In 2006, like many 20-something New Yorkers, I was as broke as I was tired. You see, at the time, I was living in Spanish Harlem, attending school at Brooklyn College full time, and working full time at a restaurant in the Flatiron District as well. Whenever I wasn’t in school, at work, or riding the subway, I was doing jazz gigs. New York, this miraculous paradox of a city, both depleted and sustained me, draining my energy and yet imbuing every day with a sense of adventure and possibility.
One cold November Wednesday that year, I was scheduled to perform with a big band at Lincoln Center; we were to be the entertainment for a gala thrown by a prominent Russian art gallery. The organizers of the event had insisted upon lending me a gown by an up-and-coming Russian designer, and although I’d grumbled about having to make a special trip downtown to pick up the dress, I wound up falling in love with the cascading layers of cream and fawn-colored chiffon.
The day of the gig, I rushed home from school and had a bite to eat while getting my music in order for the evening’s performance. A friend from work–an Indonesian waiter who also happened to be a drag queen–came over to my apartment and did my makeup. Wearing a Russian designer gown and rather copious amounts of smoky eye shadow, I rode the subway into midtown, feeling glamorous.
After the gig, my friend Pete, a saxophonist and life-long New Yorker, asked if I wanted to get something to eat. Since we were in midtown Manhattan and it was past midnight, he insisted that we go to the Carnegie Deli. Pete was in his tuxedo, I was in my designer gown, and as we walked through the doors of the hallowed New York City landmark, a few heads turned to look at us. A nearby table of tourists, noting our fancy garb, whispered to one another, “Who are they? Do you think they’re anybody famous?” The New Yorkers in the deli knew better; we were just a pair of hungry schmoes looking for a late-night nosh.
Pete ordered a sandwich for us to share, the marbled, fatty pastrami piled impossibly high between slices of rye bread. Spicy brown mustard cut through the richness of the meat, as did the sour pickles on the side. I had never been to the Carnegie Deli, and so Pete told me about Woody Allen’s classic film, “Broadway Danny Rose,” and the legendary New York comics who filmed scenes right where we were sitting.
We ate and laughed long into the New York night, and in the wee hours of the morning, I hopped in a taxi and headed back to my little apartment in Spanish Harlem. The next day I had to get up early and head to Brooklyn for school, then it would be off to the restaurant for another long shift. I was broke and tired, but also invigorated by the magic of that cold November evening. After all, where else would an average Wednesday consist of being expertly primped and preened by a drag queen, singing jazz at Lincoln Center in an on-loan designer gown, and eating late-night pastrami with a fellow musician in an iconic Jewish deli?