By Eileen Katz
He might not be the only immersion or stunt journalist living on the Upper West Side, but A.J. Jacobs has got to be one of the most fun. A.J. immerses himself in a project or lifestyle, for better or worse, then writes about what he’s learned.
This includes the year he spent living his life according to the moral codes expressed in the Bible, stoning adulterers, offering animal sacrifices and all, for his book The Year of Living Biblically – One Man’s Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. For another project he took on the task of organizing the world’s largest family reunion for his upcoming book, It’s All Relative, about genealogy. He is a frequent contributor to Esquire and Entertainment Weekly and has his own Ted Talk. But what he loves most, next to his family, is the three block radius around his apartment on the Upper West Side.
Why the West side, A.J.?
I came here for love.
Yup. It was a lady. She became my wife. You see, I grew up on the Upper East Side and then after college I moved to the Madison Square Garden district. But then I met my wife and she lived on 77th Street, right across from the museum, and so I moved in with her. There was no way she was moving in to my apartment. It was not clean enough. And I had this revelation last week that my entire life’s journey will be from Lenox Hill to Riverside Memorial. Think about it: 76th & 3rd to 76th & Riverside. Just a crosstown bus ride. That’s my life. That’s the whole journey. I do like the West side a little bit better than the east side. Maybe it’s psychological or something because I grew up there, but I feel a little more tense there. Like I have to tuck in my shirt or something. And here, I can keep my shirt untucked. It’s a much more relaxing vibe.
What keeps you here?
We have kids now (twins who are 9 and an 11 year old), and having the Museum of Natural History right nearby is awesome. It’s a great neighborhood to have kids. And I do think that it is a bit like a bedroom community. Like a suburb right here in the city. I find going to midtown very stressful. Probably because of the buildings which are all just too high. Too many shadows.
What do you think the worst part of living up here is?
Trying to get to the Lower East Side from here. I’m old, so I don’t go that often, but a couple of times a year I’ll have to go down there to meet someone young, you know, they’ve got all the good ideas for the digital revolution, and it takes like 2 ½ hours. It’s easier to get to Rhode Island. Other than that, I have no complaints.
What are some of your favorite places to go in the neighborhood?
I do love Central Park, and for some reason, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading about its history and…I should’ve known this, but does everyone else know that Sheep’s Meadow used to have sheep? They got rid of them in 1934 partly because it was the middle of the Depression and they were worried that people were going to eat the sheep.
The hobos were going to eat them or something, which is kind of sad. The zoo in Central Park is a favorite. We have a dog, so we walk the dog in Central Park. Within 3 blocks of my apartment I feel I can have any need taken care of: there’s a hair-cutting place, a grocery, a bank and a drugstore and a bookstore and a wine store. My basic human needs are fulfilled. How great is that? And then, I die, go 5 blocks over and I’m done!
Oh, another place I am grateful for up here is this store called Mint on 82nd and Columbus. They sell scarves and jewelry and my wife just loves their taste so every birthday, anniversary or Valentine’s Day she tells me to just go to Mint and it makes my life so much easier. I’m also a fan of Café Frida. I like that they make the guacamole right in front of you. Like a low key Benihana. And we love Zingone Brothers! This wonderful family grocery store on Columbus and 82nd. Just a lovely Italian American family – the Father works there and the kids and the grandkids. And they know you and they’ll ask my kids: “How’s Grandma?” cause they know my mother. I highly recommend it.
Do you have a favorite routine in the neighborhood?
I drop my kids at school, which is on 110th Street, and then, because I’m a writer, I used to just head home, but I was getting no work done. So I actually joined one of these shared work spaces called The Yard on Columbus and 67th. Then I go there.
What? I’ve never heard about this! Tell me about it…
C’mon over! I think I pay about $300 a month and I’m like on the lowest rung, I’m a loser there in terms of the hierarchy. I don’t even get an office, I don’t get an assigned space, I’m just like a floater. If there’s space at the table in the common area, then I’m allowed there. I’ve got to work my way up to get an office. I’m on a waitlist. I get a lot of work done! There’s coffee, I don’t drink that, but it’s there. They have electrical outlets and a printer and supplies. They’re eating rooms. I swear I get a lot of work done. They have socials, but I really don’t get in to that there. They think I’m this weird old guy and that’s fine. I have read studies that you are more efficient when there’s some level of movement around. And there’s an app you can download for like $5 that has the sound of like a coffee shop – glasses clinking and all – to help simulate that.
Can you describe for me what you think makes someone a typical West sider?
I think there’s like 800 typical west siders but I can certainly tell you they’re someone who is friendly, relaxed and likes being a part of this community.
Since living up here, have you witnessed or experienced something that you would say is a quintessential west side moment?
I love the Barnes & Noble on 82nd and Broadway, and I’ve spoken there a few times for my books and there was one time I was there for this book (Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection) I wrote about health, what to eat, how to exercise, it was mostly a memoir trying to be humorous and entertaining, I wasn’t saying I was an expert or anything. So I get to the Q&A part of the evening, and this woman raises her hand, an elderly woman, and I pick on her and she says: “Excuse me, but I have this rash under my left eye. Could you come take a look at it and tell me what it is?” And I’m like, you do realize I just wrote this book about health that’s mostly jokes and that I’m not a real doctor or dermatologist or anything. And I just loved that moment.
If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one thing from Zabar’s what would it be?
I actually dated the daughter of of Saul Zabar, who owns Zabar’s. For about a year I dated the lovely Rachel Zabar, who I’m a big fan of still. We are Facebook friends. So I do have some personal interaction with Zabar’s. And I will tell you that while I was dating her, sometimes we would go in to Zabar’s and she would just fill up the cart with whatever we wanted and we just would walk out without having to pay. It was decadent! It was like the Islam version of heaven where you get rewarded with 72 virgins, like for me, this was the Jewish version: Just go to Zabar’s and just load up. So, that said, it would have to be something starchy and sweet – the rugelach or the babka’s also outstanding. I had some a few weeks ago and I still think about it. How sad is that? My wife bought it and I wasn’t supposed to have that much of it but I did and the memory of it still stays with me.
It a street up here was to be named after you, which would it by and why?
I walk my dog, Stella, every night on 84th Street so she can do her business – don’t worry, not on the trees or in their boxes. I wouldn’t allow that. So maybe in honor of her I would choose all of 84th St.
When A.J. Jacobs Day is declared on the Upper West Side, how would you like people to celebrate?
A movie and TV festival featuring Upper West Side locations. Not that that has anything to do with me, but I like movies and TV! My building has actually been featured in some. In the film “The Big Short”, there’s a scene where Steve Carell is looking pensively in to the distance and that was filmed on our roof!
That huge patio that’s so gorgeous?
Yup! It is lovely. But it’s not for one person. It’s really for like 500 people to share who live there. And there was a scene from “Gossip Girl” which I’ve never seen, but was filmed in our building. NBC actually optioned my book and made a pilot based on me, but they moved me to a brownstone in Brooklyn cause that’s where all the cool writers live and they needed to make me cooler, so my building missed out on that shot. Still didn’t get picked up.
Thanks for speaking with us A.J.!
To read all of our “Why the West Side” columns, click here.