In the Gentrified Bowels of Hell’s Kitchen

If I don’t visit New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen every month or so, I feel I am missing out on something like clean underwear or how to tie a square knot. On occasion, I have stopped in broad daylight with my hands in clear view and my eyes steady and asked a passerby why the chunk of real estate between 34th and 59th streets and 8th Avenue and the Hudson, pockmarked by the dismal Port Authority bus station, is named after hell and the kitchen. Of the dozen or so I’ve accosted, most kept walking or tell me to bugger off, presumably to avoid saying the more definitive American version. The only person who stopped wanted bus money to for a trip to Verona, New Jersey.

While I didn’t oblige, I was prompted to research how many American communities had appropriated the name of that beautiful Italian city that I have visited a number of times. To be exact: thirty-one U.S. states have towns or cities named Verona. But that isn’t the important part. After more research, I learned that within Port Authority’s pan-handling club Verona has become the money word and something of an institutional meme. After further research, I realized that those asking for money generally said they needed bus money to get to Verona, either in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey or upstate New York. I tried bribing a few pan handlers to get the tale behind the tale and that was usually another meme, such as my mother or sister is dying or the house burned down.

It makes sense that Hell’s Kitchen should share, roughly, latitude and longitude lines with the Port Authority where people are always pissed off, the toilets don’t work, and the bus lines for Verona seem to grow by the day. I think it perfectly acceptable to hold this muscular metaphor in place while acknowledging that the name Hell’s Kitchen doesn’t have much to do with soup either. It might refer to a cop’s curse, a similar sinkhole in London, or some 19th century, left-handed slur directed at those grubby Irish workers — my ancestors included — who were taking the jobs and stinking up the place.

While the cops just shot a hammer-wielding guy on 37th and 8th Avenue and night still occasionally descends on this zip code with a dangerous intensity, rents are going up and gentrification can be heard like a rapturous refrain coming from the walkup apartments that dot the land. Prosperity and aplomb seem to decorate this vibrant cut of real estate.

I am following neighborhood signs that seem to reek of culture and loneliness. Parsifal is afoot, somehow breaking free from the Arthurian legend, Grail and all, and that awful Wagner opera with the same name. Parsifal, sounding a little like his romantic, innocent and somewhat pathetic namesake, has covered lamp posts, pay telephones, and random poles that usually hold bikes and dogs, looking for a woman. He is tired of the clubs and the Hell’s Kitchen scene. He’s weary of the beer and a poke and then listening to the grind of 8th Avenue traffic on its way to the Lincoln Tunnel, abandoning him again. He’s an artist and knows in his heart the woman for him walks these streets.

I assumed Parsifal is a persona and figured something sturdier, like Dick, would better suit the neighborhood. Others seemed to have the same impression. I must have looked at dozens of his printed entreaties on 9th Avenue from 42nd Street to 59th and every one was marked up, torn or vandalized, suggesting Parsifal might have some competition in this kitchen. The sexual, religious, mythological, and epistemological slander directed at our dear Parsifal must have been delivered after midnight by profligate, loutish thugs spilling out from those subterranean clubs on the far western extension of New York City known as No Man’s Land. This slander was not ameliorated by a note directed at our forlorn Parsifal: “Parse this, you Asshole” and rendered this dare in a perfect subject-object diagram that would make any English teacher proud. The teacher might not have been as happy with the lewd sexual symbolism that tattooed the lamppost and the nearby field of lust with heavy-handed vulgarity.

By now, I needed an avocado and noticed a fruit stand on 9th Avenue selling the fruit at three for $5, the same price as my local supermarket. I was ready to proceed with the transaction when I noticed the proprietor off to the side, sitting on a stool. The temperature was about 85 degrees, and it was very muggy. So I could understand the man sitting on a stool with his shoes off. I wasn’t filled with great confidence when I noticed he was massaging his feet with what I assumed were avocado hands. I thought about offering him a handy suburban wipe from my backpack but figured there was probably some cultural taboo preventing it. I know the health department has given food trucks enormous leeway in meal preparation as a street-level attempt to keep the history and panache of Hell’s Kitchen alive, especially for the tourists. I thought of my Irish ancestors in a walk-up with time on their hands and forgave the avocado man.

Even though Parsifal hadn’t been much help, I was still looking for signs of culture in Hell’s Kitchen. I passed a number of liquor stores on 9th and noticed all had Wanted Signs in the window announcing a Petit Crime or crimes, with usually a photo of the perpetrator. The text was similar in each instance. Someone had walked into the store and walked out with an expensive bottle of wine or liquor. At some stores, it was difficult to look into the interior because these signs papered most of the available space on the windows.

The photos of the accused looked to be video screen grabs and probably weren’t that useful in finding the culprit. I wondered if that was the purpose anyway. I loved seeing the word “Petit” in 16-point type that seemed to overwhelm the rest of the narrative. I could envision a lawyer’s hand here and a merchant thinking this might be a nice advertisement for that snappy new French wine.

I popped in one store and asked the guy at a counter, pointing to the wanted signs, whether this was a dangerous neighborhood. He laughed and said no; just a little shrinkage. A wine bottle walking out of the store is not what comes to mind when I think of shrinkage. But I had been missing the forest for the trees. This remains Hell’s Kitchen. The neighborhood needs a certain amount of controlled violence topped off with a bit of first-year French. I mean, every one of the criminals exiting the stores had broad smiles on their face offered through an impervious screen grab.

Returning to the Port Authority Bus Station, I was reminded that the Authority was piping in symphony music, figuring that would drive the rock-hardened, Verona-bound throng out the door in droves. It’s not working. The pan handlers have grown in numbers are looking better dressed, more relaxed and apparently with enough funds to upgrade their PDAs.

Just when I thought Hell’s Kitchen was going to hell in a decorous handbasket, I saw a man crawling out of the No.1 subway tunnel and waving a crucifix very close to a cop’s nose. The policeman stepped back, patted his 9 mm as if it were a lover, and suggested the man take his preaching underground.

The Kitchen was back to normal.