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Operation Pop the Trunk

James Wilby. Little did I know of his counter-mission.

This mission, should you choose believe it, commenced the evening of Friday, November 19th, when one James Wilby was approached by Agent Ohio outside Wilby’s office building in Midtown East. I knew Wilby from Hobart College; his 26th birthday was a few days earlier. Wilby knew Agent Ohio from last years birthday spy mission: Wilby & Ohio met in Central Park, exchanged a USB stick for a locked briefcase, and Wilby was given detailed instructions that led him to a safe house where a surprise party was thrown in his honor. This year’s mission, however, changed everything.

Agent Ohio: a good man with some bad luck

Agent Ohio: a good man with some bad luck

The mission I planned would span three boroughs, involve a David Lynchian meeting with a character known only as The French Man and would culminate with Wilby’s discovery of a girl hiding in the trunk of a car. However, the counter-mission, engineered by forces unknown, ended with I, Operation Pop the Trunk’s Mastermind, chasing numerous vehicles through the streets of industrial Greenpoint in an effort to hunt down Wilby, who disappeared into the night. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Agent TJ. Looks trustworthy. Hardly.

Once Agent Ohio picked Wilby up from his office, he brought Wilby to a car piloted by rogue Agent TJ. Agent TJ could be trusted with one job – driving Wilby across the Queensboro Bridge to an undisclosed location. The tension was palpable during the drive: Agent Ohio didn’t trust Agent TJ, and Agent TJ had no idea who Wilby was. Furthermore, Agent Ohio’s girlfriend had been missing for nearly 24 hours and he wanted nothing more than to skip the meeting with The French Man and find her.

The French Man: his mysteriousness is exceeded only by his frenchness

The French Man: his mysteriousness is exceeded only by his Frenchness

Wilby was dropped off in front of Flux Factory, a sleeper cell disguised as an art collective in Long Island City. After introducing himself (in French,) The French Man proceeded to question, harangue and confuse Wilby, entirely in French. Wilby doesn’t understand a lick of French. Through gestures, Wilby grasped The French Man’s request for a piece of film. Once he handed off the film, Wilby was handed a briefcase. “Promenade du Norde. Promenade du Norde!” the French Man shouted at Wilby as he led him out of the labyrinthine basement of Flux, and, with nothing else to do, Wilby walked north.

When he made it a block north, Wilby practically stumbled into a scuffle between Agents Ohio and TJ. Upon seeing Wilby’s briefcase, TJ made a wild grab for it. Unsuccessful, he darted into a car piloted by a man known as Agent Waterbringer. Out of nowhere, a photographer with a long-range lens also jumped into the same car. After snapping some shots, the car peeled off.

Agent Ohio and James Wilby proceeded to open the briefcase to find discarded underwear. Ohio was neither surprised nor concerned; he received an anonymous text message with the location of his missing girlfriend. So they set off to another stretch of industrial LIC. Upon arrival, Ohio gave the keys to Wilby and said, “If I’m not back in ten minutes, get out of here.” Ohio took off towards an alley, when Wilby heard a knocking from inside the trunk.

Jeanne - A good girl caught up in a bad situation.

Jacking the trunk, Jeanne, Ohio’s missing girlfriend popped out and called after Ohio. He returned to the car and the two of them had a passionate embrace. Her story was questionable, but she told Ohio and Wilby that she was jogging last night and suddenly hit over the head. The next thing she knew, she was in the trunk of the car. He didn’t care, as long as she was ok. The three of them drove over the Pulaski Bridge into Brooklyn.

This is where things get slippery. Agent Waterbringer had Ohio’s vehicle staked out as it approached the bridge and he pulls in behind Ohio. All of a sudden another car, a Jeep, swerves between Ohio & Waterbringer. Inside Ohio’s Civic, Jeanne is confused and groggy, interrogating Wilby about what exactly is going on. At some point, once in Brooklyn, Wilby decides he’s had enough and exits the car and immediately enters the Jeep. The Jeep, piloted by totally unknown agents, begins to split off route—but Waterbringer is on its tail, banking left and right, keeping a sharp eye on the mysterious vehicle.

A dark night. A briefcase. A confrontation.

At a stop sign, a figure smoking a Black and Mild wanders into the street, smack inbetween Waterbringer and the Jeep. Waterbringer identifies him as James’ brother, honks his horn and the man scurries off. Catching up to the parked Jeep, Waterbringer pulls up and rolls down the window to identify the driver as Ryan, Wilby’s co-worker and one of my trusted agents in last years mission. But Wilby is nowhere to be seen – he must’ve taken off down a dark alley while the Jeep was parked.

The trail was cold, so Waterbringer assumed his workaday alias, Jonah Levy, and went to the bar where the after-party was planned. There he finds a few of James’ friends, including Ryan and James’ brother. “Where’s James?” he asks. “I don’t know”, they reply, grinning from ear to ear. Suddenly a strange man comes up to the table clutching bottles in his hands “Someone order seven beers?” He says in a gruff voice. It’s Wilby, incognito in fake mustache and wig. Agent Wilby, incredibly, engineered his own stakeout, extraction and infiltration of his super secret birthday surprise spy mission. Next year, we’ll have to incorporate a few decoys…

By Jonah Levy / Agent Waterbringer.

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#GoogleUniqueEats Foodie Tours!

It's a tough life, leading a foodie tour on a Partybus for Google users . . .

So when our friend Esther, who works as the Manhattan Google Places Community Manager, called me up and said “I want to hire you guys to lead a crazy food tour for Google on a Partybus . . .” my head started to spin. Visions of top-ranked Google Searches and Larry Page and Sergey Brin front and center, enraptured with all my knowledge dropping . . . until Esther explained further. It wasnt a tour for Google employees, it was a tour for Google Place Users. Google Places is Google’s new personalized local recommendation engine powered by users and their friends.

We scored delicious Venezuelan roast pork & plantain sandwiches here.

Users can review one place a day, or a hundred. The more you review, the higher up in the Google Places rankings you list. And the more reviews you snag under your belt, the more opportunities you catch for awesome activities. And Esther wanted us to create a Foodie tour, which is what went down last Saturday. We devised a Washington Heights and Chinatown Foodie Tour! You might remember Jonah’s Washington Heights blog post earlier this month.

Since Washington Heights is at the waay top of Manhattan, we met our group in Chinatown, where we pickedup some sweet sticky Chinese pork jerky to whet our appetites. Our partybus was waiting for us, along with a few cases of chilled, delicious Sixpoint beer, and off we went to the top of the the island, land of Dominican fried pastries and Venezuelan roast meat sandwiches!

When we say Partybus, we mean PARTYbus!

Our party bus, booked through Amex Limo, was a pimped-out sweet 30 passenger minibus with laser lights, a booming sound system, leather couches, beer coolers, a bar for mixed drinks and a party manager along with the driver. Our guest list were 23 New Yorkers, some lifers, some newbies, all users of Google Places and all excited to head towards a ‘hood they’d mostly never been to.

First stop was Cachapas y Mas, a Venezuelan fast food joint on Dyckman street near the Elevated 1 stop. We got the Patacon de pernil, which was succulent roast pork slathered in sauce and slapped between two smashed, fried plantains. Yum! They also tossed in a dozen Shark patties, totally gratis. Shark! Since all the beer was on the bus, we took our food to go and wolfed it down between sips of Sixpoint and Cape Codder cocktails.

Matt spooning pickled slaw onto Foodie pupusas!

After our Venezuelan stop, we went south along Broadway but north to Central America for Salvadoran pupusas at La Cabana Salvadorena, Broadway and W 187th street.  Our stop here included a pupusa de queso, con brocoli y zucchini. Pupusas are Salvadoran corn-cakes, stuffed with cheese and assorted fillings, with shredded cabbage coleslaw and crema served on top. We were the slaw-serving master.

Emerging victorious from our Russian Minimarket in Washington Heights.

From South & Central America we hopped a pretty quick flight to Russia, by way of Moscow on the Hudson, a crammed-to-the-gills Russian minimarket on W 181st street. We picked up some kielbasa, cheese, pickled tomatoes and pickled pickles. Back to the bus and the booze (for the food!) The tomatoes were extraordinary – flavor explosions.

Second to last stop (’cause it was getting late and we were still way the hell at the top of the island) was Empanadas Monumental – an incredible collection of fried Dominican pastries filled with delicacies like Ropa Vieja de Pollo (shredded and sauced chicken,) Lasagna, Pizza, and Carne de Res (beef.) Delicious, fried little pockets of joy. After our Dominican empanadas, we zoomed downtown, back to Chinatown for one last foodie stop. Of course it was one of our favorites which we includ on every LUNY! Noshing tour, the awesomely cheap Tasty Dumpling in Chinatown, for fried-and-steamed pork potstickers.

All this food description making you salivate? Well, although we’re not running another Google Places Washington Heights Foodie Tour, we ARE running a #GooglePizzaBus Foodie Tour! Info can be found here on our website, and we hope to see you on the partybus! Food and drink is on Google!

By Matt Levy

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New York Characters – like The Baron Ambrosia

Watch the Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia!

Lord knows, NYC is known for its characters. There must be something about this city’s energy, its vitality, its non-stop-ed-ness that attracts individuals who stand out from the crowd. Whether its an active personality quirk, a full-fledged mania, a curious character that stands apart from the personality inhabiting it, New York has some pretty cool peoples. We have the pleasure to know one such character, the Baron Ambrosia, and we celebrated his new Cooking Channel TV premiere last Sunday, in Newark NJ (of all places!)

The Levys with the Baron at the World Premier of his show.

Baron Ambrosia is a creation of the food obsessed, outrageously-attired, adventurously eccentric bon vivant  Justin Fornal.  Justin started out as a normal kid growing up in Connecticut, if, as a young 7 year old, tasting multitudes of dried spices while listening to haunted cassette tapes in a dark basement in order to further a culinary sensibility could be considered “normal.” While attending University in Pittsburg, Justin fell in love “with an ice-cold super fox named Big Kim. . . she, of course, was from the Bronx.” Justin followed his passion to the only borough in NYC attached to the mainland of America, and discovered a melting pot of sensuous flavors and outrageous tastes. (For those readers who remember, back in January the Baron hosted the First Annual Bronx Pipe Smoking Society’s Small Game Dinner Party. The Second Annual is coming up soon, and skunk and porcupine are already on the menu. . .)

Mark, Jonah and Matt sucking down Berbigão à Bolhão Pato

In 2007, Baron Ambrosia made his DIY media debut on a podcast called Underbelly, which ran for 8 episodes. In Spring 2008, Bronxnet, an independent, non-profit local TV channel, focusing on “local television by the people of the Bronx, for the people of the Bronx,” renewed the program under the title Bronx Flavor. 3 seasons later, the show is going strong, and the Baron just finished shooting a feature length movie of the same name.  Watch an episode; within minutes of the opening sequence (featuring the Baron’s beloved Purplesaurus Rex, a recreation of a 1929 Mercedes SSK, complete with crushed velvet seats and a suspended chandelier,) viewers will be both impressed as well as left laughing out loud at the Baron’s DIY anarchic aesthetics towards food versus the “established” food world’s ridiculous reverence to what’s on their plate. Which brings us to last Sunday night, his National TV Debut on the Cooking Channel and Seabra’s Marisqueria in Newark, NJ.

Mark and Matt with Bronx Rap Living Legend Melle Mel

Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood is the Portugese stronghold of the Northeast; the streets sing with restaurants and dishes like Berbigão à Bolhão Pato (garlic drenched cockles,) Camarao a Guilho (shrimp sauteed with garlic,) chorizo and hake, the “noble fish of Portugal.” Mark, Jonah and I were on hand, drinking red sangria, stuffing ourselves with the aforementioned snacks and mopping up the juice with Portugese bread. We schmoozed and boozed with the various characters and local legends from Baron Ambrosia episodes, until 1030pm when the Baron swept onto the screen and commanded our attention for the next 30 minutes. The show, called The Culinary Adventures of Baron Ambrosia, was a quick-witted romp through Newark’s culinary culture, and broadcast as a mix of Monty Python slapstick, Cooking Channel food adventure, VHI pop-up infotainment, and the Baron’s signature debonairly, dramatic overacting. The guy’s a ham and no-one’s prouder of it than him. It was a treat to stuff our faces with food and spend the evening with street eats royalty. And maybe, one day when we’re famous, we can invite the Baron to our own TV show premiere! If only . . .

By Matt Levy

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In The Heights!

A brightly colored Puebla parade in Washington Heights

Doing tours of not-so-touristy neighborhoods, like Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, trying to track down information about neighborhood institutions, quirky stories and sugar-coating the down-and-out history isn’t easy. But when it comes to it, bringing a busload of kids to discover the genuine character of a rarely visited section of NYC is a true joy.  Washington Heights gained brief fame as the focus of the Tony award winning musical In The Heights, but not many outsiders make their way to the top of Manhattan. It’s a shame, because this immigrant community of Dominicans has lots to see and do. (In fact, we’re hosting a Tasting Tour with Google Community Places called #GoogleUniqueEats. Check out how you can score a FREE seat on the partybus!)

Washington Heights is a surprisingly textured neighborhood with history dating back to the American Revolution; however our tour group, the Spanish Club of  Shaker Heights Junior High School outside of Albany, wanted to explore the Dominican culture.  Starting at the Church of the Good Shepherd we admired the beautiful interior of the 1930’s-era structure and spoke about the role Catholicism plays in the Hispanic community. We even had the opportunity to pay our respects at a memorial on the church grounds dedicated to heroes from the community who lost their lives in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

We strolled down to George Washington High School, discussing the Dominican immigration that occurred in the 1950’s and 60’s and the newly arrived students’ remarkable thirst for education. A funny story regarding these young strivers is that when disbelieving, skeptical teachers put up flyers for clubs that didn’t exist at the school, (Rowing, Fishing, etc.) the Dominican students had enthusiastically signed up for each activity.

A beautiful mural in Washington Heights

You see, having escaped Trujillo-era despotism, the Dominican community was not a stranger to blood-thirsty politics. Young Dominican immigrants called llevados would march up Broadway every April dressed in military pants, black shorts and bands of ammunition over their shoulders. There are huge, apolitical celebrations as well, like “La Dia de la Raza”, which happens on Columbus Day. (After all, the day the Europeans met the Native Americans was the day the Hispanic Race was born!) Washington Heights is abuzz with Latin-flavor on the second Monday in October, with traditional music, food and dress.

State Assemblyman Guillermo Linares

After a short walking tour to check out a few neighborhood murals, we broke out our secret weapon: we found time in the busy schedule of State Assemblyman Guillermo Linares. Linares arrived from the Dominican Republic in 1966 and worked late, dangerous nights as a taxi driver while attending school. In 1991 he was elected to City Council, the first Dominican-born American to be hold a government post. In 1995 he was personally tapped by President Clinton and soon found himself riding around in Air Force One, discussing immigrant rights and public education all around the country. He spoke to the kids about his proud heritage.

Finally we headed to 27 de Febrero, the hottest spot for tostones and bachata music in the Heights. With enriched spirit, educated minds and full bellies, the Spanish Club of Shaker Heights said goodbye as they set off to their tour of the United Nations. And they thought they were just going to practice their Spanish!

By Jonah Levy

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