Natalie Race

Natalie Race studies law at the University of Virginia and volunteers with New City Arts Initiative, an affiliate of International Arts Movement in Charlottesville. She is a former Editor of the Curator.

How We Don’t Talk About Musicians: The Irrational Is Essential

The irrational is essential. Save for those atop the food chain, being a musician anywhere means hustlin’ for life, with little job security or even business model. I suspect that after a few years of making a living as an average musician, you realize that your dreams really are your anchors. Clark: “You have to have a bit of delusion to you, because I think being a musician is a crazy decision. There’s no guarantees. It’s a cliched thing to say, but you don’t know where tomorrow’s going to take you. You could all of a sudden get a break and be on Letterman before you know it. Or you could go the opposite way and not be doing anything and working at Capital One [Bank], you know? But I think that with that healthy bit of delusion that, ‘Well, yea, I can go to Europe and play music, why not?’ you know. Then that keeps you going. That keeps you believing in that reality.”

— Patrick Jarenwattananon, How We Don’t Talk About Musicians.

Face to Face

I heard the story on the radio a few weeks ago as I dashed around town running errands and hoping a Verizon tech could resurrect my Blackberry. NPR’s All Things Considered was reporting on the resolution of a forty-five year old case in Alabama.

I turned up my car radio as Debbie Elliot reported that former Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler had pled guilty to second degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965 outside a café in Perry County, Alabama. Jackson was a young civil rights activist and his death galvanized the movement that then marched from Selma to Montgomery. I hardly need report that Fowler is white and Jackson, black.

I’m no expert on this period of our country’s history and had not been following the story, so while commentators expressed mixed feelings about the anticlimactic sentencing—Fowler was sentenced to six months in prison, in part due to his failing health at age seventy-seven—I was arrested by the personal element of the story.

As a part of the plea bargain, the judge asked Fowler to apologize to Jackson’s family, including the slain man’s daughter and sister, who were present in the courtroom. Fowler did so, but as the prosecutor told NPR, “the family would’ve liked for him to have looked at them when he said it, but he was looking at the judge when he said it.”

I thought of that family, who waited more than forty years for legal action to be taken for the killing of their loved one. Years were spent longing for acknowledgement of wrong-doing, of their pain, of the injustice of the death of this young man. I can only imagine the added sting of knowing that this white man could take away the life of a young black man without consequence, even decades after the marches, sit-ins and bus boycotts were over. How they must have wondered—perhaps just in fleeting moments– if what they had gained in the civil rights movement was worth the death of one loved most dearly, especially if his death would never see justice.

As I read more of the story later, I began to see Fowler as a person as well. Here was a man who had lived most of his life with the guilt of killing a young man he says he never meant to kill. Even if he did act with intent, he is now an old man, frail and human, haunted by the wrong he has done. Would six months in prison erase the pain of the Jackson family, much less expunge the guilt of Fowler? As Jackson’s daughter, Cordelia Bllingsley said, “this is supposed to be closure, but there will never be closure.”

Weeks before hearing the story on the radio, I sat in a lecture hall to hear Pat Nolan of Justice Fellowship speak about restorative justice, an alternative means of responding to acts of crime that has at its aim restoring criminals to society while also addressing the harm caused to the crime’s victim. Restorative justice is only effective in instances when the perpetrator is penitent. It involves the victim in the sentencing process, giving the victim the opportunity to confront the person who has wronged them; the offender likewise has the chance to offer sincere apology to the person harmed. For both parties, this process gives a face to the other. The criminal and victim both see each other as human beings and recognition gives way to empathy. Sentencing is then decided in a mediation-like setting with the aims of making the price meaningful—that it actually addresses the harm experienced by the victim—and even restorative. In many cases, the sentencing outcomes of restorative justice procedures include measures that will ultimately help the perpetrator re-enter society as a rehabilitated individual.

And so I turn again to the long awaited trial and sentencing of James Bonard Fowler. Why did this fail to answer the cry for justice? Why was there no closure? What went wrong? If we look at these people not as symbols of our nation’s moral failings, but as individuals who have caused harm and been harmed, what do we see? A daughter who grew up without a father, who now feels that her fatherlessness has not been acknowledged. A remorseful old man who can’t undo his sins. Could restorative justice have resulted in a different outcome? Perhaps Fowler would have looked the Jackson family in the eyes as he apologized.

For a moment, I fight my own tendency to think, “who cares how these people feel? The court has decided that this is justice and they just have to live with it.” And that’s true. By the standards of our legal system, justice has finally been done in the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson. But is anyone satisfied? The outcome has addressed which law has been violated, who is responsible and how we should punish them, but the victim has been entirely left out. In any case that ends in a guilty plea, victims like Cordelia Billingsley have no voice in the court room.

What if our justice system treated both victim and perpetrator as human beings and acknowledged that far more is broken than a statute? Suppose we considered who has been harmed and to what extent? What if we were concerned not with punishment, but with holding the responsible party accountable to make things right?

I suppose the question that matters here is how we define justice. Our current system will prevail as long as we define justice in terms of punishment for a law broken, rather than as holding a person responsible to right the harm they have done to others.

It’s not a matter of being tough or soft on crime, but of whether the consequences acknowledge the wrongs done and even in a small way, right them.  Responding to a criminal act should not require us to shed our capacity to see others as human beings. Restorative justice requires imagination, the possibility that wrongdoers could be rehabilitated– the dream that victim and perpetrator could actually reconcile. It’s a dream worth having.

Getting Out and Staying Out

If you were moved by Josh Cacpardo’s June article, Cruel and Usual, about the challenges faced by individuals re-entering society after incarceration, NPR’s All Things Considered has a great story about how Mark Goldsmith, a retired cosmetics executive is helping young inmates at Rikers Island through his non-profit “Getting Out and Staying Out.”

“You have to understand that these young men have never talked to a successful human being in their life,” he says. “Their neighborhood is one block east, south and west of their apartments. They do not know a single person who can help them succeed. Not one.”

Tonya Threadgill, assistant principal at East River Academy, a school set up inside Rikers by the city’s Department of Education, notes that many of the young men at Rikers grew up without fathers, and never had anyone talk to them as Goldsmith does.

“It doesn’t matter to them that he’s Caucasian or older,” Threadgill says. “He’s a man. He’s been successful in life. And I think that’s an important connection for them. He doesn’t come across as overly authoritarian or anything like that. But he’s coming there to help them, and that’s something they definitely appreciate, I think.”

Read or listen to the full story here.

Back on Murder: a Review

In a New York Times Magazine profile of Philip Seymour Hoffman in late 2008, Hoffman offered insight into his standards for his own art concluding that “when subtlety is lost, I get upset.” I’ve embraced Hoffman’s sentiment as it aptly describes my own tastes in cocktails, food, humor (OK, sometimes there are exceptions), and novels.  I find subtlety difficult to achieve in my own work and sadly, nuance finds certain genres to be less-than-hospitable homes.

Subtlety and nuance are not qualities I strongly associate with crime fiction, so perhaps this is something I should have considered before picking up J. Mark Bertrand’s new novel, Back On Murder.

Back On Murder traces the steps of out-of-favor police detective, Roland March, as he makes one last attempt to resurrect his career.  March has been putting in his time as the “suicide cop,” investigating the suicides of his fellow officers when he’s called on to investigate a multi-victim homicide at a rundown house serving as the headquarters for an underground loan shark in southwest Houston.  One good crime scene observation by March, and our hero finds himself in a position to prove that he still has the edge and insight to again work homicide.

What follows is both exactly what the reader expects, and in places, there are pleasant surprises.  It’s an entertaining read—nothing too heavy, no theories of aesthetics or attempts to uncover the essential facts of human nature. The story unfolds smoothly, which is not to say predictably, as Bertrand slowly introduces us to March (our narrator) and hints at March’s long bygone heyday as one of Houston’s best homicide detectives and his subsequent fall. The pacing of the story is just right—slowing when it should and picking up just as March’s adrenaline begins to flow.

Throw in the missing daughter of a famous evangelist, a handful of corrupt police officers, a marriage saddled with its own emotional baggage, a couple of attempts on our hero’s life, and a violent hurricane, and you can’t possibly avoid producing a page-turner.  I won’t tell you how it ends, but as this is the first in a series of Roland March mysteries to be published by Bethany House — you do the math.  There are plenty of forensic details to enthrall the reader in search of a good crime story.  If you’re a devotee of CSI, Bertrand’s painstaking attention to bullet trajectories and grainy cell phone photographs is sure to satisfy.

Bertrand’s selection of details away from the crime scene is satisfying as well.  He clearly knows the oppressive nature of Houston humidity — how in such a story, it is an independent actor.  When the search for a missing  teenage girl takes March to interview the staff of the suburban church where the girl’s mother works, Bertrand deftly describes the mega church that has become emblematic of today’s evangelical brand of Christendom.  He approaches evangelicalism sympathetically, but not as a promoter, and his portrayal of young youth pastor Carter Robb and the missing girl’s mother are surprisingly evenhanded.  It is rare to read a portrayal of the church in popular fiction that is neither satirical nor condemning nor dusted with sugared flower petals.  He even evades the Christian fiction convention of a conversion experience, allowing his characters a far more nuanced path of development than those renderings often allow.

Bertrand handles these aspects of his tale well—I think I may actually know a few Carter Robbs—and even with some semblance of subtlety, but Bertrand is a bit too reticent to come out with March’s backstory. He risks the reader’s anticipation, and turns to indifference as he drags his feet in explaining why March sits alone in a local bar without touching his whiskey sour, or why March’s wife Charlotte always take so many sleeping pills in early September.  And nuance fails him when March sizes up the attractive young woman with whom he is assigned to look for the missing girl: “I’m so disillusioned with her I almost pass up the opportunity to study her from behind. Almost.”

Bertrand is at his best when describing the nitty-gritty of Houston’s criminal underground, and when he is leading March to piece new evidence into cogent theories.  His characters, with a few exceptions, are multi-dimensional and sympathetic.  But the novel would benefit from a lighter touch when it comes to the motivations and histories of the principal characters.

I don’t suggest that Hoffman would approve, but if you are looking for a new crime drama on which to while away a few lazy summer days, Back On Murder is a good place to begin.  By next year’s summer vacation, Roland March will be back in a new book—and we can only hope that his adrenaline will be pumping and his inner thoughts a shade more nuanced.

The Dangerous Bold

“n. the lucky fascination felt when a typo immeasurably improves a sentence you wrote, singed by the underlying recognition that the book of your life is credited to you but is not in your handwriting, which nevertheless appears in trace passages of many other lives.”

Emphasis added.

From the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

The Pizza That Ought To Be

Atlanta likes to think of itself as the New York City of the South—or rather, as a southern alternative to New York. Unfortunately, outside of the southeastern United States, Atlanta doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as New York. When global cities or cities of influence are rattled off by tastemakers, Atlanta simply doesn’t rank with New York, Chicago, San Francisco.

This is especially obvious in the realm of on-the-street fashion. When walking around New York, I often respond to the ensembles of my fellow pedestrians with the thought, “I want to wear THAT!”  A really superb outfit elicits “I want to wear that RIGHT NOW!” and the most outstanding provoke me to almost shout “I want to wear that EVERY DAY!”  This almost never happens in Atlanta – which is not to say that Atlantans don’t know how to dress.  In fact, if one were to gather at random 20 Atlantans and 20 New Yorkers in a room, I would even wager that the Atlantans would be, on average, more put-together than the New Yorkers – the difference is just that the moments of brilliance are so much fewer.

In truth, while I’m on the topic, I really wish Atlanta would stop comparing herself to New York at all.  To make the comparison and conclude that Atlanta doesn’t measure up, underrates Atlanta’s own particular joys.  Atlanta and New York are two very different types of cities – though I’ve yet to articulate a satisfying taxonomy of cities – and to look at one against the other is misleading.  Better, I think, to celebrate Atlanta for what she is: incredibly green and way too hot.

One can hardly expect then, that for all of her excellent restaurants, Atlanta might actually be the home of a pizzeria so brilliant it outshines New York. Visiting Atlanta after living in New York, I was shocked to find a pizza that could sweep me off my feet so handily. But it did, in a way that no pizza in Manhattan or Brooklyn was able to. Does it sound like I’m talking about love affair?  That might be appropriate.

The Salumi pizza at Varasano’s.

I may have begun an affair with Varasano’s Pizzeria, but I’m willing to share.  Varasano’s is the brainchild of Jeff Varasano, a native of the Bronx, who embarked on an odyssey to recreate the pie at Patsy’s (in Manhattan on First Avenue between 117th and 118th) when he moved to Atlanta several years ago.  As Jeff’s pizza expertise grew, he began hosting underground pizza tastings at his home in Atlanta.  These tastings proved so popular – drawing pizza enthusiasts from far and wide – that the waitlist grew to be several months long.  Finally, Varasano opened his pizzeria to the public in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood in early 2009.

Varasano’s is a restaurant rooted not in trendy “gourmet” ingredients, but in the excellent execution of traditional elements. Technique is king. The pizzas are “flash baked” in only about 3 minutes. Once the sauce is applied to the dough, the pie has to be in the oven within a matter of seconds. This is a pizza crust so precise that it requires an oven heated to over 800 degrees. The dough recipe is no secret; Jeff Varasano freely shares it on his website, though even reading all of his detailed instructions requires more stamina than I can spare for pizza crust. The recipe may be intimidating, but it is not a scientific formula or secret ingredient which guarantees success; it is the craft of kneading and forming the dough, of letting it rest the appropriate amount of time, of rigging your oven to an absurdly high temperature, that makes all the difference.

Varasano’s pizza demands to be eaten with similar attention to detail. Jeff Varasano strongly discourages patrons from carrying out his pizza as the few minutes’ delay dramatically alters the experience. Like an espresso, the pizza best consumed immediately. This pizza is a work of art, and as C.S. Lewis famously reminded us, “the first demand any work of art makes upon us is to surrender.” Not an unpleasant demand, mind you, simply the demand to pay attention, to appreciate the nuance of a perfect crust, to savor the flavor of Mozzarella di Bufala rather than inhale a gooey mess of cheese. Encountering the pie, one can’t help but feel that one owes it to the pizza to take note of its subtleties, to smell with intentionality, to taste with gratitude and wonder.

The pie represents a balancing act of sorts. The crust is slightly charred and yet, springy, fold-able. It’s thin, but not crispy and brittle like so many California-style pizzas. Toppings are added sparingly so as not to overpower the delicate crust. Perfect portions of mozzarella dot the top of the pizza so that the cheese can be savored. I know some may argue that one can never have too much cheese on a pizza, but I’m of the mind that too many pizzas nearly choke one with a weighty mess of cheese blanketing the pie. I’d like to be able to taste the crust and sauce, if you please.

Varasano’s includes sandwiches on their lunch menu. I’m sure they’re lovely, but lets skip to the pizzas, shall we?  Nana’s leads the pack, a very traditional cheese and tomato sauce pizza with Italian herbs. You may be tempted to skip straight to the Margherita, but I caution you not to deprive yourself of the glories of the Nana’s. Add pepperoni for a pie that reminds you of what a pepperoni pizza should be. Before the Nana’s I didn’t know what I had been missing, but now I know how to judge the most pedestrian of pizzas—the pepperoni. The Margherita, of course, deserves your attention as well, as it is the pie by which one should judge a pizzeria. Spring for the Mozzarella di Bufala; you won’t be disappointed.

Perhaps most surprising to me was the genius of the Caramelized Onion pizza.  When I first saw this on the menu, sweet caramelized onions with sharp Emmenthaler cheese, I feared it would be what Jeff calls “fake pizza”—a mishmash of “gourmet” ingredients that really don’t belong anywhere near a pizza all brought together by a vaguely pizza-like disk of dough.  I should never have doubted.  The combination of caramelized onions, Emmanthaler cheese, and fresh thyme is an absolute revelation.  As is always the case at Varasano’s, the cheese is doled out with admirable restraint, creating just the right proportions of sharpness, sweetness, and savory-ness. Perfectly balanced. This is not a pizza to be missed.  The Chica Bella rounds out my list of must-tries at Varasano’s. The famous Varasano’s crust is baked with ricotta and mozzarella and then topped with fresh arugula and lemon juice when it comes out of the oven. It is a lovely counterpoint to a traditional pepperoni pie.

Can I convey in mere words what it means to surrender to a pizza? Pizza is a food regularly taken for granted, available on street corners and in supermarket freezers. It is the food of college gatherings and children’s birthday parties. It is a food as familiar as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. How much more then should we celebrate the incarnation of a pizza that whispers of what pizza is meant to be – unassuming in its delivery, shocking in its depth of flavor; what a delight to discover that I never knew what pizza was at all!

Indeed, the unexpected suitor is often the one who prevails. I found New York’s best pizza in Atlanta, and my heart shall not be moved from Varasano’s.

Knitting in Spite of Myself

Confession:  I’ve recently found myself to be a knitter.  Somewhat alarmingly, I might add.  Knitting.  I admit to enjoying it.  I particularly enjoy observing reactions to my newfound hobby.   Often, people try to guess what I’m doing (“Is that crochet?”) or share childhood memories of a mother or grandmother knitting.  Sometimes, people gently (or not) mock my old-fashioned choice of hobby.  In each of these encounters the question hangs in the air: “Why are you knitting?”

Why did I begin to knit?

It’s a question I almost can’t answer.  I know why I didn’t knit.  Last winter, my roommates knit.  I did not.  I was glad they enjoyed it, but I didn’t see the point.  I was certain that once I had mastered the stitches, I would grow bored with the repetitive motion and leave my work unfinished.  I lacked my roommates’ drive to accomplish tasks.  That, and I wasn’t keeping vigil next to a sickbed.  And I’m not a grandmother.  And no female in the past three generations of my family has knit.  Knitting was both too old-fashioned and too trendy.

A few months later, something changed.  My life seemed a mess.  I was frustrated by creative collaboration and I was desperate to make something.  I wanted to see results and I didn’t, I admit, want to have to think too much.  I don’t exactly know why, but one day, knitting was The Answer.

I started knitting insisting I didn’t want to have to talk to anyone. I wouldn’t be one of those women in “The Knitting Circle” or “The Friday Night Knitting Club,” finding friendship and healing in the company of other women bound by their love of knitting and sipping hot tea.  Uh-uh.  No sir.  The most attractive thing about knitting to me was the guerilla knitting movement, the fiber equivalent of graffiti.  Guerilla knitters create “sweaters” for chilly lampposts and affix scarves to street signs, drawing our attention to the utilitarian bits of our urban environment.  These knitters strike under cover of darkness, armed only with zip-ties, whimsy, and an interest in domesticating the mundane infrastructure of our cities.  They form groups with tongue in cheek names like “Knitta, Please!”  Surely, that was the knitting niche for me.  Eschewing a Rockwellian scene of my grandmother passing on the knowledge of a craft, I learned my first stitches from a video on YouTube.

The inked knitter, Nell.

But the tradition drew me in.  My first project was not a piece of woolen graffiti, but an honest-to-goodness traditional scarf for an honest-to-goodness traditional person.  After a few days, my needles flew, clicking together rhythmically as I knit row after row of cornflower blue yarn.  I couldn’t put it down.  In the middle of summer in Atlanta, Georgia, I carried balls of wool around with me – knitting while standing in line, while riding in the car, while waiting for takeout at the bar. I was terrified to stop, fearing my fingers would forget the motions.  What I discovered was oddly meditative.  It demanded just enough attention that I stayed engaged, but not so much that I didn’t have the mental energy for a conversation.  I was hooked.

My second scarf was a disaster.  I knew my stitches were correct, but the more I knit, the more my scarf seemed to come apart.  Frustration eventually led me to Knitch, a knitting shop in Atlanta.  With trepidation, I set foot in what I imagined to be the mothership of all knitting circles.  Having read The Knitting Circle, I knew it was only a matter of time until I would be pouring out my life story to a bunch of knitting strangers and wiping my tears in a mass of yarn.

At Knitch, I learned how to properly cast on (an area where YouTube had failed me), and I met the shop’s master knitter, Nell, who graciously corrected my mistakes and introduced me to the intimidating, yet rewarding, practice of knitting in the round. Nell actually did recently become a grandmother, but she also celebrated her 50th birthday by getting inked.  It was strangely reassuring that though I was learning to knit, at least I was learning from someone with a tattoo. And yes, obviously Nell’s tattoo of yarn and needles was intended to make me feel edgy-by-association.

The funny thing about knitting is that once I learned, I couldn’t help but teach others.  The little bit of knowledge I gathered from YouTube was enough to get my mother started, though I suspect Nell will be furthering Mom’s education for some time.   The more I learned from Nell, the more I wanted to introduce others to the joys of knitting.  I realized that while I may want to be a non-traditional knitter, and I may resist the kitschy feminine ideal of the knitting circle, I cannot deny the inherent relational and communal aspects of knitting.  I wanted to pass on knitting to someone else.  I wanted to educate the confused passerby who spied me knitting in public.  Rarely do I knit for myself.  Even knitting in complete solitude, I am creating something that will ultimately be enjoyed by another.   The thousands and thousands of interconnected loops that I form with my needles will be someone else’s scarf or hat or mittens.  And I cannot deny the pleasing congruence of bringing two people together whilst knitting together a bit of yarn or two.

Drawn in by the guerilla aspects of the subculture, I now participate in the least radical.  I knit baby hats for my expecting friends.  I spent the college football bowl game season in front of the TV, knitting a conservative charcoal scarf for my dad.  The “granny factor” of my handiwork is through the roof.

Knitting – even guerilla knitting – isn’t going to change the world.  I’m never going to knit enough to clothe myself or my loved ones completely with my own handiwork. But through knitting I am a part of a tradition that can be shared, that is useful, that is productive.  It brings comfort in its tactile softness and connotations of gentleness.  The very associations I resisted are actually the appeal of knitting.  Perhaps someday I’ll domesticate my urban environment with a bit of well-placed (maybe even subversive) knitting, but for now, I am satisfied that knitting has domesticated a part of me—that I am more willing to embrace softness and gentleness; that I am more willing to ask for help; that I am willing to be considered overly feminine and old-fashioned; that I might even join a knitting circle.

I think that part of me is called pride.

In Praise of Bryant Park

In the darkest depths of winter, when my new-transplant-to-New York roommates and I feared that the cold and gray of January would never lift, we had an unfortunate and depressing tendency to chronicle all the things we would not miss about New York if we were to move and return to our respective southern homelands. A few selections from the list: people who don’t move all the way down the car on the subway, schlepping our groceries up three flights of stairs, frigid gusts of wind that take your breath away, subway vomit-ers. I could go on.

Finally, the bravest and least cold of us declared a new list-making game: things we would miss if we left New York. This game was infinitely more fun and celebratory than the first, and had the added benefit of reminding us in ways big and small of why the heck we were in New York in the first place.

At the top of my list: lunches at Bryant Park. Without a doubt, the best reason to take a job in midtown Manhattan – other than the obvious, “Hey! It’s a job! I need one of those” – is the promise of spring and summer lunches spent in that urban oasis of green. Sure, Central Park gets all the hype (despite the glamorous distinction of hosting New York’s Fashion Week, I have yet to see a Bryant Park magnet for sale in Chinatown) but I would argue that Bryant Park is better suited to the daily needs of the city dweller.

I refuse to concede that this is simply a product of my life-long prejudice in favor of the overlooked or under-appreciated; for me, Central Park is too much of an ordeal – too vast and overwhelming – to host a practical break in the middle of the day. To spend time in “The Park,” one has to really commit to it – there are often picnic blankets involved, not to mention all the carriage traffic to be dodged – and to be honest, I usually want my park-visits to be more like a comma than an out-loud reading of the genealogy of Christ. I need a moment to catch my breath in the middle of the day, not lose my breath trying to get to the memorable part. Frankly, I don’t have time for that.

I do have time for smelling the grass, eating my lunch under the shade of a London plane tree, watching old men perform tai chi, wondering if one of my co-workers would want to play chess one afternoon, browsing in the HSBC reading room and thinking about joining one of the free yoga classes – all of which I can actually do at Bryant Park without abandoning my workday attire or fighting with a heel stuck in the grass. The beauty of Bryant Park is that I can participate in the world of whimsy outside the office in a way that fits into my life. And for the full three-quarters of an hour that I’m there, it’s my life again.

The restorers of Bryant Park not only have provided amenities that I can actually characterize with the word “whimsy” – and that without mentioning the carousel, skating rink, or ping-pong tables – but they respect my layout sensibilities so much that I, park-going peon that I am, can place my hunter green folding chair wherever I see fit. Even on a day when there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the effort and intent I put into my work, and the result (or lack thereof), I can actively shape and participate in the life of a public space. The simple gift of movable chairs is, in actuality, a gift of agency and empowerment to the thousands of people who eat their lunch in the shade of those lush trees. I am reminded that my actions do have consequences, that I can tangibly affect my world – even if, for today, that is only in the orientation of a Bryant Park chair.

Besides redeeming my lunch hour, the park’s own history is a compelling tale of urban life re-emerging from a symbol of urban decay. Like many parks in New York City, Bryant Park began as a potter’s field before the city grew out to meet it and the park’s interred inhabitants were relocated to Ward’s Island. As recently as the ’70s, some dubbed it “Needle Park,” and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t a prescient reference to the handiwork of the Project Runway finalists. It wasn’t until the vision of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation was realized in the early ’90s that Bryant Park became the outdoor cafeteria and breath of fresh air that New Yorkers now know. A plot of land once characterized by poverty, death, and crime is now breathing life into its retail neighbors as well as its human neighbors.

In comparison to Central Park, Bryant is tiny – barely even visible from the top of nearby Rockefeller Center – but its size is precisely why it succeeds. Perfectly proportioned to give the passing pedestrian or lunching office drone a substantial drink of nature without being large enough to significantly obstruct traffic patterns, Bryant Park works beautifully with the pace of urban life. The green space between Fifth and Sixth Avenues interrupts just enough to give the city dweller the breath of air she needs to keep up her frantic pace, but not enough to symbolize (or for that matter, actualize) retreat. It’s compact – like my new apartment and my new standard of personal space. It knows its precise place as complement to the built environment, imagining itself as contiguous with the offices and commercial interests around it – even making space for kiosks aplenty – rather than trying to make visitors forget they are in one of the busiest commercial districts in the world. Bryant Park is a lesson in efficient relaxation; stepping in and out of that leisure zone is as easy as can be.

With a lunch break this idyllic and fuss-free, who needs a long weekend at the country house? Thoreau – Keep your Walden! Like Goldilocks, I’ve found my place and it fits just right.