The DUBLIN-BORN New York-based writer and journalist who works for Literary Hub and Guernica magazine, enjoys the DELIGHTS OF HARLEM and BROOKLYN …
My wife and I are both immigrants and writers; but the first night we met, back in the spring of 2013, what we bonded over was the surprising realisation that we were also both residents of west Harlem. I say surprising because, for whatever reason, pretty much every person I know under the age of 40 lives in Brooklyn, which means my wife and I spend a considerable amount of both our professional and social lives either in Brooklyn, or sitting on trains complaining about how long it takes to get home from Brooklyn. Almost five years after moving to New York, I remain awed by the subway system (which almost certainly disqualifies me from real New Yorker status), though, between New York weather and the publishing world’s odd weeknight hours, the novelty does tend to wear off, so when the weekend arrives, it’s nice to spend at least one day just wandering our own neighbourhood.
On Saturday mornings, having flicked back and forth between the second halves of various premier league matches and given up the fight to locate a modicum of softness on our maddeningly uncomfortable couch (which we bought on a whim and are keeping for penance), we often stroll down to Community Food & Juice on 113th and Broadway to order mountainous egg and biscuit sandwiches and descend into an inevitable stretch of remarking on how young the students of Columbia University look milling about the place in their oversized sky-blue hoodies. We’re fortunate to live just blocks from the Cathedral of St John the Divine, a marvel of Gothic revival architecture and one of the largest churches in the world. Saturday afternoons, we like to poke our heads in and see what brilliantly odd installation has been added to its ever-changing exhibits. Afterwards, we might drop by Book Culture, our local independent bookstore, indispensible not only for its varied selection, but also for the toy store downstairs, whose knowledgeable staff have often come to our rescue ahead of children’s birthday parties.
Much of Harlem is in the midst of rapid gentrification – sometimes for good, often for ill – but the neighbourhood fights hard to retain its history and identity. In winter, nothing beats a stroll through historic Sugar Hill. The same goes for Marcus Garvey Park in summer, when every weekend seems to bring a new music festival or cultural event. The Studio Museum in Harlem exhibits incredible contemporary works, focusing on artists of African descent. A stretch of Frederick Douglass Boulevard that’s become known as Restaurant Row has some of the best lowkey nightlife in New York (cosy tavern Mess Hall and Northern Italian eatery Lido are particular favourites).
Living two blocks from Riverside Park, a green stretch along the Hudson River, affords us our weekend fix of nature. It’s a lovely spot for running, playing five-a-side football, or simply sitting on a bench to window-shop the many excellent dogs I would steal if polite society/the law didn’t frown upon it. Alas, we have no pets of our own at the moment, though the plan is to get the menagerie started soon. (Last year, I found myself moments from successfully rehoming a beautiful Himalayan cat named Sufi whom I mistook for a stray, until a little boy and his grandmother rounded the corner, forcing me to pretend I was merely checking its collar for an address before grudgingly handing it over).
To lure our friends uptown, my wife [author Téa Obrecht], who is from the former Yugoslavia, will sometimes cook a magnificent Balkan feast on a Sunday afternoon. When everybody has been stuffed full of ajvar, evapi, and rakija, we send them back to their borough in a pleasant stupor. If we have a night owl guest staying, we might drag them even further north to The Honeywell, an underground 1970s-decor speakeasy in Hamilton Heights that feels like a set from Boogie Nights. In the evenings, if the urge to hear live music without breaking the bank eventually overwhelms us, we head to Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side or Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village. If we feel like shooting some pixelated deer and eavesdropping on awkward Tinder first dates, we’ll head to a bar that boasts cheap beers and a Big Buck Hunter arcade console in the back. A child once approached us with the expectant look of someone whose turn is about to begin; I stared him down as I inserted a $20 bill into the machine, because I’m an adult and he’s not. I like dive bars and my wife likes cocktail bars so we tend to bounce back and forth between the two. The militantly television-free Swift Hibernian Lounge in The Bowery is a great compromise, and very close to my heart. Aside from pouring the best Guinness in New York and being the venue of our post-City Hall wedding reception in 2014, the pub hosts Colum McCann’s Literary Cure every St Patrick’s Day, allowing us all to drink pints, recite favourite passages of Irish literature, and belt out exile ballads for a couple of hours.
My first novel, Restless Souls, comes out in Ireland, the UK, and the US this month, so weekends for the next few weeks will be exciting, but somewhat less than relaxed. I am greatly looking forward to seeing family, catching up with old friends, and running on the beach at Sandymount strand when I head over to Dublin later in the month. Beyond that, if we can make it back out west to Wyoming – where we disappear once or twice a year to look for bears, bison, wolves and moose in the cell signal dead zone that is Grand Teton National Park before the heavy snows fall, I will be a very happy man.
Restless Souls by Dan Sheehan, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) is out now.
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