From Chapter 1: Victory Garden
Our moving van dashes over the Williamsburg Bridge as we hurtle into Manhattan to start our Slow Year. My head is partway out the passenger window. Wind massages my scalp, the East River sparkles below, and the New York skyline swells against a metallic blue sky. The Empire State Building tow- ers haughtily over everything until it’s hidden by a cluster of approaching Alphabet City high-rises. I’m flush with excite- ment — Manhattan! Our new life! — as Jack, our overweight, chain-smoking van driver, floors it.
“Bill?” my wife, Melissa, shouts as I hoot out the window. “What happened to…slow?”
I reluctantly pull my head back in. Who doesn’t love a bit of speed? Jack accelerates even more, and I revel. My instinc- tual trepidation over Manhattan — the Gordon Gecko greed, the paucity of green, the incisor-like skyscrapers — is swal- lowed up in the roller-coaster rush of arrival as we fly over the water. The multitasking crack of 24/7 connectedness gives me a similar rush. I’m the first to admit that twenty-first-century life triggers pleasant chemistry.
Suddenly, the Williamsburg slam-dunks us into Lower East Side gridlock. Jack slams on the brakes. “Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick,” he mutters, taking a drag on his cigarette. Garbage bags are piled high on pedestrian-choked Canal Street sidewalks. Taxi exhaust blends with the tobacco smoke. My buzz dies as anxiety balls in my stomach.
I’m an outer-borough boy. My Irish grandparents landed at Ellis Island and raised my father and his two siblings in Queens. I grew up on Long Island. Hence, I’ve got a bit of Saturday Night Fever angst around moving to a Greenwich Village apart- ment, breaking caste and moving-on-up from a working-class Queens row house. I don’t belong in Manhattan.
Melissa, my wife of less than half a year, is scrunched next to me in the van, her hair still wisping around her gorgeous green eyes from the blustery crossing. She cradles a lamp under each arm. Our motivations are essentially at cross-purposes: she is starting a new job as a program specialist at the United Nations that will probably mean working more, while I desire to do less. Will our attempt at Slow City living stretch the bonds of our marriage?
Here is our plan for the year: We’ll live a minimalist, leisure-rich, spiritually mindful 12 x 12 life in the world’s fastest city. First, we’ve already shed clutter by downsizing our square footage, moving to a micro-apartment that’s 80 percent smaller than our former Queens home. Second, my goal is to work a maximum of only two days a week, freeing up time to inter- act with the city’s cultural creatives who are innovating various facets of Slow. My “five-day weekends” will also allow me time for a whole lot of absolutely nothing. For a work junkie like myself, I figure “simply being” — resisting the urge to do for several hours a day in order to seek equanimity — will deeply challenge me. But I reached rock bottom in Queens; I have to slow down, even if Manhattan won’t. Third, despite Melissa’s full-time job, we’ve committed ourselves to spending a lot of time on the banks of the Hudson River and in Central Park, to a regular yoga practice, and to fostering daily mindfulness of the beauty of New York, thereby finding balance and joy.
Sounds good, right? But it seems particularly ironic, even perhaps quixotic, as we sit in…traffic. Why seek slow? Slow is an interminable line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Slow is an old-fashioned rotary phone, the kind that took so long to dial that, as comedian Louis CK jokes, you kind of hated friends who had 0s and 9s in their numbers. Slow is un-American — it’s inefficient, dull, and Luddite. It also feels elitist. Only the rich can afford to go slow in Manhattan.
The traffic loosens, and we pick up speed along Canal Street, smoothly turning north on Lafayette, eventually achiev- ing what musicians call tempo gusto, or the right speed. We find a balance between the breakneck Williamsburg Bridge and the gridlocked Lower East Side.
My spirits rise. Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder of Slow Food, says, “If you are always slow, then you are stupid. That’s not what we’re aiming for. Being Slow means that you control the rhythms of your own life. You decide how fast you have to go in any given context….What we are fighting for is the right to determine our own tempos.” Slow is not Luddite. It means cultivating positive qualities — being receptive, intuitive, patient, reflective, and valuing quality over quantity — instead of the fast qualities so common today: being busy, controlling, impatient, agitated, acquisitive. Slow is about taking the necessary time to create a new economy centered on self-paced living.
Speaking of which, Melissa and I have worked hard to make our attempt at Slow in Manhattan financially feasible. My previous year’s workaholism, combined with the strong savings ethic my father instilled in me, has generated a nest egg of savings that — along with Melissa’s salary, a careful monthly budget, and living in a small apartment — makes our plan seem doable.
Jack pulls up in front of our new home: 11 Cornelia Street, between West 4th and Bleecker. The nineteenth-century build- ing is set pleasantly back from the street behind another apart- ment building. He helps us carry our boxes through a “horse entrance,” the high, narrow archway through which — before the automobile — horses passed, to be fed and watered in the area that now serves as the building’s little courtyard.
After stacking our boxes in a small mountain, Jack splits, leaving Melissa and me to finish the job. We stare, flummoxed, at the totality of our belongings in the courtyard. It’s only a sliver of what we once possessed in Queens, but it’s still a lot, especially to carry up five stories of an elevator-less building. Melissa retrieves the two lamps, I grab a box, and we lug our first load up the grungy-carpeted stairwell. I try to remember what our new place looks like. We barely got to see the apart- ment before signing a one-year lease. Greenwich Village real estate flips in seconds, and to get this place, we had to pay two- months’ security deposit within an hour of the viewing.
We’re panting when we reach the top floor. I open the door to apartment 10R and step inside.
I feel, for a moment, like there’s been a big misunderstand-ing. The far end of the apartment is just a few steps away. It’s two twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot boxes divided by the slenderest of kitchenettes, with a sidecar of a bathroom attached.
I put the carton I’m holding on the floor. Melissa steps hesitantly in, a lamp under each arm, and attempts to walk into the kitchen. She is unable to squeeze through the slim passageway, and the realization dawns: the lamps — and much of the rest of our gear — won’t fit. Unable to suppress a frown, Melissa turns and trudges back down the stairs, lamps in hand. I listen to her footfalls recede. My eyes study this thimble of an apartment. I have utterly forgotten my excitement on the Williamsburg Bridge: we left our Queens home — where we had lived for three years, a lovely place nearly five times bigger — for this?
From Chapter 5: The Slowest Food
Thirty hours. That’s how much additional anticipation I get to cultivate until the following evening at Pearl, when “New York’s most fantastic scallops” are served. As I clock in a solid two-hour workday on a Washington Post article, I imagine the sizzle of scallops in the background. I pedal five miles up the Hudson River bike path to the George Washington Bridge, picturing my scallops in a trawler passing beneath the bridge. That night, as a full moon rises, scallopesque, over Tar Beach, Melissa and I gaze into the glowing halo of Pearl on Cornelia below, imagining together the meal we will share. I fall asleep dreaming of the moment — before the moon doth rise tomorrow — of that virgin bite of a Pearl Oyster Bar scallop.
The next day, my tightly tweaked anticipation is momentarily undermined by a text from Melissa: she has to work late, but she insists I go without her. I push aside thoughts of our uni- moon days, grumble angrily at our work system — which is no friend to romance — and find myself alone, sipping chardonnay at one of the restaurant’s close-placed two-tops. Finally, release is in view, and the waiter approaches. First, a hot buttery scent. Then I spy two bulging scallops beside roasted potatoes with truffle oil and a light salad. The plate is positioned before me.
Gazing at the dish, I silently recite the Buddhist saying that Melissa and I repeat aloud before meals at home to help bring us fully into the space of the food: In this food we see clearly the presence of the entire universe supporting our existence. Then I cut a communion sliver. I place it on my tongue.
How long do the dreamlike shapes of waiters dance? How long the orchestral sounds from Pearl’s open kitchen, the weight of its stainless silver, the satiny feel of my napkin? Natural Time. Women’s soft hair and men’s wristwatches move through space, and the music is cool blues. As I savor the scallops, I understand in a new way a Buddhist saying — “When you eat, eat” — because I’m ecstatically absorbed.
When I finally finish, the waiter takes the plate and asks how it was. I’m mute and can manage no more than a grin. “Gotcha,” he says.
Whilst I am in Scallopland, two thirty-something men in business suits sit at the table directly beside me. I overhear one order, yes, the scallops. Now, their plates arrive just after mine is removed, and the buttery scent of scallops wafts up once more.
I turn to tell the man he’s ordered well, but I hesitate. On his plate, instead of two full-moon scallopy beauties, there is but one. In the split second it takes me to process this, he saws into the remaining scallop — Wait a minute…Is it possible that he already ate the first? — forks it into his mouth, utters a sentence to his friend, swills wine, stabs the second half-moon, and steam-shovels it into his mouth.
Just like that, the scallops are gone.