Gut Instinct: For the Birds

One day, I’ll own a car just like this.

My last car died an overheated death in December 1999, not long after I drove to Mexico during a hurricane. In my haste to make hay home, I pushed my Nissan Stanza (charitably speaking, a tan box with sliding doors) to the breaking point, damaging the engine’s pistons beyond repair—well, the meager funds of a college student.

I consigned my car to a junkyard and, not long after, relocated from Ohio to this fair metropolis. Here I needed no automobile. Subways and buses served my transportation needs and transformed my life. Untethered from car keys, I could have one or, let’s be honest, five more drinks. I indulged in bad ideas till sunrise, when I would wobble to the train on custard legs, my head as scrambled as the eggs that’d soothe my stomach the following morn. Mass transportation meant my youth was wasted.

But it’s been years since I’ve witnessed sunrise through beer-reddened eyes. I’m climbing the creaky ladder up my thirties. I’m engaged. I have a dog. I’m a somewhat domesticated creature, creating fewer wilder stories such as this tale: When I was 23 and trying to quit smoking, I became addicted to toothpicks soaked in tea tree oil. Sucking on one approximated inhaling smoke, soothing my detoxing system. One terribly intoxicated evening, likely after some open bar serving Sparks, I boarded the subway with buddies. At our stop, I lurched from my seat and dropped the toothpicks. “Noooooooooo!” I screamed, as distraught as a dad who just watched zombies devour his daughter. I lunged for my sticks, but my friends pulled me from the train. In my nicotine rage, I head-butted the subway car’s seemingly shatterproof window. It shattered.

I could use this anecdote to illustrate the perceived invincibility of youth, or maybe how I’m hardheaded. “That’s for certain,” my fiancée chimes in, peeved that I won’t replace the yellowed food processor I’ve owned since I was 14 (thanks, Mom!). The more salient point: I’m no longer head-butting subway cars. My dearth of after-dark shenanigans means I’m not as reliant on mass transit. I’ve softened my anti-car stance, discovering the freedom and independence that four wheels permit. Driving an automobile means one need not stand crotch-to-crotch with a stranger while listening to an ear-splitting mariachi band.

As it happens, my pal Matt was looking for friends with whom to share his station wagon. “Let’s do it!” my fiancée said. “We can go antiquing or hiking!” I paused.

Hiking and antiquing fill me with the same dread that accompanies a proctology exam. “Maybe we can use the car to explore some great restaurants upstate?” I suggested. Sold. Last Sunday morn, we cruised north to Peekskill, located an hour from the city. Like so many Hudson River towns, a declining manufacturing base battered Peekskill. By the 1990s, the stately downtown was becoming a ghost town. But an influx of artists and Hispanic immigrants have reversed Peekskill’s decline, and last year the town welcomed a bona fide destination restaurant, the Birdsall House (970 Main St., 914-930- 1880; birdsallhouse.net).

Named after an area hotel frequented by George Washington, Birdsall is the brainstorm of John Sharp and Tim Reinke, a co-owner of Blind Tiger Ale House. Like that Greenwich Village standout, the ’50s-flavored Birdsall centers on craft beer, with 20 taps pouring local and national standouts such as Captain Lawrence and Stone. Sip ‘em at the room-spanning mahogany bar, or take a booth bathed in skylight sun. “Let’s sit in the sunlight,” my fiancée said, basking in rays like a lazy cat. I found contentment in the menu: Chez Panisse vet Matt Hutchins devised a locally sourced, Southern-leaning, rib-sticking bill of fare filled with house-made charcuterie, Hudson Valley cheeses, sustainably raised burgers, hubcap-size buttermilk pancakes and maple-bacon ice cream. I settled on the Reuben, while my fiancée opted for polenta freighted with oyster mushrooms, a poached duck egg and chunks of blue cheese.

“Going for the make-out special, eh?” I said. Since each brunch comes with booze, I ordered Captain Lawrence’s medium-bodied Fresh Chester Pale Ale; she finagled a bloody Mary. Its pickled carrot curbed her appetite till our repast’s photo-worthy arrival. The polenta featured the prettiest poached egg I’d ever seen, covered in a translucent white cloak and boasting a thick ‘n’ runny interior. Served on crisp rye bread, my Reuben was a plate-dwarfing giant freighted with house-cured corned beef, braised cabbage and New York cheddar, along with zippy Cajun rémoulade—Ireland with a bayou detour. I devoured every tender, salty nib of beef and mopped up drippings with skin-on fries. It was a sandwich worthy of a road trip.

“But before we drive home,” I told my fiancée, patting my belly, “let’s take a walk.”

Read—and vote for!—the original column at the New York Press website.

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