New York Bagels

I see that over the weekend there was much consideration of the issue of New York and Bagels. Matthew Yglesias comments (“The Stuff that Matters,” ThinkProgress, 28 November 2008):

I’ve now lived in DC long enough that I forget how much I like real bagels. But then I come back to New York for Thanksgiving and the whole sad little fantasy universe I’ve constructed for myself in which DC’s bad bagels aren’t a big deal collapses.

Kevin Drum does a little wondering as well (“Bagels!,” MoJo, 28 November 2008)

It’s hard for me to remain on topic here because Washington, D.C. is such a miserable hole of a city. It would be hard to come up with a single factor in which New York was not vastly better of a city. The only reason that anyone tolerates D.C. is that it’s the political and intellectual capitol of the country.

That said, whenever I go to New York I have a list of things that I want to do and every time it includes bagels. This visit included bagels on two out of three mornings. My friend has been living three blocks from Tal Bagels so it has been pretty convenient, but on other visits I have commuted for bagels.

I’ve heard a number of the theories (the municipal water), but I’d have to say that I think it’s a gestalt. The bagels themselves are better: crunchier on the outside, chewier on the inside. But the schemers are better too (we brought back a tub of the olive cream cheese and another of the tofu, which rather than being some vegan concession has a flavor zestier and brighter than the cream cheeses). And most important is the ambiance. Woody places with a bunch of working-class artisans in black pants, white t-shirts, white aprons, and white paper hats, with a lot of hurry and attitude is different than the hired gun Ethiopians at Au-bon-Pan. A bagel shop is a stylized thing in New York. The cream cheeses are arrayed in gigantic bowls under glass, along with a host of other Jewish foods: smoked fish, knishs, couscous salads.

My favorite bagel places in New York are Ess-a-bagle (359 1st Avenue, Manhattan, New York 10010, official site here) and Tal Bagels (977 1st Avenue, Manhattan, New York 10022), both very Jewish, and The Bagel Store (247 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211), a Williamsburg hipster joint, but still unbelievably good.

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Thanksgiving in Manhattan and the Bronx

View of the Throgs Neck Bridge from City Island, New York, 28 November 2008

No blogging as I spent Thanksgiving with the usual crew in New York. Dinner was at the friends’ Beekman Place apartment overlooking the East River, Roosevelt Island and the 59th Street Bridge. Then we all rented a place for the night on City Island, in the Long Island Sound just off the Bronx. Pictured above is a view of the Throgs Neck Bridge from the southern tip of the island.

1960s: Romanticism and Decline

After years of the right-wing version of the history, there is a tendency to think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a period of decadence and decline. But thankfully in recent years we have pulled back from the precipice. Or we think of the 60s from a post 1980s and 90s capitalist triumphalist perspective: as colorful and quixotic kitsch denude of any ethical or political import.

Last night I spent a few hours listening to Ginsberg’s Howl, watching Joe Crocker concerts on YouTube and whatnot and I challenge anyone to listen to Nina Simone’s 1969 Harlem Festival (Central Park, New York) performance of “Ain’t Got No…I’ve Got Life” and tell me we’re not a civilization that’s put an additional forty solid years of decline under out belt. To hear a song so simply constructed — it’s just two lists of commonplace items — but so evocative and watch that face like a statue but with the pathos of the entire human condition! Compared to our contemporary world of rampant materialism, status-seeking, vanity, cynicism, cleverness, conformity, vapid luxury, triviality and selflessness (by which I don’t mean generosity), the 60s and 70s look like a golden age of humanist assertion.

I would love to read a systematic comparison of the various romanticist periods of history.

On the other hand, people — at least people my age — tend to think of the period as still historically close, relevant, but when I was watching Joe Crocker last night, it occurred to me that the performances that I was watching are as far removed from us today as the Second World War was when I was a kid. 1968 was forty years ago. When I was ten, the Second World War had ended forty years ago as well and I thought of that as ancient history. The greatest generation are about to disappear, but notice that Bill Clinton, a baby boomer, is a bumbling old greyhair who’s had a stroke for crissake.

Enthusiasts, Eccentrics and the Unamused

Howard, Manny, "My Empire of Dirt," New York Magazine, 17 September 2007, pp. 22-29 & 107-108

From the Hell Is Other People Files comes this great cover story from last week’s New York Magazine about a man who decided to take the eat local movement to the next step and tried to eat only out of his own back yard … in Brooklyn. On the cover, the story is billed as “Green 1/55th of an Acre,” though inside the title is “My Empire of Dirt,” (Manny Howard, 17 September 2007, pp. 22-29 & 107-108). A significant subplot of the story is just how much this little venture pissed off his wife. Mr. Howard recounts the following story:

Then came the last straw. The following afternoon, Caleb and I constructed most of a high-rise chicken coop in a few hours. We decided on a vertical design filled with ramps so that it would take up a minimum of the garden’s square footage (another concession to our urban setting). We equipped it with wheels and tracks so the poop could be removed from under it and the coop rolled back into place. The work was going well. At about 5:30 p.m., Caleb scrubbed up and got on his bike in order to get home in time to tidy up and attend his bartending class. At 6:30, I was putting the finishing touches on the rig. Inspired by the coop design in Nick Park’s animated film Chicken Run, I was using the table saw to mill eight-inch plywood into strips to make footholds for the entrance ramp when the blade of the saw tagged my right pinkie, destroying the second knuckle. Parts of my finger were left on the saw and on the ground.

I pried my cell phone out of my work pants using my left hand and, holding my right hand above my head, called Josh, a childhood friend who is now a firefighter and, more to the point, lives around the corner. He ran over immediately and field-dressed the mangled wound while I stood there scared—not so much of the wound, which I figured was not going to kill me, but of Lisa, who probably would. I expected her to come through the door with the kids at any moment. After another long day at the office, this would be quite a scene for her to stumble into.

Deciding not to take me to an emergency room, where we’d get stuck at the end of a long queue, Josh located a hand surgeon named Danny Fong on Canal Street, and he agreed to see me and my pinkie immediately. But before we could get out the door, Lisa turned up with Heath and Jake. Before even a hello, I said, as casually as I could muster, “Hon, I’ve banged my finger and I need to go to the doctor.”

“How?” she asked. “How bad?”

“Not too bad,” I lied. Then I came clean: “With the table saw.”

She screamed in anguished frustration. She couldn’t just resent me for my silly folly; now that I’d maimed myself in the process, she had to feel sympathy too.

Behind every enthusiast or eccentric stands a spouse decidedly less than amused, doing their part to reign in these outliers of spirit. In some ways we all support one another, but in demanding support in return, we all collude in deadening each other.

Disparaging Comparisons Between Washington, D.C. and New York

16 September 2007, the Financial District from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway

Every visit I make to New York is a painful reminder what a grim and slender existence one leads living in Washington, D.C. For some time now two large comparisons have been part of my usual refrain.

  • The people in New York are so much more interesting and varied than in D.C. In Washington, D.C. it seems as if there is one perfect model and everyone is judged according to how closely they can approximate that one right way to be. To be fashionable in D.C. is about conformity. In New York everyone is struggling to differentiate themselves and people are judged by how unique they are. Every aspect of personae and identity is part of the pallet (though beyond one’s creative control, most unusual or inscrutable combination of ethnic background is in play).

  • People talk about a New York minute: everything in New York is so fast paced. But when I’m in New York I feel like I may as well be in Paris. New Yorkers understand joie de vivre. They do it in enough ways that it would be difficult to catalog. People take time to enjoy themselves. Everywhere you go there are little cafés where people are having a leisurely meal and talking with a friend or watching the crowds pass. Kitchens are small so food is most commonly very basic, focusing on quality of ingredients rather than labor in preparation. People lavish a lot of attention on their animals and are almost universally excited about the pets of others. The city may be gigantic, but the neighborhoods are small and everywhere you go there are meetings, planned and accidental and people talking. Everyone has an avocation to which they are very devoted.

A few other observations about New York and D.C.:

  • New York is a city with a staggering number of restaurants. On Saturday night S. and I were out wandering and decided that we wanted some Italian food. We simply wandered, confident that in a short time we would stumble upon exactly what we wanted. And in a few blocks we came to a tiny Italian place with tile floors, dark walls, little tables, a cramped bar half-way back surrounded by about a dozen older male waiters in white shirts and black ties running in every direction. The food was unpretentious, but quality. There are probably so many restaurants like that in New York than one couldn’t locate them all without the aid of technology. In Washington, D.C. there are maybe three or four such restaurants and they may be a dying breed (I’m thinking Giovanni’s Trattu on Jefferson Place or Trattoria Italiano in Woodly Park). Probably just the number of new restaurants that open and old restaurants that go out of business in New York exceeds the total number or restaurants in the entire District of Columbia.

  • While I was away for the weekend, Matthew Yglesias made an exuberant post about a new place in town serving late night breakfast (“Late Night Late Night Breakfast Blogging,” 16 September 2007). This is indeed a very big deal in D.C. To date, just about the only place in the city where breakfast was available at any time other than breakfast time was The Dinner. In fact, just about the only place that anything was available late — or at least later than the post-last-call places on bar rows — was again, The Dinner. This is unbelievable in a major city. In New York, as is well known, the opening or closing of such a place is a nonevent, so common are such places. And in New York they all deliver with a $5.00 minimum order. In D.C. the standard minimum for delivery is $20.00.

  • Both New York and Washington, D.C. are noisy cities. I find that increasingly I like the noise of New York. It is the noise of life and work: delivery trucks dropping things off, garbage trucks taking things away, crowds of people. In Washington, D.C. the noise is that of the delusions of the national security state: police sirens, emergency vehicles rushing around from one nonevent to the next, convoys for VIPs.

  • It’s amusing the degree to which New Yorkers match their city. New York is crumbling and second hand. So are a surprising number of its residents.

  • For months now I have been wanting to get to Mark Israel’s Doughnut Plant. Their signature, the Tres Leche, is indeed one dope-ass doughnut! When I walked up, there was a “back in five minutes” sign up in the window and a small crowd gathered around outside waiting. The store is completely inauspicious, consisting of just a little counter and a window back to the kitchen and some storage overflow, but if you find yourself in the Lower East Side it is definitely worth a jaunt.

Starry Night

The Reigning Queen of Everything, Starry Night, 13 September 2007, 216 Franklin Street, Greenpoint, New York

I probably won’t be making any posts over the weekend as I will be up in New York for the opening of a friend’s burlesque / variety show.

In case any New Yorkers stumble across this page, the show is on Thursday, 13 September 2007 at 9:00 PM at the East Coast Aliens’ Studio at 216 Franklin Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Tickets are $12.00 at the door. After the first show, there will be a new lineup every month for the next six months.

September 11th

In the days after 11 September 2001, as the disbelief and shock began to subside in favor of a sense of what had happened and what came next, CNN uncovered an old documentary, Building the World Trade Center, made by the New York Port Authority and aired it’s entire twenty minutes. I was lucky to catch it and it has since become a favorite piece of film for me. The first ten minutes of the video are an interesting, if stylistically dated, discussion of some of the features of the site and novel construction techniques and design features employed in the building. What makes me return to the film again and again is that at about time 10:05 — on the factual tidbit that after the foundational structures were in place construction proceeded according to a formula at the rate of about three floors every ten days — the film switches from informative documentary to whimsical art film. Set to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Vianna Blood is an uninterrupted five minute dance of building rising. Watch a crane operator rotate a huge section of sheet metal at 12:25-12:36, the pan around the partly completed towers at 13:44-14:00 or the documentary makers themselves at 14:20-14:25 — it could be Stanly Kubrick. It’s a wonderful little paean to labor and ingenuity and capitalism.