Alphabet City

The Year in Letters

Consensus is out of the question when it comes to describing New York City; it presents a different face to everyone. What was once a cluster of minivillages organized along economic, ethnic, or nationalist lines has morphed into a series of overlapping microecologies of consciousness, interdependent and not always easily pinned down. Even traditional bound aries of class and race and sexual preference are now so fragmented that ghettos exist mostly as destinations imagined by tourists peering gullibly from the upper level of a Big Apple bus. Outsiders couldn't be expected to understand how acutely the facts of life here (the point and even the quality of life) are held in the mix. There may be aspects of New York that seem immutable, echt, and, in a Cindy Adams sense, only. Yet even these are phantasms, colored by individual experience and taste. The abecedary that follows is, accordingly, personal and arbitrary, a set of flash-card impressions by a couple of people who've spent time trying to puzzle this place out.

illustration: Paul Corio

click on image to enlarge

a is for celebrity AA meetings, where every body knows you when you're down and out. Wasn't that L.R. qualifying at 7:30 a.m. on Perry Street? Did you catch D.H. doing litera ture at Village New Beginnings? And were you there the day C.S. showed up to begin his court-mandated 90-in-90?

b is for BIG CUP, nexus of "pumped-up white boys shunning love," as the late playwright Harry Kondoleon characterized the neoclone. Opened in October '94 by a former intensive-care-unit nurse and a former arms-control policy analyst who once ran a D.C. coffee shop called the Pop Stop, it's Starbucks meets Pee-Wee's Playhouse: overstuffed furniture, wacky painted flowers, and a design scheme inspired by Scooby Doo. For urbanists, though, it's BIG CUP's plate-glass window on Eighth Avenue that signifies—both as a display case for the action-figure bodies with B-cup titties (on men, of course) and as proof of how far gay culture has come from the days of clandestine clubs and hatband codes.

c is for coke and special K, a drug cocktail the cognoscenti call a Calvin Klein. No trips down the K-hole on this combo of animal tranquilizer and Colombian nose candy. CK hits the spot once satisfied by Ecstasy back in the days when the quality of E was kicking. It's also less likely to put users in touch with emergency room personnel than its fun fun fun predecessor, GHB.

d is for Dyke Action Machine!, the agitprop duo of Carrie Moyer and Sue Schaffner, who, armed with wheat paste, ire, and wild graphic talents, have brought New York their perversely satirical lesbo-themed Gap ads, post cards celebrating the multivalent splendors of the butch / femme dyad, posters ("Is It Worth Being Boring for a Blender? Gay Marriage: You Might as Well Be Straight"), and seditious postings on The Girlie Network ( "For the last two years," Moyer noted recently, "advertising and the gay press have been pressuring gay people to assimilate. We're using the language of advertising to invert that."

e is for the effort to recover your breath when dealing with the sticker shock of New York takeout—pan-seared, ready-to-roast beef fillet at $24 a pound (with morel sauce, an extra $24 a pint) at Yura, where "We make extremely high-quality, well-prepared food that people can eat every night of the week," as an employee explains. That is, if a person can afford to live on the Upper East Side, not that you can't go broke in the Village, where take out mashed potatoes costs $7.98 a pound at Home Away From Home, Humboldt Fog goat's-milk cheese is $27.50 a pound at Dean & Deluca, and tangerines—"with leaves"—have recently been spotted at $4 a pound.

f is for proliferating fish tanks, the ones in every Chinese restaurant, where crabs pile up like Williamsburg roommates. It's also for the tanks ("We say aquarium," says fish dream designer Craig Beital) at, of all places, Barney's, where a moray eel and two sharks were recently seen hungrily swimming in the direction of a $195 gray handbag adorned with a chicken.

g is for the Gaiety Theatre, where Madonna almost managed to trash her career by rubbing America's face in her crotch while a Gaiety go-go boy rubbed his pneumatic crotch in her well-waxed whatever. Neopuritans may be stalking the land, but pulchritude continues to work the runway at New York's last burlesque house, located just above the Times Square Howard Johnson's. Do the shrimp-cocktailing tourists have a clue what's going on just above their innocent noggins? They do not.

h is for home of the homeboys, a term once referring primarily to people of color, such as, let's say, Mr. Afrika Bambaataa, godfather of rap in the glory days of the Boogie Down Bronx, but which now means just about any honky with the money to purchase a pair of Kik Wear's phat pants big enough to double as a tarp.

i is for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and all the trannies and drags, the post-and pre-ops, the assorted chicks with dicks who've recently gained so much popularity in this burg that not only do they have their own hit play, but advertisements for their companionship rule the back pages of the alternative weekly you hold in your hands.

Next Page »