Inhuman Swill : Astoria
            

Packing Kevin's painting
"What the hell are you doing?" the old man yelled into my window. "You can't park here! What's wrong with you?"

I had just backed very carefully into a space barely wide enough for the car. My friend Kevin was riding shotgun, my dog Ella in a nest in the back seat. Funny, I thought as the man angrily waved me back into the alley, we only missed our target by about twelve feet.

That was exactly one year ago this evening—Wednesday, June 26, 2013. It was the tail end of a 24-hour odyssey that already felt like a dream.

In reality, though, the odyssey went back much farther. For months, Laura and I had been planning a move from Chicago back to New York City. The company she worked for had offered her a job in its New York office, and in fact she was already spending much of her time there, transitioning into her new role. It fell to me to make all the arrangements for moving, to get everything packed, and to find us a new place to live.

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Memory Lane

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Their former stoop
She strains at the leash,
Trying to turn the corner.
"Not that way," I say.

But Ella insists,
So I give in and follow.
Not that big a deal.

This short, narrow lane,
It's a valid path back home,
Not such a detour.

Along the sidewalk
We rush, my arm stretched out straight,
Not pausing to sniff.

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Cook like an Egyptian

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Our friend Ali is on TV again. John Klima points me toward this clip from Jamie's American Road Trip, which just recently starting airing in the States. It features Jamie Oliver traveling from Manhattan to Queens to learn Egyptian cooking from Ali El Sayed of the celebrated Kabab Cafe:

(The actual arrival in Queens comes at about 3:28, and you can click here to jump straight there.)

I dragged a very willing Mr. Klima to Kabab Cafe back in 2008, when we both happened to be in New York, and a memorable night it was. If you find yourself in New York and want to get off the beaten path for a culinary adventure, the address is 25-12 Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. Tell Ali that Bill from Chicago sent you.

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Infidel dog

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Infidel dog
This morning,
with a high of seventy degrees in the forecast,
amazing for a November in Chicago,
I drove the dog to Warren Park.
That's where we go for a special treat
instead of our usual neighborhood walk,
because the squirrel chasing is most excellent,
and there are never any cops there to harass you,
a scofflaw walking his dog off its leash.

We like to run up the steps of the sledding hill,
which a parks department sign actually proclaims "Sledding Hill,"
and then charge down the slope,
after which we make our way around the skirt of the hill
where the squirrels rummage through the leaves
like so many bargain hunters.
We crunch crunch crunch across the orange carpet,
and if we're lucky we spot a squirrel far enough out
in the open that Ella can chase it full-bore
back to its tree.
She has never once caught one.
Or at any rate never killed one.

Next we like to follow the cinder jogging path
all the way around the little nine-hole golf course embedded
like an off-center yolk
in the albumen of the park,
and that's exactly what we did this morning.
I walked in the leaves at the side of the path,
trying to encourage Ella to do the same,
but unless she has a rodent, lagomorph or marsupial in her sights
she prefers to walk on pavement. Go figure.

We were on the south side of the golf course,
the tall chain-link fence meant to protect us from flying balls
off to our left,
when I saw two men coming our way along the path,
youngish men—younger than I, at any rate—
neatly bearded men dressed in long robes the color of wet sand.
It was already warm enough out that I was regretting
the heavy coat I wore over my hooded sweatshirt.
I snapped my fingers imperiously,
calling for Ella to return to my side,
to leave the path and get out of the way
of the two youngish men engaged in animated talk.

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Old shoe week

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John eat BRAINS!
Going home to New York City is as comfortable as slipping on an old shoe. I flew there Tuesday afternoon with just a backpack and the parka on my back, and I was immediately at ease and confident in a way I don't yet feel in Chicago. The only bad part was that I was alone, since Laura was on a concurrent business trip to Rochester.

But I wasn't solitary for long. I took a cab from Laguardia to my borrowed apartment in Astoria, Queens, dumped off most of the contents of my pack, and headed into the city. After a quick stop at my old office, I met John Klima, in from Iowa way, at the Tor offices in the Flatiron Building. I acquired an advance copy of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, I chatted with Patrick Nielsen Hayden for a minute or two, and John and I hauled his bags back to Astoria on the subway.

We had a full evening ahead, but before I tell you about it I have to back up several months and remind you of the segment of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" that Laura and I caught back in July:

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We thought we could beat the thunderstorms. That is why last Monday evening I walked thirty minutes to a showing of Live Free or Die Hard, while Laura biked to Pipers Alley to meet up with the running group she was attending for the first time.

I thoroughly enjoyed my movie, even the patently preposterous parts toward the end, and I emerged to discover that it had rained while I was inside. A lot. Laura, on the other hand, ran with the group and biked home in it.

So it was that when I arrived home I found her recuperating on the couch in front of the television. She had the Travel Channel on, and had paused the live feed. "You need to watch this," she said. "Before you do anything else. I guarantee it will make you happy."

This is what she showed me:

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Ali's well!

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When last we checked in with Ali El Sayed at Kabab Cafe in Astoria, he was papering the doors and getting ready to light out for Egypt. We're pleased to hear, via [info]rajankhanna and the New York Times, that he's back in town and back in form, rumors of plans to join his brother's place down the street notwithstanding:

Pita with a Generous Helping of Quirkiness

Go keep him company for us.

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Astoria Sidewalk
Every Sunday morning, Laura and I walk Ella through our neighborhood to Astoria Park for a pre-9:00 am romp with her friends. It takes about half an hour to get there. Last Sunday, Laura brought the camera along and took pictures.

Astoria has the largest population of Greeks outside of Greece, or so I am told. It's the kind of neighborhood with a Dunkin' Donuts on one block and a supper club called ΠANΘEON on the next. Astoria's sister city is Athens, which donated a couple of statues to a little park on 30th Avenue called Athens Square.

We don't always walk through Athens Square on the way to Astoria Park, but when we do Ella usually barks at the Socrates statue. (Had she lived in ancient Athens, she'd have been one of the citizens calling for the death of Socrates.) Sunday, though, she couldn't be bothered.

From Athens Square, it's another twenty minutes or so to Astoria Park. There's a children's playground in the park that overlooks the once-dangerous East River channel known as Hell Gate. Only in a Greek neighborhood would the playground be named after Charybdis, the ravenous sea monster of Greek mythology responsible for whirlpools.

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Waxing the camel

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Last night was the end of an era. It was by only the most fortuitous of chances that we were there for it.

Laura and I had taken [info]curmudgeon to the incomparable Kabab Cafe before, to be entertained, charmed, and provoked by our friend Ali El Sayed's patter and transported by his food. With Laura and me moving soon, doing it again while Curmudgeon was in town was critical.

Turns out it was more critical than we knew. Ali told us, "I'm glad you are here tonight. Tomorrow I will be closed. I leave for 25 days in Egypt." He went on to explain that on his return, he will begin renovating Kabab Cafe—again. He will change the menu, begin serving breakfast in addition to lunch and dinner, and train chefs to take over for him. He will then take his menu over to his brother Moustafa's excellent nearby restaurant Mombar, where he will sometimes cook and sometimes help oversee operations of both restaurants. He will use his trip to Egypt to work out plans for the new venture.

The changes are exciting, since Ali finally won't be tied to his tiny kitchen. But it was also a poignant evening—the last night of the Kabab Cafe we've known all these years. There were only two other diners there when we arrived, but even with the pick of tables in the place, Ali suggested we sit in the niche near the door so he could talk to us over the counter of his kitchen. We drank too much Argentine Malbec while we enjoyed mixed appetizers of hummus, babaganouj, falafel, fried Swiss chard, apples, pears, and more; a more than appetizer portion of pumpkin dumplings in a spicy sauce; goat chops; beef short ribs; and an amazing dish of sand shark tail. I broke out a bottle of Balvenie Portwood 21yo I'd brought for us—Ali included—to enjoy along with dessert, which was a plate of selected Mediterranean pastries from the bakery down the street, together with yogurt and various fruits. I had thick coffee too.

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Medical emergency on the downtown 6 uptown this morning, messing up subway service roundly. I keep forgetting why I hate coming to work during rush hour.

Anyway, I had another lovely U.N. night last night in Astoria. Actually it started right after work in Murray Hill, where I went to Artisanal for mostly French cheeses and white wines with an out-of-town colleague and his wife. The best cheese we sampled was the Bleu de Basque from French Basque country. Yum. One wine from our flight had gone bad—full of sediment and tasting very thin—and our waitress promptly replaced it with a similar Spanish wine. Yum.

Later that evening, back home in Astoria, Laura and I walked over to an Irish pub called The Quays that we'd been meaning to try for some time. (Sadly, there was no live music, though I have it that Shane McGowan of the Pogues has appeared there in the past.) But when I say Irish pub, I mean Irish pub—I.R.A. ballads on the stereo and the whole nine yards. We might have had the only American accents in the place, and Laura was one of only three females. The third female, by the way, was a young pug named Lucky (yes, a dog) whose owner was feeding her Guinness from a plastic cup. The Guinness was four bucks a pint, and we had a great time. We'll have to come back when there's music.

Laura was hungry on the walk home, so we stopped at a place called Ukus, offering Balkan pie, for a late dinner. We each had a huge pizza-like slice of spinach pie, and the nice owners brought us each a mug of a cold, thick, sour, yogurty drink the name of which I can't now recall, on the house. They told us that this drink goes with the pie, and damn if it didn't. We watched American Inventor on the wide-screen televisions as we ate. I went home feeling happy and full, but poor Laura had a stomachache by the time we were greeting the dog again.

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