By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
First published on January 7, 2011, with a slightly different title, and reprised, revised, and greatly expanded today because New York City — which at last count had lost 21,000 or a fifth of the national toll to the Corona virus, in no small part because the state’s governor waited too long to impose confinement (San Francisco, which went into confinement a week earlier, has lost less than 100 as of this date) and thanks to his policy of cutting back on hospital beds (thank you, Democracy Now, for these tragic factoids) — is still a helluva town. This one goes out to Sue, Melinda, Jamie, Richard, Margaret, Veronica, Robin, Caitlin, Elizabeth, Julio, Therese, Bonnie, Chris, the memories of Ed Winer, Becky Jung, Joe Mazo, Ranjabati Sircar, and Eileen Darby, and to Maura, Christine C., Matt, Nancy, Tristan, Fabrice, Pilar, Nathalia, Amaury, Laurent, Ruth-Lynn and too many other dancers to name, Michelle, Kevin, Donna, Lisa, Laurie, Phil, Herb, Ingrid, Neil, Eddie, Marty, Amy, Juan, Nimet, Jane, Martin, Anyta, Rebecca, Mark, Jill, Julie, Adam, Jocelyn, Dean, Darrah, Lucie, Harris, Ron, Don, Ben, Jonathan Schwartz, the editorial team at Wunderman Cato Johnson, and to all those who have given me so many New York moments and who are still there trying to make sure that it’s still a helluva town, despite Governor Cuomo’s irresponsibility and the mayor’s callousness towards the homeless. Take a dip in the Bethesda Fountain, New Yorkers, while knoshing on a knish or a dog with da works, de ma part…. (For art related to this column, click here .)
NEW YORK — Dance seems to be calcified in New York, the same fossils that were here 10 years ago — when I left for Paris — even more entrenched. Indeed, the wilderness is so sallow that the New York Times felt the need to send its chief dance critic abroad to review 27 “Nutcracker”s, as if even 27 “Nutcracker”s would have to be more interesting than one more New York dance concert, so desperately desolate has the local mainstream landscape apparently become. (Having once been sent abroad myself, to review a ‘Nut’ in a far-gone bourg of BFLI — Bum Fuck Long Island if you have to know, weisenheimer — where the publicist made sure to seat me next to the company’s director and my Newsday editor excised my mild criticism of a lackluster Clara, I sympathize.)
So this art aficionado has been feeding his art jones with art of the visual variety, as well as the self-made art still on view — nevah change, baby! — in New York every day. In the visual art landscape, between the Impressionist-era paintings one can stumble upon at a corner uptown gallery and what I’m told is the blossoming of the windblown Chelsea Territory — though the new High-line above the Western limits of the neighborhood looking out over the Hudson seems antiseptic compared to the colorful Paris counterpart that apparently inspired it, the coulee verte that starts at the Bastille — things at least seem to be moving. Scouring a Chelsea gallery guide Thursday afternoon to scout out vernissages (opening receptions to you, bub), I couldn’t help but notice some art on the various gallery websites that actually looked interesting, as opposed to the buy-me variety which seemed to be preponderant here 10 years ago, memorialized in Schnabel’s “Basquiat” film when Tatum O’Neal, considering a purchase, asks the artist, “Can you make it more brown?”
While I didn’t see enough art in an abbreviated gallery crawl Thursday night to be able to offer an assessment, let alone pass judgment, what was, on the other hand, dispiriting was that, as was the case 10 years ago, everyone seemed to be standing around talking up each other and I only saw one lost woman looking at the art — yet one more sign that not just dance, but intellectual life in New York may have ebbed. (The biggest indication of this is the effective demise of the Village Voice, a molted praying mantis’s skin of its former self, its last breath expiring with this week’s firing of 33-year-old veteran investigative journalist Wayne Barrett supposedly for financial reasons, the final death knoll for a storied heritage.)
But the good news is that like Paris, New York itself remains a work of art, even performing (as opposed to performance) art. After a cat-sitting gig in a literary brownstone healthily crammed with a century of books from first to top floor in the Upper East Side environs of Central Park, I’ve spent the past week in the Lower East Side environs of Chinatown where I literally saw it all on Mulberry Street: The Italian stretch of the street may have devolved into a Disney-fied Italian-Land — with young barkers standing outside the restaurants cajoling potential clients, reminiscent of the older men who stand outside Pakistani restaurants in Paris’s Passage Brady or the hawkers of “Pig Alley” — but Chinatown remains authentic, and perhaps the only place in Manhattan where one can still lunch like a monkey king for less than $3. That’s right — less than $3. I’ve had crumbled pork cake (at the Orange Tea House on Elizabeth Street), which is just what it sounds like — pork crumbs on the outside, sweet cake on the inside, for 90 cents. Goopy large noodles woven with shrimp and dribbled with soy and hot sauces for $1.25, (from a stand on Elizabeth Street). My comforting favorite for this weather is what I call a chicken porridge soup — in Chinese I think its moniker is ‘congee’ — of which you can get a nice helping for $1.50, from a woman working out of a cart on Grand Street. But the mecca — for starving journalists as well as starving dancers — is clearly Vanessa’s dumpling house on Eldridge. The signature dish is the owner’s sesame pancake sandwiches, all under and some well under $3 (the vegetable variety is just $1.50), but I’ve stuck to the fried pork dumplings, three plump ones available for just $1.(On this visit, I forgot to ‘vestigate – as the late dancer Becky Jung might put it – into whether Yonah’s Knishes was still dealing this daily staple of my forgotten Lower East Side ancestors. Or head uptown to see if the yamuka-crowned speedheads that used to dish up pickle-packed tahimi-oozing falafel sandwiches to long lines of Mad Men and Women from a van on 46th long before ‘food-truck’ became part of the lingo were still in business. ) If your parents are coming to town and you want them to take you to someplace nice, you might scout out the Vietnamese restaurant dance friends turned me on to earlier this week, which they’d learned of from choreographer and Chinatown institution HT Chen. (The menu even offers “HT Chen Crispy Noodles.”) Here my conch jones was finally satisfied. Since reading during my last NY sojourn, in the Joseph Mitchell classic “Up in the Old Hotel,” that fewer and fewer restaurants were serving conch, the meat that lives in that large sea-shell that whispers ocean gusts when you hold it up to your ear — fisherman only hunted for them by special request — I’ve been on a singular quest to find this item on NY restaurant menus. Last time around, I found three Italian places — in the whole city — that still served scungili, or conch in a spicy tomato sauce. One of those, the fabled Luna cafe on Mulberry Street (where an apprentice Guido once paused before pouring the chianti for me and my female friend because “I didn’t wanna interrupt the eye contact”), has closed, and the other two have removed conch/scungili from their menus. At first, the waiter at the Vietnamese place disappointed me by shaking his head when I ordered the sauteed conch, listed as a specialty. “All out!” Then he returned excitedly to tell me that the fisherman had just brought some in that morning.
The hazard conch-fanciers face when ordering is the same one calamari-cravers have to deal with, that the dish will probably be over-cooked and thus rubbery and hard to break up. This conch, though, was perfect, as soft, flat, and sea-pungent as abalone. (I hadn’t touched another of my favorite NY-only ethnic dishes, Mofungo – a large plaintain and pork dumpling – since a serving had broken my last good molar left standing in Spanish Harlem. I’d have done better heading further downtown and sinking my delicate choppers into chicken and waffles at Wells’s or Sylvia’s.)
But affordable downtown culinary riches are not restricted to one cuisine. On Sunday — my favorite, maybe the only day for a gambol in the Village if you don’t like crowds — I hied over to El Rinconcita, on E. 10th and Avenue C, which still sells its catfish empanadas for just $1 apiece. (The mofungo is also nothing to kick a can at.)They were out of them when I got there, but I blithely ignored the tired waitress’s suggestion of chicken and asked if they could make some. “I’ll wait!” (The lively cumbia on the juke didn’t make it hard.) The woman who cooked them up for me — perhaps the owner — must have remembered me because she packed the empanadas not just with catfish but juicy jalapenos as well, which I ate on a wet bench in still snow-covered Tompkins Square, sipping the last of my warm cafe con leché. (At a Columbian stand outside a church on 14th street where I used to get it with my dollar enchiladas on Sundays, they used to sell Mexican-style hot chocolate infused with rice.)
If there’s one thing I’ve craved, though, since I returned from France this past summer, it’s duck, the soul-food of the country’s southwest, where I spent most of the past three years. I’d been warned that a Chinatown duck was not the same as a Frenchytown duck, so I had resisted. I was not even tempted by the opportunity to try the one duck part I’d never tried when I saw it here. I’d thought I’d sampled everything — duck carcasses, duck confit, duck hearts, duck blood patties (kind of like boudin but too rubbery for me), duck necks, preserved duck gizzards, smoked duck breast, duck breast with goat cheese sauce, beaujolais nouveau duck. But it wasn’t until I walked into a Chinese butcher’s on Grand street that I discovered duck tongues, 50 of them wrapped tightly in cellophane. Didn’t go for those, but finally gave in and bought a Peking Duck Wednesday. The price was right — $12 — but man was that Long Island (Peking by way of Valley Stream, and no doubt not blessed by my old rabbi Donna Berman) canard skinny compared to its French relatives. Not even a morsel of liver to be found, and forget about heart. (In France, they sell their chickens without the liver, which any Jew, whether he was brought up in Rabbi Berman’s Long Island congregation or the Aquarian Minion in San Francisco, will tell you is the best part.) And in a whole duck probably about four servings, max. Pumping its value to the maximum, I’ll be cooking the carcass up in a duck soup this weekend.
Of course the global beauty of my Chinatown digs this past week — the snow is gently falling outside the window to the courtyard as I write, set off by the neighbor building’s tenement brown brick — is the seat they’ve provided in the LES and Soho (a stone’s throw away) neighborhoods, which, despite the boutiques which have replaced the galleries in the latter and the leather jacket stores which have supplanted the Hester Street pushcarts in the former, still retain some of the eternal New York character, inherent in the architecture and the denizens (or as Damon Runyon would say, ‘citizens’) who pass under and between the buildings and who are perhaps inspired by the shadows of their not-so-forgotten ancestors. Is it also fueled by life on the edge, the element of danger lubricating one’s joie de vivre? Perhaps. The other day on Lafayette (I am here!) below Houston (hint to newbies: HOW-ston), in one block I was hit by both the beauty and the terror. In the middle of the block a blonde woman in sweats and tennies was fervently telling a tall worried man with curly brown hair, “This is for all the women murdered in New York.” A few yards further, before I could even take a look at her face, a woman walked past me who could have stepped straight out of a ’30s glamour magazine, everything from her smart felt hat to her long brown coat denoting style. Me, I’ll have one more stylin’ lunch in Chinatown and the LES before heading up to the theoretically more staid digs I’ve now scored on the Upper West Side off Broadway, plopping down on a bench in the middle of a bank of snow, propping my French boots (no Doc Martens this time) up on the concrete barrier between the benches and the basketball court across from her café and chowing down on my first cold sesame noodles of the season, a $3 feast courtesy of Vanessa’s. Bon appetit!
*For the non-New Yorkers among my readers, this title refers to the Tama Janowitz novel, itself encapsulating a particular NY phenomenon. I interviewed Janowitz in Princeton in 1987.