Notes From the New East Harlem

by

05/22/2003

500 e 116th Street New York NY

Neighborhood: East Harlem

There’s Antenna Lady, the black woman who stands in front of the building next to mine with the silver antenna-thing pierced through her face. Though she must be in her forties, her face is studded with all sorts of St. Marks-like piercings, the most shocking being the long one poking out of her left cheek. Every time she sees me she cackles wildly and screams, “Hey baby, how you doing, baby?”

She reveals a blinding mouthful of silver and usually has a good deal of graham cracker crud stuck to her teeth. Antenna Lady is always prancing around in all sorts of wigs and astronaut outfits – every time I see her she looks different and her personality changes as often as her costumes do. She has been known to materialize out of nowhere and hiss, “Watch out. I’ll kill you.”

She’s a mythic figure around these parts and she’s actually very frightening – it’s entirely possible that she’s a sociopath – but she roams freely, and of all places she of course lives in the building right next to mine.

I live on 116th Street, right by the water, amidst brownstones and lofts, on tree-lined Pleasant Avenue, in the neighborhood the New York Times has recently dubbed the “Upper Upper East Side.”

Along with Antenna Lady, there is James, who lives across the street from where I work (which is down the block from where I live), in a housing facility for the mentally ill. James is a charming schizophrenic, who wears a yarmulke, chain smokes and talks to himself. Last time it was something about Jennifer Levitt; the time before that it was Jesus Christ and smashing someone over the head with baseball bat. He comes in while I’m bartending, sucks down like three coffees, smokes about fifteen cigarettes, and then coughs until it sounds like he’s going to throw up a lung. He sits at the bar and I’m always happy to see him. He’s very polite, always says hellow, and besides, I think it’s sweet how in between negotiating deities and dead girls he stops to tell me I’m pretty.

There is my friend Nadir, a gay, half-Pakistani, classically-trained violist who was born in Alaska and speaks fluent German. There’s his boyfriend, Leonardo, who moved here from Modesto, California, where his mother is a migrant worker. He came to New York to go to Columbia, the first in his family ever to escape. Nadir and Leo work with me and live here as well.

On 118th Street, there is Patsy’s, which really is the best pizza in New York, and if you walk four blocks down, you’ll of course find the infamous Rao’s.

My mother, who has been beside herself since I moved here, was recently very pleased when the Times took notice of our little enclave.

She is usually like, “Oy, vey, I can’t believe where you live. How can you live here? I don’t understand how you can live in such a place.”

Then she read the article and cut it out to show me. “Look, Pootsilé!” she said, waving the paper around. “Maybe it will be safe here after all!”

Two weeks after we became the Upper, Upper East Side, the Times made mention of the restaurant. This was joyous! Now she could tell her friends that her daughter boths lives and works in places that have been recognized by the Times. What nachus!

Since it opened in October, four nights a week, I waitress and bartend at a restaurant and bar down the street called Orbit. Rao’s closes at twelve thirty, which is far too early for the wiseguys to go to sleep, so they come pouring in here. A few weeks ago, this guy walked in – coiffed hair, manicured nails, suit, trench coat – looked me up and down, and said, “Getchya coat. We’re leaving.”

I’m not kidding.

More common, however is the daily greeting, “Hey dollface! Hey! Babydoll, how you doin’? How ya feelin’ today?”

There are also the two kisses and the hug, both of which are followed by the handshake, which is sometimes accompanied by a “Sweethard, dis is fa you.”

And then I feel something in my hand. It is usually a crisp one hundred dollar bill.

The first time this happened, I thought it was a mistake. I’ve been working in bars all over the city since I was nineteen and no one has ever just handed me a hundred dollar bill for no reason. I have since come to understand that wiseguys give you money because, well, that’s what they do.

And it’s not exactly that the neighborhood is all about the restaurant, but it’s a good indication. On a typical Thursday night, Orbit is hopping. The long wooden bar is shining, the lights are dimmed and the place is filled with candlelight. Nadir, in a tuxedo and red lipstick stands in front of a painting of Marilyn Monroe and hosts open mike. At one end of the bar a Puerto Rican lesbian is sipping a ginger Martini, at the other end James is chain smoking and going on about Jesus, the night goes on and a black man gets up to sing Frank Sinatra while the Rao’s owner, who is actually an actor on The Sopranos, sits at a table with twelve of his friends.

Our executive consulting chef is Lee McGrath, the head chef at Po, so the food is fantastic, and people come uptown (rather than the reverse) to see what all the fuss is about. Incidentally, Lee lives in an enormous loft around the corner and one of the owners, Minnie (who also lives here), owns Henrietta Hudson’s, so we also have a very prominent lesbian crowd.

I grew up in New York and I can tell you that there are very few places left where you find a mix like this. And I’m happy. I have a three bedroom apartment, and while getting up the stairs is kind of rough (I live on the sixth floor) my tushy is very strong. The only part that’s still kind of shady is walking home alone at night. Things are definitely changing, but East Harlem hasn’t come quite that far just yet.

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