At 9:37 on Thanksgiving eve, nineteen-year-old Francesca Pena steps from the cramped vestibule of a crappy little apartment building in the East Fifties and hurries north. Model thin and shielded from the cold by only a vintage Adidas warm-up jacket, she leans into the icy wind that seems to hurl cars downtown and squints at the dreary commerce. This stretch of Second has never amounted to much. Tonight, with everyone on the way to families or bracing for their arrival, it's essentially shut down. The only exceptions are a candy store franchise that just changed hands and an Irish pub with an advertised happy hour that runs from ten in the morning to seven at night.
Pena turns west at Fifty-second and with long athletic strides traverses another cheerless block. She passes six-story walk-ups, a basement dry cleaner, another cheerless pub, and the headquarters for the Salvation Army. As always, she winces at the gap-toothed sign with its missing a's in s l v tion. An NYU sophomore on a track and cross-country scholarship, she has run through all kinds of neighborhoods, good and bad, but none as unsettling as this shabby bit of midtown fringe, where every endeavor feels dwarfed and mocked by the value of the real estate beneath it. As an antidote to the creepiness as much as the cold, Pena slips a chocolate malt ball into her mouth and picks up her already brisk pace. From Third on, the start of Midtown proper, there are no more random tenements or one-off businesses. There are only franchises and banks and office towers, and as Pena hurries through the emptied-out block, her bloodred jacket and short glistening black hair are the only colors. Thanks to the hotels, Lexington, at least, is well lit, and on the far corner is the glowing entrance to the IRT. When the signal turns, Pena bounds across the street and down the greasy steps, and after an expertly timed swipe of her Metrocard, pushes through the turnstile like a finish line. She barely has time to throw away her used-up card before a southbound 6 train fills the station, and when she climbs up onto Bleecker, she's so glad to be downtown, the air feels ten degrees warmer and for the first time in what seems like hours, she is aware of the night sky. Seeing that she has fifteen minutes to spare, she makes a quick detour to Tower Records, where she grabs the latest No Doubt CD for Moreal and the latest Britney for Consuela, and after enduring a withering eye roll from the pierced cashier, heads south again.
A topless Kate Moss, still freezing her tits off at thirty-one, presides over the intersection of Houston and Lafayette. Pena, very nearly as alluring, crosses under her, setting off flashbulb smiles from the cabbies lined up at the BP station. Safely across, she turns east on Prince. She passes the side of a building plastered with posters for sports drinks, bands, and video games, then hugs the high brick wall that borders the cemetery from Mulberry to Mott.
Compared with midtown, Nolita is barely reduced by the holiday exodus. Cars and pedestrians snake through the clogged streets, smokers huddle outside the bars, and as always there's a crowd waiting to get into Café Habana. East of Elizabeth, however, the street goes black. On Bowery, the restaurant wholesalers are battened down as if for a storm. Cold, and anxious for her walk to be over, Pena turns east onto Rivington. Half a block later, at the end of a short tight alley, she spots her destination: the four-month-old restaurant/bar called Freemans.