The chocolate milk was really good, extra fresh and creamy, and the pastry I bit into flaked apart on my tongue, the sweet fig melding with the sharpness of goat cheese, my regret over spending more money I hadn’t planned to turning into delight that I had. Blue Stove, place of good things. We launched ourselves toward Harlem.
Harlem was Nick’s idea, motivated in connection with a hip hop artist he admires. Or admired – Big L met his end a while back. We weren’t going to the site where he was gunned down, at least not primarily; our mission was to find a particular intersection mentioned in one of Big L’s songs.
I appreciated the pilgrimage aspect, but had reservations. When I lived in Long Beach, and rap and hip hop were bursting into mainstream culture, we used to mock the white kids co-opting the gangsta style in the suburbs. Snoop Dogg and NWA were blowing up, but my scene encompassed grunge and blues, the natural evolution of an adolescence built primarily on punk and New Wave with a healthy dose of dance floor hits and errant Van Halen tune. I did spend a summer in Berkeley in 1984, which introduced me to break dancing and rapping before it washed into my desert hometown. But enthusiasm for Grandmaster Flash (and later, Run-DMC and LL Cool J) didn’t translate into a love of early-‘90s hip hop. Reminding myself that this was not 1992 South Central – times have changed and younger generations don’t seem to identify with music by genre so much as by liking what they like. I kept my mouth shut about the cultural weirdness of a white kid from NorCal rocking hand gestures on a Harlem street corner, swallowed my qualms and snapped a couple photos of my kid posed below a street sign. Even when a woman striding by hollered out, “What you know about that intersection?!” I didn’t flinch. I wish we’d had more time to explore Harlem properly, but we had plans to meet up with Jen midtown, so after a short stroll, we departed on the train once again.
Before wandering Central Park, we needed food – in addition to the usual fueling, Nick’s blood sugar kept dropping low and I worried he wasn’t eating enough. The Shake Shack provided a solution to that particular problem. “This is the place most often compared to In-and-Out,” Tag noted. I opted for the Portabello burger, which was not only a slab of Portabello mushroom, but a slab of Portobello mushroom stuffed with mozzarella cheese and deep fried. On a bun. Like deep fried mushrooms and mozzarella sticks combined into one single greasy masterpiece. I ravished it – and the crinkle fries that we ordered on the side. I also guzzled down an entire caramel milkshake despite my usual aversion to massive quantities of ice cream. Usually a kid cone satisfies any ice cream craving I have. But this milkshake was too good to leave.
Nick reviewed the burger as “good, definitely better than a typical fast-food one, but not on the level of a Humboldt grass-fed beef burger.”
Sated, we rambled on through Central Park. Squirrels scampered. Dogs cavorted. Couples rowed adorably around the lake. Tourists posed for photos against trees and castle walls, the lush greenery of the park ringed by skyscrapers in all directions.
After Central Park came our first and only disappointment of the trip: We couldn’t get Nick into The Colbert Report. Even VIP tickets weren’t enough to overcome the 18-and-over age restriction. I anguished over attending without him – my excitement in seeing the show dipped considerably as I imagined myself inside, cracking up at Colbert’s jokes, while Nick wandered alone through the darkening city streets. “Mom, just go,” he insisted. After several minutes of hesitation and indecision, he convinced me to take advantage of the opportunity and that he would be fine.
The near-hour wait crammed standing in a holding room with 70 other people didn’t help. I stewed in my worry. Even once we were released to the set and ensconced in our seats, cool air wafting under the hot lights, I couldn’t shake my own distress that this would not be a shared experience. Once the opening comic started pitching jokes at us, I relaxed a bit. By the time Colbert came out, my guilt had subsided to a manageable ache. The audience had a chance for a Q&A with Colbert out of character.
Memorable questions included, “Um, I’m a filmmaker up in Allentown, uh, do you have any advice for me?”
Colbert: “Get out of Allentown.”
Another person asked if he’d ever accidentally gone somewhere still in the role he plays on the show. At first, Colbert said no, but then remembered. “One time I was working on something as I was driving home and I walked into my house still in character. My wife took one look and said, ‘Get the fuck out and come back in as my husband.’”
The set fills less space in the studio than on the TV set. The crew moves in and out, changing shots, dabbing make-up, refining lines till the last minute. The production flowed along and we, the audience, the most important part of the show we were reminded several times, laughed our brains out, eager to please Stephen, to provide the energy he needed to magnify his brilliance.
I tamped down the post-show glow and we met back up with Nick, then toured through Grand Central Station. The ceiling looms overhead, grand with painted constellations. The whole place glitters. Marble and brass, wood and gold – Grand Central radiates history. I wondered if a list exists documenting how many movies have scenes filmed there. One of my favorites is the baby carriage scene in The Untouchables, Andy Garcia’s character engaged in a gunfight with Al Capone’s guys, all while a baby carriage clacks and slides toward what looks to be certain doom for the infant inside.
And then we ate again!
This time, Caracas, where they serve arepas and rum juleps so tasty I would’ve happily ingested several of each. We shared plantain chips and guacamole, fried plantains and sips of Nick’s coconut shake. Everything tasted like vacation, as if sun, sea and sugar-fine sand awaited outside. (And when I called the next day, worried we’d left Nick’s glucose meter behind, they searched for it and called back to say no luck. It turned up in his bag, but I appreciated the kindness of their effort.)