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Culture and Vultures New York 2006 -

The best argument against that old whine "New York City isn't what it used to be" is, "That comment isn't what it used to be. It's the tiredest, most clichéd utterance in history—and it's almost invariably said by people who didn't have what it takes to stay here."

Whether or not it's become more soulless, New York is still my favorite five-borough fantasy island filled with culture, vultures, homegrown cuties, and home-fried potatoes—and I have too much shit accumulated to move anyway. My favorite aspects of life here remind me that, on some levels, things may be better than ever. For example, those relatively new pedicabs might hog space whenever I'm trying to squeeze by on my normal bike, but who cares? The guys driving them are, bizarrely enough, the hottest numbers in town. The job description is probably, "Must slowly and tortuously ride loud, annoying tourists to obvious locations for very little money and no tip. Must be drop-dead gorgeous."

Rather than flaunt my dazzling looks, I go to the best place to show off one's twisted-cinephile knowledge—the esoterically delightful third floor of Kim's at 6 St. Marks Place. Yeah, big, generic video places have taken over the town, blah blah blah, but despite last year's crackdown on it, there's still Kim's, and it still puts the mental in my rental. The place is like church for me. Whenever I hear a customer asking for, say, The Comeback, I run up to them and screech, "You mean the old thriller with '60s cheese singer Jack Jones as a washed-up star being tortured by weird killers and a closet drag queen played by Charlie's Angels' David Doyle?" When they irritably respond, "No, I meant the recent series with Lisa Kudrow," I snap my fingers and say, "Oh. Well, they've got that too." They've got everything—especially film noir, sexploitation, Hammer horror, and foreign flicks so obscure they never even heard of them in their native country. If this place is ever shut down, I'll finally agree with the whiners that New York isn't what it used to be.

I can still show off my theater queen know-how too—at Marie's Crisis (59 Grove Street), the whoopee spot where boozy shower singers and even some professional drop-ins belt out everyone's favorite show tunes as if gathered around a very camp fire. Of course every town with at least five gays has one of these piano bars, but this one is realer, more intense, and laden with much more potential drama. One night by the ivories, I started singing "Suddenly, Seymour"—from Little Shop of Horrors, duh—certain that everyone would rousingly join in and cover my nerves. But for some reason the entire crowd begged off and sadistically decided to make this a solo, so I freaked—until simply closing my eyes and pretending I was finally starring on Broadway. When I came to, they handed me the bill for my Diet Coke.

I love swilling artificially flavored chemicals there—or anywhere. Face it, even health-destroying is more fun in the new, cleaned-up NYC. It has an edge to it! So you can't smoke in clubs anymore? There are ways around that—like just smoking anyway, or going to the outdoor alcove at Duvet (45 West 21st Street) on gay Thursdays, which is the liveliest place I know to get lung cancer (and a chill, when the temperature drops). Puffing clubbies crowd into the gated-off space, making for the second-most-concentrated bunch of wack-jobs in town—after Marie's Crisis—and well worth all the secondhand smoke. Breathe in and reminisce.

But the most likely place to develop a serious medical condition is at any Duane Reade, while angstily waiting for hours for your prescription refills—and that's only because New York is so hopping with effectively medicated people these days that the drugstores practically need doormen. Success has led to a medical mess. Generally, they don't have your order ready because they never got your message or they haven't called your doctor to see if you can get a renewal or they're pretty sure they completed the order but they can't seem to find it so please write down your name again etc., etc. Even if they eventually come up with the pills, you've surely had the seizure already, but at least you're covered for next time.

And besides, you can always relax with giant helpings of glorious, let-me-at-it food. Of course glitzy, overpriced restaurants have destroyed Gotham, yada yada, but funny, I've still managed to find enough cheap dives to keep my days, stomach, and wallet fuller than a whore's mouth on New Year's Eve. On Mondays through Saturdays at Yatra (32 West 31st Street), the all-you-can-eat-for-$8.99 buffet is a steal, especially the way I shovel it in. And the second-best Indian smorgasbord is at the Whole Foods in the Time Warner Center, though their idea of all you can eat for $8.99 is two pieces of chicken accessorized with a light necklace of okra. So I never leave Yatra.

And that's my New York. It's not the way it used to be—thank God.

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