A Week in Culture: Sadie Stein, Editor


The Culture Diaries


4:00 A.M. I can’t sleep. Because I just moved from Brooklyn into Manhattan, my books aren’t unpacked, and so my reading options are limited. The only books I have handy are on decorating—although it’s usually a pretty theoretical study in my case. The pattern of the boards on the floor of this new apartment reminds me of floors I saw in Kraków when I visited there with my father, and I’ve decided rather grandly to do a sort of prewar Eastern European motif. (Again, this is probably theoretical. ) Wonder vaguely where one would find a tiled stove in New York.

I read a few chapters of the inimitable Dorothy Draper’s Decorating Is Fun!, which is filled with gems like “It is just as disastrous to have the wrong accessories in your room as it is to wear sport shoes with an evening dress,” as well as the somewhat less helpful “I don’t believe anything can do as much for a room as a glowing fire in an attractive fireplace. Men and dogs love an open fire—they show good sense. It is the heart of any room and should be kindled on the slightest provocation.” (That said, I’m guessing Alexa Chung or someone is wearing sports shoes with an evening dress as we speak, and probably causing a sensation. Imagine a world with rules and dicta. The mind boggles.)

5:30 A.M. Finally manage to drift off for a few hours, until a handyman unexpectedly knocks at the door at 7:45 to wash the windows. It occurs to me that this is just the sort of dubious ruse a murderer or thief might use to gain entrance to someone’s apartment; let him in anyway.

9:00 A.M. I pass an angry-looking gentleman on the way to the subway.
“Hello,” I say.
“Bloomingdales, Bloomingdales!” he shouts.

3:53 P.M. I get some sad family news. Internet is in and out here, but in a good moment, I find my favorite Barbara Pym quote: “The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things … the trivial pleasure like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.”

4:45 P.M. My old boyfriend e-mails me about a recent fight he got into at a dinner party, over collective nouns. “I was quite put out, let me tell you,” he says.

6:00 P.M. Go to meet a colleague at a venerable midtown bar. Some visiting businessmen tell me I remind them of “something out of a Woody Allen movie.” I respond with a Diane Keaton-esque, “Well, I’m from Philadelphia,” but they have no idea what I’m talking about and I feel a fool. Later, a woman tells me that if I blew out my hair and lost the glasses, I could maybe get a rich man. She has been at the bar, she tells me, since 3 P.M.


2:30 A.M. Awake again! I remember another Pym quote: “I stretched out my hand toward the little bookshelf where I kept cookery and devotional books, the most comfortable bedside reading.” I’m short on devotional matter but have a volume of Jane Grigson handy, which, with a glass of warm milk and honey, lulls me back to sleep.

7:00 P.M. I go to the book party for The Marriage Plot at the Boom Boom Room. The views are spectacular, the crowd is dazzling, the hamburgers delicious, and I am lousy company. I make it an early night.


2:00 A.M. This is getting ridiculous. I wonder vaguely if this new insomnia has to do with paint fumes, although why it would I don’t know. A friend has recommended Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility, and I find it absorbing late-night reading: I’m a sucker for Old New York stories.

8:00 A.M. Unable to sleep, I walk to the Time Warner Center, where the Botero man’s little penis has turned gold from all the touching and “Orinoco Flow” is piped in over the loudspeaker. I get a doughnut, sit on a bench, and work the crossword.

6:00 P.M. After work, I meet my dad for dinner at a German restaurant in Fort Greene. We talk about Van Gogh’s possible murder and Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece on Jill Abramson. But I have trouble concentrating because …

7:30 P.M. I am part of a program at BAM devoted to food and identity. There are five speakers, with food to match: who knew that companies instituted in-building cafeterias to cut down on lunchtime boozing or that an egg-leavened pancake could be a vehicle for a poignant family history? I speak third, on learning to cook with my grandparents, and am accompanied by my grandmother’s signature recipe, a cake flavored with sherry wine. I can’t stop looking at a stony-faced woman in the front row who doesn’t crack a smile.


2:30 A.M. Had I known I’d never sleep again, I certainly wouldn’t have shelled out for a grown-up mattress, even if I did sort of enjoy the scanning process at Sleepy’s in which they magically calculate the right mattress for your body. Apparently my sleeping position, height and weight called for something really expensive.

4:00 A.M. I finish Rules of Civility.

2:00 P.M. A group of creative nonfiction students drops by The Paris Review. I am younger than all of them and am conscious of lowering my voice in an absurd attempt to appear more mature. Meanwhile, one of them tweets the visit.

6:00 P.M. Family dinner at my aunt and uncle’s. Occupy Wall Street is debated. Afterward, everyone comes to look at the new apartment, and I make them sit on the mattress. My six-year-old cousin pronounces it soft.


8:00 A.M. I stand in line for a standing-room ticket to tonight’s performance of Don Giovanni. As I have no Internet and my stereo is still boxed up, this week has been curiously lacking in sound track.

2:00 P.M. At the main branch of the New York Public Library researching a lucrative and confusing piece for a glossy trade magazine. Am distracted from my work and the beauty of the main reading room by a woman clipping her nails across the table. I attempt to snub her by means of some severe glances but am ultimately forced to move.

8:00 P.M. Walk down to Lincoln Center. While I am generally to be found in sky-high heels, I have a pair of orthopedic nun shoes I save for exactly these occasions. I look slightly eccentric, but know nobody in standing room will judge. And indeed, on my way up the stairs, I spy three capes, a man in a kilt, and a little boy in an embroidered frock coat, buckled shoes, and a powdered wig. “He just adores Mozart,” I overhear his mother say, proudly. I am standing next to a man from Vienna who’s at the Met for the second time in two days. The lead is still out with knee trouble, but Peter Mattei brings great brio to the role.

11:00 P.M. The commendatore is slightly less menacing than one might have wished, but then, I’ve never seen one as terrifying as that in the marionette production I saw in Prague when I was twenty. (He was a man and towered over the marionette Don Giovanni.)


10:00 A.M. I walk over to the Seventy-seventh Street Flea Market, where I buy a lamp and two records: Sketches of Spain and Rachmaninoff (whom I noticed, on a plaque yesterday, died in the neighborhood). I take the time to walk past the building where I spent my earliest years and can’t believe how much the neighborhood has changed: the only places still standing are the Pioneer Food (which smells just the same) and a chicken restaurant and Chinese place, both of which I remember my mom decrying twenty years ago.

8:00 P.M. I’ve spent the day unpacking, writing, cooking, and reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices. A friend joins me for dinner and conversation. The talk turns to Mahler’s Fifth. “I hate you! I hate you, Gustav Mahler, and your Jewish music!” I cry dramatically, quoting the 2001 Alma Schindler biopic, Bride of the Wind.

She sits on the mattress—which, did I mention, comes rather ludicrously to my waist—and dutifully pronounces it comfortable.


7:00 P.M. After work, I go to visit my friend Doris. Eighty-eight, she lives in a small hotel not far from my new apartment; I met her last year in a grocery store when I complimented her jaunty hat. Doris is a retired actress and keeps up with the theater scene—her most recent enthusiasm is Sondheim’s memoirs. I acquaint her with the various tribulations in my family. “That calls for a good, old-fashioned New York oy!” She sympathizes. “Oy vey, even!”

8:00 P.M. Ravenous—all I had was a peanut-butter Nip at Doris’s—I fix myself a plate of leftover pot pie and eat in bed. I like to read about food while I eat; tonight it’s Simon Hopkinson’s Second Helpings of Roast Chicken.

9:00 P.M. A friend drops by with a bottle of Scotch and some ice, since I don’t yet have ice cube trays, to toast the new apartment. We sit on the floor. Later, I make him sit on my mattress.

I am beginning to suspect I was ripped off. Hoping for commiseration, I relate an indiscreet comment I made to someone on the subject of nineteenth-century medicine. “Were you drunk?” he asks unhelpfully. I loan him Rules of Civility.