Tavern on the Green
The last thing I expected to be doing on Saturday night was sharing a carriage ride through Central Park with my girlfriend, my teenage cousin and her boyfriend. The original plan was to meet my sister and her family for an early dinner at Tavern on the Green. They would then head over to the 165-minute musical production of Little Women. We would head...anywhere else.
I've written about my sister over the years, sometimes not in the most flattering terms. This nags at me occasionally; she's a good person who probably didn't deserve to be dragged within range of my sputtering bile. Her sin? Becoming a Born Again Christian.
At the time of her rebirth, I was publishing a nasty little zine that often mocked self-righteous Christians. I had little choice but to poke fun at her. She wasn't entirely blameless. Like most Born Agains, she shouted about Christ from the rooftops, as if she'd just discovered the joys of puppies, red wine and chocolate ice cream all at once. It was a bit taxing, especially for my girlfriend at the time, an observant Jew who didn't appreciate receiving Jews for Jesus literature in the mail.
For a few years, I didn't see much of my sister or her family. Then, as my 20s came to a close, I began to miss them. My oldest nephew was becoming a man; his sisters were teenagers. The key, I decided, was to accept and love my sister without needing to agree with her. Mostly I learned to keep my big mouth shut.
And so we get together every few months, often for an early dinner before they go to a Broadway show.
This was my second visit to Tavern on the Green, and not coincidentally the second time I would not be paying. Like most everyone who lives in New York, I can think of a dozen other restaurants that offer more for less.
But still. It's a lovely place, especially -- only? -- at this time of year, when tiny white lights are strung along the back patio, the meticulous topiary stands in stark green contrast to the winter-barren Central Park and a 20-foot Christmas tree boasts ornaments the size of chubby cats. At 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon, it's a madhouse of families -- tense fathers, Prozac'd mothers, kids in their Sunday best, sullen teenagers seated next to sweater-wearing grandparents. No doubt many of them would be snapping photos at Rockefeller Center within a few hours.
It's always an interesting time, these meals with my sister. Though she no longer grills me about faith or pressures me to study the Bible, the scent of Jesus hangs over the affair. Usually it's harmless enough. The kids are cool; I'm not quite sure how much they believe and how much they perform. My brother-in-law is a great guy, hardworking and loyal. And for the first nine-tenths of any given conversation, my sister is a pleasure.
That last 10 percent, though... She can discuss in positive terms social reform and child-rearing and charity and art, even homeopathy and vegetarianism and organic living -- to a point. In the end, the world's problems always get traced back to Wiccans or Satanists or demons or whatever. More Bible study, and the world would straighten right out.
I once fought her rhetoric tooth and nail; now I change the subject. Or excuse myself politely. My sister, after all, is hardly the first person to find religion, so I'm hardly the first brother to navigate an uncomfortable conversation with his sibling. For her, finding Jesus was about protecting her children. The world is scary; it's angry and unforgiving. It will hurt you and hurt your kids without thinking twice. Religion is a readymade moral framework by which the ugly world can be, if not embraced, then at least kept at bay.
We had a lovely dinner, ordered off the brunch menu. My beef mignonettes were perfectly medium-rare, and served with a modest side of potatoes and haricots verts. The seafood appetizer for two was large enough for four, with two small lobster tails, half a dozen oysters, crab and mussels and several jumbo shrimp. My sister had no complaints about her salmon, nor did my girlfriend of her king crab legs. No one, in fact, had a bad word to say. Even in the full room, service was prompt and friendly, and despite having to wade through half of New Jersey to reach the bathroom, the atmosphere was more festive than overcrowded.
After dinner, with two hours to kill, my brother-in-law suggested carriage rides.
Little did I know that at the southeast corner of Central Park, the horse-and-buggy business is chaotic as a Moroccan market. Living first under Giuliani for six years, and now under Bloomberg for two, I expected a rigid system of ticketing (and taxation) for this tourist racket. Far from it. As a buggy emerges from the route that carries passengers for 20 minutes into the park, around Wollman Skating Rink and then out again, anxious suburbanites and foreigners vie for the driver's attention. Being 11 in total, we fought three separate times -- as with taxis, they won't carry more than four at a time -- until my girlfriend and I were finally seated across from my teenage kin and her boyfriend, all of us huddled under a farmyard-fresh wool blanket.
We had our 20 minutes through the park, laughing about those things teenagers can laugh about with the "cool uncle" and his "cool girlfriend." And then out, to relinquish the buggy to another group of four.
After a quick stop for extra-large coffees, they went to Little Women. After a quick nap, we went to a friend's apartment for a holiday party. Two hours later, my girlfriend turned to me and said, "You know, they're just getting out right now." I wondered if there's a musical number when Beth dies, and whether or not anyone in my family had been awake to enjoy it.