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The Center of the Center of the World New York 2009 - Pick any N.Y.C. street corner—say, West 8th Street and Sixth Avenue—and you're there, By TOM ROBBINS

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).

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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The Delivery Guy
The Delivery Guy

Hey Tom,

I am also a huge fan of New York City and I enjoy living in Manhattan. However, I must confess that I strongly disagree with you. Please do not get me wrong, I love New York, its people, its streets, its vibe, etc. However, I think you are being a bit too egocentric and limited in your viewpoints. I believe that you have not been able to capture the true essence that has made the United States a cultural leader in the world and where culture stems. It seems that you have not spent too much time in American Suburbia and other places to realize that cultural leadership in the United States resides in its suburbs. I agree that New York has some of the greatest art galleries and museums. However culture is not limited or constrained to art, it is a much broader concept. Culture also encompasses religion, language, communication, and many other things. Culture encompasses your Ipod, your Levis Jeans, McDonalds, Facebook, Google, your Dell laptop, and many other elements, none of which are from New York. Granted that the leading marketing and finance firms are here, and they are definitely on the cutting edge, but cultural leadership and innovation comes largely from other places. Yes, it is nice to live in New York, go to the museums, and meet a lot of foreigners, but neither your Xbox/Wii/PS3, neither your Windows Vista, or your Big Mac come from New York. As much as you may like Columbia University or New York University, please be realistic and understand that the cultural leaders are most likely to be found in Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Chicago, etc. Perhaps next time you write you should try to be more open-minded (as New Yorkers are commonly stereotyped) and understand that New York is not the center of the world. The center of the world still remains in suburbia. Sorry for that eye-opener, but for a New Yorker your intellect seem to be pretty limited.

The Delivery Guy

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