Saturday, September 09, 2006

New York on a Nickel

Today, author Ayun Halliday has dropped by for a virtual chat. She is probably best known for a witty little zine she pens, The East Village Inky, which features cartoons about the hells and highpoints of motherhood. She’s also just published a book in the UK called Mama Lama Ding Dong: A Mother’s Tales From the Trenches (The Big Rumpus in the US) in which she chronicles the trials of bringing up Inky and Milo in small apartments with bad plumbing in New York City. Despite how pricey it is to rent an apartment, she is passionate that the Big Apple is, for her, the best place to bring up her kids.

What would have become of me, she writes in Mama Lama Ding Dong, if I did live in a suburb, or even a city like Los Angeles, where it’s normal for new parents to have cars and backyards and their own swing sets? I would have gone mad from the isolation! … In the same way that people who choose to live in areas of great natural beauty would go crazy without easy access to the ocean or mountains, my mental health hinges on my proximity to colorful characters, like the transsexual who dresses in a tutu and a bedraggled cat suit to ride an oversized bicycle with a harp strapped to the back, playing accordion for tips.

The stimulus I need as a stay-at-home mother is not provided by clean yards, affordable housing, excellent public schools or natural beauty.

I hear you Ayun! In fact, her descriptions of living in New York are so lively and invigorating that you might be tempted to move there yourself. I also love her warts and all description of labor with her daughter Inky. Everyone will be able to relate to how the best laid plans often go astray when there’s a baby trying to get out.

I went into full labor on the corner of First Avenue and 9th Street. Then I rampaged through our apartment for four hours, yelling my head off (while Greg slept intermittently on the midwife’s instructions), though our gallant neighbors insisted they never heard a thing through the thin tenement walls. I writhed on our unmopped kitchen floor, sandwiched between the refrigerator and the sink, watching a cockroach marching along the baseboard. That was the first omen that my labor was not going to be the beautiful experience I had anticipated.

What can I say? Go out and get Mama Lama Ding Dong or The Big Rumpus. Why? Because you’ll love it, that’s why. And if you’ve ever read my blog, you’ll know I’m pretty stingy in handing out praise. Unless it’s due, which it is in this case!

Now then, back to my chat with Ayun.

Where will you be doing book readings over the next few months, so people can go see you?

I'll be heading to Philly, Chicago, Austin, Portland (OR) and the Bay Area next month. Here's the nitty, with some gritty to follow as soon as Webmaster Dave gets off his heiner and quits his day job!

You now live in Brooklyn. Since I’ve never been there, I’m curious to know, is it really populated with the kind of nutty pseudo-intellectuals like the ones featured in The Squid and the Whale?

Oh, yeah. I think a lot of people went to see that movie and sucked in their breath, thinking , "There but for the grace of ..." And while I envied Laura Linney her square footage (we're on the top floor of a brownstone), I felt the set designer did a great job of creating a believable space in which those characters could dwell. Actually, I read an interview with Noah Baumbach and he said they shot it in a family friend's house, and that Jeff Daniels wore his dad's old clothes.

Now, because I’m a notorious cheapskate who loves a good deal, I’m keen to know how you entertain the kids in New York for next to nothing. Is it easier to find cheap or free things to do with the kids around your neighborhood? Or was there more to do in the East Village, where you lived before?

The East Village was feeling pretty well gentrified by the time we left, though there are always $1 ice creams, free sprinklers and cheap breakfasts to be had, even if you don't know where to look. Now our Brooklyn neighborhood is shooting down that flume. Every time a bodega closes, the space reopens as a French bistro, an American Apparel Outlet or a boutique with $40 ringer tees featuring cereal box mascots from my childhood. But you can still buy a 50 cent cup of Italian ice from a street vendor, enjoy a tall glass of watermelon juice & some dirt cheap tamales at Fast and Fresh Deli, make a killing with or at a weekend stoop sale, and chuck water balloons or play scully in a playground (with bottle caps scrounged from the trash!) The housing projects don't seem to be going anywhere, and there's a very well established Arabic community who don't seem to be going for the $40 ringer tees, but I am sensing the old timers dying off or moving south.

Here's a thing about New York though. Subway's only 2 bucks! And it's a little murky when children start to pay. (Okay, 45 inches, but nobody's standing around with a measuring stick, least of all me!) You can get to the freebies, however far flung they may be!

What are the best sources for finding out about free kids’ activities in New York?> Go City Kids

Time Out is good for the whole family. I believe you have to be a subscriber to access their special Time Out Kids calendar, but especially if your children are out of the toddler stage, regular Time Out should do you just fine! You can pick up a copy of Time Out or Time Out Kids at the newsstand. The Village Voice is free, and is particularly good for listing the free concerts in the summer.

There are a bunch of guidebooks geared to experiencing the city with kids. The one we used (I say used b/c I think we have been to so many of the places listed that we think we discovered them on our own) is called The Cool Parents' Guide to All of New York

Finally, I have a few suggestions on my website, but I wrote a book or two and celebrated at least 2 children's birthdays since the last update, so as with any guidebook, phone first!

What are your top five activities to do with kids in New York that won’t make a dent in your wallet?

Five? You can't wind me up and expect me to stop at five! Granted, some of these will cost you more than a subway ride, but having once traveled through Italy for a week with only one restaurant meal to show for it, I can't in good conscience go so hardcore on you as to steer visitors clear of the memorably worth-it splurge (i.e. an adult MOMA ticket, the Wonder Wheel, some tuna maki at Taro Sushi)!

Eating coconut buns at Nice One Bakery on Bayard Street in Chinatown.

Riding the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.

Making Monty Python-style animations at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

Swimming in the enormous Red Hook pool.

Dressing up funny and dancing to the Hungry March Band.

Freaking out other visitors to Central Park’s Conservatory Garden, who don’t know that wisteria is edible.

Making a big deal out of seeing the Statue of Liberty out the window of the F Train around Smith & 9th.

Hanging out on the stoop.

Watching the Chinese wedding parties roll up for photo ops at the Fulton Ferry landing on Sunday afternoons.

Climbing on the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park.

Going right up to the enormous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center in the sleet, when everyone else is taking shelter under the overhanging eaves.

Ordering steamed milk for them and cappuccino for myself in boho cafes.

Facing the wall in opposite corners of the foyer outside the Grand Central Oyster Bar, which is built in such a way that if you whisper into the wall, the person in the opposite corner can hear you plain as day! Enjoy the funny looks from passerby who don’t know about this magical architectural phenomenon.

Taking Milo to Taro Sushi on Dean St, near Flatbush.

Taking Inky for a special-occasion manicure at whatever corner nail salon we happen to be near…and watching the manicurist’s delight when she notices Inky’s extra thumb. (Most NYC manicurists seem to come from cultures where an extra digit is considered lucky.)

Browsing through the comics at Rocket Ship on Smith Street.

Making paper flowers and decorating papier-mache skulls at the Museum of the American Indian’s annual Day of the Dead celebration.

Ordering cream puffs from Beard Papa.

Watching Greg play softball in the Broadway Show League in Central Park.

Breaking up errands in whatever playground happens to present itself.

Cooling off in the shady sprinklers at the top of Tompkins Square.

Swapping outgrown duds for new (used) finery at Jane’s Exchange.

Discovering over lunch at New Green Bo that there is something beside coconut buns that Inky will deign to eat in Chinatown.

Pointing out grafitti of interest.

Thinking about the day I will take them to Jackson Heights as a test run for taking them to India.

Making the annual pilgrimage to see Santa at ABC Carpet and Home.

Gamboling between the bridges in Empire Park.

MOMA (kids get in free!)

Examining the merchandise and reading every single label at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company.

Blowing 50¢ on a Dixie cup of Italian ice from a guy pushing an insulated metal cart strung with bells.

Waving to the passengers riding on the upper decks of the red tourist buses.

Giving quarters to anyone playing music in the subway, regardless of musical talent.

Taking in a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual Children’s Film Festival.

Climbing the indoor rock wall and flipping around on the various trampoline-like things at Chelsea Piers, as long as someone else is footing the bill.

Ice skating in Prospect Park.

Riding a Black Cowboys’ Association pony at street fairs throughout Brooklyn.

Examining the unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters.

Seeking out “the squid and the whale” at the Museum of Natural History.

Being nice to babies on the sidewalks of New York.

Deciding not to freeze our heiners off with the multitudes who head to 81st and Central Park West to see the giant balloons being inflated the night before Thanksgiving.

Volunteering to help feed the hungry at the Church of the Holy Apostles’ long-running soup kitchen.

Admiring the produce at the Union Square Farmers Market.

Holding our noses during the canine costume contest in the Tompkins Square dog run a couple of days before Halloween.

Recognizing Dan Zanes on the street.

Hitting the Children’s Museum Of the Arts during their weekly “pay-what-you-can” admission time.

Chilling out in PS1’s cafĂ© after absorbing the requisite dose of culture.

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Drinking the molten-pudding-like hot chocolate at Jacques Torres’s flagship store.

Exploring the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum.

Sledding in Prospect Park’s long meadow.

Making a big deal out of a haircut at Le Chandelier.

Getting creeped out by the marionettes at Puppetworks.

Buying stationery and notebooks for less than a dollar at BJ99 on Pike St.

Rubbing all the herbs and then smelling our hands in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Fragrance Garden.

Watching Circus Amok in a public park.

Leafing through the Tin-Tin books at La Petite Abeille.

Avoiding restaurants that, like Bubby’s and the Two Boots on Avenue A, are so celebrated as great places to go with children, they are chronically filled with screaming children and their tense & snappish parents.

Wow! You've certainly given me a lot of ideas. Thanks for dropping by Ayun!

My pleasure. See you on top of the Wonder Wheel!