Remember the time I won a poetry contest?

It’s 3:11 in the morning. I’m wide awake, my wife is, uh… not snoring– because she doesn’t snore–, and I can’t help but have the same thought everyone has at this hour: “Remember the feeling of visiting a city for the first time?”

Everyone has that thought at three in the morning– right?

Joe Mollica Visits New York City

It was December 10th, 2013 when my Bolt bus pulled into the Port Authority and dropped me and the other passengers off in New York City. I learned an early lesson in contagion on that bus ride– seemingly everyone was coughing, dripping, or otherwise emitting things into the 900 cubic feet of shared air. Dr. Fauci would be disappointed.

That bus ride was particularly miserable as I was wearing several layers in preparation for the night’s event. Some months earlier (October, if memory serves) I had entered a contest on Van Cleef & Arpel’s website. They were celebrating their “Poetry of Time” movement and were looking for the best lines of poetry the netizens had to offer. Winners would be invited to the grand re-opening of the VC & A Maison at 5th Avenue in New York City. I casually submitted something I had thought of and submitted. I’m a believer in “If you don’t play, you never win.”, but I also believed there would be thousands of entries more suitable than mine. A few weeks later I got an email and an invitation, and thus my first visit to New York commenced.

At the time I was the textbook definition of the antithesis of Van Cleef’s primary customer base. I had $900 to my name. I had an apartment I was 2 months in arrears. I’d never heard of nor watched Gossip Girl. Calm seas never made a good sailor.

Wanting to make the most of a full day in New York, I booked an early bus ride there and a late bus ride back. I didn’t have much of a plan, but I knew with multiple layers and my suit packed in my day bag, I’d be prepared for it all. And so, at 3 in the morning I waved goodbye to my girlfriend and boarded the bus with patient zero and the rest of the Outbreak cast.

The crisp New York air flushed the plethora of viruses I’d harbored from my lungs and I began my trek throughout the city. The event was at 7:00 PM, so I’d have a full eleven hours of exploration time. What the hell was I going to do for eleven hours?! I grabbed breakfast and meandered around the city finding sites like Madison Square Garden, New York Public Library, etc. At the time I had just become a New York Life Insurance agent, so I felt it necessary to stop by the main HQ and snap a picture. Somewhere near the Empire State Building my phone battery died.

I visited the Museum of Sex, which was pretty interesting if for no reason other than it’s the only museum store I’ve been to that sells all manor of adult toys. Smithsonian take note.

Joe Mollica goes to Chinatown

Though I had no real plan for my trip, I had a few goals. One of these goals was to buy the fakest Rolex I could find in Chinatown. Why? Lots of people take pride in having a Rolex, but that gets played out after a while. Wouldn’t be a better story showing off a Rulex? A Romex? Even a primitive Rolecks? Though I appreciate nice things, I appreciate a great story even moreso.

I had swung through Chinatown by accident. I had wandered into a restaurant store on the outskirts of Chinatown, enamored by Cantonese cleavers and woks, and had upon leaving the store opened my eyes and there was a whole new world in front of me.

The smells of the restaurants and markets made me hungry. The smell of the sewers tempered that. While perusing the storefronts, a grandma with an umbrella came to me and coyly asked if I “… want Rolex? Louis? What you want?” I told her what I was interested in and she took me to McDonald’s on Canal St. Then she popped open a menu of all her “I Can’t Believe It’s Not xxx” wares. I didn’t know how to buy a fake before (I still don’t, really), but I sure didn’t expect it to be like that! She returned a bit later with my watch and the bag I picked for my then-girlfriend. Have you ever seen a Rolex that ticks? I can show you 🙂

The only Rolex that ticks

FBI / NYPD: If you’re reading this, I swear at the time I didn’t know buying fakes was a crime!

With souvenirs bought, I stopped at the famous Joe’s Shanghai for the Xiao Long Bao I’d seen pictured on some travel show. A lone diner is not worthy of their own table, so I was sat with others at a table of 8. My beers and my dumplings came to me via the lazy susan in the center– how else could one get around the throngs of people? I’d never eaten Xiao Long Bao before, so the technique of biting off the top and slurping the contents out? Yeah, didn’t do that. Instead, I chomped down on that steaming sack of deliciousness and began the milliseconds countdown to oral obliteration. Have you heard of pizza mouth? You know, where you eat hot pizza and it burns the roof of your mouth? Multiply that by two and apply it to every surface in your mouth.

I saved face and didn’t spit it out nor yelp in agony, but every diner at my table saw the error in my ways and got a good laugh out of my ongoing ordeal.

Lunch eaten and pride damaged, I carried on my wanderings. Somewhere down the way, a massage parlor lady came to me. I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I heard “… massage… good price… make you top notch…”. Not waiting for my response, she grabbed my arm and pulled me down an alley and up some back hallway. For a moment, I considered I was being kidnapped and trafficked for sex– there’s a strong demand for dudes with receding hairlines, you know! She took me to the top floor where I then came to realize: This was either going to be my first massage in New York or my first interaction with a hooker.

Judging by the quality of my massage, my suspicion is that their primary specialty was in muscles below the waist. I was oblivious to any hints they were dropping, and I was way too innocent to even suggest, so I enjoyed my 30 minute back rub, paid my fee, and began laughing to myself all the way to 5th Ave.

Joe Mollica: The Pauper

The event was starting and the doors opened a bit before. When I approached the door with my suit and my backpack, the bouncers gave me “the look” and said “This is a private event, sir” to which I responded by showing them the email I’d received and mentioned I was the contest winner. They looked incredibly unimpressed and told me to come back later. I looked at myself in a window and saw why. My suit was wrinkled from a day in rainy & snowy New York City. I was wearing a jacket I’d bought in Chinatown that is quite far from formal. I was showing with every ounce that I didn’t belong there. I had a few hundred dollars left and I was determined to look the part, so I wandered about and found the men’s clothier, Riflessi.

I’d seen from afar they were having a moving sale, so I came in to see if I could find a suit for a decent price– one that wasn’t wrinkled, smelly, or otherwise unfitting of the high-fashion crowd. I chatted a bit with the store manager and his companion, detailing my adventures in New York, how I got here, etc. etc. All of their options were out of my price range, then the manager told me a story of how he had been a soldier strapped for cash when he was in Israel and someone had showed him some kindness and he would do the same for me that night. He found me a pair of shoes, a shirt, and a suit for a price that wiped me out, but at least got me in the door. Alice, their tailor, got me fitted up and altered in 30 minutes — just in time for them to close. I thanked them profusely and headed back to Maison Van Cleef & Arpels.

Joe Mollica Meets Blake Lively

It was like they didn’t remember the man that came to them before. Security suddenly found my name on the list and let me in. A five piece ensemble played classical music while hors d’oeuvres and champagne floated about on silver platters. I probably enjoyed more than my fair share of the champagne— but after the day I’d had I’d earned it!

For those who don’t know: I love Van Cleef jewelry. I think it’s the best design house out there– I’ve even converted Quynh to be a believer! Well, I’m looking at all the collections in this maison and a lovely woman with light brown/dirty blonde hair comes to me and says how much she loves the piece I’m looking at. I agreed and we talked a bit about Van Cleef and why we like it. She asked who I was and I introduced myself as the lucky idiot that won the poetry contest. She introduced herself as Blake Lively. I’d heard the name, but never occurred to me that she was ultra famous at the time! So there it was, this lucky idiot got lucky twice.

The hosts introduced themselves and commemorated the store’s grand re-opening. They introduced Blake Lively and Dita Von Teese, then later as a footnote introduced me as the winner of their contest. I had a few more champagnes and quietly bowed out.

The 1.6 mile walk back to the bus terminal felt like and eternity in the cold, wind, and snow. I’d stopped feeling my toes 15 minutes prior. It hadn’t gotten above 34ºF all day and my body was feeling it. Though desperately in need of a lavatory, I fell asleep for the ride back and woke up in Baltimore waiting for my ride back home.

It was a crazy day– one I wrote about today so I wouldn’t forget. I’ve long since outgrown the suit from Riflessi, but I keep the pair of shoes as a reminder of what kindness people show to travelers.

The poetry that I wrote?

A thousand poets in a hundred lifetimes could not describe my love for you.

Joey Mollica, Twice Lucky Idiot

What kind of virgin city visit memories do you have?

Links for context:

The Jewelry Editor article on the evening

My Yelp review for Riflessi

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