The photograph to the left (which has been cropped and can be clicked to view the full image) is one reason. I took it on 31st Street off Fifth Avenue looking north one oh-so-mysterioso night around midnight…an hour in town from Texas…a spring rain having swept through like drum brushes only moments before…still cool enough for some manhole steam, just warm enough to bring out a few optimistic short skirts and frilly dresses. God love those.
I’d like to think it captures some of the majestic monstrosity of Manhattan, which Kurt Vonnegut called Skyscraper National Park, but it’s really just an impulse shot taken in a moment of loneliness, like a lamb in a large country, as my minister father would’ve said.
Of course, everyone adores and worships New York — when we’re not hating it. But I’ve found in my wanderings that what makes a great world city, whether it’s Rome or Rio, Buenos Aires or Berlin, is often not the grandeur or the big picture stuff that gets written about and photographed endlessly; it’s the smaller, quiet things that we personally take away and make our own.
I remember once in Beijing, with literally millions of people all around, I chanced to see an old man leaned up against a wall. He grabbed a tiny frog from off the pavement — and Lord knows how that frog came to be there just then. He put it in his mouth and smiled at me. Then he opened his mouth and let the frog go. Everything else I saw there lives in the shadow of that one scene. The eye contact. The feel of that frog in my mouth. The puzzle of its being there.
Cities are puzzles — and the world’s greatest cities are revealed in the little details and passing moments. The smell of the Union Square subway station — the remnant of a Cuban cigar left smoldering on a curb — they’re part of the puzzle that’s New York for me. But here now are the five essential things that make Manhattan worth coming back to in my mind.
High on my list of favorites is the rightfully famous Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue at 55th Street. This is a Midtown establishment that still delivers far beyond any tourist district standard. It has that old authentic deli atmosphere — lots of shouting and jostling, and no question that your sandwich is being prepared by human hands right on the spot. And what sandwiches! The first pastrami I ordered from there, I literally had to sit on in the bag, just to crush it down to eat without dislocating my jaw. They also do knishes, matzo ball soup, and pickles that make your eyes water. And they do good shouting, which I appreciate. But their pastrami sandwiches are simply in a class all their own.
With so much great art to see in the city, whether on the acres of museum walls or the galleries of Chelsea — wherever — it seems sort of criminal to return time again to work I know well, but I can’t help it. Whenever I’m in town for a few days, I always make a pilgrimage to the Guggenheim to experience again Kandinsky’s watercolors. Seeing them close up somehow helps prepare my mind for other art and new visions. I get tuned in again to the synchronicities of the city.
Once, coming out of a reading, with snow falling, a crazy Jamaican Rasta man cab driver pulled over for me. He had my book on his front seat.
One late summer day on the steps of the Museum of Natural History, I was for some reason discussing with a female friend who I was trying to bed at the time, Jane Fonda’s curious insistence on portraying non-penetrative sex in the film Coming Home with Jon Voight, and how disappointed she was in researching quadriplegics to find a man whose paralysis triggered four hour erections — when who should I literally collide with but Jon Voight. What are the chances? An obscure, unlikely conversational topic, a metropolis of millions — and there’s Jon — right up in my grill (and he’s a big guy to run into).
Kandinsky gets me synched with the coincidental magic of the place, so that I’m loose and ready when, for instance, filming rotisserie chickens spinning and spitting fat in a window on First Avenue, I suddenly turn to meet an old neighbor from College Avenue in Oakland. That kind of thing could be upsetting if unprepared psychically — especially since he did jail time and I walked.
New York is of course a great city of sound — often so much so that you stop listening — and shut down. But then there are those lovely lulls in the rhythm when you momentarily hear deep into the machinery of the whole carnival, and you wake up. One of my favorite sounds in the entire world is the sensual percussion of Puerto Rican girls in very high heels click-clocking between the traffics of the traffic. I have a special admiration for their ability to outright sprint on knifepoint heels to hail a cab or catch a bus-and to never lose their composure or their balance. They are some of the hardest ass females I’ve ever encountered — yet they are the most sincerely gracious and thankful if you hold a door open for them or pick up a package that’s been dropped. One thing they for sure don’t teach the nice white private school babes from Connecticut is how to say a simple thank-you to a stranger. Those girls just grow up to be editors for Simon & Schuster. Give me a Puerto Rican shoe store chick a long way from the Sarah Lawrence degree and the family house in the Hamptons. There will be a lot more blood in her heart and a musical smack and crackle in her walk. You can fool people with a cashmere sweater and an Upper Westside apartment. You can’t fool music — and a New York City sidewalk is where some of the most fundamental music in life is made.
Growing up in a religious family, I was steadfastly steered into not causing trouble — which is of course why from an early age I’ve often felt obliged to promote whatever commotion I can. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few lessons and have structured my perversity in ever more subtle ways (police beatings will do that to you). One little form of discord I particularly enjoy stimulating concerns the chess players in Central Park.
I don’t play a good game of chess, but I don’t play a bad game either. And my real game is finding out a bit more about who’s playing at any given time. I like to target those older Jewish guys who take it very seriously, especially the ones who insist on playing without their shirts on come the warmer weather. They may beat me — but by the time they have, I know a lot about their style and what gets their goat. Then, when they’re playing amongst themselves, I start to kibitz and lurk around, occasionally flashing some bills. It’s the “betting” money I’m holding, you see. And I always have some names from the local chess clubs to throw around.
While they were fixated on whipping my ass, I found out the names of their kids and where they grew up. They wouldn’t remember if I was left or right handed — but I can almost tell their blood pressure. They know I can run an opening gambit. They see the money. They hear names from the city chess scene they’re familiar with. Man, you should see how I can escalate a friendly game between old friends into a pitched battle. These old-timers are so inherently competitive, behind their friendly façades, it doesn’t take much to move them like pieces on a board. Chess? I have my own kind in New York. I can make a jeweler or a tailor at a glance. If you were in retail or sales, I need five minutes to nail the main industry. Food or hospitality? Three. Wholesalers just give it up. It doesn’t take much to make these guys really believe there’s book made on them, and suddenly a quiet game (that actually wasn’t very quiet at all) can become a contest of wills and spirit that makes a sweet counterpoint to the gentle clip-clopping of the carriage horse hooves and the tinkling of the merry-go-round. Check mate.
Someone really into the grift once told me, “The secret is always making the other party think they’ve won.” He lives in Belize now and isn’t coming back stateside any time soon, but I like applying that good advice in humbler, sillier ways. There’s twisted fun in manipulating people who think they’re smarter than you, when they don’t even know what you’re doing. A little show of cred, a flash of real money, and some research — that’s still the essence of every scam. It’s just a question of scale and intent on return. Me, I like to see proud, puffed up old men have punch ups over chessboards, not knowing how the game got away from them.
If I sickly stir up some heated feelings amongst arrogant old farts, I do my atonement by supporting the city’s very fine musicians, at what are still some of the greatest clubs in the world — for jazz, anyway. I like the Lenox Lounge in Harlem and the Zinc Bar in the Village (they moved from their wonderful but very small quarters on Houston Street to great premises at 82 West 3rd Street, between Thompson and Sullivan).
The Lenox Lounge is at 288 Lenox Avenue, or Malcolm X Boulevard at 124th and 125th. There’s a lot of history in this venue, and a lot of musical life still going down. At the Zinc Bar, you can hear phenomenal talents like Cidinho Teixeria, the Brazilian pianist, who’s a get-the-party-started-no-prisoners player if there ever was one. If you don’t have fun listening to him, better check that pulse.
Even more commercial, somewhat cynical clubs like the Blue Note at 131 West 3rd Street or the Iridium at 1650 Broadway in Times Square, are still great places to really hear music — and they continue to draw rich talent.
New venues keep popping up, thankfully. Such is the nature of live music. But you can’t go past B.B. King’s joint on 42nd Street. Some rather important people have a way of appearing there — and James Brown was on the way to that door when he died. We should all have such a good destination in mind when the sand’s running down.
On my last visit, I realized, while doing book interviews, that Irma Thomas the Queen of New Orleans was playing. Six bourbons down, the latest interview done, I charged the box office. “I have to see her. I must be right down front.”
I was told, “I’m sorry sir, we’re all sold out.”
“You don’t understand,” I said. “I have only two weeks to live. I know all her lyrics. This is a chance for you to gain some karma credit.”
I got my seat. Right down front. And the security dudes were very kind when I attempted to take the stage. Some of my tablemates from Westchester County were a little surprised at my doings — but that’s because they didn’t know the songs.
The girl on the ticket desk who I’d spun the yarn to get in spotted me on the way out. “Two weeks to live, huh?”
“Maybe three now,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Well, you told the truth about knowing all the songs,” she said. “We heard you from here.”
“This is New York,” I said. “If we don’t remind ourselves we’ll forget.”
“You’re not from New York,” she said, noticing my accent.
“Perhaps not,” I replied. “That’s why I know I’m here now.”