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Location: South Amboy, New Jersey

I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Disappearing Village

A Birthday and a Requiem

Well, it's that time of year again -- the start of a new year and the coming of another birthday. This year I do what I've been doing for the past several years -- I take the day off and head for New York. Although I'm in New York at least once a week, today there will be no shopping. The day will be spent exploring my favorite place -- Greenwich Village. Though I may have missed the golden age of the Fifties, I've been wandering around the Village since the mid 60s and my love for it has not diminished a bit.

I start the day by walking the length of Bleecker Street. It seems there's a few more upscale shops every year but thankfully most of them are pretty tastefully presented. The most disturbing change in the recent past was a CVS pharmacy occupying the site of the former Village Gate. There's still a Village Gate sign sitting atop the sign for the CVS which only makes it look even more out of place. This affront has been eclipsed this year by the demise of a legendary beat generation hangout -- Carpo's Cafe -- on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal (one of the most famous addresses in the city) -- which has now been replaced by the Butterfly Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant! One can only imagine what Beat poet Gregory Corso (who lived in an apartment above it) would think if he saw it. When this site was the San Remo it was the hangout of the beat crowd-- Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al. In my forthcoming memoir, I'll recount how, although very young at the time, I helped Kerouac with On The Road. Since I'm sure you're all breathless with anticipation, I'll just toss out one little tidbit: it was on a roll of toilet paper that I provided that he wrote part of it. I'm currently looking for a publisher for my memoir. If any of you know of one that also needs a fact checker, please let me know.

It'll be pretty hard to top this indignity but I have no doubt that rising real estate prices will make more unpalatable changes a reality. I'm glad to see that some places like Cafe Wha (where I spent quite a bit of time) are still here if not quite the same (sadly I arrived there a bit too late to see Hendrix play there but if I were writing my memoir, I'd try to work it in). On the internet I find a cool site ( which shows me the name of every business on Bleecker Street with a little history mixed in.

Early in my exploring I spot legendary chef Mario Batali on his motor scooter. Batali was wearing his trademark shorts and looked like he could have been tooling around Rome instead of a frigid New York. Wish I had his thermostat!

Next I spot a guy reading a book while he's walking. Wish I had noticed what it was that was so hard to put down (hope it wasn't A Thousand Little Pieces). I have enough willpower to resist the siren call of the cupcakes at both The Magnolia Bakery and the Polka dot Cake Studio. I have to go into the Porto Rico Importing Company though to treat myself to the overpoweringly wonderful smell of all their coffee.

Another change is that Joe's Pizza has moved a few doors down and has been replaced by (can it be possible?) yet another pizza place. Abitino's seems to be doing a helluva lot better than the other new pizza place (how can there be so many?) half a block away on Carmine Street. This forgettable place seems to have little style and less customers. Bleecker Street Pizza is still holding on but I have yet to try it.

I end up where I always do -- at John's Pizza. I had my first pizza at John's in 1961 and I've been going back ever since. I've tried them all and John's is still my favorite. For me, only one thing has changed about John's in 45 years -- I might as well be trying to pass Confederate money there since I can no longer pay for a pizza. When I moved three years ago I found that I had hit the pizza jackpot when the owner of John's (a more gracious and generous guy there never was) turned out to be my new neighbor.

Today I am truly honored to have as my lunchmate an 84 year old former NYPD detective who had his first pizza at John's in 1951. For the second time in as many months I meet someone who seems to be much younger than their real age (though he's not nearly as attractive as the first one).

One thing has not changed about John's though -- the decor remains stuck in the fifties. In what seemed to be some previous epoch, the enlightened management let kids carve their initials and messages of love into the wooden booths. There has been a moratorium on that only because there is no longer any room left (just as well in these terror stricken times not to see knife wielding youts as Joe Pesci would say) . The two murals on the walls have been there as long as I can remember and as god awful as they are I would probably start a picket line if they were ever replaced. The work of a truly bad artist on a really bad day they lend a comfy feel to the place that no high priced art could improve upon.

As the day ends I make a resolution to pull out the books I have on Greenwich Village and actually read them. That should keep me occupied at least until next week when I get a chance to visit again.

P.S. As I write this I am listening to Tracy Chapman's debut album on my iPOD. I never got to see Tracy Chapman perform in Harvard Square but if I were writing my memoir you can bet I'd work her in somehow. Maybe I'd even do a duet with her. And since it's my memoir I'd even sound good.


Blogger Bill said...

I look forward to the memoir. Be sure to tell about the time you went on that secret mission with the Navy SEALS.

5:21 AM  

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