I can be unreasonably sentimental about certain things. The Lower East Side and El Barrio, for instance (i.e. the real New York). The NYC subway (even when its latest track record doesn’t warrant it). Hole-in-the walls.
Gaia is another prized possession in this category, a small Italian cafe in the Lower East Side named after the force behind it, the matriarch, the WOMAN. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother goddess who presides over the earth. Similarly, Gaia Bagnasco presides over this near-hidden cafe nestled on the corner of Norfolk and East Houston Street.
As equal parts owner, head chef, and Italian maestress, she demonstrates meticulous control over every detail of the cafe. Prices are affordable, in part because she only has two kitchen staff members, but mostly because it’s written into the cafe’s mores: food should not be expensive. A sumptuous panini ranges from $5-$10; a small illy coffee is just $1.00. All this, despite being in a neighborhood where pencil towers are rising faster than new graffiti to cover it.
I discovered Gaia 5 years ago when I lived in Alphabet City. The place is easy to miss in its basement-level location. But one winter day on my morning commute, I happened to turn my head and see the OPEN sign flip. I descended down the stairs, eager to gain entrance into what seemed like a secret underground club. Immediately, the warm, welcoming waft of illy Italian coffee greeted my senses. Alas, there was a credit card minimum and I had no cash! As I began to leave, Gaia insisted I take my coffee & croissant completely gratis; I refused, but she persisted. Without knowing who I was or if I would ever patronize her business again, she trusted that I would be back.
And indeed – the croissant was the best I ever had. Over the weeks, months, and years, Gaia has become my go-to for simple, no-frills cooking. What it lacks in propriety and small talk, it surpasses in value and authenticity. Fresh is the theme: from the perfectly flaky Nutella croissants, to the bread baked each morning (oh that bread!), to the panini that she executes using the finest Italian-imported cured meat and cheeses.
Gaia’s perspective is fresh in abundance too. One day, I worked from home and ordered lunch to-go. She remarked,
“You Americans. No wonder you are all fat and unhappy. Always on the go, never stopping to just eat and enjoy.”
The menu states that “service is not a priority”, and that is sometimes the case – but thisundersells its authenticity. You may be promptly rushed out at 7 pm on weekday evenings and chided for ingredient substitutions. But so long as you come with a basic respect for the space & food that Mother Earth provides, you’ll receive more unsolicited acts of kindness than you probably deserve. Kind of like eating in your mother’s kitchen.
Gaia’s best hits include her fresh salads, spinach & ricotta tegamini, gnocchi, ravioli, black pepper linguini, and paninis; my absolute favorite is the fresh-baked focaccia bread that comes with every dish, often on crumpled foil, along with plastic serving spoons. Wine is served BYOB-style in cheap plastic red water tumblers. A bit reminiscent of a hostel cafe, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better backdrop in NYC.
I love Gaia for its fresh ingredients and heart-nourishing food. It is the remnant of a NYC that is quickly becoming a relic of the past: affordable, raw, you-get-what-you-ask-for candor. Dine here as you would like any respectful guest invited to a home-cooked meal; drop the ego, be hungry for community. You won’t get special treatment. But you will absolutely get what you pay for: a meal with real food.
3 years ago, I stumbled upon a small but cozy restaurant in the Lower East Side that beckoned me with its rich brown decor and aromatic Indian spices. The owner – let’s call him MasalaWala – welcomed me with a cup of signature Masala Chai and warm naan. This gesture, accompanied by amazing food, was fuel for my hungry heart to continue the relentless job search amid the throes of a jobless winter.
When I officially moved to NYC a few weeks later with a job, I became a regular. Nursing a warm cup of chai, I wrote:
“I can’t stop raving about how great NYC is. Call it naive wonder or puppy-eyed love, the novelty of this glorious concrete jungle hasn’t worn off…yet.
Several natives have warned me that when I move here permanently, the dazzle in my eyes will fade as quickly as the fast-talking New Yorker who snaps at missing her train.”
In some ways, I’ve morphed into that snappy person…but the dazzle has yet to fade.
In the city that never sleeps, our options are truly endless. Part of this, of course, is branding. New York City, to this day, remains the world’s greatest brand. It may sound a bit goofy, but you need only look up at the skyline to feel like anything can happen.
It can also completely demoralize you with its intense, all-consuming culture.
I moved to New York City, wide-eyed with a lion’s mane of hair much in need of taming. I quickly chopped it off, resembling something like a mushroom head for the next 18 months. “To hell with it!”, I said. I was going for radical transformation.
And that’s what I got. Living in 5 apartments with a dozen different roommates will quickly make you a much more interesting/crazy person. You learn to appreciate your alone time. Between weathering job dismissals, writing furiously to meet deadlines, and navigating bureaucracy, I now know what people mean when they say this city “chews you up and spits you out”. Yet there’s only more gravel-digging ahead.
I know, because I have yet to set foot in all 5 boroughs. I have yet to learn what it’s like to be committed to a cause larger than myself.
I have yet to truly understand the inequality, strife, and deep-rooted fears that befall many of New York City’s most hampered communities.
Moreover, while my persistence has gotten me thus far in NYC, I am aware that my hard-earned diligence was hardly work compared to those who can’t afford (financially or logistically) to spend time at hip co-working spaces and coffee shops to network while searching for a job. Let this be a reminder to all who are highly-educated, connected, and culturally literate that we have a vast amount of resources on our side, including the most basic: access.
So, on my 3rd anniversary in this great city where anything is possible, I give thanks for all of the above: the many opportunities I have been afforded, the goodwill of those who have believed in me, and the valuable lesson of “struggle”, though it pales with the real struggle of the 21% of New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line.
I am here to to see what this city will be when every New Yorker is activated to meet their full potential in a truly inclusive economy, and everyone can tap into the vast number of resources available without jumping through impossible hurdles.
I’m here for the imagining…and the becoming.
I’ve written before about finding community in a big city. When I first moved to NYC, I said that creating community was the key to happiness.
At the time, I was talking more about making friends than community-building. There’s a big difference. I’ve made a handful of friendships in the two years since moving here – and they’ve been wonderful- but they’re not to be mistaken with finding community. Community is when we identify with something greater than the individual sums of after-work drinks and weekly brunches.
While I’ve joined a few groups that have ignited passion for something beyond self (ie. church, volunteer organizations), there are several strong indicators that I am still far removed from a community mindset. The biggest test is the departure question. If I were to leave New York City tomorrow, what would change? Nothing, fundamentally. Sure, my job would be different, public transportation woes would mostly disappear, and I’d probably eat out a lot less, but the way I interact with people probably wouldn’t change (and we all know that what really sticks is the relationships you make).
Virtual tools allow us to maintain communication so, quite frankly, we don’t really ever have to see anyone to be plugged in. Which begs the question, why live in a particular area anyway? If I could still keep in touch with the people I want to keep in touch with, what difference does it make whether I live in Omaha or New York City? The main distinction is community. When tied to a larger group of people, that group’s unique problems are amplified by physical proximity.
Yesterday, I had brunch plans with a friend who lives across the street. (Important to note that the primary way we know each other is through her brother, a college friend, not by fact that we’re neighbors.) She asked if I wanted to stop by and meet her neighbor before brunch. Why not, I thought. I had never been inside her building despite the close proximity.
Her neighbor was in the middle of making coffee, and warmly offered a cup while making conversation. 15 minutes later, he asked that we join him for breakfast. I hesitated – this derailed plans for the individual catch-up session we had planned, and I didn’t want to intrude – but we were enjoying a great conversation, so why be exclusive?
It turned out to be the highlight of my week.
Together, we scrappily gathered some basic brunch elements (generously supplied by Lucille and Mark) and created a sumptuous spread: French toast, prosciutto, cheese, and freshly brewed coffee. Mark dished about his weekend, Lucille provided her usual witty insights, and I shared stories to connect the two. My previously disparate background became oddly connected – and beautifully – with those of a former corporate barista and fashion photographer’s.
2 hours later, we cleaned up…to prepare dessert. Green tea ice cream accompanied by pumpkin spice cookies. The conversation that followed was equally delightful. I never thought I could have such a great time with relative strangers but there I was, experiencing a form of joyful connection I can’t say I’ve ever experienced before in New York City.
The skeptic in me can make all sort of exceptions to how this happened: my friend and her neighbor were exceptionally amicable, food was farmer’s market-fresh, coffee was in abundance. I’m well aware that all of this happened under ideal circumstances and that real community is rarely ever this clean. Getting into other people’s lives, in reality, is messy and probably much less convenient.
That said, I can only recount how blissful the whole encounter was.
Part of it was the great conversation and food, but another part was the feeling that I was no longer a tourist. If something were to happen to these folks, I’d feel responsible. I couldn’t leave a mess. Funny how just 2 neighbors can add a sense of ownership and identification with the neighborhood.
Today, I will return to the day-to-day humdrum which largely revolves around isolated activities that have no significance to anyone beyond myself, and maybe a a tiny tiny circle. But yesterday’s encounter challenges me to think about the implications of my life. How can we make our lives go beyond ourselves in the immediate spheres that we inhabit?
The answer lies in community. Here, the stakes are raised.
In the short time I’ve been in New York, I’ve lived multiple lives.
At times, it’s been anxious naval-gazing: “I have work and then a dinner thing, and then I’m busy trying to do this whole becoming who I am thing!“, circa Hannah Horvath.
Less often, it’s cosmopolitan ”I will never be the woman with the perfect hair, who can wear white and not spill on it’ Carrie: eating at places I can’t afford and feeding into the city’s conspicuous consumption.
But far more often, it’s neither, and instead, a rather boring in-between. I’ll also confess that I can’t really liken myself to female TV show characters whose shows I don’t even watch.
When I started this blog, I titled it ‘socialynne’ because at the time:
a) lynneguey.com was already taken (for my “professional” persona),
b) ever clever, I wanted to use a pun with my name,
c) I was going to be that savvy girl in the city.
My noble goal at the time was to represent, in some form, my exterior shell. I wanted to contribute non-wisdom on what it was like to navigate the city as a 20something caught between extreme ambition & a desire to fuck it all/not give a damn. Kind of like the characters I mentioned, just a lot less cute.
20 months, 4 apartments, and 101 (intermittently) soul-bearing blog posts later, I’m reevaluating if ‘being social’ is a relevant topic for me to write about. I’m not exactly out on the town everyday.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m still an awkward 20something for sure, but I’ve pivoted. I used to think about how Jess from “New Girl” or Hannah or Carrie would write my posts. But truthfully, I’m so different from each of those prototypes that I’m quitting that. As I enter a new stage of New York life, this dear blog -my sidekick from the start – will also shift focus.
My former Hannah would grimace to hear that present-day me loves bureaucracy, rules, and hierarchy. I work for a quasi-government agency with 500+ employees, so my life is spectacularly boring as a suited up bureaucrat in a cubicle. Yet I love it. Did I mention that our organization reports to the Mayor of the greatest city in the world?
During my first month at NYCEDC, I’ve been stunned by its sheer impact on the city. The Applied Sciences Initiative is building a strong infrastructure for tech talent here in Silicon Alley. We own the maritime ports. We build numerous new neighborhood developments from unused, vacant property to create a higher-quality life for residents. Guilty as charged.
I’m learning that all the city agencies, programs, and internal departments are a hot mess of acronyms. You wonder if all these departments are necessary, but then you see how much work is required to keep the city’s economic engine chugging . You begin to learn how it works behind the scenes, which leads only to more admiration for this little village where 8 million people call home.
This is not to downplay the issues.
Could city government be leaner? Yes. Could it use drastic innovation? Of course. Could it benefit from a little more open dialogue? Always.
The system is replete with challenges and inefficiencies, which is exactly why strong leadership and new ideas are essential. Personally, I’d love to see an open platform where residents, businesses, and local government can collaborate and solve problems together. I’d love to contribute.
Though my time in New York has been topsy turvy, I’d like to think I’m entering the next stage of what Amy Jo Martin calls “orthogonal bliss”. Orthogonal bliss is defined as the intersection of skills, passion, and purpose. It’s the sweet spot, where all the skills and experiences you’ve acquired align to create something magnificent.
“Color outside the lines by combining, mixing and intersecting things that typically don’t jive. Expect adversity to follow as society fears and fights the interruptive, abnormal mixture. If the mixture is bliss, mass adoption will eventually occur and soon you’ll have diffusion of innovation.”
Every company has stakeholders; ours is the public. So in honor of my newfound orthogonal bliss, instead of writing about ‘social’ in the literal sense, I’m honing this blog’s focus on ‘social good’ here in NYC. It’s no Sex in the City or pixie girl fantasy; it’s simply, me: sociaLynne, some imperfect social in-between.
Throughout our 20s, we represent a range of characters and continue to morph in these chameleon years. If you’ve found your trifecta of skills, passion, and purpose, stick with it. If not, keep looking. We all need to believe in something.
For me, this belief is in the city. All I need is to look out, take a walk, and it’s around me. To make this a better place to live: that’s no better reason to wake up in the morning.
The more often you create and share ideas, the better you get at it.
My friend Alex and I have decided to gather a few women every other week to brainstorm business plans, passion projects, and entrepreneurial ventures together. Our 20s are a critical period for growth and at a time when commitment to ideas is especially hard to find, we believe a group like this is necessary.
The goal is to compile ideas and follow through with ones that resonate. Some will be interesting, most will be lousy, one or two may even work. The point is to simply hold ourselves accountable to doing work that really matters. Ultimately, we want to find an idea that sticks and matches our unique strengths with the needs of the world.
What this group is not: a think tank or discussion group. Ideas are a dime in a dozen; money lies in execution. We’ll craft plans to make ideas happen. Some will fail but hey, failing isn’t as bad when there’s a group of other smart, motivated girls experiencing it with you.
If your current routine isn’t cutting it, join us as we experiment with projects that lead to greater fulfillment, if for any reason because doing stuff on your own is hard. We’re looking for a group of 4-6 New York women in their 20s, curious with a desire to learn and do something more. Any industry, talent, or niche is welcome. Leave a comment or email email@example.com for details. We’ll likely be meeting on Sunday afternoon, so be willing to sacrifice Sunday brunch for this. In exchange, a supply of lady refreshments ie. wine & cheese, will be on hand.
If you’re not in New York, sorry- we’re keeping things local for now. But stay tuned!
“Jia bung!” This magic Taiwanese phrase had me running with dogged devotion to the kitchen table. Translating literally to ‘eat food’, ‘Jia Bung’ was a signal for family and guests to gather for a meal or social occasion. At five years old, I would gleefully respond to this open invitation with the only other Taiwanese phrase I knew, “Ho le!” (translation: “Okay!”)
Over time, my responses to food have traveled the continuum of ‘Ho Les’. As a child, I screeched enthusiasm for all types of food, everything from duck tongue to Kraft Mac-and-Cheese. At school, I envied my classmates for their classic Arctic Zone and metal American Girl lunch boxes; my flimsy handy sack was devoid of name brand. Better yet, it had my Chinese name scribbled on the front. When it came time to reveal the contents of our lunches, I would marvel at the other children’s DIY pizza kits (Lunchables), ingeniously packaged Go-Gurt, and the ultimate 5th-grade treat: Dunkaroos. I desperately yearned for a kangaroo-shaped cookie but 5th-grade social protocol required that I provide something in exchange. I bartered with my fried rice and shrimp chips, even offering my dried fish snack. Meeting no success, I was effectively shut out of the elite Dunkaroos club. Food was no longer a welcoming entity.
Enter puberty. I was hungry (all the time) and craved nothing more than my mother’s tofu and deliciously greasy noodles. Yet at the age when I thought looking good mattered more than eating good, my ‘Ho Le’ gave way to teenage angst. “Ho le, ho le- enough!” I’d exclaim, as my Mom would scoop mounds of rice, fresh veggies, barbecue pork, dumplings, and egg tart onto my plate. Western standards of beauty trampled on my once-passionate desire for food. ‘Jia Bung’- the statement that once had me running to the table- no longer held sway. With an increasingly lackluster ‘Ho le’, my ties to family and culture, rooted in food, began to fade as well.
In college, I studied abroad in the country where eating is practically a national sport, Singapore. My friends would invite me on nightlong food escapades. At first, I respectfully declined, thinking that the sight of so many tantalizing food options would lead to gluttonous behavior. But after seeing pictures of friends looking abnormally happy with Malaysian curry and Chili Crab, curiosity got the best of me. I decided to heed the call of ‘Jia Bung’. I went with a friend to a nearby food market, boasting more than 50 flavors of moon cake. Against my better body’s warning, I said “Ho Le” to every single sample. In the midst of digesting moon cake number I-don’t-want-to-know, I began to worry about the weight I would gain, then realized…I didn’t care. I swallowed my weight inhibitions because I realized that life just wasn’t as tasty if I was constantly worried about my intake at the free buffet of life. Though I returned to the United States 8 pounds heavier, I would never trade those extra pounds for the vital life skills I acquired through food that year: exploration, openness to flavor, and acceptance of self.
Since then, food has become less about eating and more an outlet for learning the constructs behind it. After returning from Singapore, I reviewed restaurants in my college town, Gainesville, Florida, to taste the food and interview the minds behind it. I wanted to understand business owners and their motivation for starting restaurants. This obsession with food and its alluring power persisted. Since graduating from college, I have traveled for pleasure to several other countries – Italy, Greece, Austria, Poland, China – and sampled even more food. The dishes have been vastly different, but the lesson across continents has remained the same: food is good.
What I’ve learned about food is truthfully not much different from what I instinctively knew as a child. Simply, food brings people together. You don’t need a translator to detect when someone is pleased (or disgusted) with a dish. But more importantly, food can be a gateway to conversation, which means the direct value of food only goes as far as the first few bites. ‘Jia Bung’ will get people to a common table, but it is just a starting point. The real value is in how you accept the food thereafter, whether with nonchalance, gratitude, or a hearty ‘Ho Le’.
Now in New York, I am surrounded by a myriad of food options. Last month I tried a cookie ice cream sandwich, aptly called “The American Dream”, at Brooklyn’s food festival Smorgasburg. It was an indulgent creation: vanilla ice cream and cocoa nibs, squashed between 2 cookies made of brownie, house-made sea salt and honey-sweetened peanut butter. Cocoa and peanut butter crumbs burst from the crevices of my mouth as the sweet and salty combination melted perfectly on my tongue. Sitting beside me was a friend from Belgium. As we earnestly bit into the American Dream, we talked about the city, our lives, and what lay ahead. We each held one half of the American Dream in our hands, relishing the taste yet knowing that our conversation and company were far more valuable than anything our stomachs could hold.
To me, this is the way food should be. Food sustains our bodily needs, but it also fulfills a rich emotional connection with others. By dining together, we facilitate conversation, thus bridging the gap between cultures, languages, and people. While America is known as the land of opportunity for its many paths to upward mobility, let us also recognize the far deeper gateways to connection. For all the advancements our society has made, there is still no better opportunity than the chance to connect with a fellow human being over a good meal. I’ll say “Ho le!” to that any day.