Breaking Points: For some city workers, lunch hour is not just for eating

New York Post
November 21, 2010

by Christina Alex, Seanan Forbes and Chris Erikson

When the proverbial lunch whistle blows, for most city workers it's time to grab a turkey on rye or a Greek salad. But for others, the midday break is a chance to leave work behind and take a mini-vacation. We found nine-to-fivers who use their lunch hours to juggle, play cards, take trapeze lessons and pursue other passions.

Getting carded

There's an unwritten rule at Lindenwood Associates: If it's between 12 and 2 and you see your colleague playing solitaire, you join him for a hand of poker.

"Sometimes there are five or six people around the table," says founding partner Nat Wasserstein, who figures at lunchtime on any given day there are at least a couple employees going head-to-head at five-card draw.

Wasserstein, 43, says the idea for a running card game came from tales he'd heard about a Wall Street trading shop with a never-ending game - which, he concedes, may well be an urban legend. Despite the high-stakes action you might expect from a group of financiers, the games are casual, he says. The stakes: "Favors, dares, trinkets, lunches, breakfasts, drinks, coffee for a week."

The rolling game serves a number of purposes, says Wasserstein, who's in the process of moving the firm's offices to Nyack, NY, and Weston, Conn., though he maintains its flagship office on West 55th Street.

First, at a firm whose business is saving distressed companies by investing in them or restructuring, poker can be can be considered professional development.

"It really fine-tunes your ability to read faces, control your own emotions and think through strategy without being transparent," he says. And, of course, winning in both poker and business hinges on "how far you're willing to play chicken."

The games also offer a needed break from a high-stress job.

"Playing cards calms us," he says. "It's like Wall Street yoga without all the chanting." - Christina Alex

Thrown for a loop

You could call Jacob "Alex" Dyer a lunchtime multitasker. Every day when noon rolls around, the 38-year-old Queens resident sheds his academic adviser cap at Berkeley College and escapes to the southeast corner of Bryant Park to juggle.

It's nothing new for Dyer: "I juggle near wherever I have worked." he says.

When he began the midday sessions last May, he was solo, but he soon found himself in an evolving, mixed-gender group of juggling enthusiasts who meet daily from noon to 1 p.m. (with extended sessions on Fridays during the summer). The core group is about eight, but they've had as many as 30 people tossing balls and clubs in the air, either on the lawn or on the adjacent path if the lawn's not available (as is now the case, with the coming of the park's winter skating rink).

Dyer's literal juggling act is a perfect balance for his day job, he says.

"I work with international students, dealing with a lot of different personalities and issues," he says. "Juggling lets me relax in the middle of it for a few moments each day."

"A lot of people react positively," he says. Which offers a chance to proselytize for an activity he's eager to promote - Dyer's referred numerous people to the city's main juggling club, NYC Jugglers, which meets downtown weekly.

"Anybody can learn" in 10 or 15 minutes, he insists, and he's happy to instruct - though he had to draw the line when he was accosted recently by a huge group of third-graders. Ultimately, it's "just for fun," and in the end he had to get back to work. - C.A.

Take a page

Cathy Markoff has a regular lunch date - with a fourth- grader. Every Thursday, she leaves her marketing job at McGraw Hill to meet Margarita, 9, at PS 11 in Chelsea. They wheel books into a small room near the cafeteria and spend close to an hour reading.

The two came together through the "Power Lunch" program, which last year matched 1,500 volunteers with city kids. While promoting reading is the goal, there's more to the weekly meetups, says Markoff, who's participated for 10 years.

"We laugh, play hangman and learn about each other," she says. For Markoff, it provides "a break from staring at a computer screen," but more importantly, "It creates a connection to a real person, in a meaningful way," she says. "It's such an accessible and far-reaching activity. And so simple - just read to them." - C.A.

Hack snacks

Head to Central Park West and 100th Street at 2 in the afternoon, and you might think you've walked into a taxi convention. Depending on the day, anywhere from two to 20 cabs might line the avenue or a nearby street.

They've come for a midday meetup of drivers who share roots in Haiti. Every day, if they're not too far afield when lunchtime hits, they head for the appointed spot to eat, share the news of the day and be among friends. The meetups are a long-running institution - driver Brunel (who gave only a first name) says he's attended for nearly 15 years.

"We don't have time to hang out" after hours, says Atema, a broad-shouldered man who likewise offered only his first name. "We have families, we have children to take care of, bills to pay." So, he says, "we meet, spend some time relaxing and then go back to work." - Seanan Forbes

Screening procedure

As CEO of the publicity firm RLM PR, Richard Laermer is a busy man. Which puts him in the minority when he indulges in his weekly lunch-hour ritual of taking in a movie near his Times Square office. At 11:30 screenings, he joins a smattering of "nutty-looking individuals who look like they don't have much to do," says Laermer, who imagines them looking at him in his tie and briefcase and figuring, "He's gotta be a narc."

Shunning the popcorn ("It gets stuck in your teeth") and hot dogs (although once in awhile he goes for Goobers), he feeds his appetite for comedies and documentaries, as well as the occasional horror flick. He also sometimes takes one for the team, stomaching a flop a la "Leap Year" to sound the alarm on his pop-culture blog and weekly Internet-radio talk show.

"I must see the really bad to understand the totally great," he says.

The self-confessed BlackBerry addict never answers calls in movies, "even if Barack needs me," but he has figured out how to check his e-mail during the show without bothering anyone. "The mark of a great flick," he says, "is if I forget to do that." - C.A.

Flying time

Hiking up the Hudson River on a breast-cancer walk several years ago, Chioma Onyekwere saw a flying trapeze rig and had a thought.

"I said, 'I'm going to do this,'" says Onyekwere, owner of a management consulting firm specializing in IT. "You're a kid and you see the circus and it looks like fun - and I've always been a kid. Why not?"

By the time she made it to the Web site of the New York Trapeze School, though, she was having second thoughts. The first page asked why anybody would climb to a platform way up in the air and jump off. Onyekwere thought, "Yeah. I'm not doing that. That's crazy."

She was done . . . sort of.

"It was very strange," says the Yonkers resident. "I felt it calling me." So she figured she'd do it once and move on.

That was three years ago. Now, once a week, Onyekwere spends her lunch hour flying. In her two-hour classes, students start off swinging and quickly move on to tricks, tumbling across the air. It's become a valued part of her weekly routine, she says, looking around the school's space on far West 30th Street.

"I come in here, and it feels like home," she says. - S.F.

Chow now

Some workers make an adventure out of the most basic lunch-hour activity: eating their actual lunch. Such is the case with Clay Williams, a 33-year-old IT manager who's not one for the stock deli salads and ham-on-ryes that fuel much of the Midtown workforce.

Instead, Williams uses his lunch break to scout out novel food finds that lie between the endless delis and steam tables, investigating homespun eateries and food carts serving up ethnic specialties and other fare worth going out of the way for.

"It's like a hunt. I'm looking for something I can't get everywhere else," says Williams, who keeps his eyes peeled as he roams area streets, looking for "that hint of something cool."

He's currently got a thing for Asian food, which has sent him on a thus-far-frustrating search for good Vietnamese within striking distance of his East 34th Street office. He's done better trolling the Korean strip on West 32nd Street, where even after a couple years of regular visits, he says, "I'm always learning something new."

One of his favorite recent finds is a homey West 29th Street spot run by a Korean couple who sell tacos and other Mexican specialties to area Latino workers, greeting them and taking orders in Spanish.

"It's a little surreal, but it's really awesome," he says. "They've got a specials board with a whole list of stuff that seems to be different every day."

For the past year he's blogged about his finds as a contributor to MidtownLunch.com, a site that guides many a cube-dwelling chowhound. Among other write-ups, he does a column called "Flatiron Lunch," based on his southward jaunts.

Once in a while he might go further afield - to the Village for a lobster roll from Pearl Oyster Bar, or to Katz's on Houston for pastrami. But generally he stays within roughly a quarter-mile radius of his office. After all, he says: "I have to fit it within an hour." - Chris Erikson