“When faced with the choice of two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”
I’m a romantic at heart. Figuratively munching madeleines before I even heard of Proust, I’ve looked to the past for inspiration. A native New Yorker, I spent my early years in Greenwich Village, then still a mythical place inhabited by Bohemians and Italian immigrants. Later we moved up to the West Side, the world of Zabar’s, the Thalia cinema, and suffering Jewish intellectuals like Woody Allen, and my father. My twenties were spent in Brooklyn. I then made the big leap over psychological and physical borders to another world, Mexico, where I’m now a citizen. I’m here to stay.
Fragments of ‘my’ New York, of the ‘good old days’, float around my memory like specks of dust in a city sunbeam. Many of those memories are culinary: a 25-cent slice of pizza burning the roof of my mouth; a crusty, smoky pretzel, or sweet, woodsy coal-roasted chestnuts. There’s a Jewish deli in my mind where I fondly recall the sweet and acrid smell of pickles, the aroma of smoked fish, sliced pastrami waiting to be piled onto corn-rye bread, cole slaw and potato salad heaped on the plate, while chickens endlessly twirl on their rotisserie in the window luring hungry customers in with their crackling and dripping charred skin.
I explored the broken down river docks that looked to a mysterious far away land: New Jersey. Then, cold and exhausted, my friend Duke and I would run over to the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street for a free hot chocolate (if our waitress friend was on that day). We passed by furry animals hanging in Ottomanelli’s butcher shop window, sacrificial offerings for some Italian mamma’s Sunday dinner. I ate spaghetti and meatballs served by an old, black-clad Sicilian woman, while comfortably seated in a worn leather booth in some antique trattoria.
‘My’ New York was a black and white city; it looked like the foreign movies that made the rounds of the 8th St. Playhouse. Color was added as an afterthought, in little dabs of paint like the dots of red Corot used to bring his landscapes to life. Later my New York started to change. Bohemians gave way to hippies, then to politically minded progressives. They began to leave, victims of the Darwinian natural selection known as the real estate market. They moved to the country or to San Francisco. The Italians grew up and headed to the suburbs in New Jersey. The old Jews died, or ‘went down’, to Florida. And I moved to Mexico.
My arty parents had lived and traveled around Mexico during their exploratory early years. “In those days we knew you had to go to Mexico,” my mother said, explaining their fascination with the cultural renaissance going on south of the border. They bought a surplus army jeep and drove to Mexico City in 1949, intending to stay. But ‘their’ New York called them back, as it did later when, seeking to escape oppressive McCarthyism, they went to Europe ‘to live forever’. My parents passed their love of all things Mexican on to me. One of the earliest songs I learned was La Llorona, that mournful hymn of regret. We danced the Mexican Hat Dance in second grade, at PS 41. The aroma of roasting tortillas was familiar to me from regular visits to Casa Moneo on 14th street.
It was in 1973, when I landed in Mérida, that I became a mexo-phile. I think it was my first taste of sopa del lima that did it. A piece of Mexico attached itself to my soul like an orchid to a tree trunk.
Returning to Mexico City in 1986, I was lured by the sordid, thrilling cauldron of mysterious activity. The past lingered over a decrepit, crumbling centro histórico, which had been brought to its knees by the recent earthquake. The centro intrigued me: I observed dusty alleys and hallways into which scurried enigmatic characters who disappeared into their anachronistic places of business. Photographers, hidden under a cloth, with a huge camera like those in silent movies, took oval sepia portraits. Quack doctors cured things you didn’t know existed. Stores offered statues of the Virgin, artificial limbs, and electric appliances whose designs hadn’t been updated in decades. Nightclubs featured old-fashioned cabaret performers, acts with names like Yolanda y Su Perla Negra.
Food decidedly caught my attention. Alluring aromas emanated from ancient taquerías, whose aquamarine walls were blackened by decades of greasy smoke. Bow-tie clad waiters served now extinct beverages and midnight breakfasts at the timeworn Café Cinco de Mayo. Old-timers imbibed at century-old pulquerías and cantinas, downing the free botanas and reminiscing about better times.
I boldly entered these places as if I belonged, like Alice in some low-rent Latin/urban wonderland. I embraced this world of the living past with open arms, exploring, using only a guidebook filled with decades-old tourist clichés. The imminent danger of a midnight stroll up the busy Eje Central, remnants of its show business past still evident, never occurred to me. I thought the pimps and whores lurking in doorways were somehow my friends and would protect me. Fortunately nothing bad ever happened. I entered a romantic and imaginary world of the past, now part of my mythical self. I decided to stay.
Nowadays I visit New York to see friends and family, shop for clothes, take in a Vermeer at the Met, eat dim sum in Chinatown and Thai food in Queens (a borough I’d only been to by mistake when I lived in New York). I go to the Carnegie Deli for a pastrami sandwich, and it still tastes like it’s supposed to. A guy on 8th and Broadway still toasts his pretzels the old way. The subway is as loud and mean as always and a few ancient “no spitting,” signs remain in place in the Times Square station. But much has changed. I’m not bitter about the differences that old-timers gripe about, the ‘young people who haven’t a clue’, the remodeled MOMA, the exorbitant rents. I got over that.
New York is in color now, digitalized and user friendly. It no longer knows me, and I don’t know it. Its strangely unfamiliar streets unroll before me like an Oriental carpet whose pattern I don’t recognize. My New York is frozen in time like an Edward Hopper painting, a still life on the counter of some long gone Madison Avenue coffee shop: my mother’s half empty, lipstick-kissed coffee cup, a lonely cheesecake awaiting a customer under its glass dome nearby. My New York has become somebody else’s New York.
Mi México es ahora, actual. Tortilla and chilied cooking smells have become the norm for me. I know where to get off the bus by spying banal landmarks from the corner of my eye like other Chilangos do. The past no longer dominates reality. I still go to the centro. I even have lunch at a little old fonda that looks like those stopped-in-time, el-México-que-se-nos-fue sort of places. I continue to explore the back streets of the Merced and Tepito. And it’s still magical.
I now see that ‘my New York’ never really existed. Nor did mi México. They were and they are in my mind. I belong to neither and to both. There’s no place like home…
A note to my readers: for those who read Spanish, I, along with
essayist David Lida, am featured in a cover spread in Mexico's
El Universal, Menú section this week. Click here to see it!
Text and Photos © 2009 Nicholas Gilman - all rights reserved