Day In The Life: February 2, 2003
Meditating on the possibility of war with Iraq, I decide to call it a day and have lunch at Wu Liang Ye. I make this decision for no other reason than the walk will take me as far away from all bad news as possible and while still remaining in New York. One of the great secrets of this city is how easy it is to disappear in it.
I take the subway up to 48th, a street John D. Rockefeller Jr. left to itself. Shut off by the high, smooth Indiana limestone walls and so miles from the grandeur and glamour of Rockefeller Center, the south side of 48th retains something of 14th Street circa 1980, rather than the millennials’ Midtown. All this will change soon enough; it already has started.
Just off Sixth Avenue, almost blocking the entrance to the subway station, African street vendors have assembled a line of battered folding tables each stacked with hats, scarves and gloves, not counterfeits prestige names, just cheap throwaway accessories. Or they stack six-packs of batteries and toy cars and trucks. People in a hurry simply squeeze by or bounce off each other. There’s confusion outside the entrance to the Dollar Store and more outside the OTB.
Wu Liang Ye is in the middle of the block but a flight up on the parlor floor of one of Midtown’s remaining intact brownstones. The restaurant’s long rectangular illuminated sign spelling out Wu Liang Yu is partially obscured by another sign that reads BAGEL.
I take the stairs up, two at a time, and enter the restaurant. From the remnants of the molding that decorates the ceiling, it seems the restaurant could have remained a private residence into the ’80s, or it may have survived as a gambling den, or a whorehouse. At the bar, I greet Herman, the manager. Although it is no later than noon, he frowns that I didn’t call ahead, glances twice at his reservation book — this is a restaurant that honors reservations — but he brings me to a table in the back. I promise to order quickly, and I do — a bowl of hot and sour soup, followed by a bowl of tan tan mien, followed by a steaming dish of ma-po tofu. I eat as each dish is brought to the table, all the time marveling as the three rooms of the restaurant fill until every seat is occupied, including the large round tables that can accommodate 10 comfortably. The patrons are evenly divided between Chinese people from China, ordering tan tan mien, ma-po tofu, steamed bok choy and whole steamed fish, and professionals with offices in Rock Center ordering beef and broccoli and General Tso’s chicken, as well as Indians and Jewish diamond dealers from 47th Street who eschew pork dishes.
Leaving Wu’s, I cut through Rockefeller Center to 49th Street, make a hard left, and enter the jewel box interior of La Maison du Chocolat. At the counter in the back, I flirt with the young waitress from Poland and order a cup of Caracas — a bittersweet hot chocolate. I ask for a side dish of fresh whipped cream and also a slice of Negresco, a chocolate truffle mousse cake infused with rum. The hot chocolate is lovely, 60% cacao, but not quite strong enough to wash away the salt and garlic and other Szechwan spices from my mouth. So, I have another. As I sip the second cup, I remember how, 20 years earlier, I would sit at the counter of Rumplemeyer’s, in the old St. Moritz Hotel, and drink two extra-thick chocolate malteds, each made with a raw egg, one right after the other. As I pay, I ask for an extra Trinidad — a very thin square of dark chocolate offered with the hot chocolate. My Polish beauty slips me five little squares in lieu of a kiss.
With a little more than an hour to fill before I meet a colleague for an early dinner, I take a long walk up Fifth Avenue to the Neue Galerie, which, like La Maison du Chocolate, is another charming, exotic and expensive bit of artifice, but I’m grateful for it and its lunatic patron Ronald Lauder. I cannot imagine the insanity that drives a Morgan, Frick or, more recently, Lauder, but if it encourages extraordinary displays of expiation, their pain is more than worth the high price of admission.
After paying the entrance fee, but before ascending to the galleries, I stop at the Cafe Sabarsky for a Viennese hot chocolate. I find it inferior to the Caracas I enjoyed at La Maison, because Viennese chocolate is infused with hazelnut, which flattens the snap of chocolate. It is an unnecessary adulteration. One too many rings on a hand.
I spend an hour in the galleries, first at the Dagobert Pesche show and then down a floor to see the museum’s permanent collection. There, I admire the erotic Klimts, in particular the faces of the women touching themselves. I suspect the models were all current or former lovers, so the pieces offer the added pleasure of verisimilitude to that of voyeurism. I’m not ashamed of the pleasure I take in the drawings and wish I were a millionaire so I could buy 4 or 5 of similar pieces. I also find myself pleasantly aroused by Egon Schiele’s little drawings, especially by the sudden and unexpected dabs of color marking his happy whores. If I can’t be in a bordello, a wall of Schiele is the next best thing.
Before leaving the galleries, I stop at the bookstore and buy a copy of The Wandering Jews, by Joseph Roth, and a box of note card reproductions of L.H. Jungnickle “Lustige Tierwelt.” They are curious drawings of various birds, animals and insects — parrots, foxes and grasshoppers — dressed for an evening out or drinks at a fashionable café. They’re all so very perverse that they could only have been drawn for adults. A child opening the box would require years of psychotherapy to become whole again. The world they portray appears so dismal, suddenly the Austrians’ enthusiasm for the purifying tonic of Nazism makes all the sense it the world.
While in the bookstore, my cell phone rings I take the call while walking to the front door — it is 10 degrees outside and the security guard graciously allows me to stay in the vestibule. It is Cyril Christo calling from Santa Fe. He tells me he had been in the mountains and had heard my voice. Had heard me calling to him and so he called me back. I can’t think of a response and quickly excuse myself, saying I was in the Neue and can’t talk but will ring him later. I retrieve my heavy overcoat, the double Melton given to me by the late Allan Roy when I first moved to New York, and that had once belonged to William Randolph Hearst.
Braving the arctic blasts, I walk the few blocks down to 82nd Street and a few more east to Third Avenue to Our Place: Cuisines of China. Waiting for me is Donna Lennard. We have a date to taste and critique the restaurant’s Chinese New Year menu and to discuss Il Buco — her Italian restaurant on Bond Street — one of the city’s most Italian Italian restaurants and a real treasure. She is interested in how she might best position the gift boxes of Sicilian salt, Umbrian olive oil, and balsamic vinegar from Modena that she has begun to market under the Il Buco brand.
At some point during our meal I remember Henry Miller’s famous quip: “I take a walk after lunch to build an appetite for dinner.” It makes her smile. She hasn’t heard it before but wants to hear it again. It is worth repeating, so I do. She smiles again. It is a delicious smile.