Perfect Day (2008)

Grace Bastidas

It's the a.m. at KENNEDY AIRPORT (Jamaica, Queens, 718-244-4444), and my bag's packed and ready to go, just the bare essentials, a journal and a camera. Today, there are no turbulent flights, no temperamental children, and no terrorist threats. Instead, the sounds of takeoff are like a quiet storm in the afternoon: soothing and reassuring. I sit at Terminal 5 and watch a plane disappear . . .

Photograph by Sylvia Plachy
The destination? The cobblestone streets of Old Havana, where that familiar Cuban beat lends its rhythm to every corner as bicycle-taxis with chauffeurs who double as firemen ride by. Maybe the hot, sexy languor of Rio de Janeiro, where tanned, pretty girls sipping coconut water flirt with tanned, pretty boys with little to hide on the sands of Copacabana. Perhaps the lush green of Costa Rica, where breath is like a gift and every day is pure life. Or even Colombia, where folks just keep dancing on a Titanic that refuses to sink. The flight promises to be long, but no need for passports or early check-ins; New York is my guide.

First stop, BROADWAY SANDWICH SHOP (96-01 Roosevelt Avenue, 718-898-4088), a no-frills restaurant on the cuchifrito circuit of Junction Boulevard where breakfast is served. The mamey shake is cold and creamy, and the cubano is served with heaping portions of greasy pork, melted cheese, sour pickles, and thick mustard—a special one-time-only fat-free version created just for me.

My other senses pause for nourishment at Spanish Harlem's EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO (1230 Fifth Avenue, 831-7272). Perched on the edge of this neighborhood built on nostalgia, the shabby facade of the 32-year-old institution hides a carnival inside. A Brazilian art show is set to kick off in a few moments—enough time to master the singsongy Portuguese of Rio. A quickie course at the NEW SCHOOL (66 West 12th Street, 229-5600) transforms me into a smoldering native speaker à la Sonia Braga circa 1977.

Back at the opening, I take pic-tures of the pictures of artists, pausing only to down delectable caipirinhas, mixed with juicy strawberries, kiwi chunks, and passion fruit dotted with tiny black seeds. As I walk around, a nearby pre-Columbian sculpture doesn't escape my touch. I get close to feel its smooth grooves and dents between my fingers. The temptation to stay longer and trace the patterns of a charcoal drawing signals it's time to move on.

I cross over to Central Park and take in the sunset's show of colors. The HARLEM MEER (Central Park, East 110 Street and Fifth Avenue, Central Park, 310-6600) is a pool of iridescent water, and the urban forest, an oasis in the middle of it all. But too much cachaça in the caipirinhas clouds my view, and the grass soon gives way to concrete. My journey has taken me further south than I had imagined.

I end up at a familiar locale in Queens that fuses the familial intimacy of Wednesday nights at NELL'S (246 West 14th Street, 675-1567) with the frenetic energy of S.O.B.'S (204 Varick Street, 243-4940) on Monday eves. The worn wooden floor has taken a beating from the night, as couples, having donned their best silk threads, try to outdo each other with fancy footwork and intricate spins. Meanwhile, Joe Arroyo sings about slavery from two speakers on each side of the room. A half-eaten pink birthday cake sits on a dining room table pushed up against a closet. Nouveau immigrants mingling on the same plastic-covered couch that used to stick to my legs during summers long ago talk loudly about faraway homes. They remember how it used to be. I want to tell them how it is.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my mom, younger looking and wearing a red dress, carrying a tray with plastic plates brimming with coconut rice, stewed beef, and potato salad. She's moving her hips to the music and asking me to get out of her way, in her usual funny, abrupt manner. It's then I realize that I've arrived at that all-encompassing place that I craved and that was closer in space—but not in time—than I had thought. I don't want to go home; I just got here.


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