Clinton St. Musings Cities into the midst of which I've had my face shoved: Lvov is what I'm thinking of now, that Austro-Hungarian jewelbox of a town in western Ukraine, a half-day's train ride from the Slovak border, rotting now?as it has for almost a decade?into a post-Soviet torpor and morbidity. Lvov's a stoned Prague, track-marked and gone to trash. Mule wagons in the narrow dusty streets, boards covering windows of buildings that in a sane country would shine (like Prague's) in restored Baroque splendor. And in the shops on the quaint lanes that bake in dusty southern sun the old women sit in headscarves in folding chairs in front of shelves holding nothing. In the square before the cathedral, hustlers work the benches and old men drink and play at cards and chess in the shade under larches. A city full of severe, depressed men in caps and baggy Soviet suits, gazing from the silent groups in which they stand with their hands behind their backs, waiting for work or a handout or God knows what.
I visited my great-uncle there in 1992. He was a blind and mad old man by then, stumbling around lost in his huge high-ceilinged apartment, a veteran of the Kaiser's regime, and of the war. He was a million years old or more. Stood there before him in the huge and high-ceilinged ancient apartment of a southern city in which citizens had spoken German and Russian and Ukrainian and maybe even French over the centuries, as he sobbed and felt my face, screaming about thunder and ghosts, shuddering with the horror of my alien presence, weeping and whiskered and white-haired and insane with age. The horrible difference between us freaked him, and maybe even the horrible affinities. It had been 50 years and more since he'd talked to his sister, my grandmother. Nicholas Mitzik, R.I.P.
I returned to the States. He died a year or so later. The ghosts and the thunder got him. A few years later, I'm told, you could hear the mafia in Lvov each night, firing in the streets, Russian pimps in Frederick's old city. Things change.
But it's the idea of the city that I meant to talk about, and I've been sidetracked as usual. Clinton St. on the Lower East Side: to me it's one of the mythically ornery and anarchic cityscapes, and it boggles my mind that changes like the ones that I've witnessed on it can follow each other cleanly, without trauma?that an urban system can transmogrify itself so casually, turning from one thing into its opposite so fluidly that you don't even notice it. Only in rich America can it happen, maybe?definitely not with any regularity in penniless, robbed Ukraine. Within the last three or five years, let's say, a different set of imperatives has condensed around Clinton St., and it mystifies me. What accounts for these transformations, and how are they governed? Sociology intersects here with mysticism. Clinton St. in the summer of 1997 was defined for me by my friend Arthur Johnson, whom I'd pledged never to write about again, but how can I help it now?
Crazy Arthur Johnson?but who knows really how crazy he was? An old paranoid schizo longhair with guns and attack dogs, tortured every day for decades by the CIA?by sonar guns and radiation torture and baroque schemes of surveillance to the point at which he was forced to sleep in a metal box, which is impenetrable to infrared and to zappings. He boarded up his windows; he lined them with tinfoil to repel government surveillance; he lived in a perpetual stinking mushroom half-light with his ugly, filth-eating curs, whom he beat savagely when he thought they needed it, which was often. Once he discharged a shotgun in the direction of cops, and he did time for that. He stuck weapons into the faces of neighbors, most of whom he suspected of CIA collusion.
Probably he was wrong about everything, but again, who knows? Even if he was, there was a true, flinty American hillbilly impulse at the core of his insanity that I respected enough to write about him, and it made me admire him. (Even aside from liking him personally, which I did, too, because underneath the symptoms he was a nice guy who picked up checks in diners and always wanted to lend me his Zappa records.) A mythical American impulse to stick your fist in the face of whoever's got the power?whoever it happens to be, and to keep at it until he's faced with diminishing returns, and has to leave you alone. And in a counterintuitive way Johnson's was the true American optimism?which is to say, a refusal to accept life as it is. A refusal not only to compromise, but also to respect empirical reality, a refusal to accept canons of logic and sanity and normative behavior.
Um, Arthur, there's really no one behind that door. I promise.
Shhh! They'll hear you. Bastards?
Johnson's Clinton St. life was a weird, constant carnival of fantasy and rebellion and potential violence, a perpetual freakout so pure that all the theorists in the universities couldn't have figured it out if they'd done nothing but smirk at Johnson for a million years holding their wee little volumes of Foucault and snuffling about "transgression." There's a heartbreaking?and, once again, American?spirit there, and it kills me wherever I find it: in books, in poems, in music like the music I'm blasting right now in the office. It's an album by the Trouble, a Boston skatepunk band composed of baby-fat teens. Their record's magnificent, a document of optimism and strength and discipline and defiance and youth and its attendant glory and foolishness. If old Arthur were still around, and put aside his Zappa for awhile, he'd love it.
One of the things America should be is a home for hillbilly paranoiacs who peer bitterly from their rooftops at the phantom government spooks running surveillance on them in the weird arena of Clinton St. For hillbillies who want to stick their fists in the faces of those who presume and insist.
But Clinton St.'s changed. Johnson keeled over of a heart attack while in the process of moving from his building after finally being evicted, lugging all his crap?the Zappa records and the documents and the foul rugs?up to the space he'd procured in C Squat. We all smiled too cleverly about it here at the office when we heard. They got the poor guy finally, hah. But maybe they did.
A sweet acquaintance of mine lived for years in the building next door to Johnson's building. She shot dope and spiraled downward for a while?a whitegirl. Caught herself, and now she's happy and healthy and engaged to a widower and living in the suburbs of another mid-Atlantic state...
Alvin Weiss, aka Mark Glass, the notorious Lower East Side landlord in whose Clinton St. building Johnson lived, and with whom he warred for years, was arrested in 1997 and eventually convicted of attempted murder, attempted arson, conspiracy and tax fraud?
On the morning of Jan. 24, 1998, Mayor Giuliani and a city Building Dept.'s demolition crew showed up at the corner of Clinton and Stanton Sts., declared the shabby five-story property at 172 Stanton?which occupies that corner?in danger of imminent collapse and had it demolished by the end of the next day in what amounted to a terroristic act of forced gentrification. The swiftly evacuated residents weren't allowed to reenter the building to salvage money, property, documentation or even their pets. The city killed their dogs.
Several years before that, meanwhile, the city had changed Clinton St.'s traffic pattern, so that traffic now flowed southward, instead of northward as previously. Thus, one suspects, were Hispanics from Brooklyn discouraged from driving over the Williamsburg Bridge to patronize the street's low-rent Spanish-speaking businesses. A brilliant piece of subtle social engineering, consistent with the imperatives of the economy.
A friend who knows the area took me walking around the neighborhood on a wet winter day a few years back. We lifted nasty rocks and looked under them. We peered into the grim interstices that my friend can divine, trained to the task as he is. He shambled along, a walking Baedeker guide to a pre-Giuliani shadowlands of decimated hippies and fringe characters with their spines twisted, literally crippled and disfigured by drugs. He'd have a word with each of them. Then I'd skip off behind him to the next quiet doorway encounter with a miserable. My bearded pal, working his neighborhood like a ward boss, the king of the lumbering Lower East Side muldoons, bowing his head down toward bums to learn from them what he could, silent and huge. Keeping up with his Lower East Side public, which these days may or may not exist any longer.
These days you can sit at the bar at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, a new restaurant at the street's Rivington St. corner, and blow your own mind if you think hard enough about the weirdness of time and your relationship to the changes it mandates. Three years ago the Central Intelligence Agency kept my friend Arthur under 24-7 surveillance, the landlords were sadists and whitegirls headed out at night, looking to float away on rivers of junk.
Now you can watch this mind-blowingly good-looking crowd in this tremendously chic space jammed amidst the bodegas. The restaurant's got a severe gunmetal-gray facade, like a Richard Neutra facade, plutonium gray and plucked from the Hollywood Hills to jam itself in here along the tenements like a visitor from Mars. Graceful women pass through this facade, and it's like they're slipping back and forth through the membrane that separates one world from another. That facade's a wrinkle in time, and the smart world that it hems in lives in surprisingly uncontroversial juxtaposition to the proletarian one outside, where old men stop to talk to each other under the awnings of delis, their slight jackets zipped up against the cold, and all this coming summer they'll sit on crates with beers and dominoes. As little as five years ago some Oberlin graduate would have scrawled FUCK YUPPIES or some other disingenuous nonsense with a paint-pen on 71 Clinton's big moderne windows. But now what's the point? That sort of energy's dissipated for good. Nobody in this strange pleasure dome of a city can say they believe in that sort of thing anymore.
Anyway, the restaurant. Sat at the bar for a while, me and Jennie, drinking rusty nails and a glamorous red punch laced with rum and sparkling wine that the friendly bartender ladled into punch boats from a glamorous globular bowl on the bar top. The room's got a low ceiling that makes everyone look taller and more slender. The establishment's small size?it's old-bodega-sized, with room for no more than maybe 35 people?is deceptive, because its energy and the beauty of its occupants (at least when we were there) foment an atmosphere of possibility. Moneyed guys wearing sharp clothes and the confidence of their mid-30s sit across tables from pretty girls evincing that rigid posture that means either that the date's just started or else that it's a bad one, a nightmare you should get out of fast?just cash in your chips now and leave the room.
And friendly young guys eat together, maybe talking hipster business, like club business, emptying bottle after bottle of wine and having a good time. The ambience strikes me as European, probably because all the men are well-dressed and relaxed, and in the States men are almost never relaxed. Men are heavy and uncool all the time here, and rarely well-dressed. A stunning dark woman's perched on a barstool. She stares absently. Her apple-cheeked young blonde publicist stands sentry beside her. The publicist stares into space, too, but she wears the content smile that comes with the illusion of possession.
And Jennie and I, our hands chastely to ourselves as always, platonic near-cousins a bit lost amidst that super-hormonal throb. And a light-blue banquette up against the southern brick wall, and brown paper covering white tablecloths and the most flatteringly roseate light of any restaurant south of Savoy, I think. The light's mauve and pink, a product of orange and olive-green walls and red brick and clay-tile floors and twinkling votives and track lighting and the dark woman's red sweater and the throbbing red bowl of punch. The small bar, by the way, is friendly and comfortable, and the two of us sat there for 40 minutes awaiting a table and had a good time and were even sorry we couldn't wait there longer.
Anyway, the food is...um, innovative here without being unwelcoming and overintellectualized, like so much of what I eat in restaurants in this city any given month. We ordered as appetizers:
?Parsley-root soup, a cream-based dish the rich white of which bears faint traces of the parsley-root's greenness, so that you get the sense that the soup's glowing as if laced with some reactive chlorophyll. In the middle of the soup there's a miniature basket, about the size of a child's fist and woven from strips of parsley root, then deep-fried. Chunks of sweet crab, as well as a few little bouillon-cube-sized blocks of the root, nestle in the basket. The point is to destroy the basket with your spoon so that the fried root and the crab chunks bathe in the soup and grow saturated. The crab's soft and sweet, the root's tart and snappy and the broth bridges the distance, since it's at once creamy-sweet and tart-green. Puddles of green chive oil, like little lily pads, ring the dish's perimeter.
?An arugula, basil, mint, fig and parmesan salad touched with a sherry vinaigrette. The pile of greens, none of which anybody could take any issue with, are ringed around their base with slices of fig. They're cut like tomato slices. Their meaty sweetness redeems the salad's herbal sourness.
?A shrimp-stuffed squid with a fennel puree. A blood-orange emulsion sprinkles the plate. This was a weird dish. A small roast squid dominates the plate?the seabeast's about the length of your palm, and conch-shaped as squids are?and it sure is stuffed with chopped shrimp, packed in tight and bound together with a fennel-puree medium, which has the consistency of hummus. The dish approximates a shrimp sausage, with the squid functioning as the casing?a protein casing, rubbery and snappy to the bite. The fennel puree oozes out onto the plate when you worry the squid with your fork. The blood-orange emulsion, by the way, is both pretty and inconclusive. It looks good. Without it there'd be all that raw-looking white flesh on your plate. But it doesn't add much to the taste of the thing.
And as entrees:
?The root vegetable "lasagna" with mushroom sauce, because Jennie avoids meat. As the restaurant's own quote marks should suggest to you, this lasagna's not really lasagna at all, but rather a collection of well-roasted root vegetables arranged in overlapping scales in the bottom of a white bowl into which is splashed a pool of good, wanly colored mushroom broth. We spent about five seconds trying to figure out which sorts of root vegetables they exactly were ("uh...turnips...") before we got bored and stopped.
?I had the black sea bass, served with a edamame and rye-bread crust over a bed of mashed potatoes, which were bright green from the addition of chive oil. This was another interesting dish. For some reason the slab of fish was concave, like a spoon placed on its ass, so it represented a convenient receptacle for the "crust." Which wasn't a crust as you probably imagine it, but rather a mixture of minced green edamame and brown breadcrumbs. It resembled a tabouleh salad, but it wasn't moist. It was dry and salty. The whole dish worked, though. You speared a piece of the sweet light-fleshed fish, made sure some of the soybean-and-rye mixture was on your fork and then stuck it into your mouth. Moist flesh interacting with the dry mixture, and oh! What pleasure! What delight!
?Some sort of creme brulee or flan or something. I didn't touch it. Like Talmudic scholars we gloomily discussed whether the dish was rather more "creamy" or "eggy," these being the two poles that we figured define a creme brulee's or flan's quiddity, but I'm not sure what the conversation's result was. Like I said, I didn't taste the item.
?Beer. Wine. Water.
The black-clad help at 71 Clinton, by the way, is extremely friendly. The wine list, furthermore, is manageably short?who wants to be intimidated by a wine list, especially on the Lower East Side??and interesting.
Take the dozen reds, for example: a Chiroulet, a Rioja, a Dolcetto, a cabernet franc, a Bordeaux clone from Greece, a Pinotage, a California zinfandel, a Cotes du Rhone and some others, and none of the others are any more predictable or less pleasantly surprising than those. There's no straight-up over-oaked cabernet sauvignon in the dopey American tradition, for example, no three or four examples of cloying merlot. The most expensive bottle's just $50, and you'll learn something. The wine list offers food-pairing advice.
71 Clinton Fresh Food doesn't allow cellphones.
You're best off making reservations, unless you like sitting endlessly at a bar, which some of us do.
71 Clinton Fresh Food, 71 Clinton St. (betw. Stanton & Rivington Sts.), 614-6960.