On my second hot day in the city, I was finally visiting the Whitney Museum in its new location, next to the High Line. I had heard lots of good things about it, and other than sticker shock at the admission price ($25!—I can’t wait to become an official senior citizen!) I sucked it up and headed toward the Stuart Davis exhibit.
This image was an immediate favorite. But it also triggered some hunger pangs. Ever since the day before, when I sat with an iced cappuccino, right next door to Mamoun’s, I knew I couldn’t leave the city without downing one of their falafels. My wallet, nearly emptied after the Whitney admission, still could cover the best food bargain in town. I walked with blistered feet from West 14th Street to MacDougal, pausing briefly to chat with these two gentlemen on the corner of Perry Street, reminiscing about their nightclub days and working with Barbra Streisand when she was young and hungry.
At Mamoun’s, I sat on a stool near the window, tahini sauce dribbling down my chin as pulsing Arabic music saturated the humid air in the shoe box-sized space. Each bite anchored me to the moment. There was nowhere else I’d rather have been.
But I did get off on MacDougal. The two-block stretch between Bleecker and Washington Square Park was the compressed concrete and clay equivalent of a swirling Moroccan marketplace. Each old brick building had a shop in the basement under the stoop plus one on the sidewalk level. Every hippie-era necessity was here—bangles, baubles and beads, hand-tooled leather goods, embroidered and tie-dyed tops, Tibetan silk scarves, Turkish incense and bongs, cannabis bumper stickers, peace symbol decals, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix posters—the whole counterculture cornucopia. And that was just the legal stuff. For sustenance, culinary pit stops in the form of pizza joints and Greek sandwich stands were every twenty feet, the entire street scene fueled by the cafes that were still the beating heart of the neighborhood.
“A souvlaki, please.”
I loved the way it rolled off my tongue, and immediately wanted to try it. Visible to the street and ordered through a large open window, souvlaki was something I had never heard of. The pressed slab of ground, spicy lamb revolved on a spindle and was hacked off with a knife, folded into warm pita bread, then anointed with an aromatic tahini sauce that oozed down my chin with every bite. It was delicious, yet subconsciously my eating habits were a-changin’. Although the hot meat seduced my senses every time I walked down the street, I couldn’t help but notice the flies buzzing around, and the fat riddled in.
“You’re not getting up until you finish your food.”
This was my mom’s mantra when I was a kid. An hour later I’d still be seated at the Formica table, sullenly pushing the cold, mystery meat around my Melmac dinner plate while my sister was back outside playing before it turned dark. Long before I came to believe that eating animals was wrong, I simply had a very low “gross-out” point, gagging and spitting out anything gooey or gristly into my napkin when my mother wasn’t looking. Often I would hide entire chunks of meat in my apron pocket, to be mixed into the Maytag casserole of dirty laundry.
I switched my allegiance from souvlaki to falafel; each of those perfect little balls of spicy ground chickpeas was a stepping stone to my eventual vegetarianism. Joining the line at Mamoun’s Falafel on my way to anywhere, I happily parted with my dollar bill.
Unlike the neighborhood we had just vacated a few blocks east, here I could leave our ground floor apartment at almost any hour of the day or night and be greeted by a street full of life: NYU students, leftover hippie vagrants, average people going about their business, children on their way to the Little Red School House, and only a few tourists. Real life. Just down the street was the Atrium, a block-long seedy hotel that would eventually become luxury housing. For now, its notoriety was limited to a chair being tossed out a window, killing a pedestrian.
Directly across the corner was the Village Gate, a former jazz club that had showcased everyone from Duke Ellington to Aretha Franklin. Now it was a venue for National Lampoon’s Lemmings, which starred unknowns John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest. The off-Broadway show spoofed Woodstock, and I managed to miss both. Too young and provincial for the history-making event and too jejune for its current incarnation, I was caught in that hangover period before Nixon resigned, the Vietnam War was abandoned, and Saturday Night Live satire replaced the sincerity of Ed Sullivan and Flower Power. I had my rose-colored granny glasses with me at all times, seeing what I wanted to see amidst what was actually there — Hell’s Kitchen and Couture Dreams
copyright Sharon Watts