Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Man Who Ate Too Much

Monday, April 22, 2013
From the New York Times: "Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the most senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened a hearing on immigration legislation by stressing that the issue was important ‘particularly in light of all that’s happening in Massachusetts right now and over the last week.’" Senator Grassley asked "How can we beef up security checks on people who wish to enter the U.S.?" Of course, Senator Grassley was among those who subverted the President’s modest effort to curb gun violence last week. In other words, watch out who gets into the country, but, once in, don’t you dare consider how and where and why and when they acquire lethal weapons. He also belongs to that principled group of legislators who seemingly wish to protect children from harm only until they are born. I guess the International Arrivals Building at JFK Airport is a lot like the maternity ward at Allen Hospital, Waterloo, Iowa, the nearest to Senator Grassley’s residence, in that regard. Once you get out the door, you’re on your own.

On the whole, NRA-type gun owners do not live in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. They fear leaving their home (their fort?) without the ability to kill other people. Yet, it is exactly the weaponry that they embrace that causes death and destruction for tens of thousands of us each year. These frightened people offer up a scarce few anecdotes about armed civilian good guys stopping armed bad guys that are years (decades) old while every day armed guys, good and bad, kill themselves, family members, neighbors and strangers in disproportionate numbers.

Yung Sun Seafood Restaurant, 47 East Broadway, is sort of a strange place. It seems brand new, with its street front entirely made of glass. There are 11 round tables inside, most with pink tablecloths, but a few with their plywood tops uncovered. It has four small round and one medium-sized round crystal chandeliers sparkling on the ceiling. The customary phoenix and dragon were on the back wall against a red background. The entire right hand wall was lined with a four-foot high mirror from front to back. Immediately upon entering, there are nine fish tanks stocked with lobsters, crabs and fleshy fish. And the joint was empty. When I arrived, there was another customer seated alone, but, it turns out, he wasn’t eating. He seemed to be a bill collector who promised to return next week. Later, a few Chinese men and women came in, but they were friends or relatives of restaurant workers come to chat. What I found particularly odd in light of the newness of the restaurant and its total lack of patronage was the condition of the menus. They were all beat up as if they had been open and closed thousands of times in the past.

In any case, I ordered moo shu chicken ($8.95) from the very extensive menu. It came with seven pancakes, although the menu promised six, and the pancakes were square not round. The portion itself was very large, but it wasn’t easy recognizing the chicken visually amid the similarly-pale shredded lettuce, cabbage and onion. The egg, carrot and scallion components were more easily spotted. Also easily spotted was my shirt as I tried to handle the stuffed, juicy, rolled-up pancake. The check seemed wrong at first until I noticed that a 15% tip was added by the waitress which I found acceptable considering the pot of hot tea and the dish of slightly-spicy peanuts to nibble on while waiting.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Thanks to Dean Alfange’s research, I may have met my match. David Chan, a Los Angeles lawyer, has allegedly eaten in 6,297 Chinese restaurants throughout the United States, as well as abroad.,0,6902048.htmlstory

He has documented his accomplishment on a spreadsheet, with the earliest entries going back to his childhood in Los Angeles in the 1950s. I give Mr. Chan full credit, but I must note that my (ad)venture encompassing almost 250 restaurants to date is confined by time and space to the lunch hour for the last 40 months in and around New York’s (Original) Chinatown. I can only imagine if I started recording my experiences at Wu Han, upstairs on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville, before Mr. Chan was even born. So, let us not compare lychees and kumquats.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Over 150 court attorneys from all over New York City attended classes today at New York Law School. We were given name tags with clever plastic clips to attach to our shirts and blouses. Soon after I sat down in the lecture hall at a location that I thought would be crossword puzzle-friendly, I noticed that my name tag was gone. The room filled up soon, with many people in the rows behind me, thereby denying me the opportunity to enjoy the next several hours. At the first coffee break, I told one of the group leaders that I lost my badge. She asked if I recalled the number on my badge, which, of course, I did not. Then, she asked if I remembered what I had pre-ordered for lunch (which the forgotten number signified). The answer to that easy question came very quickly. "I’d sooner forget my name than what I want for lunch."

Thursday, April 25, 2013
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia goes to church regularly. His legal opinions seem to combine a coherent legal theory with a realistic view of human behavior and its imperfections. Yet, I find him despicable because of his willful blindness to our history of racism. In the recent oral argument before the Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Law, he characterized the legislation, meant to redress decades of patent discrimination by whites against blacks attempting to participate in the political process, as "racial entitlement." He derided the surprisingly-strong congressional support for the legislation as political opportunism. "Even the name [of the statute] is wonderful," he mocked.

Maybe Scalia’s time on his knees in church might be better spent in a chair reading American history, such as this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner in general non-fiction, "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America." This is an account of four black men falsely accused of raping a young white woman in Florida in 1947. According to the book review in the New York Times today: "One of the accused men never made it to a courtroom. He was hunted down and shot to death by a hastily organized posse. Two others were shot by the local sheriff, Willis McCall, while being transported from state prison to the local jail for a hearing after their convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court. One died on the side of the road. The other survived." That has been the real nature of racial entitlement for most of our history. Arguably, it continues in the efforts to curb minority voting in many parts of the country, although possibly rooted in concerns for preserving the Republican Party not just the white race. Scalia, who searches the annals of 18th century America in support of his views of the meaning of our Constitution, has proved eager to free corporate America from its regulatory shackles, while ignoring the plight of ordinary citizens (including women denied equal pay for equal work). Scalia, typical of so many contemporary conservatives, stayed away from the civil rights protests of the 60s, usually elevating freedom of association above other legal values. Okay. But, now, he and many of his compatriots long to turn back the clock to a simpler time, when the right race was entitled.

Banh Mi, Vietnamese Sandwich, 73 West Broadway, may well offer the best Vietnamese sandwich, as a sign inside proclaims. It is a very small space, with most of its business take-out. There are three small round metal tables, each with a low stool opposite a cushioned bench in the front left side of the restaurant. A park bench is outside for al fresco dining. More than half of the right wall is taken up by beverage coolers holding everything from Dr. Brown’s to cans of tea from the old country. Two of the walls were exposed brick and a large, ornate, unlit chandelier hung high up in the back left corner.

Ten sandwiches are offered, all on fresh baguettes. A majority cost $6.50, including the traditional ham and paté, lemongrass pork chop, vegetarian and the chicken saté that I chose. Salmon is the most expensive at $9. Every one contains pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro, assorted greens, mayo and balsamic vinaigrette (which is not the way I spelled it originally). You can ask for four levels of spiciness. My sandwich was excellent, the chicken pieces plump and the tastes clearly defined.

Friday, April 26, 2013
I had lunch with Gilbert Glotzer, attorney to the stars, on this lovely day. We met in front of his office opposite City Hall Park, and crossed over in order to enjoy chicken, mystery meat combos over rice in the open air purchased from a fellow Semite (with whom we may have some doctrinal differences).  Gil and I had not seen each other for almost 40 hours since we went to the Mets-Dodgers game on Wednesday night.  You know the one with the grand slam at the bottom of the 10th inning.  There was much less excitement today, however, but we had nothing to eat at the ballgame, so the two events sort of balanced out.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tied Up

Monday, April 15, 2013
I had already seen the menu for InDessert, 1 East Broadway, so I stopped into Wo Hop, 17 Mott Street, for a bowl of won ton soup and crispy noodles first. Tong sui, "sugar water," is a collective term for any sweet, warm soup or custard served as a dessert at the end of a meal in Cantonese cuisine, says WikiPedia. It is the focus of the menu at InDessert, in a space that has housed at least four different restaurants during my self-assigned mission. While this turnover was merited by the mediocre or worse operations conducted there, I recall how this address once housed really good Chinese restaurants, such as Goody’s when it moved from Rego Park, where my mother and I first came across it.

The premises have been completely renovated. The interior is paneled in wooden planks, painted white, hung horizontally. It gives a bright and open feel to the space. Along the right wall are 9 two-tops facing a long bench with either a white or orange metal chair opposite. The ceiling light fixtures alternate white and orange bulbs for a festive air. Another 9 two-tops with two chairs each are clustered in the front left of the restaurant. Further back on the left is the ordering and prep area manned (??) by a young woman who patiently explained some of the menu (muo muo cha cha anyone?) and offered me samples – I found black sesame paste soup not to be my cup of tea. Besides tong sui, InDessert serves smoothies, milkshakes, shaved ice, fruit bowls and French toast, but not today. I kept it simple and had mixed fruit shaved ice ($5) which contained blueberries, watermelon, pineapple, strawberries, honeydew and lychee (mostly diced into small pieces) in a sweet sauce. Although water-based, as the ice melted it seemed creamy.

In contrast to the many beverage places in Chinatown, usually holes in the wall, crevices even, focusing on tea drinks, hot or cold, InDessert serves no tea or coffee, concentrating on fruit instead. That’s fine, but it occupies the space of a regular restaurant, presumably at a hefty rent given its prime location on Confucius Square. May I add that I was the only customer in the 15-20 minutes I lingered there. Under these circumstances, I think I’ll be seeing still another new enterprise at 1 East Broadway in the near future.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013
We received notices this morning that the Vanity Fair/Tribeca Film Festival Reception will be held in the rotunda and on the portico of the courthouse this evening requiring staff to leave the building by side doors. This is adding up to another time when my career in show business will be frustrated. While I could probably do something to call attention to myself as, contrary to instructions, I waltz through the Hollywood crowd on my way home, but that would be contrary to the roles in which I think I would flourish – a combination of David Niven, Tommie Lee Jones and Gregory Peck. I really have to change agents.

Spring is still here and I found another new restaurant. Aux Epices, 121 Baxter Street, is about three-months old. Oh, are you poised to accuse me of losing focus by including a French restaurant? Well, Aux Epices is a Malaysian restaurant, although I failed to ask the chef-owner about the name when we chatted about the menu. The space is charming, very narrow, with a cushioned bench along the left exposed-brick wall. Eight two-tops are lined up in front of the bench with a rattan/bamboo chair at each table. The opposite wall is a pale flesh tone, that is if your flesh is toned like a northern or central European. Seven colorful photographs are displayed along the length of that wall. The floor is old-time white octagon tiles with black inserts; the ceiling is pressed tin.

I ordered two appetizers (called small plates, very small plates by me), a curry puff ($3.50) and a crispy anise duck roll ($5.50). The curry puff would be an empanada in any other setting. It was filled with potato and had little curry flavor. The duck roll was actually two cylinders, about 1" thick and 3" long, each cut in half. While nice and crispy, its flavors also were not distinctive.

The chef had a reasonable explanation for not serving roti canai, the common denominator of every other Malaysian restaurant I’ve been to. She felt that, in her very small kitchen, she could not prepare the pancake (roti) fresh to order. The rest of the menu, while not as extensive as the physically bigger restaurants, such as West New Malaysia, shows some imagination in offering chicken, shrimp, pork, salmon, seafood and noodles in varying arrangements. I’ll probably return, at least to try one of the full-size plates in a setting that I found particularly congenial.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013
The friendly group of Tom, Cousin Jerry, Jon, Ken, Stony Brook Steve and Michael met at Joe’s Ginger, 25 Pell Street, which allowed me, somewhat pedantically, to offer instructions on how to ingest a soup bun – nip, zzzup, bite and chew. Their soup buns ($4.95-6.95 for 8 based on contents) are exceptionally good, and we followed them with scallion pancakes ($3.25 each), which give grease a good name. For main courses we shared kung pao chicken ($11.95), beef with scallions ($12.95), eggplant with garlic sauce (meatless, $9.95), and spinach with chunks of garlic (not on the menu). We also had Shanghai fried rice ($5.95), no meat, just eggs and scallions. A few of my colleagues sampled the latest vintage of Diet Coke. All in all, a delightful lunch hour.

Thursday, April 18, 2013
This morning, for the second time this week, I started my day up in the Bronx getting unscheduled repairs to my new teeth. The fix was a bit complicated and I did not get to the courthouse until 1 PM, so I got a chicken platter from the Halal cart man and ate at my desk.

Tonight is my last of the very few Ranger games that I have been able to attend this season.

Friday, April 19, 2013
I’ve initiated the following automatic message this morning on another Internet site: "I’ve ceased using Yahoo. If you know me, you know how to reach me. Otherwise, please assist someone else trying to lose weight, or, trying to enlarge certain body parts."

My department, in order to welcome new members and celebrate promotions, held a pizza lunch ($10) in a large empty courtroom. I tried to get my money’s worth.

Last night, I went to my last Ranger game of the season and tonight I am going to my first Mets game of the season. Might you say A Man For All Seasons? On that note, have a peek at Grandpa Alan’s wardrobe.

Friday, April 12, 2013

New, Nu?

Monday, April 8, 2013
Judge Judy has been renewed through 2017, it was announced this morning. This giant of jurisprudence has been on the air since 1996, and now averages more than 9 million daily viewers, more than any other daytime show. She is reportedly paid $45 million annually. The system works.

When I entered Fei Tenc Restaurant, 68 East Broadway, I knew that I had been on the premises before, when it was New York Foo Chow Restaurant (May 24, 2010). I recollected that I had been disappointed, but I hoped that the new regime in this period of Spring renewal would produce different results. After I sat down at one of the 12 round tables, 6 others occupied by one or two people, I had a troubling vision. The takeout menus stuck under the glass tops covering the pink linen read New York Foo Chow Restaurant. However, and I was searching for reassurance, the heavy, bound menu said A1 Zhen Foo Chow Restaurant, so I sat back in my chair and ordered orange flavor beef ($9.95) exactly as I had almost three years ago without realizing it. Reading back my notes, I did not enjoy it any more this time, since the microwave had not made the dish uniformly hot. Rice was 75¢ extra.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Renewal is still the theme. I went to J & B Seafood Restaurant, 39-41 East Broadway, on May 12, 2010, and found it a respectable dim sum joint. Today, the establishment is called the Golden Sands Restaurant, but very little else has changed. The chairs were still draped in tangerine-colored brocade cloth. It was very crowded with 3 or 4 generations of Chinese people, who were being served by an almost endless stream of dim sum cart-wielders. The variety was very good and I tried some unfamiliar things including something very close to a matzoh ball and a ground fish patty on top of a 1/4 inch slice of lotus root, an aquatic plant with more holes than Swiss cheese. Food quality was high and service very good. I had no trouble communicating since my index finger was able to point in the right direction.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013
While the changes to Fei Tenc and Golden Sands seemed superficial, I could see that what had been Sushein, Kaiten Sushi Bar & Restaurant, 325 Broadway, the Kosher sushi restaurant, had really changed. Now called Siring Asian Grill, the conveyor belt carrying plates of sushi up and down the high ledge running down the center of the restaurant’s front room, was gone. The ledge remained, only separating the counter and stools on the left from the five booths on the right. The backroom, where the dishes were delivered on foot, stayed the same physically, but was closed off. The light gray walls of the main room were empty except for two flat-screen video monitors, one showing food items and the other turned to ESPN. It made for a discordant combination, especially in the otherwise austere setting.

Siring is no longer Kosher, and the menu is pan-Asian, including Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese elements. Not unlike The Hummus & Pita Co., which I visited last week, Siring relies on create-it-yourself cuisine, which is awkward when you encounter the menu for the first time. The first step is to choose between a bowl of rice, noodles or salad or a wrap, then "proteins," including tofu, followed by vegetables and sauces on top. This was too much work, so I chose Saigon turkey sliders from among a handful of set combinations ($8.27). I got three 1" round turkey meatballs, chopped lettuce, shaved carrots, onions, chopped peanuts, toasted shallots and vermicelli with a near-tasteless Vietnamese lime juice dressing. Not worth the money.

While only two women were ordering when I walked in, giving Siring a funereal air at the height of the lunch hour, another eight or so people came in eventually to liven the place up. As I was finishing, a young man in an attractive house T-shirt came over to me and asked how I enjoyed my lunch. Drawing upon my almost 40 months prowling the streets of Chinatown, I had to tell him the truth. I criticized the appearance of the joint, a contrast between cheap paper signs in the window and the minimalist lines and color scheme of the premises; the unnecessary video monitors. I told him how flavorless my dish was, how confusing the menu was, and how unfocussed the whole operation seemed.

This did not lead to a chopstick up my nose, but rather an honest discussion of his plans. He introduced himself as Smith, used as a first name replacing his Thai name (which must translate as "very ordinary Thai name"). He and his partner are MIT grads, who (probably sitting on multi-million dollar bio-genetic patents) set out to try something different. He admitted that the current operation is a bust, but he is working with experienced restaurant people to reposition his business. He plans to redo the interior which centered on the now-removed sushi conveyor belt, and rethink the menu. The physical site presents a problem, just above a stretch of fast-food joints, including a McDonald’s, and consisting of two long, narrow rectangles joined at a right angle. The conversation was friendly, I was honest but not cruel. Smith asked me to return when he implements the next iteration of his enterprise, and I will, in the hope that he can find the right formula in a very tough business.

Thursday, April 11, 2013
I put aside the new and renewed for a day and headed right to Wo Hop, 17 Mott Street, for duck chow fun ($6.50), a dish rarely found anywhere else and executed particularly well by this basement-dwelling crew.

I’m going to find a new agent. All week, large crews from The Ordained, Blue Bloods and Law & Order: SVU have been working throughout the area, often lined up next to each other on Duane Street or Baxter Street. Do you think I’ve been approached? Has anyone asked me for a headshot? Invited me for a reading? Isn’t there room in this hip-hop, Gen-Y, Bieberesque culture for a tall, white-haired gentleman of sober mien? I remain undiscovered and unhappy, and will remain unhappy throughout this evening because some diabolical force has scheduled both the Mets and the Rangers to sit idle this evening.  And, sitting idle is one thing I don't do well.

Friday, April 12, 2013
I was all set to end this week of the new and renewed by going to InDessert, 1 East Broadway, which appeared to be the most radical departure among the new restaurants I’ve recently visited. I passed it earlier in the week and took a menu, conveniently printed on a 3" x 6" card. However, when I got there, it was closed which might be a harbinger of things to come since that location has housed at least 4 different eating establishments in the 3+ years that I have been exploring metropolitan Chinatown. I’ll find out more next week when I try to get in again. Maybe I’ll eat in advance, just to make sure I don’t go hungry.

The death of Jonathan Winters at 87 was just announced.  I urge those of you under the age of 50 to seek out his work.  There must be videos of him floating out there in the cloud and he produced some great comic recordings in the 1960s.  It's fair to compare him to Robin Williams as a brilliant improviser, maybe more mentally manic, but less a physical presence. Winters never had a starring movie role like Good Morning, Vietnam or The Birdcage where he could make three meals out of the screen.  However, he and we were fortunate that he never found himself afloat in sentimental goop disguised as philosophical insights and lessons to live by. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

L'Dor V'Dor

Monday, April 1, 2013
Truth in Advertising is usually no more than a punch line, but I was provoked by a full-page public service advertisement in the Sunday New York Times magazine. Since the cause promoted is a good one, I will not identify it. More likely the ad copy came from Madison Avenue than a medical laboratory. It said, in relevant part, "Odds of becoming a top ranked NASCAR driver: 1 in 125 billion." This got me thinking. How many people on Earth? My guess as I walked from the subway was 6 billion. Looking on-line, I found that the U.S. Census Bureau said 7,017,543,964 on July 1, 2012. Then, although not a follower of motor sports, I quickly named Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a guy named Stewart (I think Tony Stewart) and Danica Patrick as top ranked NASCAR drivers. That makes 5 in 7 billion, or 1 in 1.4 billion, by my crude reckoning. No doubt any white Protestant male reading this commentary can do better than that. So, leave it at 1 in 1,400,000,000, that’s awesome enough.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013
May I propose the 50-Mile Marriage Rule? If you want the Upper West Side’s Power Couple to attend your wedding, please hold it within 50 miles of the Palazzo di Gotthelf. I assure you that this will evoke a very generous gift considering the expense that you spared us. I’m not even speaking of one of those absurd destination weddings where you have to consort in forced joviality mostly with folks you have never met before and will never meet again at a place with too much noise and not enough shade. Case in point is the upcoming wedding of a very pleasant young relative who is marrying an equally pleasant person who grew up in the continental United States, but not near here. So far, the hotel reservation for the weekend is $670 without resort to the mini-bar, and the airfare is $770 if you don’t check any luggage. Add in at least $100 in cab fares at both ends and we’ve spent $1,540. All else is equal, the gift, a new dress for America’s Favorite Epidemiologist. I’m not promising to give you $1,500 if you get married in the East Midwood Jewish Center, but I’ll be much happier and try to make you happier too.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Spring is here, although someone forgot to switch off the winter weather here in New York. Yet, Spring is the time of renewal and several signs of budding enterprise have come up in my Lunch Zone. Today, I went to CM Malaysian Restaurant, 21 Division Street, which opened since I made my sweep of Malaysian restaurants during the week of November 26, 2012. It is a medium-sized restaurant, with a long counter along the left wall containing the cash register, coffee urns and a soda machine. There were two round tables and about 20 two-tops arranged in different patterns. They were about 1/3 occupied.

I started with roti canai ($3.50), the Indian pancake with curry dipping sauce, a favorite of mine. I also ordered one of their $5.95 lunch specials, Combination Triple Over Rice, consisting of curry chicken, beef and achat (pickled vegetables), with a free fountain soda. The food was OK, not quite as good as West New Malaysia Restaurant in the Bowery arcade, which only rises to B level itself. However, I lingered long after my food was gone, admittedly never a long stretch after it is served, because of the entertainment. There were two flat-screen video monitors on the restaurant’s back wall, one about six feet closer to me than the other because a bathroom takes a notch out of the floor space in the back right corner. Different musical variety shows were on each screen, but I concentrated on the closer screen. It starred a Chinese/Korean/Japanese/Vietnamese/Malaysian (East Asian, in brief) female singer attempting to channel the sultry intensity of Diana Ross before a large, adoring audience. There was the expected quotient of glitter and pyrotechnics, but the design and execution of the back-up choreography fell far short of Motown standards. At least some of the songs were in English, requiring subtitles in two Asian languages.  The whole show was wonderfully mediocre. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013
Virtue may not be its only reward. Last night, during prime television viewing hours, I attended an important synagogue committee meeting (aren’t they all?). I came home to find that the Rangers, Mets, and Knicks were all winning big even without me shouting back at the television set.

There’s East and then there’s East. My tally of restaurants is limited to Far Eastern food in the metropolitan Chinatown vicinity. That means Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Malaysian, so far. I’ve not found any Cambodian or Singaporean restaurants downtown yet, although a few exist in Manhattan. In any case, a brand new Middle Eastern restaurant opened on Monday, a part of the Spring initiative, The Hummus & Pita Co., 79 Chambers Street, which I will describe without incrementing my count.

It’s in a very long, narrow space. The front third is occupied by 4 high tables and three ledges with tall stools, which held members of Gen X and Gen Y, as observed by this member of Gen F. The rest of the space is taken by the ordering/prep area on your left and the long line of customers moving down on your right. One of the six or so men behind the counter ask for your order, which, at least on an initial visit, is not so easy to provide because of the restaurant's sort of build-it-yourself approach. The menu has sections labelled Start It, Make It, Fill It, Top It, Sauce It. I kept it more or less simple, falafel on pita (choice of white or whole wheat) topped with Israeli salad (chopped cucumbers and tomatoes) and tahina ($4.95), but I made it a combo, bad French fries and a large fountain soda for $3 more. The falafel itself was very good. They also offer gyros (that mysterious hunk of meat roasting on a vertical spit), chicken and steak shawarma on pita, in a wrap, in a bowl or on a platter, each step up allowing room for more salad, rice, vegetables to be heaped on for another buck or two.

The Hummus & Pita Co.’s initial success made eating in uncomfortable, not just in finding a stool, but working your way back from deep in the store, squeezing by all the people on line while balancing a tray. Not surprisingly, most customers were carrying out their orders in neat little shopping bags.

Friday, April 5, 2013
Tujague’s Restaurant, 823 Decatur Street, is New Orleans second oldest restaurant. While it is well outside the ordinary geographical limits of this (ad)venture, I have to take note of it because of the unexpected death of Steven Latter, its owner-operator. Steven’s grandfather Zamwel (Samuel) Latter was an older brother of my grandmother Ita (Yetta) Latter Gotthelf. When America’s Favorite Epidemiologist and I went to New Orleans in September 2011 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Cindy& David McMullen, we all went to Tujague’s for dinner and met Steven for the first and last time. Now, because Steven’s son has inherited the restaurant, but not the land underneath, its future is uncertain.

I can’t say that I ever dreamed of owning a restaurant, but I have imagined it at times over the decades. But my personal recollection of the problems associated with owning and operating several regular businesses combined with the prospect of keeping fussy restaurant patrons happy has kept me strictly in the role of customer. Steven, as I learned, went into Tujague’s cold, without any background in the restaurant business, taking over a local institution and kept it thriving. Maybe it’s extended family pride, but I hope his son is successful going forward.

Closer to home, but still in the family, I was delighted to learn that Lainie Goldenberg Roth, my cousin Michael’s oldest daughter, has just named her second daughter Adina Rochel Roth. Adina means delicate or refined in Hebrew and, in Lainie’s words, "Rochel - Adina’s middle name was chosen with her great, great Aunt Ruthie (Chaya Rochel Goldenberg [Gotthelf]) in mind. Aunt Ruthie lived a long, full life and passed away this year at the age of 102. She was a strong, beautiful Jewish woman and we hope that Adina will inherit some of her admirable traits."

Ars Gratia Artis

For a time way back when, as happened to many young people beginning to think about the world around them and the meaning of life, I was attracted to the idea of transcendent beauty and truth. It is so much easier, after all, to believe in the Big Thing out there in order to give shape to a possibly meaningless blob that is the world and your life. Even today, I resort to ideal typing (as opposed to touch typing) on occasion in searching for the perfect Singapore chow fun. However, as I looked at on-going construction activity near the courthouse for the last few years, I was reminded of how fragile the concept of beauty is and how context animates content in art.

Manhattan’s street grid pattern, the right angle intersections of streets and avenues, was introduced just over 200 years ago, in 1811. It was not applied consistently from top to bottom on Manhattan Island, because settlement began another 200 years earlier with the Dutch and, by 1811, streets had already evolved from cow paths and foot paths. People and places were first almost entirely concentrated in lower Manhattan, the area now home to young people who, if not Chinese, seem to own only black clothing. So, lower Manhattan has oddly-angled intersections, bending streets and a topographic randomness that may even frustrate a native New Yorker. The best illustration of this may be the intersection in Greenwich Village of West 4th Street with West 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th Streets; see Google maps if skeptical. 

This is background to understand the roughly trapezoidal space opposite the courthouse at 60 Centre Street, bordered by Lafayette Street on the east and Worth Street on the north, which has been under construction for more than two years. This is federal property, because it is nestled in space abutting 26 Federal Plaza, a/k/a the Jacob J. Javits Federal Building. What intrigues me about 26 Federal Plaza, which should bear the street address 300 Broadway but doesn’t, is that there is no #1 Federal Plaza or 16 Federal Plaza or 33 Federal Plaza anywhere in New York City. What’s up with that? Why 26?  This 42-story building notably houses the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, better known as INS, which daily generates long lines on the sidewalk of folks who aspire to dwell legally in Brooklyn or other American garden spots.

The open space itself is known as Federal Plaza and was the site of a major aesthetic controversy in the early 1980s. As part of the federal government’s Art-in-Architecture program, the General Services Administration (GSA) installed a work of sculptor Richard Serra’s entitled Tilting Arc in 1981. It was a 120-foot long, 12-foot high, 2-inch thick, gently-curved piece of rusting steel, leaning over a bit. It divided the plaza roughly in half, forcing pedestrians to walk around it, instead of cutting across the space. Except for a fountain that may have never spouted, the area was otherwise featureless, without any seating for the many office workers in the vicinity. The negative reaction to the piece was immediate, first expressed by a federal judge, but then lowered to a sustained grumble for a few years. In 1985, however, the GSA’s regional administrator, who disliked the piece, held a hearing on its suitability before a four-person panel, whom he appointed and which he chaired. While 122 people spoke for leaving the piece in place and 58 against, the panel recommended removal 4 to 1. Serra insisted that the piece was site specific and that removing it was to destroy it, a possibly illegal act.

While I admit that my appreciation of art is limited, usually focused on Hirschfeld drawings and calendar illustrations, I was curious about this controversy. At the time, I lived on East 46th Street and worked nearby in midtown. I usually had no business downtown, and, when I went to Chinatown, I approached it from subway stops along Canal Street, a quarter of a mile or so above Federal Plaza. So, I made a trip to see Tilting Arc one afternoon in 1980-something and quickly aligned with the Philistines. The piece was oppressive, casting a big shadow, forcing a detour for many walkers, and a deterrent to any other use of the space. It was 25 years before I went to work across the street, but I’m sure that I would have loathed confronting Tilting Arc on a daily basis. It was finally removed in 1989 and several temporary designs replaced it until 1997, when a series of bright-green, painted benches curling around six large earthen mounds covered with small bushes were installed. The gracefulness of the design could only be appreciated from a high floor of an adjacent building, but the benches were popular especially at lunchtime. However, a total renovation of the space commenced in late 2010, partially to address water seepage into the underground garage beneath. I passed the construction site almost daily for the next few years.

Which takes us back to 1998 and the two-week trip to Spain that I took in the delightful company of America’s Favorite Epidemiologist. Neither of us had been there before, so we planned two weeks in October covering much of the country. We flew into Barcelona, flew next to Seville, took the high-speed train to Cordoba, then back on the high-speed train to Madrid, spending a couple of nights in each city. We rented a car in Madrid (there’s a wonderful story illustrating my stubbornness associated with that car rental which I only tell after drinking a bit too much) and drove 4 hours due north to Bilbao solely to see the relatively-new Guggenheim Museum. It was a wonderful experience. The Frank Gehry-designed building was thrilling. We walked from our hotel in the center of Bilbao and, by great good luck, we approached the museum around a curve on a narrow street so that the building loomed into view as if it were a sailing ship propelled by a gentle breeze.

We spent hours at the museum, inside and outside, trying to take in every available angle. By chance, there was a major exhibit from China including genuine Xian warriors, whom we would visit on their home turf a decade later. The museum has an enormous room devoted to a permanent display of Richard Serra’s work, including a 340-foot long piece of tall rusting steel entitled Snake, not very different from Tilting Arc. I loved it; it was exciting; it was inspiring; dare I say beautiful. Serra hadn’t changed; I hadn’t changed. The setting changed. Serra’s work was always art, but, given his devotion to site-specific works, this time everything fit. Transcendent value emerged from the marriage, as it were, of work and site. Beauty required both.

So why am I telling you all this? The other day, without fanfare, Federal Plaza was re-opened and I walked around and through it on the way back from lunch. A photographer sitting there told me that the formal opening will be on Earth Day, April 22nd. Water will be spritzing from embedded fountainheads, she said, and two-foot high cylinders meant for seating would be lit from inside at night, although they give the appearance of solid marble or granite. As it stands, the new space is fair-feh.  It also seems to be more of an art installation than a people space, because there is very limited seating, as you can see for yourself, and little shade. 

Once the water is flowing, most people (except those young and in love) will back away, and, at night, that whole area is pretty deserted. Thousands of us federal, state and municipal workers will be gone by 5 PM before the lights go on and without having had the benefit of nice outdoor benches to sit on during our lunch hour. Also disappointing is the explanation that my photographer friend gave me for that round, tall shiny-looking structure just inside the Worth Street edge of the space. It is not a kiosk to sell coffee and cookies and stuff, as one might easily imagine, but rather a pumping mechanism for the fountain.  While it looks shiny from back here, it actually is covered in plexiglass which looks real cheap up close.   
The Serra dispute led to passage of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, the first federal copyright legislation to grant protection to an artist’s moral rights. Under limited conditions, an artist may insist on proper attribution, impose restrictions on modification, or sue the owner of the physical work for destruction or mutilation. Tilted Arc remains in storage.