Bicycle Thief Bludgeoned The scene unfolded before our eyes like a movie, and we sat on the sidewalk, resting and drinking water with our backs up against one of Riverside Dr.'s facades in the magnolia freshness of that spring afternoon. Riverside Dr. in the high 90s is one of those areas of New York City in which you're aware of geography, and especially on a soft day when the sunlight's marking contours and throwing off-lit surfaces into relief. So it was appropriate that the incident that we witnessed was contingent on landscape.
Then a languid type of hell broke loose, in the form of a figure on a bicycle tracing a loony, arcing line down that Riverside Dr. hill, curving grandly in one direction and then in the other, like a skier who's carving too fast. He was obviously out of control. And as he accelerated downhill we began to see the details: an Hispanic teenager in baseball cap and baggy jeans and wisp of mustache, his face frozen in fear as his boots kicked the air.
Meanwhile, at the top of the hill, rising over the crest like a one-man berserking army, a young Chinese guy appeared, waving his arms, running after the bicyclist at full tilt, screaming out chopsocky imprecations. We turned our heads uphill. The workmen leaned on their rakes and tools, and turned their heads uphill, too.
And then occurred something very satisfying, and, in a way, significant. As the kid on the bicycle careened past the workmen, his feet flying, his shoulders humping as he jacked the handlebars in an attempt to gain control, one of the hardhats?a beefy middle-aged black fellow with sad eyes?changed the world, in a tiny but real way. He stuck his rake out past the ribboned boundary of his little world and?lightly, with the same finesse with which you knock the ash off a cigarette?tapped the bicycle's back wheel.
It happened fast, so I'm not sure exactly what went on. It's possible the workman managed to insert his rake-handle into the spokes of the bike and pull it out before it was ripped from his hands. It's more probable that he hit the wheel's rim or tire. But whatever happened, his rake-handle's split-second of contact with the bicycle was sufficient to destroy the Hispanic kid's tenuous equilibrium. He took a diagonal sprawl through the air, and fell on his right side with a thud, skidding along the pavement eight feet from the point of impact. The bike rattled into the gutter.
There was some groaning and writhing on the pavement, and then the bike's Chinese owner caught up, his sneakers flapping, yelling in his native tongue. We couldn't tell what he was saying, but we were sure it wasn't very multicultural. We sipped our drinks, and the workmen leaned on their tools some more and gazed on mournfully, and the Chinese fellow straddled the kid, grabbed his collar and punched his lights out. One, two, three dead-on punches?the kid's head recoiled and he did the fish.
Then the Chinese guy, apparently satisfied, let go of the kid, picked his bike up from the gutter and walked it away. His bike looked undamaged.
You had to figure that the incident argued that boy out of cultivating an ongoing interest in bike-thievery. He staggered away, slobbering, hugging himself and sobbing, "I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry," to no one in particular. We stood and stretched. It was time to go home. The workmen returned to their work. I think we all took the kid's word for it. He looked sorry.
In its way, that was an utopian urban incident. No police. No Rudy Giuliani throwing the kid into jail for the crime of stealing a dumpling delivery bike. No Hillary Clinton pointing her finger at the workman, questioning his commitment to "diversity" or something, getting him drawn and quartered under federal hate crimes law. The problem had been dealt with.
Latin Flava! "We really like your hair," we said to the really nice guy who works the front door at the West Village's joyous, festive Isla. Un poco de Cuba, man?or else a northernmost outpost of Miami jammed into the red-brick West Village.
"Oh, wow, thanks," he said in his accented English, his face exploding into a gigawatt smile over his open-shirted chest, as his hair rose in a severe black escarpment of radical pompadour. "I use Aveda Total Control," he explained with a smile, leaning into us, miming with his hands the action of the gentleman warming hair product between his palms. "Just a little bit in the morning and I rub it in and that's it." His face morphed into a parodic expression of contempt. "I'm-a not going to seet there all morning, no blowdrying, none of that..."
A fluttering of his hands obliterated the idea of the effeminate prolongation of morning primping, and then he was done with us, just as we were done with our meal, and we were out the door into dollhouse-scaled Downing St.
But the man shouldn't front. He still looked slick, with his quif and cheekbones and his tight white fashion shirt. And around him, in the dark and merry din of the place, other people looked slick, too. Latin guys rocked two-tone spit-shined roach-killer shoes, swaggering in canary-yellow reet-pleated zoot suits, flashing silver stilettos and chrome-plated gats, running moistened pinkies along their eyebrows. Bunch of pachucos driving airbrushed lowriders with 16 switches?
Actually, Isla's not at all Mexican, but rather is inspired, like I intimated above, by Cuban food, and, even more importantly, by a vision of pre-Castro Cuban decadence. Isla's crowd is slick. The restaurant's full of women flashing skin, and of the older men who procure for them the fashion-world and showbiz leads that define part of the somehow gratifyingly amoral relationship that has evolved around these parts between young women of a certain variety and older men. (But they might just be nice guys, right?) That slightly and appealingly sleazy neon-turquoise-lighted atmosphere, complete with pumping Cuban music and a menu full of dopey fruit drinks that make you self-conscious when they arrive, is a lot of fun, though. And because it's still cold at night, the dusk-in-Miami-Beach vibe is cool.
Selling an atmosphere of laundered Latin decadence to the young New York professional class is what nuevo Latino places do best. Nuevo Latino food seems always pervaded by sharp, tuberous flavors, and pineapple chunks that materialize where they shouldn't?but I enjoyed the food here well enough. Of the main courses, I liked the pan-roasted wild striped bass served slathered in a soft, mellow green sauce, and accompanied by a pile of saffron-tinged potatoes. Roast chicken breast, which had been marinated in a spiced rum and citrus concoction and served in a puddle of black beans, was a bit overcooked and dry. Jumbo shrimp?there were three of them, and they were huge?cooked in a plantain crust were big and yellow, and were heaped up with all sorts of parti-colored vegetative matter, to the extent that I thought we'd been served some sort of "tropical" dish along the lines of Hawaiian chicken. But the dish was fine, with the appealing trio manifesting an unusual soft texture, not shrimp's usual springy one.
A salad of mesclun, red onion, tangerine and cilantro vinaigrette had too much of the second ingredient and too little of the fourth, and the third shouldn't have been in there at all. A platter of mussels was pungent with the flavor of anise, which is okay if you like anise. The ceviche selection for two costs $25, a good deal.
Isla is already extremely popular, so you should make reservations. On the other hand, the stylish little bar is a lot of fun to hang around at. So, if you've got the time, nothing's lost by just showing up and waiting. The guy with the pompadour who works the front, and his female partner, are very accommodating, and might slip you in there.
Isla, 39 Downing St. (betw. Bedford & Varick Sts.), 352-CUBA.