Unique New York

I’ve been to New York City before. But just because you’ve gone once, twice, or even twenty times, it doesn’t mean you’ve been to New York City. Every single trip I’ve taken has been entirely different from the last, and that’s because this urban jungle lends itself to everything from serendipitous encounters to the inexplicably bizarre–the kind of magical realism you can only hope to encounter in a Gabriel Garcia Lorca novel.

Joe and I saw this clip on Louie CK one night. We immediately decided we had to go. (Well, we decided immediately but didn’t really get around to doing it until 3 months later.) The episode (Season 3, Episode 4) is a love poem to New York told through a lens tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, thanks to the tactful eye of Susan E. Morse, Woody Allen’s go-to editor. Among so many other things in Manhattan, the episode features Russ & Daughters, an appetizing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The word “appetizer” comes from the Latin word appete, which means “to desire.” At Russ & Daughters, one can very easily deduce its colloquial meaning: “the foods one eats with bagels.” Even further, there simply isn’t a better word to describe what you feel upon entering the store. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the belly. We ordered almost everything you can see in the clip: pickled herring, bagels with lox, and the chocolate babka. (It was all mind blowing.)

…And then there was the Birdman. Maybe you’ve heard of him. We definitely hadn’t before last night. But let me back up a bit.

After dinner, I had a specific musical craving for Black Sabbath (you know, to wash down the pickled herring.) Naturally, Joe and I wandered into the nearest record store that we could find–Rainbow Music.

Imagine, if you will, a pack rat’s paradise. A sizeable space made small by tons and tons of stuff. In this case, it was music. We squeeze into a narrow aisle of CDs stacked up to eye level–and then some. There’s barely enough room to walk through it face forward; you have to sidestep your way through to browse the CD titles. A short, older man approaches us and asks us what we’re looking for. Although I have no idea how, he knew exactly where the Black Sabbath CDs were and pulled them for us within seconds.

“They call me the Birdman,” he says, without us asking. “They made a documentary a few years back. It won some awards. People come in here asking me for pictures and stuff.” At this point, I’m hooked. There was no question that [1] we would stay and chat and [2] we would buy something. Talk about sales strategy.

The Birdman, a 73-year old Wall Street veteran who speaks with a thick New York accent, runs Rainbow Music as a sort of passion project. Having cashed out on his hedge funds long ago, he says the store isn’t about the money. (I asked him for any helpful trading tips, but like any good poker player, he kept his cards close to his chest. However, he did let slip his endorsement for pharmaceuticals and food stocks.) Despite not actively researching what’s trending these days, he’s managed to intuit what “the kids” are listening to. In the organized mess of an inventory, I spotted Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa within easy reach. Somehow, he even pinned me for a Django Reinhardt fan within two minutes.

(I realize that the organization of the CDs could probably just come from people sorting through them and setting them down closer to the front of the stacks. For my own purposes, I may just stick with my theory that he’s a musical clairvoyant.)

“This is all going away next month,” he tells us while ringing up our CDs (by hand and on paper, no less). I can’t tell whether there’s sadness in his voice or if I just imagined it. “We’re moving all of it to the Internet. You sell things a lot faster there.” We learn that the building landlord is leasing the store space out for something else, so the Birdman’s son is going to help open an online store–even though he doesn’t currently own a computer. They’ve been there for 14 years.

After stepping back out into the litany of Manhattan on a Friday night, it’s hard to tell whether being in the store was like stepping back in time or if it was just a crude affirmation of the current times. Even though Lower East Side counterculture  warrants the existence and perpetuation of vintage music stores like Rainbow, the Birdman has decided to resign from a brick-and-mortar setup to sell his stuff using digital means. I can’t imagine the buying experience being the same without meeting the Birdman face to face, and goodness knows I wouldn’t have paid $23 for a used CD if he hadn’t chatted us up.

The Birdman from Jessie Auritt on Vimeo.

Joe and I drove back to Boston blasting Black Sabbath, full of good food and good stories. I know that the next time I trek to New York, it’ll be completely different and probably even stranger than the last. I can’t wait.

Desert Deviation

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“Madness plants mirrors in the desert.”
― Floriano Martins

Quiet. That’s what I miss the most about the desert. There’s no Boston banter, no city litany, no traffic tumult. Just open space and skies deeper than your eyes can reach. Desert protagonists and antiheroes alike will tell you that once you spend enough time there, eventually, there’s nowhere to look but inward. That’s when you end up running into yourself.

Buried in northern Arizona is a place that almost prides itself in being a little out of the way. Highway 89 stretches across it, inviting views of purple mountains during sunset and star-studded skies at twilight. In the distance, you can catch a glimpse of Thumb Butte (facetiously dubbed “thumb butt” by the younger population). This is Prescott Valley. And you can believe the rumors–it’s just as small as they say.

Joe and I touched down here after spending a weekend in Vegas. (Prescott Valley is home for Joe.) One couldn’t imagine a more stark contrast between the two cities–from casinos and yard-long drinks to dust devils and ghost towns. Here, your best friends are the same kids you grew up with, and your kids become friends with theirs. You’re on a first-name basis with the post office staff, and buying anything other than groceries requires “going into town.” For an urbanite’s idea of fun, you could drive to the modest array of bars at Whiskey Row, but inviting some friends over for drinks and conversation is more the status quo. Here, you live on stories.

I’m a firm believer that a good story is the shortest distance between two people. This is helpful to keep in mind when you’re meeting someone for the first time–especially your boyfriend’s family. Lucky for me, Joe’s mom had plenty of stories to tell off the bat, and we found ourselves laughing over homemade meatballs and wine in no time. I had forgotten how good it feels to give up control and let the conversation run its course.

Through meeting his friends and observing relics of his past firsthand, I was also able to confirm the stories he had long told me about his Prescott Valley years. (I may or may not have snagged pictures from old photo albums for safekeeping. I mean, blackmail.)

I have big things to say about this small town, but most of it is logged elsewhere for my own records. Among the manifold memories made were a stargazing date off the highway, a four-wheel adventure in Sedona, a wedding by Watson Lake, a birthday road trip to California, an exponentially hilarious excremental situation, and so on.

You know you’ve had a good trip when the stories from it cover the broad spectrum–good to bad. Sometimes, we’re too eagerly inclined to scrap the bad and only remember the good, forgetting in the process that we need both in order to grow. An escapist by habit, I was convinced at the beginning of this trip that leaving the city would somehow mitigate my stressors. However, I re-learned that places don’t carry problems; people do.

Now, upon returning to Boston, I feel refreshed and equipped with an arsenal of travel tales–but also with a commitment to looking inward, not wayward, to let go of heavier loads.

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The Maine Idea

I’ve been in Boston for roughly 10 months. Little did I realize that, during this time period, I had incrementally lost faith in humanity. Perhaps it was the angry driver who honked and yelled, “Get a move on it, you f@#king cow!” to the geriatric pedestrian at the crosswalk. Or maybe it was the drunk, belligerent Southie couple with no sense of volume or filter on the T. Then again, it could just have been the winter blizzards or manifold “summer” thunderstorms.

But I digress.

I realized all this–that I was living in a Boston bubble–as soon as I arrived in Portland, Maine. After we parked the car, out of habit, my boyfriend and I jaywalked across the street to get to the harbor. Whereas in Boston, oncoming traffic would have accelerated in our direction at the sight of this attempt, Maine drivers slowed down, obstructed traffic, and smiled as they waited for us to cross. (What?!)

That’s not all. Curious about local brews, we stopped by Allagash Brewery in hopes of catching a tour. According to a chipper voice on the phone, all tours were booked for the day, but we were more than welcome to stop by for a drink at the bar. We followed suit. Both of us ordered a flight, which includes four samples of their current favorites. The best part? It was free!

I’m no anthropologist, but I’ll boldly assert that any society that offers you free beer is not just hospitable but enlightened in ways that only Buddhist monks and 17th century European intellectuals would understand.

At the risk of sounding like I’m writing a Yelp review, I have to mention the food! To eat, we chose lobster rolls and oysters at J’s Oyster Bar. Then poutine and French fries made with duck fat at, well, a place called Duckfat. All delicious, no surprise. (Admittedly, I still find myself peering longingly at the photos I took of the meals we had.)

On top of all this, there were rolling hills that overlooked the Atlantic, winding roads that induce your own unwinding, and even a desert in the middle of this New England territory. If Boston has diminished my faith in humanity, then Maine is one of the places in America that can replenish it.

Geborgenheit

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At the beginning of this month, I moved in with my boyfriend.

A few years ago, if you had asked me how I felt about moving in with a partner, I would have adamantly told you that it was out of the question. However, this past version of myself has quickly been foiled by a boyfriend whom I trust, see a future with, and cannot get enough of. (Also, he’s cute.) [Disclaimer: This is not, by any means, an endorsement for moving in with simply anyone. We made this decision after much discussion, mutual consent, and establishing what both of us want in the future.]

The funny thing about moving in together is that you quickly become a master of your own inventory, reducing your belongings to lists and numbers. For example, I learned that I had 2 large suitcases full of winter clothes, 15 pairs of shoes, and (for some reason) 6 bottles of contact lens solution. The next challenge was learning to consolidate. Between us, my boyfriend and I had 5 flashlights, 4 screwdrivers, and 3 sets of towels. (We ended up either throwing out or giving away what we didn’t need.) Despite the cumbersome task of moving, we knew we’d be reducing the commute between both our places to zero miles and would, in the long run, be saving on rent.

Then, after we settled in, something started to happen. It slowly became obvious that the most valuable things were those that could never be catalogued, archived, or quantified. Like, the butterflies I get when he refers to things as “ours.” The relief I feel knowing that I’ll always have someone to rescue me from disproportionately large bugs. How giddy I get when I see our both our names on the mailbox. Sharing breakfast together with the radio on. Learning to make decisions together–big and small. Picking up on each others’ habits (like how I never fully finish sodas and how he tends to bite his nails). Falling asleep on the couch during X-Files marathons. And just how plain happy we are being near one another.

I realize now: the things that quantify a home don’t necessarily qualify one. The latter is up to us. Furthermore, akin to building a home is fostering a successful partnership, a process that is ongoing and–if you’re lucky–well worth it. For now, I’m fortunate to have found an equally invested partner in crime for this venture.

There’s a German word, Geborgenheit, for which there is no English counterpart. It’s used to describe “the sum of security, warmth, protection, trust, and love.” I’m inclined to say that it’s also the sum of what the first month living with my counterpart has felt like. To many, many more ahead.

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Dome Diving on Cape Cod

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There’s nothing like breaking and entering.

Before you cast any judgment, hear me out. Imagine discovering a place seemingly untouched by other human beings for an indeterminate length of time. You spot it from the road, overgrown by the trees around it. An allure lingers despite its abandon.  Normal people might see it and think, “Cool,” then drive on. Then again, Joe and I are as far removed from ‘normal’ as possible.

The locale in question is a geodesic dome built in the early 1950s by Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller—-architect, designer, futurist. From the road, it doesn’t look like much. Guarded by a motel and a wall of trees,  it dwells in stolid silence. How could we resist getting a closer look?

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We tried the obvious ingresses first. Doors, windows, side entrances—-all locked. Joe pointed out that someone had cut through a screen that led into the basement storage area of the building. Next to a pile of discarded wood was a low window that led into the basement. The opening was just large enough for a person to squeeze through. So we slid in.

If you’ve ever snuck into an abandoned building, you’re familiar with the initial rush. It’s a colloidal mixture of adrenaline, fear, and wonder. There were objects old and new laying around. Kitchen stoves, ladders, a lawnmower, a restaurant sign, lamps—-artifacts from a past era. Eerie and fascinating at the same time.

On our way out, we left a couple entrances open for future explorers. Although we did our fair share of looking around, we left everything as it was. Well, almost:

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Lesson learned: If you want an adventure, you have to go look for it. Clandestine domes don’t go exploring themselves, you know. And if you’re lucky enough (like I am), you have a partner in crime to do it with you.

My friend and former colleague Katie Klocksin previously came across this dome and produced a stellar radio story about it. Give it a listen. I highly recommend it for a historical perspective on the dome itself.

Keep Austin Weird

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Now, there’s a slogan I can get behind. I like to think of Austin as the black sheep in the Texas family. Ironically, it’s where weirdos (like me) feel like they can fit right in. Heralded for its progressive, neo-hippie, counter-culture vibe, Austin is a good place to be yourself–or just about anybody else.

Last week, I flew to Austin for the beginning of SXSW. I was only in the city for two days in order to attend the Integrated Media Association Conference (iMA 2013). Fortunately, I was able to wander around a bit to explore the city.

First, let’s hash through what Austin is known for:

  • Being the live music capitol of the world
  • Its diverse assortment of Tex-Mex food
  • Loosen-your-belt, lick-your-fingers BBQ

I will confirm that Austin is all of those things and more. You will never be found wanting for live music with venues left and right. Whether your musical cravings are for lo-fi acoustic performances or bare-your-soul rock n’ roll, there’s a space for that in Austin. (Heck, even the airport books live music for the listening pleasure of departing and arriving passengers!) As for Tex Mex, you not only can have tacos for lunch and dinner but also for breakfast. Gems like Arturo’s will provide your taco fix as soon as you wake up in case you can’t wait until lunchtime. For belly-bursting BBQ, you might want to avoid the two-hour line at Franklin‘s and head to Lambert’s instead. No doubt about it–Austin is a great place to be a carnivore. (For more recommendations, check out Foursquare’s Best of Austin list.)

Given my short stay, I don’t have as comprehensive of a view of Austin as I’d like. Then again, it’s simply another excuse to go back.

Things I’d like to do next time:

Tigueraje

When I think of the island, I think of coconut oil. Not the cheap, processed kind that you can buy on the mainland, no. Raw, viscous, caramelized-by-the-sun coconut oil. The kind you can sip to stimulate digestion, cook with your dinner, and slather onto your skin before a good tanning session. The kind that crystallizes and melts at temperatures inconveniently close to each other. In a way, this mercurial, multi-purpose commodity is an appropriate analogy for the Dominican Republic itself. The island comes in many forms: foamy ocean surf that cuddles your ankles, glasses clinking in garrulity, feet shuffling on a dance floor, a murky puddle after a torrential storm, or sometimes even a bitter spoonful of perspective.

On the one hand, it’s got everything you would want out of a vacation spot. There are pristine beaches where sunburned tourists can willfully lose track of time. You can go on an exotic excursion to “authentic” Dominican hermitages, where local families eagerly greet you (in English, Russian, Spanish, and French) and parade handmade goods in front of you like a live infomercial (“Special discount especially for you, only today!”). Presidente beer and Mama Juana (a fermented mixture of red wine, honey, Dominican rum, and local herbs) flow freely and limitlessly like the Caribbean Sea. Spas, zip lines, hover boats, year-round golf courses, snorkeling, and many, many other forms of…man-made paradise.

By no means is this place flawless—at least no more than any other place in the world. It all depends on how you choose to see it, as long as you allow yourself to really see it. Drive two miles outside of any hotel, and you’ll find unpaved streets, roofless houses, and too many homeless kids. Since access to electricity is controlled by the government, and the government so often drops the ball, some houses resort to car batteries for regular power. Immigration within the island and emigration out of the island are both huge problems. (The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, its western neighbor, which, last I heard, wasn’t doing so great.)

It’s the third world, after all. Hotel resort-villes make it easy to forget that sometimes.

You can’t help but feel at least a little conflicted. These days, the country’s economy depends on services for its main gross income—services like tourism. So you buy the hand-made jewels, the homemade coconut oil, the locally-grown-and-churned chocolate in hopes that maybe you’re helping. Or, perhaps that’s the just First World citizen’s delusion. (I hope it’s not.)

An American kid raises his hand and asks our tour guide, “Excuse me, sir, who is the president of the Dominican Republic?” This otherwise innocuous question wouldn’t connote so many things back in the States, but it triggers so many follow-up questions in my head. Just because there’s a president, it doesn’t mean that there’s an effective government. Even if there’s a government, it doesn’t mean it ensures fairness or justice, the former international studies major in me whispers. Elections are rigged; promises are broken; taxes are raised; money is laundered.

The amiable tour guide answers, “Danilo Medina, senor,” and quickly changes the topic to baseball.

And that’s another thing: Dominicans love—I mean, love—their baseball. The only thing they love more than baseball are their baseball players, who are demigods in the eyes of their people. No one questions the fact that some of the best American baseball players come from the D.R. Once you cross over to the major leagues, everyone back home claims to have grown up with you and played catch with you in grade school. The Albert Pujol’s and David Ortiz’s of the world aren’t just players on a team; they’re mascots for a country looking for something to be proud of, something to help them forget how hard life can get. The same reason why we tourists come to tan on the beach.

Detroit Rock Lost City

If you’ve ever seen post-apocalyptic movies like Resident Evil or I Am Legend, you can picture exactly what downtown Detroit looks like, without ever having been there.

Windowless, abandoned buildings spy on you as you make your way across empty streets. Trash peppers the sidewalks, and there is barely a living soul in sight. It’s quiet. Too quiet. The one resounding question in your head is, “What the hell happened here?”



Unlike in science fiction stories, there were no zombies, epidemics, or nuclear explosions responsible for the city’s undoing—simply an outdated economy. Detroit was once an industrial hub, a Midwest confluence of rail lines that made it possible for trains to transport goods across the country. The automobile industry thrived—that is, until more and more manufacturing jobs went overseas. Americans fell for European and Japanese cars, soon after abandoning Detroit’s Motor City like a pathetic part-time lover.

It’s hard to believe that Motown (an abbreviation of “Motor Town” that eventually became synonymous with the musical genre) could have ever been born in such a dejected environment. These days, silence permeates the air. In a way, the correlation between zombies and Detroit isn’t so inaccurate; the city’s not quite dead, but it’s not exactly alive either.

I’m riding a bike that I rented for $10 a day from my hostel. At this point, I haven’t heard anything about Detroit’s crime rates or economic drought. All I know is that it’s sunny outside and I want to see whether I can bike to Canada, which is located miles across the water. The only car on the street stops next to me while I’m snapping a photo, and a guy wearing a sideways Tigers cap in the passenger seat yells his phone number at me repeatedly, telling me to call him. I’m neither flattered nor amused.

Sadly, I can’t bike to Canada. I realize that I don’t have my passport with me and give up my dreams of integrating myself into the Canadian public health system (a girl can dream!). Instead, I opt to stake out in front of the water to look longingly across the river. If I can’t go to Canada, I can at least stare at it until it feels uncomfortable.

While I’m trying to enjoy the view, a police car pulls up next to me. Two eyes, a nose, and then an entire face appear above the slowly descending tinted window. “You be careful out here,” the officer says, with ominous cadence. The window rolls back up with a laggard hum, and pebbles crunch beneath the rubber tires as the car rolls away. Odd, I think to myself.

Slightly disturbed by the encounter, I decide to bike back to the hostel, where I’m then warned about the crime rate. Suddenly, the empty streets, fenced-off buildings, and barred windows make perfect sense. Thankfully, nothing had happened to me while I was out. Paranoia successfully peaked.

On my day of departure, I wait for the double-decker bus that will eventually ship me back to Chicago and out of these post-apocalyptic ruins. I’m at the Rosa Parks Bus Terminal, newly constructed and surprisingly vacant. My phone is about to die, so I search for an outlet to charge it. After finding one, I sit down on the floor next to my backpack and charging phone. A security guard is standing five feet to my left, so I figure that I’m in a (somewhat) strategically safe position. A woman looks over, approaches me, and iterates (with much sass), “You better put yo’ shit away, girl. They gon’ rob you.” The security guard, who overhears the woman talking to me, glances over at me and gives a conciliatory nod. I stuff everything into my backpack and clutch it against my chest until my bus arrives.

Despite its abandon and otherwise uninspired cityscapes, the poetry of Detroit lies in the optimism of its remaining inhabitants. While most people have opted out of downtown and chased jobs into the suburbs, some hardliners remain true to their city. They hope that Detroit can revive, redevelop and repurpose its downtown area to emulate its heyday. Others stick around because they have nowhere else to go. One wonders, is this level of commitment semblance of sanctimony or proof of parsimony?

Admittedly, my habit of hyperbole might get me into some trouble with Detroit’s tourism department. In Detroit’s defense, I’ve heard that it’s a great place to live if you know where to go and what to do (though, apparently, I neither found these places nor did those things). The optimist in me hopes that Detroit gets back on its feet (or wheels) somehow. Until then, I simply don’t see myself frequenting a town that so quickly triggers the most primal of my survival instincts.

Age of Exploration: Adventure is Out There!

It is with deep pride and pleasure that I present to you my sophomore album, Age of Exploration. Ta-da!

This album is about places, transit, and adventure. My biggest hope is that it will inspire you to explore the world around you as well as the one within you. Dare to step out of your comfort zone, try something new, meet interesting people! Surprise yourself. Then, tell me all about it!

The entire album will be available FREE for streaming on SoundCloud until 11:59pm Pacific. You can also purchase your digital copies online. There are no physical copies of the album YET, but I will work on getting those out to you soon! (As most of you know by now, I recently relocated to Chicago, IL, so I’m still getting settled in!)

If you’re interested in the Age of Exploration Travel Guide, which includes extra album artwork, song lyrics, and full album credits, send me an e-mail at lily@lilybeemusic.com with “Travel Guide” in the subject line. These items will eventually be available in the album’s physical version.

Adventure is out there! Go find it, and listen to this album along the way. Let the journeys begin.

Big, big love to you,

Lily Bee

P.S. I LOVE live reactions. Feel free to e-mail or tweet me as you listen to it. I want to know what you think, whether you love it or hate it!

Also, if you’re going to tweet about the album, use the hashtag #AgeofExploration and tag me @dangerbui!

Seven Days at Sea: A Father’s Day Story

The story behind “Thuyền” (meaning “boat” in Vietnamese), a song on the new album Age of Exploration.

My dad recently came to Chicago with me to help me move. When he first emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in the 1970s, he ended up in Chicago. He was around the same age as I am now. I asked him whether I could interview him for a story. This is what resulted.

This next album is about exploring the world around you as well as the world within you. This interview helped me do both things.