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The Artful Voyager, 1-7: Slaves of New York
Vital dance in Gotham may be missing, but Chan isn't

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- I'll say it: Dance seems to be calcified in New York, the same fossils that were here 10 years ago -- when I left for Paris -- even more entrenched. Indeed, the wilderness is so sallow that the New York Times even felt the need to send its chief dance critic abroad to review 27 "Nutcracker"s, as if even 27 "Nutcracker"s would have to be more interesting than one more New York dance concert, so desperately desolate has the local landscape apparently become.

So this art aficionado has been feeding his art jones with, well, art, of the visual sort, and the self-made art still on view -- nevah change, baby! -- in New York every day. For the visual art landscape, between the Impressionist-era paintings one can stumble upon at a corner gallery uptown and what I'm told is the blossoming of Chelsea territory -- though the new high-line above it seems antiseptic compared to its colorful Paris counterpart, the viaduct that starts at the Bastille -- things at least seem to be moving. Scouring a Chelsea gallery guide Thursday afternoon to scout out vernissages (opening receptions to you bub), I couldn't help but see some actual art on the various galleries websites and it actually looked interesting, as opposed to the buy-me variety which seemed to be preponderant 10 years ago, memorialized in "Basquiat" when Jodie Foster, considering a purchase, asks the artist, "Can you make it more brown?"

While I didn't see enough art in an abbreviated gallery crawl Thursday night to be able to offer an assessment, let alone pass judgment, what was dispiriting was that, as was the case 10 years ago, everyone seemed to be standing around talking up each other and I only saw one lost woman looking at the art -- yet one more indic that not just dance, but intellectual life in New York may have ebbed. (The biggest indic of this is the effective demise of the Village Voice, a molted praying mantis's skin of its former self, its last breath expiring with this week's firing of 33-year-old veteran investigative journalist Wayne Barrett for financial reasons, the final death knoll for a storied heritage.)

But the good news is like Paris, New York itself remains a work of art, even performing (as opposed to performance) art. After an earlier sojourn in the upper east side environs of Central Park, I've spent the past week in the lower east side environs of Chinatown where I literally saw it all on Mulberry Street: The Italian stretch of the street may have become a Disney-fied Italian-Land -- with young barkers standing outside the restaurants cajoling potential clients, reminiscent of the older men who stand outside Pakistani restaurants in Paris's Passage Brady -- but Chinatown remains authentic, and perhaps the only place in Manhattan where one can still lunch like a monkey king for less than $3. That's right -- less than $3. I've had crumbled pork cake (at the Orange Tea House on Elizabeth Street), which is just what it sounds like -- pork crumbs on the outside, sweet cake on the inside, for 90 cents. Goopy large noodles woven with shrimp and dribbled with soy and hot sauces for $1.25, (from a stand on Elizabeth Street). My comforting favorite for this weather is what I call a chicken porridge soup -- in Chinese I think it's 'congee' -- of which you can get a nice helping for $1.50, from a woman working out of a cart on Grand. But the mecca -- for starving journalists as well as starving dancers -- is clearly Vanessa's dumpling house on Eldridge. The signature dish is her sesame pancake sandwiches, all under and some well under $3 (the vegetable one is just $1.50), but I've stuck to the fried pork dumplings, three plump ones available for just $1. If your parents are coming to town and you want them to take you to some place nice, you might look for the Vietnamese place dance friends turned me on to earlier this week, which they'd learned of from choreographer and Chinatown mainstay HT Chen. (The menu even offers "HT Chen Crispy Noodles.") Here my conch jones was finally satisfied. Since reading during my last NY sojourn, in the Joseph Mitchell classic "Up in the Old Hotel," that fewer and fewer restaurants were serving conch -- fisherman only looked for them by special request -- I've been on a singular quest to find this item on NY restaurant menus. Last time around, I found three Italian places -- in the whole city -- that still served scungili, or conch. One of those, the fabled Luna cafe on Mulberry Street, has closed, and the other two have removed conch/scungili from their menus. At first, the waiter at the Vietnamese place disappointed me by shaking his head when I ordered the sauteed conch, listed as a specialty. "All out!" Then he returned excitedly to tell me that the fisherman had just brought some in that morning.

The hazard conch-fanciers face when ordering is the same one calamari-cravers have to deal with, that the dish will probably be over-cooked and thus rubbery and hard to break up. This conch, though, was perfect, as soft, flat, and sea-pungent as abalone.

But affordable downtown culinary riches are not confined to one cuisine. On Sunday -- my favorite, maybe the only day for a gambol in the Village if you don't don't like crowds -- I hied over to El Rinconcita, on E. 10th and Avenue C, which still sells its catfish empanadas for just $1 each. They were out when I got there, but I blithely ignored the tired waitress's suggestion of chicken and asked if they could make some. "I'll wait!" (The lively cumbia on the juke didn't make it hard.) The woman who cooked them up for me -- perhaps the owner -- must have remembered me because she packed the empanadas not just with catfish but juicy jalapenos as well, which I ate on a wet bench in still snow-covered Tompkins Square, sipping the last of my warm cafe con leche.

If there's one thing I've craved, though, since I returned from France this past summer, it's duck, the soul-food of the country's southwest, where I spent most of the past three years. I'd been warned that a Chinatown duck was not the same as a Frenchy duck, so I had resisted. I was not even tempted by the opportunity to try the one duck part I'd never tried when I saw it here. I'd thought I'd sampled everything -- duck carcasses, duck confit, duck hearts, duck blood patties (kind of like boudin), duck necks, preserved duck gizzards, smoked duck breast, duck breast with goat cheese sauce, beaujolais nouveau duck. But it wasn't until I walked into a Chinese butcher's on Grand street that I discovered duck tongues, 50 of them wrapped tightly in cellophane. Didn't go for those, but finally gave in and bought a Peking Duck Wednesday. The price was right -- $12 - but man was that Long Island (Peking by way of Valley Stream) canard skinny compared to its French relatives. Not even a morsel of liver to be found, and forget about heart. And in a whole duck probably about four servings, max. Straining its value, I'll be cooking the carcass up in a duck soup this weekend, of course.

Of course the larger beauty of my Chinatown digs this past week -- the snow is gently falling outside the window to the courtyard as I write, set off by the neighbor building's tenement brown brick -- is the seat they've provided in the l.e.s. and Soho (a stone's throw away), which, despite the boutiques which have replaced the galleries in the latter and the leather jacket stores which have supplanted the pushcarts in the former, still retain some of the eternal New York character, inherent in the architecture and the denizens (or as Runyan would say, 'citizens') who pass under it and who are perhaps inspired by the shadows of their not-so-forgotten ancestors. Is it also fueled by life on the edge, the element of danger lubricating one's joie de vivre? Perhaps. The other day on Lafayette (I am here!) below Houston (hint to newbies: HOW-ston), in one block I was hit by both the beauty and the terror. In the middle of the block a blonde woman in sweats and tennies was fervently telling a tall concerned man with curly brown hair, "This is for all the women murdered in New York." A few yards further, before I could even take a look at her face, a woman walked past me who could have stepped straight out of a '30s glamor magazine, her smart felt hat to her long brown coat denoting style. Me, I'll have one more stylin' lunch in Chinatown and the l.e.s. before heading up to the more staid u.w.s. and digs off Broadway, plopping down on a bench in the middle of a bank of snow, propping my French boots (no Doc Martens this time) up on the concrete barrier between the benches and the basketball court and chowing down on my first cold sesame noodles of the season, a $3 feast courtesy of Vanessa's. Bon appetit!

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