Best Of :: People & Places
New Yorkers are a generally disgruntled bunch. We live in a city where it's impossible to avoid stepping on someone else's toes, and the mere act of breathing can set a neighbor off. But even in this perturbed crowd, no one's irritation approaches that of Nick Sprayregen. The feisty and handsomely rich owner of Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage, a 300,000-square-foot warehouse off 125th Street, has achieved minor fame as the last landlord left in the footprint of Columbia University's West Harlem expansion. As Columbia has moved to fulfill its manifest destiny, taking over 17 acres of land and buying out or relocating hundreds of tenants and property owners over the past four years, Sprayregen refused to budge from his location. When Columbia declared the area officially "blighted" (a ruling that cleared the way for the granting of eminent domain), Sprayregen got his lawyer to produce hundreds of documents—obtained through the Freedom of Information Act—charging that the blight study was a rigged deal between Columbia and the state. For nearly six years, he has been fighting Columbia with every available tool, writing op-eds in the New York Post, hiring a lobbyist, and starting blogs with names like My Land Is Mine. You gotta hand it to the guy: The lawsuits have personally cost him over a million dollars, and it's a fight he may never be able to win. Columbia has hired more lobbyists and has easily outspent him, but the relentless Sprayregen presses on.
Work for the city? Not too careful about how you drive? Jimmy Justice has his eye on you. There may be more egregious offenses performed by city officials than the U-turns and illegal parking that JJ catches with his video camera and posts on his YouTube channel, but he totally owns this narrow investigative journalism niche. And he's willing to get out and confront the malefactors, even though he doesn't have the kind of backup Help Me Howard enjoys. In one classic video, Jimmy asks, "How come you're not driving with your seat belt on, Officer Morgan?" of a traffic cop who is calling his command to request a squad car because Jimmy Justice is "snapping photos again." "Parking tickets should be about public safety," Justice told MSNBC, "and not be a way to generate revenue for the city." His channel was quiet this summer, which, he tells us, was only because "I have many other hobbies besides videotaping hypocritical traffic cops. I play bass guitar in a punk/grunge band. I have also been training in jujitsu. . . . " He assures us we may expect plenty of hard-hitting coverage in the days to come.
There is always a debate about whether New York is the center of the world—and it is a huge waste of time. Proof of New York's supremacy can be found on any street corner. To choose one at random, consider the intersection of West 8th Street and Sixth Avenue. You say, "Oh, right. Shoe stores and head shops! That is some cultural mecca." Stop. You only show your ignorance. For one thing, this corner is special because some of the city's finest low-cost dining—well-done franks, a/k/a Cab Driver T-bones—can be bought there at any hour. "Ha!" you say. "I know places 10 times as good in London (or Chicago, or Paris, or Sheboygan)." Well, you don't know what you're talking about, and here is the evidence.
These days, this excellent meal is found at Gray's Papaya on the northeast corner, an establishment owned by America's most progressive entrepreneurs, people who are never fearful of mixing business and politics. During last year's presidential primaries, they turned this store and their uptown branches into enormous billboards for Obama. "Yes, Senator Obama! We are ready to believe again!" their posters read. This was almost as daring a stance as wearing green on the streets of Tehran these days, since a brick through the window from one of Hillary Clinton's many crazed supporters was a definite possibility.
Almost as good as the meal—washed down with a wondrous assortment of drinks (as in our democracy, you get to choose: papaya, piña colada, coconut, etc.)—are the sightseeing possibilities. With franks and elbows perched on the shelf along the window, you look across the street at the bus stop. This is one of the most important bus stops in the world because the crosstown M8 runs here, conveying the city's hippest residents from West to East Village and back again. This is fascinating enough for most people, and is the reason why scores of knapsack-packing German and Italian tourists stand here at all hours, simply staring.
Keen observation from this post also reveals that among the generally skeevy 8th Street crowd are some of America's greatest musicians, who can be seen slipping quietly into the doorway of 52 West 8th Street. This is Electric Lady Studios, a holy shrine that was created by the great Jimi Hendrix. Popular music histories wax lyrically about studios like those in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We do not begrudge these sites their many talents, but how could they possibly match the roster of greatness that has walked through these doors? Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Clash, the Cars, Mary J. Blige, Radiohead, Steve Earle. Even Björk. Cultural touchstones do not come any larger than this. You're sitting there, mouthing a hot dog, and all of a sudden the members of Arctic Monkeys walk right in front of you (another reason to chew with your mouth closed).
Actually, before the Papaya store opened, the fabulous hot dog eating was done across the street, on the southeast corner. Now a chain bookstore, this was once the busiest Nathan's hot dog outlet north of Coney Island. The true connoisseur of that former stand-up eatery was the great Tuli Kupferberg, New York's last genuine beatnik. If you don't recognize the name, the loss is yours. With his friends, including the equally marvelous Ed Sanders, Kupferberg composed some of the great songs of our time for their group, the Fugs. These included "Kill for Peace," and "Whimpers From the Jello." Kupferberg is still writing; among his most recent work is "Backward Jewish Soldiers." In the 1970s, however, he could be found most days standing at the bus stop, selling mimeographed copies of his "Penny Poems." He had an established routine in which he would take the change earned by poem sales and buy a single order of thick-cut Nathan's fries, the ones that come in a cardboard cup. He would nibble at the fries, making them last as long as possible. He would then refill the cup with the free sauerkraut, and lace it with a little free ketchup. Kupferberg, a militant vegetarian, swore this had all the vital nutrients he needed to keep him writing and poem-peddling.
Across Sixth Avenue, your vista takes in one of the city's many fine, citizen-sponsored gardens. The Jefferson Market garden is such a lush oasis—overflowing with weeping birches, cherries, and dogwoods—that it must be kept locked most of the time to keep flower-maddened passersby from looting it or simply bedding down for the night. It is slightly ironic that they lock up the tulips because the garden sits on what was once the city's most fascinating jail, the old Women's House of Detention. Until the wrecker's ball took it down in 1974, the looming "House of D"—as it was known—allowed average New Yorkers to comprehend the banal cruelty of prison life. For one thing, prisoners on the upper floors were able to shout back and forth to friends on the street below. They could also watch as their pals enjoyed the fruits of freedom so cruelly denied them, such as walking into the great Sutter's French Bakery, then located on the corner of West 10th Street and Greenwich Avenue. One night, this deeply pained shout echoed in the street below: "I see you!" came the anguished yell of an invisible prisoner high above. "You're getting those éclairs again! You didn't bring me nothing!"
It is a dead-cinch certainty that no other metropolis offers such a grand vista from a single street corner—all for the price of a $1.25 hot dog (special recession price).
There are plenty of joke candidates and pretend pols who make good copy. But Charles Barron serves on the City Council and is dead serious about the stands he takes, which just make them funnier. In July, the former Black Panther attempted a citizen's arrest of School Chancellor Joel Klein for continuing to serve after Albany failed to reestablish mayoral control of the schools. He appears on right-wing talk shows and gives no quarter, calling Sean Hannity a racist and telling Bill O'Reilly that America will soon have a black majority and that O'Reilly fears his "white privilege will no longer rule the law." He has also said, "Some days, I get so frustrated I just want to go up to the closest white person and say, 'You can't understand this. It's a black thing,' and then slap him, just for my mental health." He has fought to close down Obama Fried Chicken stores as "part of the racist stereotyping of black people in America." He has raged against a Bill de Blasio flier showing de Blasio's black wife, called black cops at the Sean Bell shooting "House Negroes who will shoot us at the behest of their masters," invited dictator Robert Mugabe to speak at City Hall, and compared Mayor Bloomberg unfavorably to Hugo Chávez, telling him, "I will see you on the battlefield." In short, he's a major public official who doesn't give a shit about what the press makes of him. And we could use a hundred more like him.
Can there be any doubt? He held the State Senate to a standstill for a full month this summer, at one point brandishing the keys to the chamber for stunned reporters. He's constantly under investigation for something or the other. (The Wall Street Journal called him "A One-Man Full-Employment Act for NY Lawyers.") His son had to resign a cushy $120,000-a-year job Dad got him when it became clear that he didn't know his way around his own office. And through it all, he remains proudly defiant—"The Lone Wolf," as a promotional film made about him by his staffers declared. State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr., ladies and gentlemen—the Bronx's gift to Albany, and to political comedy. His career makes the Great McGinty look like Gandhi.
In one 12-page memorandum order, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff basically summed up the Wall Street meltdown and spoke for us commoners by blasting the government and the banks. Taking the unusual step of rejecting a settlement scheme cooked up by the SEC and Bank of America, the Manhattan judge tore BofA executives new assholes for lying to their shareholders, and ripped the SEC for signing off on the deal and for trying to make the victims (BofA's shareholders) pay the fine. The beautifully crafted, fair-minded document is filled with "makes no sense" and "absurd" and other colorful language—too bad it's not a template for how to deal with the rest of the aftermath of Wall Street's collapse.