AB and BC of NYC

Bill Cunningham New York (2010) dir. Richard Press. 
Kitchen Confidential (2000) by Anthony Bourdain.

In New York City, it is a tradition to want to eat good and look good. Food and fashion are big business and big myth. Even King Kong wanted to look good and eat good. They chained Kong to a Broadway stage on an empty stomach. It was Kong’s big debut in showbiz and they made him look bad. The great ape broke free and snacked on a few people. Like all visitors to NYC, he sought its tallest building, in Kong’s day the tallest in the world.

King Kong food truck.
Tourists want to know the places to shop and eat. New Yorkers pride themselves on knowing the best places to do both and none two are the same.

Midtown storefront (2012).
Old sign on East 23rd St.
Anthony Bourdain, the chef, has become a paragon of NYC food, and Bill Cunningham, the photographer, an legend of NYC fashion. Bourdain is a media figure who made his bones with Kitchen Confidential (2000), a memoir of Tony’s “Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” Bill Cunningham, at 82 years old, is self-effacing, picaresque, and the subject of Bill Cunningham New York (2011) a feature documentary that sold-out weekly premiere screenings at Film Forum in Greenwich Village.

The business of eating in New York City has long garnered a ripsnort and street-glam.  In the early decades before the Civil War, the food scene emerging in the buggy-paths of harbor wards splashed squibby headlines.  "Restaurants and their owners - and sometimes even their waiters - received the kind of coverage accorded to politicians in other cities" (Appetite City, William Grimes, 2009).  Anthony Bourdain, as a blustery and vulgar chain-smoking chronicler of dimebag attitude and torn-jeans work ethic, plugs fitly into the trends.  A gourmand executive of high-end restaurants, Tony describes in unsavory terms the culture of chefdom, the wholehearted betrayal, the manic ass-kissing, the self-involved cruelty of staff, douchebag moneymen, and fellow cooks:

“Generally speaking, American cooks are a lazy, undisciplined and, worst of all, high-maintenance lot, annoyingly opinionated, possessed of egos requiring constant stroking and tune-ups and, as members of a privileged and wealthy population, unused to the kind of ‘disrespect’ a busy chef is inclined to dish out.”

Yet Tony’s restaurant is on Park Avenue, Brasserie Les Halles, which harks to the French roots of New York food and ego, back when all things urbane were Parisian, from the 1920s Village café to the Broadway lobster palace to the bonbon boxes at Guerin’s pastry shop on Lower Broadway a hundred years before World War I. And plenty of junkies in the Depression hustled change from the Fancy Dans outside the franco-fried Knickerbocker Hotel on Forty Deuce.

Hotel Knickerbocker (NYPL).
Bourdain is a successful luxy chef, but writes books about his kitchen grunt work in the dirtybird Fear City 1970s and 80s, and hosts a TV show to demonstrate he can bullshoot with beleaguered Hudson Valley fisherman and hitch rides from Romanian pig farmers. Tony has eaten porcupine needles in Vietnam and wild squirrel in Arkansas, but does not serve these dishes at his restaurant.

Bourdain in Staten Island.
Bourdain in Beirut.
Bourdain survives a rite of passage in the kitchen of the Rainbow Room, when young Tony is preparing a crespelle toscanna with mushrooms, tongue, ham, spinach, turkey and bechamel, and chef de garde-manger Luis tries again to shove his fist up Tony’s ass. Tony swivels and jams a meat fork deep in the hand of Luis. This gains Tony respect in the kitchen.

In assembling new kitchen staff, Tony poaches from restaurants around town, comparing himself to Lee Marvin mining the stockade in The Dirty Dozen. He needs trust, skill and experience, and exploits the rampant desperation and lack of loyalty in the industry. Bourdain’s run on city-wide staff is akin to the sundry cajolings effected by Rockefeller Center to acquire tenants in the 1930s, taking over leases and offering buyouts and sweetheart deals. Rock Center needed to fill its 8 million square feet of office space and exploited the anxiety of the Depression, when Central Park was a shanty town and foxy golddiggers worked the Boom Boom Room. It is the merciless, indulgent, rampaging way to start a business in New York, and it pays off. Tony is hired by Tuscan chef warlord Pino Luongo, and an anonymous caller tips off Pino that watch out, Bourdain is a lowlife scumbag. But Pino knows that important people invite wrath as a sign of character. The rat has done Tony a favor.

Like any object subject to the mass mind, the industry of eating and of clothes has spawned a culture of desperation, nonsense and snobbery. At the far reaches of fraught times, dances of death occur. They are bright in their electricity and many millions want to see it happen, or pretend to participate, often from the cold nervous surface of the tour bus and television. They go to New York, where to be successful one must often harbor a low regard for those who sign one’s paychecks – like real estate lawyers and art world artists. The city offers money the way the river offered peace to the weekend camper rape-victims in the movie Deliverance. But it is easy to generalize about types of people when home is a population of almost 8.4 million (or 8.1 according to the 2010 Census, which analysts say Brooklyn hipsters are to blame).

Bill Cunningham is paid to follow the nightlife of tastemakers he would seem to disavow. Bill is a man mortified by elite treatment, and wears a blue janitor’s smock which he buys routinely and cheaply at the hardware store, and his meager workaholic diet favors sausage and egg sandwiches at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street. His $5.99 poncho rips and Bill repairs it with duct tape. Bill lives like a spartan civil rights activist from the 1960s, when he gained renowned for shooting pictures of the Central Park “Be-In.” His apartment is one of the last above Carnegie Hall, where the rent control is equal to a sublet in East New York, Brooklyn. Down the hall lives 96 year-old Edith Sherman, the “Duchess of Carnegie Hall.” Bill and the Duchess are from a time when West 57th Street was true New York boho territory.   For a 1978 photo book, Bill shot the Duchess in period clothing at sites around town.

The Duchess at Alwyn Court, W. 58th Street & 7th Ave.
Facades (1978), Bill & The Duchess.
The Duchess at the Chrysler Building.
Bill sleeps on a cot surrounded by metal file cabinets where his photo negatives are archived, and where he hangs his shirts. “He’s got a tiny little place,” says the Duchess, “it’s nothing.” Carnegie Hall has since evicted its flash residents, and the salon where the Duchess once held court is an office of telemarketers.

Carnegie Hall, 2011.
J. Edgar Hoover might have investigated Bill as a communist. Working at Details magazine Bill insists he never got paid, and he refused to cash checks from Conde Nast. “I don’t touch money.” But Bill is infatuated by the beauty industry of Paris and New York. Two blocks from Carnegie Hall, the highest retail rents in the world are currently paid by the purveyors of raiment and jewels who pay Bill’s rent to take pictures. The irony is c’est la vie on Fifth Avenue, or laissez-faire on Beaver Street. Bill remembers the City of Lights in the 1960s at the Yves St. Laurent show, when it was only one, two, three photographers, and not the carnivorous melee of image-hounds out to snap any celebrity in heels.

Bill has a New York accent with a twinge of haughty New England Wasp. It is the voice of the 1920s rung by fifty years of life conducted on the streets of New York City, raised Catholic in Massachusetts and spending each Sunday in a midtown church, thinking about ladies’ hats. Bill once ran a column on hatmaking for a West Village mag, but quit after the editors slighted his pictures as campy and jesting rather than Bill’s intention of raw sharp captures of people on the street. Soon the fashion industry took over Soho and needed credibility so invited MTV to shoot the first Real World.

Bill with hats (NY Times)
Bill is a New York eye, the way the city loves to look at itself. But in typical NYC style, Bill limits his canvas to certain blocks that stand in for the whole world. 57th & Fifth Avenue, Central Park, Soho and Times Square, named for the newspaper that employs Bill and built the 4th tallest building in town as new headquarters. New York has a habit of using small parts of itself as a stunt double for the universe, as if to speak to all, insecure, glorious, hateful, and irresistible. This New York clings to life, soon vanquished in believing that 10 blocks are 10 miles, and needs photos of it, traces of the city that only make a neighborhood by Bill’s camera and bike. Bill enjoys mega cross-sections of traffic, despite the perils of cycling down Broadway. It’s a big city but a small town.

Bill and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.
Bill cites his colleague, Japanese stylist Rei Kawakubo, as foreseeing that women's fashion of the 1980s was inspired by the look of “the bag lady in New York,” that areas in the city "is close to Medieval Europe."  There were plenty of ladies under Mayor Ed Koch scraping cheap livelihood and keeping up new spins on their styles from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, pushing carts, smoking Pall Malls, and wearing enviably fabulous sunglasses.

Bill seems to have had slight sex life, possibly celibate, and when asked about the intimate relationships in his life, Bill pauses to let pass the urge to sob. Bill is surrounded by hot people, a venue where sex is a grave stake in the game. Yet Bill is not a man who is unstimulated. He habitually attends church “to repent,” as if he has acted in sin, and will again. Churches are abundant in New York, and allow those who enter to exist in a highly-crafted space of mystical purpose and the music of organ players. The New York crime writer Lawrence Block portrays the city church as a similar haven for Hell’s Kitchen alcoholic ex-cop Matthew Scudder:

“I like churches. I like to sit in them when I have things to think about…. I sat near the front and watched people go in and out of the confessional. They didn’t look any different coming out than they had going in.” (The Sins of the Father, Block, 1976)

Anthony Bourdain reminisces of a New York “underbelly,” and relishes not just the food but the hidden spaces of the city. Working the kitchen of the Rainbow Room, Tony tracks a storage closet window nook in the GE Building to smoke weed between shifts and trip the skyline. At the Paramount Hotel, Tony ventures into the basement to find “a truly awe-inspiring sight: the long-forgotten Diamond Horseshoe,” a nightclub run by Broadway impresario Billy Rose. Billy was known as "a fast and true runner of the canyons, at home with brick, steel and the fast buck.” Tony cuts into the juicy beefsteak archaeology of tabloid showbiz, describing “the original rhinestone-aproned stage where Billy Rose’s famously zaftig chorus line once kicked,” and “the whole Old Broadway demimonde of the Winchell era” would “get up to all sorts of glamorous debauchery.”

In Bill Cunningham New York, author Tom Wolfe admits that New York is unpleasant and only concerned with “status.” Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) gives a tour from the South Bronx to the Silk Stocking District, though Tom Wolfe cannot be cited as the originator of the all-white three-piece suit. The writer William Gaddis, whose epic New York novel The Recognitions is unequaled in narrating the psychic plasm of the city, was known to dandy about in an all-white suit in the 1950s.

Status or not, Bill loves the clothes of people on the street. Clothes are fashion and fashion is people.  The irony, however, is that Bill captures individuality less than he does conformity.  His Times column "On the Street" depicts trends, not idiosyncrasies, and can be used an example of how people copy each other in New York rather than individuate. Still, one never knows, and people-watching is never boring.  As Theodore Dreiser writes of his experience witnessing the New York morning commute in “the meaner side streets or avenues” in 1925: 

“… typewriter girls in almost stage or society costumes entering shabby offices; boys and men made up to look like actors and millionaires turning into the humblest institutions, where they are clerks or managers.… These might be called the machinery of the city… the implements by which things are made to go” (The Color of the City, Dreiser, 1925).

Tony and Bill are men who make good entertainment of food and fashion in New York, where the public enjoys to devour itself in style.

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