic. Or a Panera.

(This entire argument is moot when it comes to the 99-cent pizza joint a block from my apartment, where triangles of cheesy goodness are the only item on the menu, but two slices and a can of soda cost less than $3. Don't ever change, 14th Street 99 Cent Pizza.)

Putting aside the "West Side Story"-like rivalry between the two boroughs, Brooklyn is the true culprit for blame in the foodie revolution. Sure, Manhattan touts the occasional specialty restaurant (chocolate from Max Brenner, anyone?) But only Hipster-lyn is home to two-day meat-and-beer extravaganzas and the weekly Smorgasburg Williamsburg Food Market.

Brooklyn: It's from where the foodies flock, and to where the 80-hours-a-week businesspersons flee.

What does it really mean to be "a foodie," though? If you brunch every Sunday and know where to find the best macarons (think Oreos for the sweet-tooth, meringue-based crowd), does that automatically induct you into the club? Like putting on a pair of slim-fit jeans, a plaid button-down and a smug look on your face does into the world of hipsters?

I love food as much as the next hungry New Yorker, I just never thought to name that feeling.

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Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Use it

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

"A little courtesy will go a long way," or so my fortune cookie professed this weekend.

Yeah, well, tell that to New York City.

I'm still too nice to live in this town. I watch friends argue with cabbies who won't turn around to drive downtown when they're already pointed up. I see people push their way out of the subway crowd using nothing but brute force.

Me? I simply wave the taxi driver by with a smile. And squeeze through chatting couples or past baby strollers to exit the train car, almost inaudibly excusing myself. And only because I am so irrationally scared of being rude to the wrong person – fearful of being shoved onto the train tracks in the path of a speeding hunk of steel or staring down the muzzle of a semi-automatic in a dark alley – that I let an entire island of people almost literally walk all over me.

This city is the one true love of my life, but being let out in public here should require a licensing test — one that examines someone's ability to a) be courteous toward others, b) respect personal space, and c) for the love of all that is holy, know when to shut their mouth.

I can accept that society has devolved enough that a sport coat and tie or a chiffon skirt is no longer a prerequisite to enter a movie theater. But when did we begin to accept that a 200-person cinema is the 21st century equivalent of your home's living room?

I'll happily (if not slightly embarrassingly) sing along to "The Lion King" during a 3D showing in theaters, and can even live with the elderly loudly whispering their way through "The King's Speech," because apparently foreign accents can be tough on ailing ears. But when I'm sitting in the depths of a movie theater that spans the width of my office cubicle, getting whiplash bobbing to see the screen from my non-stadium seating spot, I am in no such mood for your futile comments.

And I'm not the only one. NPR Monkey See blog host Linda Holmes wrote in a March 2010 post about being the shusher to the shushed, that there actually is a time and place for audience participation, but "A Serious Man" is not one of them.

"She [the pop culture braggart who shouted an inappropriate line during the Oscar contender] feels as you might when in a large group of people at a late-night showing of 'Fighting' or 'Step Up 2 The Streets' or something else very frivolous, where the entire crowd is yelling at the screen, because it's that kind of show. There are shows where you can do that. There are shows you can't ruin."

"Silver Linings Playbook" is not one of them, either. A story of two screwed up people who manage to find each other along the way, the movie is honest, witty, smart, and almost real. It's a film with no room for commentary or nervous laughter. Especially not groans of pleasure during a close-up of Jennifer Lawrence's cleavage.

At least Holmes understands.

"It ruined the entire sequence utterly. When this happens, all of a sudden, the string of tension that has been tightening and tightening just goes slack, because you're reminded of your surroundings — the theater, the people around you, the double reality of physical you in the theater and invisible you eavesdropping on the scene."

That invasion of privacy extends beyond a movie theater, where it is apparently my own fault for believing I am anywhere but in the comfort of my own couch.

Of course, I understand that once foot touches pavement, there is absolutely no expectation of courtesy.

The equation is simple: 400,000 people wandering Times Square + 275,000 mobile devices + countless glittering lights to distract pedestrians = the tenth circle of hell. It's like Occupy The Theater District every day, where in place of protest signs and three-day-old t-shirts you'll find cameras and baby carriages pushing their way through slow-moving herds of tourists.

Trying to comfortably ride two subway cars twice a day is another column entirely.

If only everyone in New York City could open their next fortune cookie to find such courteous wisdom. (And learn how to say "spring" in Chinese – chun tian, in case you were wondering.)

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Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.

My first New York

by stephanie.mlot@gmail.com. 0 Comments

On June 2, 2012, I walked into a mid-rise apartment along the East River, rolling suitcase and black garbage bag full of clothes and bed sheets in tow.

In an empty room — save for the standing light in the corner — I dropped my belongings, unrolled an air mattress, and stared at my new home.

My first New York came tightly wrapped in simultaneous homesickness and utter elation.

On paper, this was just another move — the ninth in 18 years. Up and down the East Coast I went, from Massachusetts to Florida, Maryland to Pennsylvania. But these New York minutes somehow feel heavier than the rest: An almost decade-long search for my holy grail has landed me in a life I'd always hoped for, but never expected. At least not until after another five or 10 years in the business.

"I've wanted for years to live and work in New York City," I tell the curious. "So this is a real dream come true."

Some people simply stare at me as though I've told the dopiest joke in Chinese, spoken by one of the five heads protruding from my neck. The rest, though, knowingly smile and nod, as if my flight of fancy is the very same one they learned about in elementary school: the American dream.

The late Nora Ephron — writer and my personal life-model — moved to the city a day after walking across the Wellesley College stage to accept her diploma. A brave Beverly Hills girl, Ephron stepped off of the bus with only the dream of becoming a journalist and the socks packed in her suitcase. (OK, so that's probably not the whole truth, but it's more fun when it sounds dramatic.)

"I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live in; a place where if you really wanted something, you might be able to get it; a place where I'd be surrounded by people I was dying to be with," Ephron wrote of her first New York, 48 years later. "And I turned out to be right."

Don't get me wrong — small-town living takes a special type of lionheartedness. Frederick was my home for two years, and my playground for four. I made friends, gathered sources, and inevitably grew to feel at home in the place I spent five days a week discovering.

But when the word spread in the newsroom of my move to the Big Apple, there were more than a few co-workers' and friends' puzzled looks that silently screamed, "Why would you ever want to leave this town?"

And ay, there's the rub: It's not that people necessarily believe western Maryland is the A-1 place to live. It is simply that, to those who call Frederick home, New York isn't.

Crowded sidewalks, blaring car horns, people wearing mismatched shoes mumbling to themselves outside of the corner diner — it's easy to spot the fear that New York inspires.

Oh, but this city is best at surprising. It's the greatest date a girl could ask for. Romantic, funny, sensitive, rebellious, and always available. But there is a hidden metropolis, accessible only to the few [million] and the lucky. Sure, it may hike up its skirt and show a little leg for tourists. But the true city comes out when you're not looking. I mean, I double dog dare you to not smile while staring out the car window as the looming city skyline regally passes by.

Seven months later, and I'm still grinning.

* * *

I'd intended on this column reading like an email exchange between Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly in "You've Got Mail": Pithy, full of New York wisdom, and with a few "Godfather" quotes thrown in for good measure.

Could this be the beginning of an Ephron-inspired New York City journalism career (sans the cheating husband and legal threats)?

A girl can dream.

Even if some have already come true.

———

Stephanie Mlot writes a regular column for fredericknewspost.com.