ON THE corner of Canal and Broadway, there is a Senegalese selling menorahs. Also for sale are fake Chanel ear-rings, water-guns big as AK47s, Chinese vegetables, mechanical mermaids from Taiwan that swim in the bathtub, and gold knuckle-dusters with your name spelt out in diamonds, which is maybe why so many hoods have nicknames - Luciano (the 'Clam') Allavongole, for example; 'Clam' would look good in diamonds on your knuckles.
A run-down boulevard that cuts the island from the Hudson to the East River, Canal Street is a smudgy border: Wall Street to its south, the acronyms SoHo and Noho to the north and TriBeca to the west. Little Italy has shrivelled; Chinatown has overrun its boundaries.
It is my first night home in a while. I am heading to Canton, a restaurant which, unlike most in Chinatown, does not resemble a toilet. Also it has the best food, the tiny, spicy, sizzling soft-shell crabs fried in ginger, the quail in a lettuce wrap.
'It's kind of like a Chinese tortilla,' explains a friend to her little girl who, at nearly eight, is a model New York child. Justine nods sagely and eats.
I miss New York. I miss it even when I am here. Now that the filth and the guns and the crime have pulled it off its pedestal - Fred Astaire never danced these city streets - it is elusive. In the city of my childhood you could just hear the last whisper of John Cheever's 'long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman Quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat . . .'
Rap from a boom box has replaced Benny Goodman; but the river light is still there, in Chinatown, under the bridges, on the piers, its spell still whistling up nostalgia on summer nights, chopped by the rumour of gunfire - or was it just a car backfiring? At dusk, looking warily at outsiders, enormous Chinese families assemble in restaurants with dead ducks in the windows.
New York is tribal, contentious, communal, noisy, angry, ugly, dirty and old, a l9th-century city - look at it from the top of something: the cast-iron buildings, the bridges, the pavement are remnants of an aspirant industrial boom a century old. The Eighties, which put a brash, trashy veneer on it, really are over. Gotham is broken. Washington Irving, in the early 19th century, called it Gotham after an English village whose denizens evaded their taxes by feigning insanity.
Brought to its knees and bottomed out, the city feels more accommodating than in its vainest days, the age of the Trump follies. Cab drivers are suddenly polite; the gentlest are from Haiti and have names like Jean Monplaisir.
People for whom the principal sign of life was to live in Manhattan have gone . . . to eat Greek in Astoria, Italian in the Bronx, Indian in Queens, Russian in Brooklyn; and they have also gone to exploit the other slightly suburban pleasures of this foreign country called the Boroughs which fan out, endlessly, from the centre.
Suddenly, New Yorkers are tourists, too, entertaining themselves on the cheap, at the Frick Museum or the Cloisters or on the Circle Line. Window shopping along Madison where Ralph Lauren, the Jewish cowboy from the Bronx, has established the last outpost of the British Empire.
Central Park is always New York's Eden. And on a balmy summer night at a baseball game, we become real Americans. The crooks and cons and hoods are all in jail, even John Gotti, the Teflon don. Something stuck; he got life without parole. Woody Allen and Tennessee Williams thought New York was better in summer when the 'superfluous' people leave town.
Sunday: My street has
THE OWNER of the loft opposite mine sits out on his fire escape - his patio - reading the papers. The sun slants down the cast-iron warehouses, prettily painted, the banners announcing the presence of galleries and shops are flapping in a breeze. At the OK Harris Gallery is an exhibit of a machine which makes square bubbles.
By midday the tourists come flocking down Greene Street: fatties from the provinces in sneakers, like big birds, pecking over hand-painted baby togs sold by street vendors with American Express stickers on their wagons; Eurotrash with a fistful of cheap dollars, having bagged a ton of 501s and baby high tops over on East Broadway, cruising these more rarefied purlieus for appliqued cowboy boots, English napkin rings and Japanese garments of no obvious purpose.
Japanese-style bandits are transfixed by exquisite artifacts in Zona, a shop where all the objects come, like fine wine, with an elaborate provenance: 'Our friend Martita in Taos dried these special lavender buds in her handmade kiln . . .'
On the corner, the itinerant band of Andean Indians plays its incessant flutes; it is as if the soundtrack from The Mission were on an endless loop. On West Broadway, at night, a man plays Cole Porter on a washboard.
Tourism has made my neighborhood greedy and prosperous. Uptown, Frank Lloyd Wright's astonishing Guggenheim Museum has been restored and enlarged. Here, on Prince Street, the downtown branch has been installed. Behind it is the Chateau Mercer, New York's answer to the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, where John Belushi died of an overdose in a bungalow beside the swimming pool.
A few hundred yards east is Dean & DeLuca. This is America's Museum of Food. Raviolis are filled with caviare, cheeses are stacked like sculpture, recherche fish pose on ice slabs, exotica are sealed in elegant jars - cactus salsa, parsnip chips, even HP Sauce.
Gentrified, Guggenheimed, landmarked, in SoHo we have even been cobbled. A while back - this is so exquisitely a New York story - someone put up money to lay cobblestones down. In a city which is broken and broke, the cobbles were none the less duly laid; old-fashioned cast- iron street lights were installed. My street is now a back lot for commercials. Overnight, entire Victorian villages appear. One night when I go to bed the parking lot across the way is full of cars; in the morning it is full of horses.
Monday: Junk, more
junk and junk food
ON MY WAY to Jerrys for coffee and a bagel, I pass a man eating breakfast out of the garbage pail on the corner. Later I discover that a kid who went to my high school in Greenwich Village is a homeless man. He just showed up at a reunion and said he was homeless. Another classmate, who lives on Park Avenue, gets him into drug rehab.
Crack, as the drug of choice, is on the wane, it is said, and heroin is making a comeback; maybe this is why the town seems a little less edgy, more indolent or torpid or hopeless. Still, even at low energy, jammed on this tight little island, it is impossible not to think a hundred disparate things at once, as if the cursor in the computer could not stop flicking through the menu, especially because the other drug of choice this season is politics.
Tuesday: Weeding at
THE CLEAN-UP for the Democratic Convention the week after next at Madison Square Garden has begun. Not far from Macys (the store, like the city, is nearly bankrupt but still doing business) the Garden is in a dishevelled, alluring, tawdry neighbourhood of exotic curios, hat trimmings, cheap electronics, doomed fur pieces, wholesale flower stalls. The Garden has been redecorated for the convention, but no one knows what to do with the homeless.
Republicans in Texas can sweep the homeless into the sewer, but here every group has its lobby. I hear the hot ticket for convention week is a party the literati are throwing for the Samoans.
The Democrats are New York's home team; the city is cynical, rude and passionate about the best political year since l968. On a terrace on the arty Upper West Side overlooking the cookie boutiques, a ferocious fight is under way. Someone likes Ross Perot. 'Not Ross PeroTTE?' someone else says disdainfully, making it rhyme with garotte.
It will not last. Bill Clinton could cut it in New York, but not Perot. As for George and his pit puppy: when Danny Quayle barks about 'East Coast Elites', we can read the code; he means New York. But we are Americans, too; we want to be loved.
Wednesday: Time for a
bite of glamour
'I WANT to eat.' This is my friend Richard speaking. He wants to eat. But he is not going to Boom. Which, I hear, is hot.
Richard is the perfect guide to New York: he was born in Oklahoma, a classic immigrant from the heartlands.
'I want to go somewhere, you know, in,' I say.
Richard looks disgusted; there is really no such thing any more, no one has the dough or the expenses. In the last couple of years 40,000 jobs went on Wall Street; tables at restaurants where you could not get a reservation if you sold your mother for it - Lutece, the Four Seasons, the River Cafe - can be had the same day; celebrity chefs, sans jobs, have crept away back to France, or New Jersey, and nobody cares what nationality lettuce they eat.
A hawk for glamour, however, I persist. What about Remi, or Coco Pazzo, Barocco and JoJo? And why do all these places have names like entries in the Eurovision Song Contest? And what's wrong with Boom, anyway?
'Eurotrash,' he says. 'And maybe yuppies.' This is a word which is now synonymous with, say, pus.
We settle on Felix. The corner of Grand and Broadway, which was recently the cheap end of SoHo, has been frenchified. 'Au coin de . . .' Richard says.
You want a little maitre d' abuse, a few models, the hope
of celebrity? This is the corner, here at Lucky Strike or La Jumelle, at Nuit et Jour and Felix. Also, up the block, is Abyssinia.
'I do not do Ethiopian,' says Richard.
Felix is athrob. I eat onglet. This tasty, chewy chunk of hanger steak is the food most frequently chewed by the most expensive teeth in town.
We are transfixed by the homunculus at the door, all in white, his martini glass held aloft, his pants falling down. The starched jeans have dropped to reveal the waistband of his Fruit of the Loom underpants. 'Maybe he thinks he's Marky Mark,' Richard says, referring to the MTV star who dances in his underwear.
Thursday: That 'English
'WHAT'S playing at the Roxy?' They tore down New York's biggest picture palace decades ago, but the lyric from Guys & Dolls puts down nostalgia thick as a carpet at the theatre where it is playing; the audience at this quintessential New York musical lip- synchs the words.
But Broadway is mostly as dead as God in New York; the action is elsewhere, at jazz clubs and the opera, off Broadway and in Brooklyn, at BAM.
Most of all, Gotham goes to the movies. In line for Batman, three fat girls discuss Aids and hair.
Friday: Can you fix
AFTER a miserable morning with city bureaucrats over a lost tax form, I cool my temper among the splendours of the courts down by Foley Square - all that statuary, all those wood-panelled courtrooms, the epic murals, the marble, the lawyers shooting the breeze with agents making two- picture deals for the hood of the month.
I walk to Little Italy for bread. Prince Street, east of Broadway, smells of pizza where old men snooze in the shadow of the convent. At Joe's Dairy, the old lady in cracked bedroom slippers cannot get out of her chair now; instead, her grandson ladles up the mozzarellas dripping, milky and unguent, from the vats. He is a sulky fat boy, as if he had sucked up entire cheeses into his chin and cheeks.
At the Greenmarket on Union Square, where farmers and fishermen flog homemade goat cheese and fresh lobsters, a notice in Spanish says you can purchase lobsters with your food stamps. At Russ & Daughters, a judge, who is waiting for his order of exquisitely oiled smoked fish, is eating a bagel and lox. 'Have a bite,' the judge says.
'Can you fix parking tickets?' a woman asks, while poking at a slab of halvah.
Saturday: Italians come
looking for China
COMING home through Queens, after a day at the beach, I take a wrong turning and end up in East Harlem. Some of the sidewalks are literally six inches deep in garbage. But there is a family coming out of church after a christening; the baby is in beautifully embroidered robes. Even here, an aspirant flicker remains, the faintest footnote to a city which, at the beginning of the century, built its subways two stops farther than anyone needed to go.
There is a street fair. In a debonair suit, a middle-aged man sits at a card table with a bottle of Johnny Walker and keeps time to the music with his glass. The signs are all in Spanish.
Just before I leave New York, replicas of the Santa Maria, the Nina and the Pinta sail into the harbour, part of a 4 July flotilla, part of an October celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus. They are exquisitely frail, these politically incorrect little ships, against the New York skyline.
Columbus never made it to New York. Giovanni da Verrazzano was the first white settler. Arriving in 1524, he wrote: 'We found a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flowed out into the sea.' He was looking for China; he found a place called 'Manhatta'. The river was the Hudson.
The natives he saw were 'dressed in birds' feathers of various colours and they came toward us joyfully, uttering loud cries of wonderment'.
THIS IS an extremely selective and completely personal choice of things to do and places to go to in New York.
Chinatown: Most places have OK food. Look for games arcade with the chicken who plays tick-tack-toe (noughts and crosses) with you (the chicken always wins).
Best restaurant: Canton on Division Street; just let whoever is in charge order for you.
Little Italy: Ferrara's or Caffe Reggio for coffee, pastries, ice-cream.
Dozens of restaurants serve nourishing, spicy, oily food, lots of it; mostly the ambiance is better than the food. Best of kind: Il Cortile, 125 Mulberry Street.
Best mozzarella in the world at Joe's Dairy, Sullivan Street.
Two festivals, San Gennaro in the autumn (as seen in Godfather II) and St Anthony's in the late spring, provide Italian street life, complete with nostalgia and heartburn.
Hotels: The Carlyle - the best: a suite on Central Park is the very best, but you need a sugar daddy for this.
The Wales - British charm way uptown.
The Royalton - decor by Philippe Starck, pie-eyed Brits at the bar, very chichi, but the single rooms can be very small.
The Paramount - like the Royalton but on a budget.
The Algonquin - for literary wannabes to reminisce about the good old days. Recently purchased and refurbished by the Japanese.
Hotel Chelsea - for rock wrinklies. This is where Sid Vicious allegedly stabbed his girlfriend to death.
Chateau Mercer - opening in September (Mercer Street, near Prince). In the heart of SoHo, the brand new New York branch of LA's Chateau Marmont. THE place to try.
Museums, libraries, monuments etc: The garden at the Museum of Modern Art, the front steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim (up and down town), the Frick, the Pierpont Morgan Library, the Cloisters, the American Museum of Natural History (dinosaurs, the Hayden Planetarium) the Museum of the City of New York, the courthouses at Foley Square, City Hall, the Morris Jumel Mansion.
Galleries in SoHo and TriBeca.
On and around the river: South Street Seaport. Brooklyn Bridge (bike and foot path). Battery Park - boats here go to the Statue of Liberty and the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration (the best new attraction in all of New York, don't miss it). Staten Island Ferry. The Circle Line (a three-hour, dollars 16 boat trip that goes around Manhattan island, leaving from Pier 83). The Intrepid Museum (the old battleship has vintage fighter planes, etc). Riverside Park. The Boroughs.
Brooklyn: Brooklyn Heights and the Promenade - the most romantic view of the New York skyline; Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in Prospect Park; Coney Island amusement park; Little Odessa in Brighton Beach for a quick fix of Moscow. The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) - some of the best theatre in town.
Eating in Brooklyn: The River Cafe (Water Street) where the food is expensive and good and the views are spectacular - a fish-eye look at New York (see below). There is also an outdoor terrace for beer and burgers.
The Bronx: The Bronx Zoo; Van Cortland Park (hunt for Indian heads in the caves); Arthur Avenue - another slice of Little Italy, unchanged since the Thirties. Yankee Stadium.
Queens: Shea Stadium - where the Mets play baseball.
Staten Island: For small-town America.
Shopping: Lower Broadway, Astor Place to Canal Street for Reeboks, 501s, kids' stuff, T-shirts, all discounted. Also: the weird, the hip and the ugly.
Canal Street: art supplies at Pearl Paint; fake Rolexes, fake Chanel, cheap electronics, those gold knuckle-dusters.
Orchard Street: discount fabric, leather coats, handbags.
Grand Street, east of First Avenue: great buys in sheets, towels, linens.
SoHo: Zona, Wolfman Gold, Bazaar Sabado, Origins (Mercer Street), Radio Hula, Spring Street Gardens.
Institutions: Macys, Bergdorf Goodman (the men's shop), Ralph Lauren, Barneys.
Food shopping: Union Square Greenmarket (Union Square) on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; best to get there before lunch.
Dean & DeLuca (Broadway & Prince).
Russ & Daughters for smoked fish and all the trimmings.
Petrossian if you are in the mood for caviare.
Some places to eat: 'In' places, more or less, are Coco Pazzo, Le Madri, JoJo, Felix, Lucky Strike, Jour et Bar & Bouley, Monrachet, The Cafe Gotham Bar & Grill.
Cafes for snacks, and places that won't break the bank: Second Avenue - Jewish Deli for best pastrami etc (with Gorby on the roof). Jerrys, Sarabeth's Kitchen, EAT, cafe at the boathouse in Central Park, Elephant and Castle (Prince Street). The Savoy, Floren (in the meat market where Fatal Attraction was filmed) for good meat, eggs only at off-hours. Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. Moondance.
Places I like a lot: Barocco, Raoul's (first half of the week), Remi (Adam Tihany, the Israeli owner-architect, serves the best north Italian food, tells the best bad jokes in New York), TriBeca Bar and Grill for Sunday brunch. Da Silvano, Union Square Cafe.
Sparks Steak House for great wine, great meat, plus mythic mob history - the place where John Gotti had Paul Costellano rubbed out.
Periyali (Greek with a garden).
Hatsuhana for best sushi.
Dawat for best Indian, including 'Madhur Jaffrey's Snack Cart'.
The River Cafe (see left).
Only for playing: The tourist Hard Rock Cafe for OK burgers, music for the kids.
Mama Leone's for huge portions and clowns for the kids.
America for salads the size of washtubs, and a magician for the kids.
Elaine's - the setting for celebs, the opening scene of Manhattan. It was the setting for Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities; Fergie went there.
Sylvia's - legendary Harlem barbecue.
Slightly to the left of Manhattan is Sushi Tempura Hero'Chan, an extraordinary Japanese place on the New Jersey side of the Hudson, with the best views. Yaohan Plaza, Edgewater, New Jersey.
Jazz club: The Blue Note.
Big night out: Cafe Carlyle.
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