best of nyc 1999

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Greg Tate's New York

Plait du jour: the braid trade on
St. Nicholas Avenue

photo: Sylvia Plachy
A friend once explained my persona to me as very public and very unapproachable. Virtually unprocessed, perpetually distracted, and clinically random would be my own take on the thing, but somewhere between these dialectical readings of Tate as the sphinx and Tate as the weather may lie an explanation for why my Best of New York is all about sanctuaries.

This reporter's most beloved station in New York for Deep Thought is the stoop of the fire exit of Astor Wines & Spirits. What has made the Stoop a tractor beam for my rear end is the way it supports my navel-gazing tendencies and my spectator aspects at the same time. Recessed far enough from the multitudes to insure the privacy necessary for, say, lyric writing, the Stoop also provides a vantage point for clocking the diverse human comedy that distinguishes Gotham from whatever burg one blew in from. The Stoop also functions as a kind of soapbox lectern for shooting from the hip with the sundry friends, former lovers, and fellow travelers who pass by, on a good day in consecutive clumps.

When the isolationist Self seeks solace, however, nothing can top The Cloisters. Accessible by the A train to 190th Street and a mere 30-something blocks from my Washington Heights residence, this verdant if unkempt hideaway is so far from the madding crowd as to suggest Vermont in the autumn.

Even crowded heads must be fed fresh experiences, though, and if African science fiction is your idea of a drawing card nothing can compete with 125th Street from St. Nicholas to Lexington avenues. St. Nick is where you'll find the most hostile and haranguing hair-braiding Senegalese sistas in God's creation, who have seen no follicle area of African descent — no matter age or gender — that didn't deserve the torture of their screeching blandishments. Further down sits the indestructible Apollo, offset by its more vulnerable cousin to the east, the defunct Victoria 5 movie theater, which in its heyday was less than palace and little more than castle in the sand. Standing tall at the square on the northeast corner of Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard is my vote for the ugliest building in Manhattan, that reared-back Godzillan monstrosity known as the Harlem State Office Building, whose vast, desolate courtyard is made human-scale only by the concrete benches surrounding its periphery. My friend, well-traveled literary scholar Imani Wilson, tells me they are "the most Cuban things in Harlem."

Across the street is the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 West 125th Street, 864-4500), an oasis of Afrocentric aestheticism so chimerical, misplaced, and overlooked that many Harlem residents seem to treat it as a mirage. This month they could have caught the funky mandalas of yarn goddess Xenobia Bailey. As vibrant and just as underused, diagonally across the street next door to Blockbuster and Papaya King, is Kaarta (121 West 125th Street, 866-4062), the wife's favorite African fabric shop with a roots and culture vibe so strong you could forget there ever was a middle passage. Or a Papaya King. Just arrived on Malcolm X, formerly Lenox Avenue, is Harlem's first Starbucks (77-83 West 125th Street, 917-492-2454), a Magic Johnson enterprise. The chai lattes are appropriately smooth, and the odds that you'll find the neighborhood John Lee Hooker jamming in the seating area with a Japanese rhythm guitarist and a blond white woman on harmonica are stupendous, but the lack of a working toilet is confounding, even given the explanation that management has gotten tired of repairing them for $500 a pop after they've suffered assault and battery at the hands of irate locals.

The jewel of uptown vegetarian dining is the Uptown Juice Bar (54 West 125th Street, 987-2660), whose veggie burgers evoke nostalgia for the hamburgers of my childhood without compromising the delicate stomach lining one tends to acquire after kicking beef to the dietary curb. The curry chunks, pumpkin stew, and collard greens ain't bad neither and the Byzantine combinations of nutrients available for smoothie and juice concoctions match any like establishment in the city.

Jazz is the ideal form of oblivion for those cursed with alphabet soup for brains because it makes you focus on someone else's schizophrenic split for a minute, and with Manhattan being home to The Knitting Factory (74 Leonard Street, 219-3006), where no sound is considered too vagrant to be supplied shelter, and The Village Vanguard (178 Seventh Avenue, 255-4037), where the ghosts of Monk, Trane, Dexter, and Blakey refuse to leave, plotting a sound escape is always an option. The urge to move can also overtake the Buddha upon occasion, and for those nights we recommend Ludlow Bar (165 Ludlow Street, 353-0536) any Monday DJ Qool Marv is spinning; Brooklyn's Afrocentric house rave–slamfest The Tea Party (YWCA, 30 Third Avenue, 718-875-1190) on Sunday; and Joe Claussell, Francois K., and Danny Krivit's Body and Soul (Vinyl, 6 Hubert Street, 343-1379) if Sunday afternoon isn't too early for you to get your freak on and if you wouldn't mind an echo of what legendary spots such as Paradise Garage and the Loft were like back in the proverbial day.

Since New York is so defined now by what is dead, disappearing, being Disneyfied, or in dreary decline, Giuliani may only be, in the final analysis, the barbarian who marched in when Fun City was already in the process of crumbling to dust. Lacking for vital epicenters, this city we love to hate and hate to be away from for too long is still the best place to romance your nightmares and polish your dreams, and for that reason the best of New York is the one we carry around in our heads, of loves conquered and lost, dreams galvanized and gaslighted, adventures less valuable for the locations than for their circumlocutions by which we arrived there and departed by the dawn's early light. And the best spot in New York is the mattress we fall to in absolute exhaustion before rising to dally with the tiger's tail all over again.

Other Essays categories:

Austin Bunn's New York

Fanboy's Best of NYC as told to Ward Sutton

Guy Trebay's New York

Lynn Yaeger's New York

Michael Musto's New York

Richard Goldstein's New York

Robert Christgau's New York

Toni Schlesinger's New York

Tristan Taormino's New York

William Bastone's New York