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.
Hats off to 2012! Wherever you are, I hope you’re able to reflect on the highs and lows of the year with honesty and humility. Among the many year-in-reviews and recap videos, I found this one particularly gut-wrenching- 2012: What Brought Us Together
With 2013 fast approaching, it’s list time. I love these handy things. They’re the most basic tool to getting organized when one actually keeps track of them and checks consistently. While charting course for the New Year, I’ve started to think about the ways I can make 2013 better – more authentic, challenging, and meaningful – through…you guessed it!…lists.
Charlie O’Donnell, partner and founder of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, writes a weekly newsletter about tech events in NYC. (Sidenote: If you are new to the space and want a quick way to get acquainted with NYC tech, ‘This Week In NYC Innovation‘ is a great place to start.)
Last week, he included a compilation of list topics to think about for the new year, which I found very useful:
- Three people I’m actually friends with that I would like to be better friends with.
- Ten people I should know, but don’t.
- Five people I’d like to help be successful.
- Three things I’d like to learn.
- A physical goal (a time, a measurement, or just being able to be more bendy, less creaky, etc.)
- An emotional goal.
- Something you’d like to close the book on and move on from.
- Three ways you’re going to try to get more sleep.
- Read a book a month…list the first three you’re going to read. (Might I suggest re-reading the Great Gatsby before summer.)
- Five people you feel like you’re supposed to be friends with, but really don’t like, that you’re going to unfriend/disconnect/ignore.
- Three things that you’ve been procrastinating on that you’re going to get done.
I like this list for its holistic approach. It takes into account practical, emotional, physical, and educational goals. There’s also heavy emphasis on improving relationships, while understanding that not all interactions are created equal (ie. friendships vs. idols vs. mentorships, even un-friendships are included).
I’m sharing a few of my goals from this list because I firmly believe if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. Here’s to accountability!
3 Things I’d Like to Learn This Year:
- How to cook (I’m keeping a list of my favorite dishes and recipes to learn – open to additions!)
- Adobe Creative Suite (InDesign, PhotoShop, Illustrator – open to help!)
- Bible Literacy (open to fellow faith buddies)
A Physical Goal
- Be able to do this without sounding or looking like a gorilla. (Getting rid of the pooch would be nice too.)
3 Ways to Get More Sleep
- Having a set bed time. I’m setting it for 11:30 – 7:30 (for now) which gives me a healthy 8 hours.
- Completely turning off an hour before bed. That means, winding down and turning off the computer/TV by 10:30 pm.
- (Hm, I can only come up with two.)
2013 Book-a-Month List (in no particular order; open to other good reads)
- The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo
- On the Road, by Jack Keruoac
- The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams
- Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo
- Ulysses, by James Joyce
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
- The Influencing Machine, by Brooke Gladstone
- Change by Design, by Tim Brown
- Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg
- St Paul Trois Ch Teaux, by C. Joybell C.
- The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg
3 Things I’ve been procrastinating on that WILL get done
- Submitting to Thought Catalog
- Calling a loved one..because in this day and age, it doesn’t happen enough.
The full list of notes are currently scribbled in my TextEdit, and I’m well aware many will remain unfulfilled. Life tends to begin (how dare it), pushing these goals to the dusty, untouched crevices of the mind. Hard to say which will stick and which will be thrown to the wind. Life is unpredictable. Either way, it’s here for the love of lists.
“You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you.”
– C. Joybell C.
Happy New Year! I wish you all a fruitful 2013 with many healthy happenings.