When I asked a new acquaintance from Kokomo, in northern Indiana, for her impressions of New York on this, her visit to the city, she immediately came up with three:
· The vastness of Central Park. She had never seen a park so large and so impressive.
· The courtesy and helpfulness of New Yorkers. And no, she didn’t find them rude or abrupt.
· The array of charming little shops in the West Village, which she had just encountered after a walk all the way down from Central Park.
Yes, the West Village – and many other New York neighborhoods – abound in charming little shops, more now than ever. They give a unique flavor to much of the city, lend it a charm that alleviates the city’s impression of bigness and intensity and hurry. For these little shops invite you to come in, browse, and linger; no hurry here, no pressure.
For a sample of their diversity, come with me on a bus ride along 14th Street, a street that separates the West Village from Chelsea, and that refuses to be gentrified. 14th Street, East and West, is determinedly commercial, not primarily big-time commercial, but above all small-time commercial, meaning lots of small shops whose juxtapositions are often delightful. For instance:
· Chelsea Bagel & Café next to Bunga’s Den next to Gemini 14 next to Satori Laser next to Desco Vacuum, right across the street from the looming Art Deco headquarters of the Salvation Army, with its grotto-like entrance with paired stairways leading into what mysterious recesses I cannot imagine. Desco Vacuum is known to me, since I have purchased vacuum cleaner parts and accessories there, and Satori Laser offers laser hair removal, but Bunga’s Den and Gemini 14 at first baffled me. But not for long, thanks to the Internet, which informs me that Bunga’s Den is a “relaxed, funky neighborhood joint offering a number of beers on tap, plus pub eats & comedy nights.” It features cushioned booths and a handmade wooden bar, but who Bunga is remains for me a mystery. And Gemini 14? It proves to be “a color bar salon dedicated to perfection.” But what is that? It dyes and styles your hair, even to the point of “magic wand” hair extensions “personally crafted to your needs.” One good session here and you’re bound to make a hit at Bunga’s.
· Edible Arrangements next to Smoke Shop next to Yo Yo Spa next to a pharmacy. Which is clear enough.
· Bling Lash above Auntie Guan’s Kitchen next to Urgent Medical Care (“open 7 days”). Auntie Guan’s is, as I assumed, a Chinese restaurant, no doubt presided over by a motherly Chinese lady who is in love with food and her customers. It offers northern Chinese food, including braised beef noodle soup and dried tofu noodles “with pepper lunch special.” Sounds good, I’ll admit. And Bling Lash? It claims to be “NYC’s Best Eyelash Extensions and Nail Art Spa.” So here too, a session should set you up for a glamorous entrance in Auntie Guan’s. On 14th Street, all is possible. And if northern Chinese cuisine doesn’t suit your system, Urgent Medical Care is right nearby.
· Brick Oven Pizza next to We Buy Gold and Diamonds / We Pawn. No mystery here.
· El Paraiso Spanish/Chinese Food above City Eyebrows Threading Salon next to Framing, and over Framing, a driving school named Defensive.
· ezPawn Corp next to Jupioca, a “vibrant outpost for blended fruit juices, protein shakes, tapioca drinks, smoothies & more.”
· Toosh next to Electronics – but what, oh what, is Toosh? A shoe store, it turns out.
· Dragon Tattoos over Cigarville next to 24hr Parking (clearance 6’8”).
· Potbelly Sandwich Shop next to Sprint next to Wigs Plus next to Lighting and Beyond, which offers lamps and electrical appliances. Sprint baffled me at first, but now, thanks again to the Internet, I know that it is a “provider of wireless plans, cell phones, accessories & more.” Wigs Plus, never a mystery to me, has a collection of “gorgeous wigs, extensions and hair pieces … something for every occasion. Shop today!”
Let there be no doubt, on 14th Street you can satisfy every conceivable need – not luxury needs, but the basics. You can spruce up your appearance, pawn something if necessary, and buy cigars, smoothies, wigs, pizza, cell phones, and vacuum cleaners, and have a good meal at Auntie Guan’s and a beer at Bunga’s. And if these material delights aren’t enough, and Urgent Medical Care can’t help, there’s always the Salvation Army.
To round things out, let’s have a quick glance at the Union Square greenmarket, which is often the destination of my eastbound Wednesday morning bus rides on 14th Street. Most of the stands there are familiar to me, but recently I discovered two new ones. The John D. Madura Farm of Orange County offers a variety of mushrooms at its stand, one of which was completely new to me: the maitake mushroom. Native to both this country and Japan, it is also known as hen-of-the-woods. It’s a big brown thing the width of your hand with the fingers outstretched – for a mushroom, plenty big. Being a cluster of curled or spoon-shaped caps, it looks like an out-of-control growth, but the stand assures us that the maitake has a woody flavor suitable for everything from soups to salads. It’s weird in appearance, fascinating, but I have yet to give it a try.
Near the maitake stand is a stand with a sign that caught my eye:
growing malting mashing
distilling aging bottling
Orange County Distillery
Yes, from Orange County come some more novel products that should appeal to locavores: vodka, gin, bourbon, and corn whiskey – farm-to-bottle spirits produced in that county’s fertile Black Dirt Region. So there you have it: one quick visit to the greenmarket, and you can gobble a woody-tasting maitake washed down with a shot or two of genuine New York State-produced bourbon. No need, then, to patronized Auntie Guan, though in this richly diverse city there’s certainly room for all.
The book: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received two awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards. (For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.) As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: New York Graffiti. And then, Mysteries of New York (there are many).
© 2016 Clifford Browder