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Birthday Kidnapped! A Brooklyn Boy Discovers the Genius of the Jersey Shore

Matt and Emily celebrating his 30th.

I’ve never been one for a quiet birthday. In my tweens, I was known for having a birthmonth, which by my teens had shrunk to a birthweek. But in taking the leap from my rock-and-roll 20s to my settle-down 30s, this celebration required a birthweekend.

Matt and Emily enjoying Oysters and Beer in Coney Island

The love of my life, Emily, with whom I share an apartment, (2 people, 3 cats, 400 square feet of space!) had promised me a surprise activity-packed weekend. Friday night we rode our bikes to Coney Island to watch the fireworks and eat clams and drink beer on the Boardwalk at Ruby’s. Sunday (my actual birthday) was revealed as a BBQ, thanks to a middle-brother supplied leak in the airtight seal of information suppression. Saturday was a mystery.

We woke up early, cleaned house, and got ready for what Emily called a “secret surprise breakfast.” Upon leaving our apartment, I saw Jonah coming towards me for a hug, saying “Happy Birthday Brother!” As I embraced my brother I felt a sack go over my head and a shoddy batch of ropes wrapped around my arms. I was being kidnapped!

Gideon, Jonah and a bunch of mystery hands rough-handled me onto the floor of a mildewy-smelling van, the radio blaring Mexican salsa music and a stranger in the shotgun seat videotaping the debacle. The doors slammed, the tired squealed, the van roared off.

I was half-nervous yet half-thrilled that i was in the middle an abduction. The familiar voices of both brothers refused to answer my cries of “Where are we going!? Where is my girlfriend?!” The van screeched around a few blocks until Gid went “You think we should take off the mask? Let’s take it off.” and I found we were back at my apartment surrounded by a dozen-plus of my closest friends on the street, shouting HAPPY BIRTHDAY MATT!!

Jonah and Gideon, Kidnappers Extraordinaire!

So we all piled into the van – Jonah & Gideon, Dave Z at the wheel and his lovely girl LizGwinn sitting shotgun. Ben Haas brought the bagels, Josh brought the Greyhounds, Aaden and Molly with the Bloody Marys, Randi and Kate brought the good cheer. A solid dozen of us, with 8 more in two additional cars and we were off. Where to? Everyone refused to tell. Josh admitted that I had never been there, but I was going to have a helluva time. After we crossed the Outerbridge, I guessed it – the Jersey Shore.

A stuffed seafood party of 16 at Runners Restaurant in the Jersey Shore

Or first stop – Runner’s Restaurant in Lavallette NJ, for a phenom fish feast. With 16 of us at the table, we had shrimp, scallops, oysters, clams, steamers, soft-shell, fish, lobster bisque, fries and beers, and it all came to $17 a head, which is a preposterously low cost for a meal so satisfying. After the feast we made our way to Seaside Heights, NJ, which is apparently the real-life quiet beach town known for some house filled with a half-dozen annoying brats from Long Island. Fuuny enough, we actually saw them – Snooki, JWoww, The Situation and the whole cast shooting on the boardwalk, amidst hundreds of screaming fans. We didn’t care – we were there for the waves.

Two Birthday Boys - Matt's Birthday Party & Will's Actual Birthday!

The waves were magnificent. Six and eight feet high, crashing down with beautiful symmetry, all on a white sandy beach crammed with beach-goers. Hours at the beach, laughing, drinking, celebrating. After the beach, the boardwalk and Riggers, a local dive bar, with pizza and cupcakes and whiskey shots for the birthday boy. We piled into the dank van around 10pm and were back in BK by midnight.

The clincher? For a born-n-bred Brooklynite, I’ve always ragged on Jersey. We have a whole Jersey Joke bit we use when touring up the Hudson River. And here i was, elatedly happy, blissful even, that all my friends had whispered in secret, how best to surprise a New York Know It All on my 30th birthday. And they did the last thing in the world I was expecting – they took me to NJ. And I responded in the last way conceivable; I loved it. We’ll be returning next year. Whatevs. Jersey Shore, I heart you.

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Pennsylvanian Foodies Tour Brooklyn!

The busload of 25 Pennsylvanians were hungry. They drove 3.5 hours from Hunlock Creek, near Wilkes-Barre, to Brooklyn and they needed a nosh. But first, they needed a bathroom. Luckily for them, the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, across from Borough Hall has bathrooms aplenty, and the front desk staff is gracious.

We booked this tour with David Burns at All American Tours. David wanted a Brooklyn Foodie tour for this group, who had been to Manhattan, but never Brooklyn. That’s the notion behind Brooklyn’s Edible Ethnic Eats Tour, that the best way to experience a city is through its food. We had pre-purchased a taste at each stop, so the tour group could sample before they bought.

Mark Foodie Tour Brooklyn Fulton Ferry

Mark with the Brooklyn Foodie Tour Group at Fulton Ferry

We made our way to Fulton Ferry Landing for photos and for Mark to tell the story of George Washington and the Battle of Brooklyn, the genius of Brooklyn Bridge engineer John Roebling, and how Robert Fulton’s steamboat made Brooklyn the first commuter suburb in America. We also do this as a walking tour.

It was time to nosh (Yiddish for snack.) First stop on the tour was Mediterranean Atlantic Avenue, with spinach pies at Damascus Bakery and olives from the olive bar at Sahadis. The second we saw these PA ladies marching out of Damascus and Sahadi’s with $50 worth of groceries each, we knew we had a hot tour on our hands.

Mark Brooklyn Foodie Tour Caputos

Mark and some of his Foodie Ladies outside Caputo's in Carroll Gardens

Next up – Italian Court Street. Italian food is such a part of America’s cultural heritage, so the trick was to find something they hadn’t eaten before. Voila: fresh-from-the-oven black olive bread from Caputo‘s, spicy soppressata and mini-mozzarella balls from G. Esposito & Sons Jersey Pork Store and these heartlanders were in heaven. They bum-rushed Caputo’s and bought out 20 loaves of black olive bread. We pointed them towards Court Street Pastry, where they also bought cheesecake and cannoli, and we handed out sesame seed cookies to sample on the bus ride to our next adventure.

Through the cobblestone streets to the Red Hook Mercado, a wonderful gardened-in corner lot at Van Brunt and Coffey streets with food vendors and an authentic taste of Red Hook. Open weekends, from noon to dusk, the Mercado has stalls from Solber Pupusas, Country Boys Tacos Vendors, Robicelli cupcakes, Grindhaus, and rotating clothiers selling Made in Red Hook fashionables. On our tasting menu, a pupusita (mini corn cake filled with chicken and cheese) and cup of horchata.

Mark Foodie Tour Brooklyn Red Hook Mercado

Mark with his foodie tour group at the Red Hook Mercado

They couldn’t get enough of the flavorful pupusita, the pickled cabbage, the smooth crema and the cinnamony horchata. Surrounded by edible herbs growing from the ground, and listening to Latin Soul, the spirit of Red Hook was showing these Pennsylvanians about Brooklyn’s awesome attitude.

Nearby is dry dock wines and spirits, who organized a last-minute German white wine tasting. So post-pupusitas, it was time to enjoy some fine wine!

Red Hook Foodie Tour Wine Tasting

Mark and Matt at dry dock wines + spirits store in Red Hook

From Red Hook it was a scenic ride, through Carroll Gardens, Downtown Brooklyn, Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Coney Island Avenue, Flatbush, Midwood, Kings Highway, to the end of the world, Brighton Beach and M&I International Market. Our tourists were fascinated by Odessa on the Ocean – especially the boardwalk and the produce markets. 4+ hours later, it was time for our Pennsylvania foodies to hit the road. Good thing they brought some of Brooklyn home with them.

By Matt Levy.

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A Very New York Evening with Grandma: Shakespeare in Central Park

Tourists always want to know about celebrities. It’s a standard New York question, as if coming out of the subway I’ll happen past Brad Pitt, Lady Gaga and Leo DiCaprio on my way to the deli. It’s true, we have our chance encounters (Mine include John Tuturro and Woody Allen. My Dad saw John and Yoko, and Matt saw Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn) but the truth is we’re as thrilled by a celebrity sighting on our TV & Movie Tour as you are. We New Yorkers need to Play It Cool.

But each summer, thanks to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, every New Yorker has the chance to see a real live Hollywood star performing theater in the open air in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. This year it was the bard’s ethnically controversial, pitch-black comedy The Merchant of Venice. In the role of the bitter, righteous and complex villain Shylock we had the pleasure of watching: the incomparable & native New Yorker, Al Pacino.

The Public Theater, founded in 1956 by legendary theater producer Joseph Papp, who made his life-long dream of free Shakespeare in New York City a reality. Since then we’ve been treated to the most magnificent theatrical productions of Shakespeare (and more) for free. Mark saw George C. Scott in King Lear. Mark and Matt saw Meryl Strepp in Bertolt Brecht’s  Mother Courage and her Children; I had the joy of seeing Julia Styles as Olivia in Shakespeare’s cross-dressing romp Twelfth Night.

Thanks to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, every New Yorker has the chance to see a real live Hollywood star performing theater in the open air in Central Park

Getting tickets isn’t always easy. It often involves camping out in Central Park, from 4 or 5 in the morning and waiting until the tickets are handed out gratis, at 1pm. Then again, if the weather’s nice, lounging in the most gorgeous urban park in the world with a good book and a bagel with a schmear from a deli that delivers right to the ticket line, isn’t the worst way to spend your day. For my brother Matt and I, the situation was much simpler.

One classy lady - Harriet Levy

One classy lady - Harriet Levy

Grandma Levy is the consummate Upper West Sider. Smart, savvy, Jewish, stylish, proud left-winger and dwelling quite comfortably in a gorgeous rent-stabilized apartment a block from Central Park. (Sigh. . .) She also had a small operation on her leg recently, and although recovering nicely, Grandma needed wheelchair seating for the show. Which means Grandma needed her two gentleman grandsons to stuff the wheelchair into the car and push her from the car (parked inside the park!) to the theater and back to the car. Score!
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But I don’t think any Public Theater production of a Shakespeare play astounded me as profoundly as Director Daniel Sullivan’s Merchant. The art direction puts the play vaguely between the Victorian and Gilded Ages, with waistcoats, top hats and a stock-ticker placed center-stage. The play’s sets were a series of concentric iron gates, some resembling prison walls, some with built-in abacuses that rotated around each other with each scene change. The most profound moment was when the Jews and Christians traded and talked business through these gates, evoking the walled-in ghettos that the Jews were forced to live throughout most of Europe.

From the moment Pacino dragged his hunched, haggard frame on stage, weighted down by his yarmulke, beard and burdens of the Jews

The performances were brilliant: Hamish Linklater as a gangly, awkward Bassanio, Jesse L. Martin of Law and Order as his hard-partying, right hand man Gratiano delighted the audience with each word. From the moment Pacino dragged his hunched, haggard frame on stage, weighted down by his yarmulke, beard and the burdens of the Jews until the last moment when a broken and beat-down Shylock was followed, menacingly off stage, we the audience was reminded that these performers are still the lions of American cinema. And for us lucky few New Yorkers, including Grandma, they’re almost close enough to touch.

By Gideon Levy.

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One Family’s Brooklyn Junk is Another’s NYC Treasure by Matt Levy

Every once in a few decades, us Levys realize the need for a collective space clearing. This generally means we straighten the living room. Not today. Today was a banner day. Today we were clearing out (half of) the basement.

This basement isn’t any old basement. Well, it is 106 years old – Mark owns a beautiful Victorian house built in 1904 in a gorgeous neighborhood called Ditmas Park, right in the heart of Flatbush. There is the LEVYSHQ in the ground floor office, 6 bedrooms, 4 of which are rented out to tenants, and all the general house chaos you’d expect from the Levys. As tenants move out, they leave stuff. Some of it is old, like Mark’s camping gear from his days as a CubMaster. Some of it’s interesting like the unicycle courtesy of Matt Chapman, Clown Without Borders. But all of it is junk.

Junk wood furniture, junk scraps of cedar, junk piles of wiring, 3 junk air conditioners, 5 junk metal frame hiking backpacks with broken straps, a half-dozen junked piles of cross-country skis, junk kitchen utilities, a few garbage cans worth of junk scrap metal. Junk junk junk. As we were leaving it on the side of the house, prepped for Saturday’s bulk trash pickup, a Mexican man in rust-stained jeans hops out of a dark blue van and asks us, in trying English,

“You getting rid these things? Okay, take metal?”

Sure it was okay to take metal! I said, “No problem, amigo.” “Gracias” came his reply, and then his wifely, or partner, or friend or sister, whichever, pulled open the bay doors of the van and started to toss in as much metal as we had lying around, which was a lot.

Jonah comes around the corner, and says to me with widening eyes, “You mean, they want all of the metal!? Dios Mio!” and we start helping this couple pack their van with all our scrap junk. Heaps and piles of the stuff. Heavy air conditioners and desk tops, a drafting table, the skis, the skiing poles, all of it goes into the van.

While the man heads down to the basement to see what else he can score, I approach the woman with a flimsy aluminum serving tray.

“Tambien?” I ask. “Si!” she replies, and chucks it into the van.

By the time they drive off, they have approximately 3-500 lbs of scrap metal in their van, at an estimated value of $200, depending on the market rate. And our trash load is lighter, and there’s less to drag to the curb Saturday AM. And it’s another reason that we LOVE living in Brooklyn, NYC.

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