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 (www.echonyc.com/~dam). "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.

j is for jerk chicken, the diaspora's culinary metaphor: originated as plantation food whipped up from master's leavings, spiced to high art by barefoot cooks, imported to New York via the phenomenal influx of Caribbean immigrants that began in the 1950s, and now served in a particularly evolved and searing form at the Jamaican Hot Pot in Harlem.

k is for "It'll ketchup to you," which Diane with the big black hair says when she shuffles over to your table at the Second Avenue Deli— Diane, who is probably the only waitress to have been on Letterman 17 times, which admittedly cuts into her serving schedule, thus leaving her no time to serve the matzo ball soup, which, by the way, when she does pour it into a bowl, comes with her suggestion that, "you be the richer, I'll be the pourer," al though by the time she gets around to actually serving, the soup has cooled and it's time for the check.

l is for Latino Fan Club, the foreskin-obsessed pornography outfit that brought the world the so-stereotypically-racist-you've-got-to-laugh Papis in Paris, Bodega Backroom, Back to the Bicho, and Spice Boyz 2. Is New York's population of male Latinos composed exclusively of horse-hung bicycle messengers? In the LFC worldview it is.

m is for six-foot-four-inch Richard Move chan neling Martha Graham monthly at Martha @Mother, and for all the moola needed to drink at Moomba and to eat at Monzu and to shop at Miu Miu and to have a big enough apartment so you don't have to rent a cubicle at Manhattan Mini Storage, where some peo ple try to live and where others actually operate stores. It's also for mooning at Mugsy's Chow Chow about things indelibly Manhattan like the Marvel Comics hero the Thing, who was embittered by the death of his brother in gang warfare on the Lower East Side and was later transformed by radiation into a monster. M is also, of course, for movies, of which there are more shown in Manhattan than anywhere else except Paris, and for the movie-mad bunch at the three-a-day MOMA screenings who clobber each other for making noises—a man once exploded at Susan Sontag for unwrapping a lozenge during Fantomas, and a woman who once tried to strangle an usher for tearing a ticket stub.

n is for news junkies and the pushers who supply us, a personal favorite being the ineffably attitudinous and scrawny punk chick Jackie Rivera, who makes Tower Books' Lafayette Street newsstand a must for urban ironists and niche readers. Where else in the world can you find The Nation next to Piercing Fans International Quarterly, Vogue alongside Numismatic News, I-D cheek by jowl with Holy Titclamps!, Town & Country rubbing semiotic shoulders with Bound and Gagged?

o is for the shape your mouth makes as you stifle a yawn while trapped in some never ending piece of theater or alternative dance.   

p is parties at the Puck Building, which all look the same—white cloth, white flowers, white wine—whether the fetes are given for poets or puppeteers or environmental persuaders or people with particular pets or Leonardo di Creepio's Pussy Posse or Ron Perelman (that most New York of billionaires, compulsively marrying, compulsively divorcing, compulsively turning up blank-faced and cigar-stuffed on Page Six) or even the New York Press.

q is for Quentin Crisp, philosopher-hustler-nonconformist, whose new one-man show you can actually catch the better part of most days as he holds shabby-elegant court at the diner at Second Avenue and 5th Street, regaling listeners ("Los Angeles is just New York lying down") with tales of living by his wits for eight decades (he just turned 90) for the price of a cup of joe.

r is for Duane Reade, which is rumored to be named for a Tribeca intersection, and where you can get the best discount drugs and cosmetics (fuggeddabout Sephora), not to mention Beanie Babies and Vagisil, at all unlikely hours, and where Dusty Springfield once said she makes her first stop whenever she comes to town.

s is for all the streets around Stanton and Ludlow, the world's hottest new intersection, where New York's heart pounds in the night, where the MTV News holiday party ended up at bOb, and where people go to the 205 Club after two or three Cosmopolitans at Void, and where a fact checker with glitter on her eyes recently had her birthday party and then went off in the night on the shoulders of Josh or Nathaniel or someone. And let's not forget the Lotus Cafe, where all the artists in the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center get their salads, and Trimland—holdover from an earlier time—where Bella Mirmovich sells lace and fluffy tulle, and the $2000 tenement rentals being snapped up by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who raised six kids in two rooms on potato soup and schmaltz.

t is for Tories, whom some people refer to as the British, the very people, you'll recall, that we once fought a violent revolution to put behind us. Six weeks ago, one arrived at your apartment with a letter of recommendation from the friend of a friend and asked to stay for two days. Since then the alien guest has read your mail, killed your houseplants, drunk all your liquor, had an affair with your husband, and fired the maid. And then gotten hired as an editor in chief of some rag at Condé Nast.

u is for Uptown Santa, a/k/a Ed Lover, the long-running, old-school-rhyming, big-nose-having DJ on radio station Hot 97. In the sad landscape of contemporary radio, Ed Lover bids fair to become a perennial, the black Joe Franklin, or at least a sepia Murray the K. What other DJ in what other city can get away with impersonating Saint Nick with a "Merry Christmas to all and to all a wussup"?

v is for Victoria Gotti, so New York and yet so Long Island, so much a novelist and still so deeply the daughter of a crime boss doing life for murder, so truly a peroxide Electra behind the wheel of her white Mercedes, hair trailing as she speeds breathlessly—crying "Give me my brother,"—to rescue her tubby sibling John ("Orestes") Gotti, Jr. from exile in the slammer.

w is for "Whew! I got through it," and "Whew, the subway didn't get stuck in the tunnel for an hour," and "Whew! I won the Yankees ticket lottery," and "Whew, my land lord didn't murder me because I complained about the heat," and "Whew, I'm really awful ly glad that the condom didn't pop."

x is for XXX theaters. Remember those?

z (we'll get to Y in a moment) is for zinc-topped tables at all the bars and boîtes and bistros that Josephine Baker might frequent, but doesn't, because she's dead, but which are mobbed by Web site designers and Avid editors and lawyers writing prospectuses for rock bands issuing IPOs, and also by film critics who hardly even live in New York anymore, they're so busy jetting to enchanting niche festivals in Vienna and Telluride and Rotterdam.

y, or course, is for you, because every single person in New York is a special individual with a totally unique and personal dream, and if you happen not to believe that then you probably shouldn't be here in the first place, so why don't you just get the hell out of town.

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