At Home He’s a Tourist

I’m a native New Yorker and I’ve explored much of Manhattan over the years, but there are many streets and neighborhoods that I’ve barely set foot in. I’m a downtowner at heart, and now that I’m retired and don’t have to travel to the upper west side for work, I occupy most of my time below 34th street.

I spend a decent amount of time in Chinatown, mainly because my Vietnamese spouse, Mark, is a cooking-obsessed foodie, and this is where he journeys to get the uncommon herbs, spices, and potions that make his kitchen creations so flavorful. We also go there pretty often for lunch, brunch, dim sum, dinner, and frequently to satisfy Mark’s constant craving for an authentic, steaming bowl of pho.

When we go to Chinatown, we tend to peruse the more mainstream sections of the neighborhood: Grand Street, Canal Street, Elizabeth Street, and Mott Street. We have our favorite places for pho (Pho Bang), dim sum (Mandarin Court), ice cream (Chinatown Ice Cream Factory), bubble tea, and banh mi sandwiches. Happily, we both love to explore, and we delight in wandering off the beaten path and chancing upon an undiscovered alley or an obscure street on the fringes of the neighborhood.

On our last sojourn, as we drifted away from Chinatown proper and wandered east, we came upon a branch of Pace University on Forsyth Street. I always feel a little wistful and melancholy when I see the university, because the section of Forsyth Street that it occupies is the very block that held the tenement building my father grew up in as a kid in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. My friend Ethan is a genealogy buff, and he found for me a photo of the census from 1920 showing the “Palatnick” family on Forsyth Street, with my father (his parents, and his many siblings) handwritten on the form. It still freaks me out to look at this.

Skully board

I understand and accept that change is inevitable and that streets can’t remain static, but it pains me that the blocks north and south of his tenement have remained mostly intact, while this block, and his tenement, fell victim to the wrecking ball. I at least contented myself with the knowledge that, as I stood in front of the university, I was almost surely standing on ground where he and my uncle played stickball or skully. (Kudos to you if you know what skully is. You’re a real New Yorker. You’re also a candidate for Antiques Roadshow.)

We walked a little further and came upon a park I was unfamiliar with: Seward Park. Acknowledging my newfound obsession with parks, Mark indulged me as we curiously investigated. This was a real downhome neighborhood park, the kind I used to hang out in as a kid in Brooklyn, with slides, swings, seesaws, a nice set of monkey bars, and a play area with jets of water shooting up in graceful arcs from nozzles embedded in the concrete. Adjacent to the park on the western edge was a branch of the New York Public Library. Perfect. My plans for Monday were beginning to take shape.

A heatwave was upon us, and Monday was brutally hot and humid. Returning the two books I had borrowed from the library was going to be a chore. The three-block walk to the subway left me drenched, and the bandanna I carried with me to dab my forehead and face was moist by the time I descended into the hellish furnace otherwise known as the 34th Street subway station. Thankfully, the air conditioning in the subway car was working, and the seven stops to the East Broadway station flew by. The agenda was simple: lunch, return my books, browse the library, and then sit in the park and read, people-watch, and soak up the neighborhood ambience. This is my idea of a glorious day.

Finding a place to eat turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I wanted an eatery close to the park, but there were surprisingly few restaurants in the vicinity, and it was so insufferably hot and humid that I just wanted to quickly get inside, cool down, grab a bite and a drink, and relax. In the middle of a dull, non-descript block, I spotted a quaint, dive-y little French brasserie. It looked promising. However, when I went inside, I was shocked to find the place had no air conditioning! I think the hostess behind the counter could see the dismay on my face when I entered. “Sit anywhere you like”, she said. “Well, how about in a restaurant where it doesn’t feel like I’ve just gone into congestive heart failure”, I thought to myself. I sat down, and she brought over a menu. I attempted to look at it, but this wasn’t possible, as my hands began to melt. I was outta there. Amazingly, there were other people seated at tables and at the bar, oblivious, their skin glistening with perspiration. As a New Yorker, few things faze me, but this bordered on cruelty. I escaped from the combination restaurant-sauna and continued my lunch quest. To my delight, I happened upon a neat little Mexican place called Ja Ja Ja. The exterior was low key and unassuming, but the interior looked tasteful and hip.

The counter at Ja Ja Ja. See the air conditioner at the top left? It works!

It seemed out of place for the neighborhood, given the Williamsburg/East Village ambience. I stepped inside, and the cool air was a blessing. There were plenty of tables available, and I selected a perfect little corner spot. A friendly waitress brought me my menu, and we chatted a bit about the restaurant and the neighborhood. To my surprise, the menu was vegan. I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian, but I have no problem with vegan food, or any food for that matter, as long as it tastes okay, and this stuff sounded pretty good. I ordered the “chorizo” burrito. I’m not sure what the chorizo is really comprised of, but at this point I didn’t care. I was impressed at how festive my burrito looked when it arrived. It was artistically smothered in three different sauces, depicting the colors of the Mexican flag. I almost felt guilty destroying it with my fork. That guilt lasted for about four seconds. It was yummy.

Is this a lovely burrito or what?

After the tasty lunch, I ventured back out into the soupy air and headed across the street to the Seward Park library branch. It had a lot of neighborhood charm, but as I expected, it was a little lacking in terms of the number and variety of books compared to my usual haunt, the mid-Manhattan library. I dropped my books off at the return desk, and then moseyed over into the park. This park is in Manhattan, but it doesn’t feel like Manhattan at all. This park has zero cachet, and that’s exactly what I like about it. It’s a place to go if you want to simply disappear for the rest of the day, which I often do. I spent the rest of the afternoon quietly reading my novel on a quiet, shady bench.

Since this is a neighborhood I rarely frequent, rather than go back home via the East Broadway F train station, I chose to walk north to the next subway stop, Delancey Street, for a change of scenery. As I descended the subway steps on this afternoon of adventure, the grandest discovery of the day was about to unfold. On a roomy section of the platform was a striking, unique guitarist performing some very original material. Clad in a floral housedress, with a black Japanese kabuki-style wig, red lipstick, and sensible shoes, she was kicking up quite a racket. On a small funky signboard on the floor was the performer’s name, Pinc Louds.

I later discovered that Pinc Louds is the name of her band. The guitarist/singer goes by Claudi Love. She was terrific on that subway platform. I whipped out my iPhone and took a quick video before my train arrived. I also grabbed a flier advertising their next show, two weeks later at a bar called Bizarre, in Bushwick. I never go into Bushwick, but on the advertised date I dragged Mark along with me to see the band. We headed to Bushwick a little early to allow Mark to check out a market in the vicinity (no surprise there) and grab more ingredients for his kitchen concoctions. We then had dinner at Bizarre (it’s a restaurant as well as a bar/music venue), and took in the show. It was a superb performance, and Pinc Louds is my new favorite NYC band. You have to see and hear it to believe it. It’s been called primal acoustic doo-wop, but I really think it defies all genres. To me, it’s a folky, funky, punky, jazzy, hardcore cabaret. And just a few days ago, they released their first official video. Check it out!

I discovered new library, a pleasant new park, a hip new vegan restaurant, and an outrageous new favorite local band, all in the span of one afternoon in the Big Apple. I love my city, truly.