York to New York Pt. III – The Final Story

Published on the York University Blog on January 14, 2009

     In my previous blogs I talked about my exploration of New York City with a friend. The trip coincided with my essay on the evolution of Hip Hop in an English Literature class. On the trip we explored the musical possibilities of the city and went to Harlem which is the place where so much great African American art, literature and music was created. It was in Harlem that we stepped into Sylvia’s famous Soul food restaurant.

     The line up to be seated in the main restaurant was heaving. I could hear the gospel singing in the next room that is usually performed at the Sunday brunch. My friend Lauren suggested that we take a few empty spaces at the lunch counter to avoid the line-up. I pulled myself up on the raised stool and was happy to see the wait staff rushing around before me. In front of us lay most of the food waiting to be taken out into the main dining room. Some dishes lay in deep containers ready to be scooped onto plates. A waiter with a large bin of hot sauce yelled to people that he was coming through. The wait staff quickly jumped out of his way.

     Lauren and I stared at our menus, only recognizing a few items on them. Between the two of us we had only tasted grits, black eyed peas and salmon cakes. I didn’t want to do the safe thing by ordering a typical breakfast. I wanted a soul food breakfast. Our waitress, dark haired and plump, gave us some suggestions using her Manhattan accent.

“The collard greens are good. I can make a plate with a few side dishes.” Her speech was short and tough.

     The collard greens didn’t look especially good to me. This famous soul food staple is kind of like cabbage and kale rolled into one. I have never been good with long green stringy vegetables, so I passed.

     Lauren chose the collard greens, the black eyed peas and the salmon cakes. After deliberation I picked the fried catfish dipped in cornmeal and the grits. The grits are a corn based white porridge that don’t really have a distinct taste. I was happy with my authentic soul food choices.

     People sitting along the lunch counter chatted with the waitresses. Other customers walked around comfortably as if they had visited the spot for many years. A man in a sharp chocolate brown fedora and a matching suit ate his food quietly at the counter. He could have easily been a customer of the 50s or 60s with his formal attire. Behind us an older woman ate the meal which was probably her routine Sunday Brunch choice.

     Our waitress dressed in a white apron, and with a pen behind her ear dropped the plates in front of us. I wasn’t sure if I could handle digesting catfish on a late Sunday morning, but I dug into the meal anyways. A newly arrived couple from Britain leaned over and asked our opinion about what to order. We divulged our country of origin and they knew that we were not any better off than they were. The couple told us of their morning trip to a surrounding church which was filled with lively singing and dancing. My heart twinged. I would have loved to have experienced a church like that. I’m not religious but I’m interested by alternatives to the Catholic religion espoused by my father’s side of the family. After a filling meal and a good dose of gospel Lauren and I headed back into the downtown Manhattan core.

     In the downtown core we checked out Bust Magazine’s art and design fair that showcased various independent clothing, accessory and craft makers in Manhattan. I love inspecting endless rows of tables with unique jewelry and clothing designs. I was particularly excited by the hand made 1920s flapper hats and the peacock hair pieces.

     In the warmer months several independent artists have their own tables in the streets of Greenwich village Also in random parking lots you can find impromptu flea markets with antique goods for sale. Old mannequin heads can be found amongst Super 8 cameras, costume jewelry from the 60s and China cups. I’ve seen people flipping through crates of old LPs looking for hidden musical treasures. Other flea markets have wood furniture and second hand clothing. This street bazaar kind of feeling is something that I feel is missing in Toronto; the chance that maybe tomorrow I will suddenly come across a new vendor, or an up and coming entrepreneur peddling a new design.

     After a day at the craft market we went to chill out at the famous jazz and pool hall Fat Cat at
75 Christopher Street in Greenwich village. We paid our three dollar cover and descended into the basement club. Most of the club is oddly filled with ping pong and pool tables. At one end of the club is the area where the jazz bands play and people lounging in rows of couches listen. The Fat Cat Big band is often playing and other well known jazz musicians will stop by to play when they are in town.

     We listened to the jazz band that had two rows of horn, trombone and sax players. The band leader, wearing spats, sat with his guitar in front of the group of musicians. They played a few standards and improvised well. The group of people listening to the band seemed eclectic. One man wore a fedora and his Sunday best suit. I felt a little underdressed. I was happy to see that the rest of the crowd was dressed basically for a night out at the pub.

     The next day our time wandering around Manhattan’s streets, sitting in its coffee shops, and haunting its jazz clubs was over. Just thinking about the creativity that happens in the city is exciting. The streets become a little more mythical when I consider the famous tales that have been told about this city. In Little Italy I imagine gangsters in a shoot out, in Greenwich I think of writers spinning the latest short story on their laptop at a coffee shop. In Rockafeller centre I picture cutting edge comedians improving on SNL or the sound studio of a revolutionary sitcom. I might be romanticizing the Big Apple, but I wouldn’t be the first.


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