Tour Guide to the Real New York City



97 Saint Marks Place, NY, NY 10009

Neighborhood: East Village

I have no kids and never wanted any, so I was a bit anxious about playing tour guide for my 14 year old niece, Shannon, on her first visit to New York City. But my brother John said she could not wait to see Manhattan. It was quite a trip for an eighth grader from the Jersey Shore.

They arrived early at my West Village apartment. My phone rang at 11:15.

“Where are you? Oh you’re downstairs, outside my building. Give me ten minutes.”

And we were off. Aunt Kate whisked them, via cab, to St. Marks Place in the East Village, for lunch at a falafel joint and rock apparel shopping. I wanted to be a cool aunt, and buy Shannon a T-shirt of her favorite emo group “Hawthorne Heights”, in a store I’d walked past hundreds of times but never set foot inside. I had lived on wild and crazy St. Marks Place between 2nd and 3rd Avenues for two decades.

“I don’t want to go in there,” Shannon said when we were on the sidewalk.

“Why not?” I asked, puzzled. I knew she wanted this gift. “Because they sell drug stuff,” she noted, pointing to a case filled with pipes and bongs.

“Then I guess you won’t get your shirt,” my brother said dryly.

Things had changed since my youth. She was brainwashed against marijuana and here I was trying to remember if I’d left any rolling papers out on my coffee table.

But after spending an hour with her, my latent maternal instincts had kicked in. All the guys in the store were staring at Shannon while she chose between two designs. My niece is a pretty brown-eyed blonde with a grown up figure; she wears too much make-up and dresses too sexy. I worry because she looks 18, not 14.

We left St. Marks and headed to East 7th Street between 2nd and 1st Avenues.

“Didn’t you used to live on this block?” asked my brother, who had not been in this neighborhood in years.

“Right there,” I said pointing to the tenement where I dwelled in the late 1970s. “You helped me move in. Remember?” As we spoke, I pictured us at that time, young and single, in our 20s.

“How could I forget carrying that big awkward desk up those stairs?” he replied.

“And that stupid winding turn we could barely get past.”

After shopping on East 7th and East 9th Streets and Avenue A, (Shannon loved looking at jewelry and bought a clunky ring), she wanted to go to a coffeehouse—not Starbuck’s. She had an image in her mind. Luckily my suggestion, Café Yaffa on St. Marks, met her approval. We sat in a booth decorated in leopard skin material while hipsters ate brunch next to us. My brother, a high school English teacher, looked so suburban. I had not been inside Café Yaffa since I moved across town eight years ago. I was rediscovering the East Village; seeing it through Shannon’s eyes.

While we waited for our cappuccinos and hot chocolates, I was thinking how my Shannon’s visit was so much hipper than my first trips to NYC—the Ice Capades at Madison Square Garden with my Brownie troop, or the time my aunt took me to see “Peter Pan” on Broadway. I still remember the strings holding up Mary Martin as she flew. I didn’t discover downtown until college.

It was a cold day and by the time we finished our drinks, I was ready to return home. But it was only mid-afternoon and Shannon wanted to do more sightseeing. So we took the subway to Rockefeller Center and walked to Times Square.

As always, it was crowded, and I could not wait to get away from the hordes of tourists in the theater district. I breathed a sigh of relief when we left, and our train pulled into 14th St. I had suggested taking a bus downtown but Shannon had wanted to ride the subway again because, she said, “It’s so much fun.” (When was the last time I thought riding the subway was fun?) By the day’s end, I was exhausted, and I’ve been walking around New York for 30 years.

Back home on Bethune Street, Shannon kept saying how her bedroom was almost as big as my entire place. She kept looking for more rooms, more doors, as I explained that this was a studio apartment—and a spacious one at that. As she checked out my home, I was unsure if she noticed my vintage gay liberation poster in the corner. Shannon was my youngest niece and I had not yet come out to her as “Queer Aunt Kate”. As a junior high school student, Shannon was still at the stage where she and her friends said, “oh, how gay,” meaning, “oh, how gross.”

While I fixed cups of tea and we waited for my partner to meet us for dinner, Shannon asked if she could use my computer. I hesitated. I’m a writer. This was my office equipment.

“I have to send my friends an e-mail to tell them about today.”

“Can’t this wait until you get home?”

“I want to tell them now.”

“Alright, go ahead,” I said, wondering what she would say.

When my partner, Slim, arrived, she greeted them and kissed me hello smack on the lips. Shannon did a double take and put two and two together. She had gotten a peek into my authentic life- not the one she only saw on holiday visits at my mother’s house. Just by being myself, I showed her the real New York City.

The next day, when we spoke on the phone, Shannon told me she liked the fact there were people all over the place. She liked the subways, the cab ride, the coffee house, the fast food falafel- all things I take for granted. Of course, she can’t wait to come back during spring break. She’s already hinting at an overnight visit.

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