By Eileen Katz
Cynthia Kaplan is the author of two acclaimed books of humorous essays, Why I’m Like This and Leave the Building Quickly and has written for magazines, film and TV. She is also a comedian and musician and has played in many rock clubs and theaters around the country. Her newest music video, We Were the Donner Party, is screening at comedy festivals. She’s also an actor but has never appeared on Law & Order. You can find out about her books and everything else at www.cynthiakaplan.com. She lives on the Upper West Side with her husband, two kids, and thankless dog.
Why the West side, Cindy?
I came here right after college because it didn’t seem like there was anywhere else to go.
…Can you explain that?
I can’t explain why. It just seemed that this is where my people were. And by my people I don’t necessarily mean Jews, although they are my people. I just meant there was something…I don’t know I wanted to be near the park and I liked the brownstoney feeling of it and I don’t know! I didn’t know where else to look, honestly!
And you stayed here ever since?
Not quite. I spent 9 years living on the Upper East Side. It was terrible. I didn’t see myself as an Upper East Sider and I know that doesn’t have any meaning at all, but it just didn’t feel like the place I belonged. When my husband and I were going to buy our first apartment, it had to be on the West side because it’s the perfect mix of artsy, shlumpy, neighborhoody, parkside that was our just due. It suited us. I wish I could say I belonged in Soho or even something super groovy like Alphabet City or the East Village. Some really really artsy or edgy place, but I grew up in Connecticut and the Upper West Side seemed like the closest to it…except with more Jews.
What makes someone an Upper West Sider?
I don’t know…it would sound so cliché to say that they have liberal politics, are artsy, writerly, sort of family oriented, but the truth is, that when I’m on the Upper West Side, I don’t feel like I’m in competition with anybody. I feel like we all look the same degree of we just rolled out of bed, and managed to get dressed and go about our lives. We all look like about that same level and I feel like I can be myself.
What do you think the best part of living up here is?
The park and the way some streets feel very residential and then some streets are commercial and you get to separate yourself and feel like you’re going home to someplace that is quieter and calmer. The subways are good. Not as crowded as the East side. People are pretty friendly.
You didn’t feel that way on the East side?
Oh, I’m sure they were friendly but I was just biased against them and didn’t open myself up to them!
What’s the worst part about living up here?
I don’t have a backyard or a pool. I think, expense aside, it would be great to have a sprawling apartment with a deck or an outdoor space and an extra freezer for all the meat you could buy ahead of time like my mother did. I’m really fortunate though so it’s hard to say anything bad.
What’s the best part?
I love feeling like I belong in this place. It feels like the people who are here live here. When I’m in other neighborhoods, downtown, it feels like there’s an influx of visitors and the people who live there have these secret tunnels where they have to meet because why would they want to go out on the streets with all these tourists and visitors?
Do you have any favorite places you like to go?
I’m going to say that Central Park is part of the Upper West Side as opposed to any other neighborhood so I love the Great Lawn, the entire park! I don’t want to give Riverside Park short shrift but it can get so cold. But Riverside is where I rest my brain. I love that it’s right on the water. I love the flower garden between 89th & 90th that has a gazillion tulips that some incredible person plants each year for no money. I love Steps where my daughter takes dance. I love it and hate it cause it reminds me of my dancing years and then also makes me jealous that I didn’t become a dancer. Which wasn’t an option. It wasn’t like it was ever going to happen, but I still really love going there with her. It just feels quintessentially showbizzy, New Yorky.
Any other regular stops you make in the neighborhood?
I love Barzini’s. Their prices aren’t always great but you can have lunch on the cheese samples. It reminds me of when I was a child and my mother and I would go eat samples for lunch at this upscale market in Westport.
My new love here is Second Time Around because you get what you get and you don’t get upset. If they don’t have a dress in your size, it’s because that woman was not your size. And I love recycling. I hate the amount of garbage there is in the world. And I love buying something that makes you feel like you’re on a treasure hunt. I really find regular shopping boring and stressful but I love going in there and seeing whose dress I can wear. You think about the life someone had in this dress or coat. But you have to smell the underarms. You can send something to the cleaners a hundred times, but if there’s body odor in it, it’s never going away. I’m sorry it’s just the ugly truth of buying second hand clothes.
I love bookshops. I love bookstores. I love book culture. I love Bank Street Books. And the truth is, I know they’re a big corporate giant, but I love Barnes and Nobles. I can spend days in a book store reading. In fact sometimes I’ll do that if I’m really angry about a book and I don’t want to buy it but I need to know what’s in it. I’ll go and just read it there. Like “Tuesday’s With Morrie,” I knew I was going to be angry about that book. And so I read it in the bookstore.
Why were you angry about that, of all books?
Because I felt in my heart there was something very opportunistic about the writing of it and it was while I was writing my first book and I needed to know what was in it, but I couldn’t contribute to it. Because I knew Morrie wasn’t seeing a single royalty from that book!
Ever have an experience that made you say: “This could only happen on the West side!”?
So I was in the Town Shop, which if you were to say that one shop name to anyone anywhere else in the world who knew about the West side, you just say “The Town Shop” and people would immediately know that was the place to buy bras. So I was trying on bras with the ladies who actually touch your body while they’re helping you. Lifting and moving your breasts around. And I’m in this dressing room and I hear a woman in the dressing room next to me and I can’t believe it, but it’s my mother! She was still living in Connecticut at the time and had come in to the city for another reason and a friend had told her The Town Shop was the only place to shop for bras if you had the time. To be able to run in to your mother, completely unplanned, bra-shopping at The Town Shop to me, is the perfect West side story.
Any other encounters that could only happen up here?
It’s really hard. I have such a bad memory. That’s why in my books there’s never any real dialogue because I can never remember a thing anyone says. I can only remember what happened in High School, Eileen! Everything else is a blur!
If you could change one thing about the Upper West Side what would it be?
I’d make it safer for people to bike and walk. I love that there are now bike lanes, but I still think it’s kind of a rodeo out there. And more homes for the people who need homes.
When Cindy Kaplan Day is declared on the Upper West Side, how will it be celebrated?
Oh that’s easy. Everyone would just stay in bed all day and watch “Law & Order” re-runs. And then at night we’d all come out and meet at Gabriela’s, which is too expensive but I still like it. We’d meet at Gabriela’s, they’d shut the restaurant and we’d talk about the episodes and all the Upper West Side actors that are in them. But it is good to get out of the house, so maybe in the middle of it, a picnic in the park. No caterer. Everyone brings their own stuff and share it. That’s Cindy Kaplan Day.
To read all of our “Why the West Side” columns, click here.