best of nyc 1999


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Guy Trebay's New York

Teething pane: Mary Magdalene’s met molar
photo: Sylvia Plachy
My favorite column for a long time has been one that Los Angeles drag queen/filmmaker/rocker/performance artist/former UCLA office clerk Vaginal Davis writes for Glue. Egomaniacal and scurrilous and filled with arbitrary gossip and daft opinion, it's droller than Maureen Dowd on the best day she ever had. The column is entitled "Because I Said So" and it characterizes a world disposed the way it is because Vaginal Davis so decides. This is pretty much the undeclared modus operandi of most newspaper columnists — not to mention most parents — who tend, however, to lack Dr. Davis's frank approach.

Davis's operative ethos is "True or false, it's a fact." And it's in appreciation of her arbitrary spirit that the following offerings are made. The reality is that there can be no best of anything here, or anyway not for long: superlatives are decadent and flux crucial to survival in New York. Change is not only good, it's a key to survival. The opinion you held so adamantly yesterday will be back to haunt you tomorrow. Be ready with a new one or else you may start to resemble that yellowed clipping in the window of some scurvy noodle shop once touted on some critic's "Best of" list. Herewith some random recommendations that stand, I hope, outside taste and time.

Best Alleged Artifact of a First-Century Fallen Woman Who Got Religion, Anointed Christ's Corpse, and Went On To Become the Patron Saint of Repentant Sinners and the Contemplative Life: Mary Magdalene's tooth, a yellowed 2000-year-old molar enshrined in rock crystal in a golden reliquary in the medieval galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street).

Best Contiguous Stand of American Elms in the World: Fifth Avenue from 59th to 110th streets. People tend to overlook the importance to the urban experience of New York's trees. It's our generational luck to know at their maturity specimens first planted when the park was constructed a century ago. There are many superb trees here (European beech in the East Meadow, a sweet gum and an Osage orange near Willowdell Arch, an American linden near Lion's Head Rock, a bald cypress at the Harlem Meer). But nothing compares to the elms along Fifth Avenue. According to Dennis Burton's Nature Walks of Central Park, the 1982 Tree Inventory lists over 1800 American elms in Central Park, 12 percent of the park's 26,000 trees, over half of those elms growing along Fifth Avenue. Despite the depredations of Dutch elm disease, this remains the longest contiguous stand of American elms in the world. Maybe all trees look alike to you. If so, try to conjure the image of a walk along Fifth beneath the stately, elegant, vase-shaped trees stretching branch to branch for 51 blocks. Then replace them with the suburban popsicle shapes of the ubiquitous new street tree, the callery pear. See if that doesn't change your mind.

Best Place To Pretend You're a Reckgawawanc Indian: In the 1600s, the Reckgawawanc kept a camp near the confluence of the Harlem and East rivers, around what's now 119th Street. They ranged around the upper reaches of Manhattan from there. If you take the A train to the Inwood–207th Street stop, and then timber-bash through Inwood Park's woods (taking time out to appreciate Bette Midler's efforts to rehabilitate them), you'll eventually wind up at the Hudson southwest of Spuyten Duyvil. The river is often empty of traffic here. Thanks to a farseeing Rockefeller bequest, the Jersey Palisades are still pristine. A patch of sandy shore remains where Reckgawawanc probably came three centuries ago to fish. The view you're looking at is not very different from the one they enjoyed.

Best Place To Get Adhesive Computerized Stickers Made of Yourself: Kmart's photo booths are popular with Asian exchange students, who seem to groove on the Hello Kitty backdrops. But the best machine for turning yourself into an obnoxious postage stamp is at Lazer Park (163 West 46th Street, 398-3060). They have higher-end machines that place you squarely in the image and give high-resolution results in two minutes. I'm sharing the frame with a space alien in mine.




Other Essays categories:

Austin Bunn's New York

Fanboy's Best of NYC as told to Ward Sutton

Greg Tate'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