The sign on the door to one part of the glorious John Derian store in Manhattan’s East Village said, “Closed for private event.”
I sighed with frustration as I stood on the sidewalk with 10 women, as people wearing sleek hair, oversized glasses, and shoes with treads so heavy they seemed to be stolen from a tractor, passed by us to enter the store. John Derian is my favorite shop in the world and it was important to me that the women get the chance to revel fully in its beauty.
NextTribe is offering this specially curated trip again next spring, April 18-22. Join us to see a sizzling part of NYC that visitors often miss to feel like a true New Yorker. Click here for all the details.
I recognized a tall, handsome man sharing the sidewalk with us: the owner, John Derian himself. The store is not even one block from my apartment, so I’ve seen him numerous times. I explained that I had brought women from all over the country for an insider tour of downtown and wanted them to sample the authentic buzz of the city. He smiled and nodded toward the door. “Go on in,” he said, and I corralled my group into the press of bodies (that’s Colleen, Peggy, and Sarah in the photo above), where we were given glasses of champagne and watched Ajiri Aki sign copies of her gorgeous lifestyle book, Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating The Good Life.
We piled out of the store about 20 minutes later as effervescent as the beverage we’d just sipped. There were exultant cries of delight that boiled down to: “OMG. I can’t believe we were hobnobbing at a real New York party.”
This is how the NextTribe Downtown NYC Insider Tour started—truly our very first event on the very first day.
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In Search of the Mythical Magic
I spent 10 years in New York City after college. Following a 30-year detour to Texas, I returned here a year ago, after my divorce. From my earliest days in Manhattan, I looked longingly through windows of apartments, bars, restaurants at people gathering and laughing. What did they know that I didn’t? Who did they know? It’s easy to feel like an outsider in this city, difficult to break the code to graduate to “insider” status.
When I put together a NextTribe trip to New York, I wanted to create for guests, as much as possible, that sense that they were part of something unattainable to typical tourists or even to newcomers to the city: namely access—to the smart places and people that provide New York its mythical magic.
‘OMG. I can’t believe we were hobnobbing at a real New York party.’
I spent months researching happening bars and far-from-tourist-trap restaurants to show my group. I put together small soirees in the apartments of friends and arranged private tours of museums and neighborhoods.
The book party at John Derian’s store was not planned, but the city provides an abundance of just such memorable spontaneity.
The planned events also sizzled, if I do say so myself. After leaving the store, we went to a welcome reception on the rooftop of my apartment building, where women entrepreneurs and artists showed their work and where Stacy Cohen, who won our Sing Out Loud talent search last fall, serenaded us with gutsy Janis Joplin tunes and classics like “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which she dedicated to all the adventurous NextTribe travelers. (Following dinner at a culinary gem that sits at the end of a small alley in the Lower East Side, a few of adventurous souls went to a neo-burlesque show that had us in stitches—and the dancers out of their stitchings.)
The following day was one peak after another, starting with a walking tour of Lower Manhattan for the background on how this island became a financial and cultural capital. We then headed to the stunning apartment of a friend in the West Village for a Literary Lunch, where we heard from Sara Nelson, the executive vice president of major book publisher Harper Collins, and Kristin van Ogtrop, a high-powered agent. My group, joined by other women who lived in the city, were part of a passionate conversation about books, creativity, and writing.
On Friday evening, we got to crash our second party.
What We Did for Love
Marie’s Crisis Cafe is a warm hug of a dive bar. Once you enter—a few steps down off a lovely West Village street—you are in no-stranger zone. Against one wall is a piano, encircled by a bar, with only a small space for the piano player, as if he were in a DJ booth. The crowd that sits around the bar are regulars—you can tell by their familiarity with the piano player, the others at the bar, and the songs. Every piece of music is a show tune, songs that have been sung through the decades on the stages a couple of miles north.
And everyone is invited—no, encouraged—to sing along.
Who needs to go to a Broadway show, when we’ve got them all right here!
Most of the NextTribe group was at a collection of tables in an alcove. But several, including Franny, Leslie, Peggy, and me, were standing at the piano, belting our hearts out to “Oklahoma,” “Seasons of Love” from Rent, and “I Dreamed the Dream” from Les Mis and listening to the snarky asides from the hilariously jaded piano player.
We noticed a tall blonde in a white tank top with a sash across her chest that said, “Bride to Be.” She was knocking back drinks and acting out all the songs with a man who was happy to pantomime as her love interest. We learned she was here as part of her bachelorette party. Because we were so tightly pressed against the piano, there was no helping getting swept up in the enthusiasm and hijinx of the bachelorette gang. Soon we were swaying along with the bride-to-be, grabbing our hearts as we sang, demanding that the piano player satisfy her wish to hear “People” from Funny Girl.
Once she got her song, I began thinking of the tune I most wanted to hear. I slipped a $10 bill into the tip jar and asked for “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line. My high spirits came down a few notches because this song was freighted with emotion for me. The man, a former writing professor, who taught me to love Broadway, starting with this show, died four years ago. What’s more, as we all sang the lyrics “Won’t forget, can’t regret/What I did for/Love,” my eyes teared up, as I thought about another man, my ex-husband, and about my 29-year marriage that ended in 2021 but is still something I treasure…mostly.
I got back in the groove with the next song, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which the piano player annotated with catty comments about Patty Lupone in Evita. He even had us all following him in a melodramatic bow that Lupone supposedly took to gain the most applause.
As we tumbled out of the bar—on our way to a small French bistro favored by New York writers—I exclaimed, “Who needs to go to a Broadway show, when we’ve got them all right here!”
Finding Our Groove
After crashing two parties, I was seeing a trend. I was on the lookout for another gathering we could slip ourselves into and felt sure we’d come across something. New York is nothing if not a banquet of simultaneous festivities. I kept an eye out at the Ear Inn, a late-night watering hole on the edge of Tribeca and the Hudson River that has attracted revelers for some 200 years.
The next day, Saturday, following a lunch at my apartment featuring two fashion designers, Azin Valy and Daryl K, we had a couple of drinks at a speakeasy that is one of only two from the Prohibition Era still operating. All drinks are served in tea cups, as they were back when the place (reached via some inconspicuous stairs and a dark hallway) was frequented by the likes of Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky. The group was having such a good time, clinking tea cups brimming with cocktails, diving deep into discussions about our various paths to who we are today, and marveling at the ornate, velvet-centric decor—right out of the ’20s, for sure—that I stopped paying attention to anyone else’s gatherings.
We clinked tea cups brimming with cocktails and marveled at the ornate, velvet-centric decor that was right out of the Prohibition Era.
At our late-night dinner, I felt the same sense of camaraderie with the NextTribers. As I sat at our table at the decadently beautiful dining palace, which we entered by passing through an inconspicuous gray interior door at the back of a pawn shop, I failed to notice anything beyond our own group of fascinating, animated friends.
On Sunday, we took a morning ferry to get from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights, where we had brunch in the most eye-popping brownstone I’ve ever visited, owned by my friend Elise Pettus. Competing with the architecture of the home was the caliber of our guest of honor. NextTribe has written about Maya Wiley before—back when she was part of the MSNBC legal analysis team and again when she was running for mayor of New York. She talked about her activist parents, her growing-up years, what fuels her passions, and where she’s heading in her new role as CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
It was later on Sunday evening that I was struck by a Wizard-of-Oz-like truth: To find what we were seeking, we didn’t need to look further than ourselves.
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Taking a Bow
As I was planning this New York tour, I wanted to shine the spotlight on New York women who make us laugh and think because a) NextTribe was founded on this idea (borrowed from my 94-year-old mother): If you get older without a sense of humor, there’s no hope for you. And b), I couldn’t think of a better way to end the visit.
Producer Caytha Jentis and I were fortunate that we could get some top talent for the event: Well-known comedian Carole Montgomery, Cindy Kaplan (who entertains via word and song), Valerie David (who has a one-woman show devoted to her successful battle against cancer) plus essayists Alice Scovell and Heather Christie.
We assembled in a small theater space in the East Village where a Japanese-style comedy show is usually performed. The stage is just slightly higher than the rest of the room, which is filled with tables and booths.
The door to the club was slightly cracked, which meant that people passing on 1st Avenue could hear the hysterics. What would they be thinking?
By 6:30 p.m., the place was buzzing with about 40 women—our travel group, plus 30 other women from the city who’d bought tickets for the event. We were drinking wine and sampling slices from two of the top pizzerias in the city (we later voted on the best).
By 7 p.m., I got on stage wearing a prized piece of clothing—a rhinestone-studded gold lame jacket made by Nudie, a famous tailor to the stars (including Elvis and Liberace) and a pair of Chuck Taylor high tops decorated by my artist boyfriend with logos from the NY Mets and the Yankees. I felt very New-Yorky.
I save my jacket for only the most special occasions, when I am really ready to have a blast. And this night did not disappoint. We worked our way from emotional (but humorous) fare about the bumps and bruises we’ve accumulated as women of this age to—after a break for dessert of miniature pastries from a famous Italian cafe—raucous bits from Kaplan and Montgomery about everything from the price of trendy avocado toast to what we know as older women that young people just don’t get yet.
The room spent the last half hour or so in roaring laughter. I saw women slap the table guffawing or bend over holding their stomach. I had tears coming out of my eyes, and I was worried about another kind of liquid as the jokes kept coming. “This is good old womanly nasty humor,” Christy, one of our group visiting from Texas, said. “Stuff men don’t get.”
As I scanned the room to take in all those joyful faces, I realized that the door to the club was slightly cracked, which meant that people passing on 1st Avenue could likely hear the hysterics. What were they thinking?
They were probably feeling the same thing I used to when I witnessed happy gatherings in New York City—the same thing that all of us in the travel group felt when we slipped into the book party a few days earlier, or watched the bride-to-be and her pals ham it up at the piano bar: I want to be part of that.
It occurred to me that we had become the insiders now—at least for the moment—the ones who had unlocked some secret part of the city. For both those who were visiting NY with our tour group plus the local women who had joined in for the event, how could we want to be anywhere else?
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Photos by Lisa Ramsay, Peggy Miller, Colleen Martell, Kimberly Cihlar, and Jeannie Ralston