Today I spent the afternoon walking around the Upper East Side — an area which, despite the infinite familiarity I’ve gained from following Charlotte York’s storyline, I rarely visit. To me, it has always been a foreign land of undersexed old ladies in fur coats and the men they nag into an early grave; a cold, sterile display of Old Money and the people who are determined to take it with them into the afterlife.
Well, that’s bleak. I also knew there were small dogs.
But, as it turns out, the UES actually a fabulous place to be. After spending most of my New York Life confined to Williamsburg and everything under fourteenth street, I had all but forgotten that people over the age of 45 exist, and that there are restaurants without the words fusion or farm-to-table in their sales pitches. There are white tablecloths and impeccable architecture and people who wear turtlenecks and riding boots to places other than a horse show. It’s WASPy, yes, but in a way, deeply refreshing.
You see, communities like the West Village or the Williamsburg waterfront or SoHo are just as much into conspicuous consumption, but in a more insidious way. They will spend 100 dollars on a deconstructed tee shirt and go out of their way to order drinks that are unpleasantly bitter, all because it looks a certain way. It’s spend, spend spend, but it never feels luxurious. The warehouses converted into lofts still feel every bit the factory-made things they are: utilitarian and just the right amount of broken-down, with exposed brick and edison lightbulbs as far as the eye can see.
I’ve eaten in so many restaurants with old planks of wood and homey pieces of art on the walls to give you the illusion of being at some charming farm house, and yet none had occupied their space for more than five years.
There is something joyous about walking into a restaurant or bakery which has been operating for a hundred years, serving the same clientele, and refuses to change a single thing about the service because, well, fuck you. And as the rents have declined in the Upper East Side along with its relative trendiness, nothing has ever felt more luxurious. Walking down big, tree-lined streets, passing by a hundred superfluous French baby clothing stores, you feel truly rich in a way you never can in an Urban Outfitters-sponsored area of Brooklyn.
It feels rich the way good cream does, or a nice spread of butter across a crusty piece of bread — it is all fat and luxury, and makes no pretense about itself. It doesn’t need to look like an old farmhouse, because its stately Georgian architecture is much too good for that hipster nonsense.
And so, while I was up here, I decided to stop into a bakery — one that doesn’t assault you with its gluten-free options the second you walk in the door. Maison Kayser, a boulangerie on 3rd and 74th, was rumored to have one of the best and most authentic baguettes in the city, and good bread doesn’t need a reason to seek it out. A little after lunchtime on a Monday, the line was packed with elegant French people in blazers and good leather, making me feel — in my by all accounts decent outfit — like a child. The cafe side bustled with more languages than I could count, occasionally obscured by the steaming milk from the man making cappuccinos behind a marble counter.
I made love to the pastries with my eyes, and then discreetly with my camera. (I don’t need to look more like a tourist than I already do.)
I picked two items — a strawberry tart with vanilla-almond cream, and a “tradition” baguette, extra crusty and fat. Feeling like I had just won some kind of lottery, I made my way over to my parents’ place a few blocks over (they’ve been renting a place in the area while they house-hunt). Every house I passed felt more important than the last, streets dotted with embassies and private schools and impeccably-crafted buildings that knew the New York of horse-drawn carriages. It felt more New York than Williamsburg ever has, and not because I recognized locations from my 2308723508 viewings of Sex and the City episodes.
It felt the way it does in Central Park, when you see the tall buildings peeking up from behind the trees, cradling you in their strength and their timelessness. They were there long before you came, and will be there long after you’re gone. They will keep you safe.
I poured myself a cup of coffee, and set to enjoying the spoils of my conquest.
With a good view by a window, it was one of the better afternoon coffees in recent memory. In fact, it had been a long time since I’ve really observed the occasion. Being in an office, it’s hard to just kind of up and say “Well, it’s three o’clock, I’m going to go linger over an espresso and a newspaper and a pastry. See you assholes later!” But given the finite nature of our mortal coil, it’s almost a crime not to indulge. And frankly, if you work in an environment that allows decent breaks, even thirty minutes for an afternoon pause transforms any day into something luxurious.
It’s something Americans often skip over in our discussions of quality of life — a discussion that almost always centers around money — but this is a mistake. Because for 8.50, plus whatever your weekly budget it on coffee/tea and butter at home, and I hope it’s significant, you have a ritual that can be a highlight of your day.
And the fact that the things I enjoyed — a fruit tart, a crusty baguette, some coffee with fresh cream — are things our great-great grandparents would have enjoyed, added to its decadence. I currently swim in a frothing ocean of kale-based juices, vegan cheese, coconut water, and deconstructed comfort foods. It’s nice to just eat normal things for a change.
And for only slightly less than what I pay for a cup of artisanal coffee in the morning, which is an absolute tragedy.
I felt more rich today than I have in a long time — rich in design, rich in stunning views, rich in wide streets and open possibilities and endless window shopping to be done. I felt rich sitting by a window, with crumbly pastry and crusty bread and hot coffee. I felt rich taking my time with things, and seeking out the best of them, in a way that is neither ostentatious nor painfully trendy. And it turns out that spending nearly endless disposal income on chic brunches or exposed brick or mixologist-approved cocktails feels, at the end of the day, a bit cheap. It’s the industrial neighborhood hastily transformed into a sprawling kingdom of gentrification.
And sometimes it’s nice just to have a few good things, and enjoy the walk to find them.