We get fed in Katz’s – just – go record hunting on the East Side and tread the pavements of the Godfather’s Little Italy…
Our minds teeming with tales of tenement life, it seemed the natural thing to do to cross Delancy Street heading north to stay within the East Side, making our way steadily towards Katz’s Deli on East Houston Street. We were playing with high stakes with Katz’s – it’s an iconic eatery, and the most perfect example of a classic NY Jewish deli, but it is also famous for the brusque service meted out by its rows of ‘cutters’ on the counter, particularly during busy lunchtimes when their patience with tyro tourists runs as thin as the slices their machines can produce. And it was a weekday lunchtime – and we were very hungry – so failure was not an option. Even the ordering system is a mystery to the uninitiated: step through the doors and one is presented with a what looks like a couple of old-fashioned bus tickets on which our order would be recorded – and woe betide you if you mislay them as the penalty is the charge for a full meal by default. Fortunately, as we tried to take in the myriad options on the overhead panels stretching the length of the serving counter, a sympathetic staff member pushed menus into our hands and offered us the option of one of the table service booths along the side of the vast dining room. That would have been to admit an ignominious defeat, so a swift council decided us on a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel (what else), chicken soup for Miss M, a slice of New York Cheesecake (I didn’t read all those Damon Runyon stories without learning something), coffees and a soda – surely that couldn’t get us into trouble. And so to Cutter No 8 and an order offered tentatively but as loudly as the prevailing din demanded. “You can’t get bagels here – bagels is down the end” came the terse response. “Can I get a chicken soup?” I asked timorously, expecting another bruising. “Yeah, I can do you chicken soup – gimme your ticket”. Phew. Clutching a bowl of soup and our tickets, now inscribed with some soup-related hieroglyphic, I headed down the counter, dropping off the soup on the basis that, by the time I’d mastered the system, it could be down to room temperature. “Can I get a bagel here?” I asked the huge guy looming behind a counter with a cabinet full of what I sincerely hoped were bagels and not some other bread-related dish unknown to naieve Brits. “Yeah you can get a bagel – what sort you want?” Quick, think – “Seeded?” I offered hopefully. That seemed to work as a password and swiftly the most delicious-looking bagel I’d ever seen, oozing slices of salmon and cheese emerged. Coffee, I think, was the hardest of them all, not least as the counter from which it was dispensed came about level with my face, leaving me feeling like a schoolboy shopping for his mum, and appeared to serve at least two other non-coffee-related functions, distracting my server from what I’d hoped would be the simplest bit of the equation. Eventually, after I’d hung about getting in everyone’s way, one of his colleagues took pity on the clearly clueless skinny idiot hovering in front of the counter and presented me with my drinks, if only to get me out of his eyeline.
And the food was delicious, and the atmosphere was amazing. The whole place runs on adrenalin throughout lunchtime, with tables constantly filling, waiters shouting orders to and fro and an endless stream of diners wending through bearing filled sandwiches containing what looked like an entire Sunday joint sliced and crammed between two huge slices of bread. It made Westminster’s Regency Cafe look like a rural tea room. All around us, the walls were filled with photos of famous visitors grinning alongside the proprietors (clearly, they’d all passed the ordering test), while various neon signs and overhead placards advertised Katz’s products and services, including the evocative ‘Send a Salami to your Boy in the Army’ – surely that was the plot of an episode of Bilko, or it should have been. To put the icing on the cake, we even managed to hang onto our tickets and so leave with the dignity of newly-minted Katz aficionados, determined to return of an evening to see all that neon at its best.
Feeling ourselves now immersed in the East Side, there seemed no reason not to stay there and seek out some of the other vintage destinations our researches had thrown up. It seemed strange that, only a few years ago, this area on the eastern edge of the city, where the numbered avenues give way to the letters that give it the sobriquet of Alphabet City, would have come under the heading of ‘risky for tourists’, as everything now appeared very civilised and safe. As we learned when we called into Obscura Antiques, midway along Avenue A, that upturn in the fortunes of the area had brought the same negative impact as we’d experienced in areas of London, pushing rents up to the extent that independent traders and a lot of more modest tenants found it harder and harder to hang on. Fortunately, Obscura was bucking the trend, though we felt kind of guilty that there was nothing amidst the cornucopia of bizarre items that we could practically take home and display, however tempting they were. Instead we consoled ourselves with a few postcards depicting signature items from their collection and a long chat with the proprietor who had herself spent several years in the UK.
From there – and with another of our regular injects of iced coffee savoured in the open frontage of a welcoming cafe – it was a short haul to the first couple of our more serious record-hunting venues – A1 and Academy Records. I’ll confess that I wasn’t overly hopeful of finding much this close to the city centre, expecting any 45s from the 50s and 60s to come at the kind of premium one finds in what few UK city centre record shops survive. Instead, we were delighted to find in both not only a box full of collectable records but also several of more run of the mill material at a dollar a throw. One aspect of New York record shops that we had quickly to get used to is that the classifications don’t conveniently align with the genres that the UK scene embraces. Hence, most of what we were after tended to fall under the generic heading of ‘Soul’, covering anything from the 50s through to the late 70s and often beyond. That demanded a degree of persistence and attention, as any box – usually of unsleeved 45s – could swiftly shift from endless 70s discs to some highly desirable 60s R&B or classic 50s doo wop. We had also to be alive to the protocol of record shops – while most had a turntable for customer use, some discouraged, or even outright barred, playing of the bargain records so as to prioritise those making more valuable purchases. That was fair enough, but it needed a degree of risk taking as one tried to work out whether that unfamiliar artist on a promising looking label might be a clunker or a classic, and whether the dull sheen to a particular disc might be heavy wear or just dirt that would shift with a determined clean. In what became a pattern, Mrs M headed straight for the collectables section, while I set about the bargain boxes. Even passing up on a couple of boxes so as not to dally too long, we scored a respectable 18 discs from Academy, and no fewer than 28 from A1, kicking off our vinyl haul to a good start, with lots more to come.
Getting tired and a little footsore, we started heading back south through the heart of the city in search of an evening meal. More by simple geography than intent, we found ourselves in the heart of Little Italy, where giving in to one of the guys touting for business in the many Italian restaurants seemed a simple option. In truth, it was an excellent choice, the competition for business along the length of Mulberry Street means that, unless one is really unwary, you’re going to get a decent Italian meal for a reasonable price. It also gave us the chance to gaze out on a scene still redolent of the Godfather movies, particularly the second recounting Don Corleone’s experiences after arriving in New York in the 1920s. Though now thoroughly tourist-oriented, the buildings still retain their originality, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to populate the apartments above the shop fronts with teeming Italian families and the street itself with pushcarts and locals in place of the gawping visitors (like us).
To finish a day packed with vintage East Side sights, sounds and smells, we made our way back up the Bowery, our path lit by the signs of the many oriental restaurants that signal the transition to Chinatown, to recross the Williamsburg Bridge and browse our stash of vinyl at leisure before bed.
Next time, we head down town and then hit Brooklyn in search of fleas…