Discover more from Squirrel Tomatoes
Episode Eight: Laurie Woolever
YOU’RE GOING TO LIKE US.
Squirrel Tomatoes chronicles my attempt at growing tomatoes while battling squirrels. You can read my last installment, The Swamp.
It also features guest authors who I ask to write anything they want as long as it is at least 69 words in length. I gift them $50 for their efforts. I do not edit them, and they retain all rights to their work.
Today’s guest author is Laurie Woolever. Laurie is a writer and editor living in New York. She co-hosts a podcast, Carbface for Radio, with Chris Thornton, and will publish two books, WORLD TRAVEL and BOURDAIN: THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY, in 2021.
I love what Laurie wrote.
YOU’RE GOING TO LIKE US.
Last month, I took myself on a vacation, to the TWA Hotel at JFK airport in Queens, which is the same borough of New York City in which I live.
It was a plan B. I had intended to rent a car and visit my boyfriend, a career chef and lifelong New Yorker, who left the city after COVID forced the closure of the restaurant he’d just opened. The restaurant was luxurious, vast and expensive, the kind of place in which people with ample disposable income were meant to celebrate birthdays and real estate deals and successful brow lifts and getting their children into good schools and out of bad marriages. It was open for six weeks, then closed for six months. My boyfriend was immediately furloughed, and then laid off, health insurance cancelled, a shot that echoed hundreds of thousands of times around the city as restaurant workers saw their livelihoods disappear in lockdown, while the owner class retreated to their second homes in the country, making weak jokes about The Decameron on the Long Island Expressway and the north-bound Taconic.
Anyway, my boyfriend moved to the Western Catskills, where he found work feeding people who’d fled the city—some recently, some years ago—and every few weeks, I go and visit him. Only sometimes, it’s too hectic for him, and not worth it for me; sometimes there’s hardly an overlapping hour when we are both awake in the same place. When you live and work in a Northeastern vacationland, even one that’s been muted by COVID, you make hay while the sun shines, which is to say, you make pheasant pot pies and breakfast sandwiches and take-away quarts of Bolognese sauce before winter plunges its cold icy dick into everything, freezing the cash flow, depleting the serotonin.
So, instead of driving to the mountains, I took the rental car and gas money and used it to book a night at the TWA Hotel, built into and around the 1962 Eero Saarinen-designed former TWA Flight Center. Then I took some more money, and made it a two-night reservation.
Traveling to JFK from my home in Jackson Heights provided some of the adventure and problem-solving of more far-flung travel. I could have taken a $50 car service, but without the burden of a suitcase or a flight to catch, it seemed an unconscionable waste of money, especially when there’s an E train in my neighborhood which takes you to the AirTrain, a turgid little three-car monorail, which then takes you to JFK.
Cool fact about now: the E train doesn’t currently go all the way to the AirTrain, which I learned only after boarding. I got out in Kew Gardens and onto a Q10 bus, which takes passengers to JFK. Cool fact about now: some Q10 buses don’t go all the way to JFK. Some, like the one I was riding, terminate on a windy, trash-strewn corner outside a chain hotel, across the street from an abandoned lot.
While I stood waiting for the next Q10, a guy got out of his parked car across the street, whipped out his dick and pissed an impressive arc onto an adjacent car. The late afternoon sun lit it up like honey on a cereal box photo. I stood very still and used an app to summon a car service. Dazzled, perhaps, by that golden piss arc, I failed to specify to the app that I was going to the hotel at JFK, so the driver dropped me at the nearly-empty departures area of terminal 5. I could see the hotel, but getting to the entrance on foot was a dumb, frustrating and slightly dangerous process, albeit one I eventually conquered.
What to say about the hotel? The iconic central building is obviously an important architectural relic, well-preserved and wildly photogenic from nearly every angle. It is also, already, so heavily-Instagrammed that I was barely motivated to document it at all. In this current COVID purgatory, when we’re not locked down, but also not traveling freely in numbers, there are enough people milling about the public spaces to keep it from seeming haunted, but not nearly as many as it was designed for, and as a result, I felt incredibly conspicuous every time I crossed the lobby.
I love higher-end hotels like the TWA for their luxurious and sturdy beds, thirsty white towels, gleaming white tile with spotless grouting. I love the lack of untidy magazine piles and semi-important mail, the absence of hand weights and cat toys and the unsightly cords that connect the router and the PS4 to the TV. Nearly every object in a hotel doesn’t belong to me, and is not my responsibility. Whether by design or due to COVID restrictions, the TWA hotel rooms take this minimalism to an extreme; there’s nary a branded coaster or pen, no room service menu (because, no room service), nothing in the mini fridge, no terrible little coffee maker, no shower caps, no Q-tips.
Unfortunately (for me, a known killjoy), in the hotel’s public areas, there’s a maximalist Times Square-style bluntness of intention, and a surprising shoddiness of execution, in the details of the early 60s / ring-a-ding-ding theme that threatens to topple the good taste of the whole enterprise. I expect, and can live with, the kitchsy Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darrin tunes in the elevator, but the salvaged cars parked here and there, the rusted white metal Pepsi fridge and museum-style “typical early 1960s American family living room” installation are all somehow both too much, too on the nose, and not enough. There’s no critical mass, and all the objects look like they came from the same overpriced East Village vintage store.
On the day I visited the living room installation, someone had left underneath the wooden credenza a plastic bag, lined with a paper bag, full of discarded food and take-out containers, its feathery handles tied in a loose knot. The credenza itself was accessorized with a fake martini in a glass, surrounded, oddly, by bottles of ouzo, fruit liqueur, and Tia Maria. I’m no bartender, but: ew.
I do understand why the hotel designers have leaned so hard on the most obvious signifiers of a time that some people insist was so fun, so great, so much better than now, when men wore hats and ladies wore gloves, a time when some boomers were getting their first driver licenses and handjobs, and others were being denied the right to open a bank account or vote. But, please, listen to me: you’re not and never will be Don Draper, and I’m not Joan Holloway, and can’t we all just appreciate fine form and function without all this grotesque and clunky pantomime?
There’s a fancy Italian-esque coffee kiosk in the hotel’s lobby, but it’s not currently operating, and the coffee on sale in the underpopulated row of food vendors was watery and ineffectual. A strong, good cup of coffee is important to me, so I boarded the AirTrain to JFK Terminal 8, which has a pre-security Juan Valdez Café kiosk. It was about 10 am on a Friday morning, typically a busy time at any airport anywhere. There were two other people on the Air Train, and when I got to Terminal 8, home of American Airlines, I was one of maybe two non-employee humans in the entire space. There were none of the usual row of cars dropping people and their luggage, no harried families in sweat suits pushing carts stacked with suitcases, and, apparently, no flights departing from this terminal for the next few hours. The way the few security guards and airport personnel eyed me with curiosity and suspicion, I felt as if I’d accidentally entered someone’s private home. I hate crowds, but the sparsely populated terminal was somehow worse, for what it said about our current moment, and the next several months, or years. We live in a service economy, and right now service is dangerous, potentially fatal. Also, the Juan Valdez Café was closed.
I took the AirTrain back to Terminal 5, bought some of that shitty coffee, and went back to bed.
Thank you, Laurie.
Please join us next time for an interview with Cathy Barrow.