There are a lot of cool people in this city called New York. However, it can be hard to find them. This is a city notorious for people who look incredible, interesting, and awesome all at once. From a distance. When you get within conversing distance you can just smell the douche simmering below the surface. This brings to mind the “hipster” phenomenon. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you will meet someone who just embodies incredible, interesting, and awesome inside and out. Sometimes, if you’re even luckier, they will agree to be featured on your blog.
These people usually march to the beat of their own drummer, to go by cliché. To the beat of their own banjolele, to defy cliché. That’s Lilly Vanek for you. A remarkable lady you just can’t wait to know more about as soon as you see her. She has a tattoo of a possum, and she makes it cool. She plays a cross between a banjo and a ukulele, and she makes it cool. Perhaps intimidating from a distance, both because she is 6′ and because, well, you’re worried she’s too cool for you. Within conversing distance though, you’ll discover the most friendly, bubbly, spunky, warm person you could ever hope to find in NYC. That you could ever hope to find featured here, as this week’s Other New York cliché!
Borough and neighborhood: Washington Heights, Manhattan
How are you a New York cliché?
I’ve been thinking this question over, and I guess I have been several New York clichés over my time here. When I first moved here at 16, I was the purple haired art school student picking through thrift stores and dragging her cello on the subway. When I came back after a few years of college in Maryland I was the starry eyed girl following some stupid boy who thought he was a rock star. Then, when he wasn’t, there were a few times when I was the girl crying on the train. Then I became the quirky nanny taking care of two mini hipsters while finishing school and pursuing my own musical affinities, writing songs and playing them in bars on an obscure banjo-ukulele hybrid. It’s kind of hard to put myself into any one cliché, but I’m cool with that.
They say no one who lives in New York is actually from New York. Where are you from?
I am actually from Baltimore, Maryland (or Bodymore, Murderland, depending on who you ask). Our claims to fame include John Waters, The Wire, and the fact that Edgar Allen Poe died running drunk and raving mad through our streets. Be it ever so humble.
Bloomberg is banishing you from NYC. You have 24 hours before you have to pack up and leave for ever. How do you spend them?
First of all, since it is Bloomberg we’re talking about, I would spend the day drinking as many giant bottles of soda as I possibly could, in public, while purposely not burning all the calories contained within. But to get to the actual question, I’d travel with my banjolele so I could play and sing along the subways throughout the day. That’s something I’ve yet to do but plan on doing. A lot. So Big Tiny (that’s my banjolele) and I would start out walking through Washington Heights uptown to the Cloisters museum, which is my favorite museum in the city. Tons of beautiful gardens and medieval art and architecture. It is where some of the most beautiful architecture in the city can be found.
Then I’d walk through Washington Heights to Harlem, where there’s more cool architecture. I’m always finding weird old anachronistic houses among the high rises, and I feel like walking is the best possible way to see New York. So then we’d walk down the Upper West side, probably stop by Central Park and then the MoMA. I’d continue down to the village, find as many cheapo thrift stores as possible, then end up at Coney Island, where I’d watch, and then audition for, Sideshows by the Sea Shore. Because if I’m getting kicked out of New York, I may as well run away with the freak show. My fingers are double jointed, and I can touch my tongue to my nose… that’s pretty freaky, right?
What restaurant/bar you keep going back to, even though you’ve been meaning to try a dozen others?
Spain on 13th street between 6th and 7th. It’s incredibly kitschy and weird inside, decorated with Christmas lights at all times and black velvet paintings of conquistadors. The waiters and bartenders are all approximately eight million years old. But the real reason I keep going back: free meatballs. They give you free, delicious meatballs when you buy a drink. It’s beautiful. It renews my hope in humanity.
Favorite pizza place: I know it’s a chain, but I love me some Two Boots. Their pizza is delicious and they have cool art on the walls, often featuring Divine, and I’m pretty sure they have a Divine pizza, too. I am, after all, a Baltimore girl; Divine forever has my heart.
So you live in NYC, but what’s one super-touristy thing you secretly love?
Well, Times Square on a Saturday drives me absolutely bonkers. But that’s where they keep the biggest Forever 21 and they have good sales. A good game to play if you find yourself there with somebody else, is weave in and out of as many tourists as possible, meeting in the middle for a high five whenever you can. I haven’t worked out a points system for this, but I should. Again, to answer the actual question, I have a weakness for food carts. Also whenever I see the Empire State Building from a distance, or the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park, or the Brooklyn Bridge, my heart smiles a little bit and I remember how fucking cool it is that I live here.
Ever had a run-in with a celebrity (A-D List)?
One time I swear I saw H. Jon Benjamin (voice actor, Archer, Bob’s Burgers, etc) in the Two Boots in the village. I wasn’t sure it was him, though, cause he’s a voice actor and all. And I on account of him being such a schlubby little man. I stared at him for a while, but then he started staring back, looking quite alarmed. (I don’t blame him, really, as he was being stared down by a six foot tall woman in red cowboy boots and space tights). I probably could have said “Hey, aren’t you that guy?” But instead I just made like I was really interested in the garbage can.
You totally saw something weird on the subway or street today (you may not have registered it was weird because you are jaded), what did you see?
I sat down with the intention of eating a sandwich, cause I was starving, on a bench on the platform of the 1 train, and there was poop on the floor. Needless to say, I didn’t eat my sandwich. Another time, like two summers ago, a man’s teeth fell out on my foot. I was wearing sandals. It was not great.
What is your favorite fictionalized New York? How does it compare with reality?
The one I had a dream about the other night where I was married to a young Tom Waits and we lived in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, except it was made entirely of marshmallows.
Plug something! Be it something you are involved in, your significant other/roommate/cat is involved in, or just something you think is extra-special going on in NYC.
I do know what I want to plug! Music. I have not been writing for very long, just a few months, but I have recorded a solo demo, which is available here: https://lillyvanekstop.bandcamp.com/.
I am also one half of a two girl ukulele band, we are called stops. and are currently on hiatus until my other half returns, in October, from cooking for sailors on a ship in the arctic circle. We will be playing shows, as I have been solo, promoted by Chris Andrews at One Mighty Ugly Backpack productions. Check out One Mighty Ugly Backpack Presents on Facebook. In addition to us, there are a ton of incredibly talented local bands promoted by OMUB, and you can usually see them for free or cheap. Support local music! Yeah! And also me. Support me. I’m great.
Thanks, Lilly, for being this week’s Other NYCs feature! I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t know banjoleles even existed before. I loved listening to your demo, and I can’t wait to hear more. I might even stalk you on the subway, once you start performing there. Hope that’s ok!
What do you think of this series? Love it so much you want featured? Come on, why wouldn’t you want to? Don’t be shy, email NewYorkCliche@yahoo.com.