by Cari Borja
“New York City is all about sex. People getting it, people trying to get it, people who can’t get it. No wonder the city never sleeps. It’s too busy trying to get laid.”
—Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City
“In New York the sky is bluer, and the grass is greener, and the girls are prettier, and the steaks are thicker, and the buildings are higher, and the streets are wider, and the air is finer, than the sky, or the grass, or the girls, or the steaks, or the air of anyplace else in the world.”
What is it about a place that either gives you energy or depletes it? And that delicate balance that goes with it—the desire and ambition to become something more, and the fear of it all being taken away. We love more … and we love having more of more, whether the chase, the thrill, the anticipation, or the seduction of it all—what the Japanese call waku-doki is the very thing that I attempt to capture in every moment of my life—the day by day, hour by hour, goal-oriented, fast-pace-driven me. But it becomes most real when I literally land in JFK and clarity arrives. I get in a taxi that drops me in whichever neighborhood will take me—sometimes East Village 1st and 1st; Lower East Side Orchard Street; West Village, Magnolia Bakery; Upper West Side along the park—but this time, this March 14th of 2015, it’s Tribeca. My home for this four-day sojourn is two blocks below Houston, with an old friend from when I was 19 years old studying at the University of Reading.
“New York New York, big city of dreams
And everything in New York ain’t always what it seems
You might get fooled if you come from out of town
But I’m down by law and I know my way around …
Too much, too many people, too much….”
—Grandmaster Flash, “New York New York”
Although through the years innumerable words and images have shaped my perception of NY, it was the words of Grandmaster Flash that were memorized and memorialized in my head years before I finally made my way to the Big Apple during college, summer of ’93. That song in particular, along with “White Lines” (1983) and Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” (1979), formed the soundtrack of my early teen years, which played itself out at Roll-On-America in Leominster, Massachusetts.
At that time I had no idea about the reality of the NYC energy I had become addicted to like a Baudelairian flaneur amongst the flashing lights and lasers of the roller rink. But I longed to be a part of a place that was so beautifully and terrifyingly encapsulated in quotes and songs that were a formative part of my youth—the same moment that my daughter Royal is now entering. That idea of non-stop, full-force-ahead, never-look-back propulsion as it unfolded before me like a MTV video was in fact my “proof of concept” before I ever stepped foot in Manhattan.
When I arrived in the West Village the summer of 1993 for an art-world internship, NYC was just as Carrie describes, even though it was five years before the start date of the Sex and the City series. NYC was (and still is) very much about sex and desire, finding one’s self in the midst of its madness. From 1993 to 1996, I saw myself through those films that evoked a moment in a woman’s becoming, whether seduced by Kim and Mickey’s power play in 9 1/2 Weeks (Adrian Lyne, 1986) or the potency of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly as Glenn Close’s character self-destructs in Fatal Attraction (Lyne, 1987). The allure and temptation of that which you can’t have is omnipresent within the streets, uptown and downtown. Other times I balanced myself with the more effortless romances of Meg and Billy in When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989), or the fashion and identity-searching of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961).
To this day I still recite to myself one of the final lines of George Peppard’s character, Paul Varjak, to our Breakfast at Tiffany’s heroine, Miss Holly Golightly. It’s still as poignant as ever:
“You call yourself a free spirit, a ‘wild thing,’ and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well, baby, you’re already in that cage. You built it yourself. And it’s not bounded in the west by Tulip, Texas, or in the east by Somali-land. It’s wherever you go. Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself.”
So what is it that we seek in a city every time we return to it? In my 20s it was about taking chances, finding one’s self amidst the crowd; in my early-mom years of my 30s I would return to the West Village to remind myself of who I once was not long before—almost graspable, but still unrecognizable. Instead of late nights at Automatic Slims and Jackie 60, I was up at 6 a.m. searching for the perfect latte, and a playground for Royal to meet new friends, and me to find an actual mom amongst the nannies and au pairs. Can we perceive how much we have changed by looking around and seeing how much NYC has changed? Or on the contrary, what is that unifying thread of driving ambition and inspiration and desire to move forward, onward—one that can be seen and felt in every breath we take? Isn’t that what cities are for? To stand within it and feel ones personhood beside it, enveloped by it, becoming it. How does NYC in many ways reawaken our senses, make us feel again, re-thinking pure possibility?
“So I went to New York City to be born again … I was out of the womb and into the birth canal.”
“I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”
To me it has always been about the moral dilemma of who we are meant to be—Milan Kundera’s “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (“Must it be? It must be!”)—or not. In movie terms, it is the mixture of passion, addiction, obsession, with pathology, anxiety, fear and stress that motivates us beyond the average person. It’s not wanting to miss a beat, a la Party Girl ; and the balance of particularity and obsession of American Psycho ; and the to-this-day pulsating thrill of Wall Street , both the original and its newer adrenaline-rushing counterpart, the Wolf. What is that thread that pulls us all together, and holds us in that moment?
My little adventure, solo, to NYC last week answered all of this. Below, a visual and verbal account of my four days … I went there with three things interwoven in my head — my “to-dos,” if you will: to have my first salon dinner on the Ides of March; to be on a film set for the first time (the set of my friend Josh Marston’s third feature, shooting in Brooklyn), and to see what was happening in food and wine — maybe even fashion, if there was time) — to set the stage for future dinners. So, a couple weeks before arriving, I was in touch with Susan, a close friend from a year abroad in the UK, and we co-hosted our first dinner in Tribeca.
The 360, owned by my co-hosts Susan Sakin and Ronnie Peters, is the most perfect pop-up space imaginable. Located across from The Children’s Museum of Art and the ground level to their fourth-floor loft, it was radically different from my atelier space in Berkeley, but because of its location, was perfectly suited for the evening—an intersection of cherished past places. Ronnie created the visual projection, Susan and I the atmosphere with lighting and radishes; and the meal was a trio of salads of chicories, romaine lettuces and citrus. The main was my favorite Joyce Goldstein-inspired farro with porcini and hazelnuts. My friend Christine Muhlke made a family style L’ami Jean (Paris) rice pudding with crème anglaise, confiture de lait, and brittle that I still dream of as I type. And although guests brought wine, I had sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier (from Rouge Tomate) bring a few bottles specific to her philosophy of taste and natural wine production.
“Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.”
And the guests were the thread that brought all of my selves into the present—from University of Reading back in 1991; Soho’s Stux Gallery, where we represented artist James Croak in the 90s; and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice Italy, to the Telluride Film Festival, where I met filmmakers John Krokidas, Sorrel Ahlfeld (and Josh Marston) on the fest’s 25th anniversary; and documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson a few years later; and Tamara Jenkins more recently after her Moth presentation. It extended to include a few new friends from the art and food worlds.
It’s this thread weaving together who we were, who we are, and who we’re on the verge of becoming that is the quintessential beauty of the salon dinner, and the poignancy and sheer interconnectedness—that already exists, and that can exist—of the ritual of gathering around the dinner table to share a meal.
“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again.”
Cari Borja began her career as a clothing designer while earning her PhD in anthropology and film at UC Berkeley in 2001. Since then she has created collections inspired by film and food, and has become known for her salon dinners in her Berkeley atelier, where she weaves together people from different disciplines and professions. Cari is currently writing a book of interviews with dinner guests featured on her FashionFilmFood blog, and she also consults with start-ups and other companies curating dinners and connecting people. Click here and here to read about Cari’s salon dinners in Berkeley.