New York Journal: The Mystery of the Lower East Side

Yesterday, Georgia and I went to Central Park to watch the eclipse. Here, we only got about 70% coverage – in other words, just another eclipse, the kind that happen more or less all the time. There was more interest this time because it was ‘total’ elsewhere, much more rare. My parents drove to Kansas City to be in the path of totality, and they told me it got cold and dark in the afternoon. Existential.

I think more people paid attention to it here because of the national media coverage – those eclipse glasses were sold out everywhere, for instance – but still, not that many people were really watching closely. Maybe 1/4th of everyone in the park. That surprised me, though maybe it shouldn’t have.

After that we went to Lower Manhattan, first to The Evolution Store – which despite its high-minded name is really just an updated curiosity shoppe, full of fake sabertooth tiger skulls, whip-scorpions in amber, fossilized cave bear penis bones, and other biological oddities on the spectrum between revolting and sublime.

From there we ate some good yakisoba at a place called Dokodemo, one of many outposts of the huge Japanese expat community here. It’s comforting to have a way to reconnect with a place that has been such a huge part of my life, though so far that’s been strictly through consumption. I’m trying to strategize how to actually engage more, but I’m still not sure.

From there, things finally got really interesting. I wanted to check out Bluestocking, a political bookstore of a mostly feminist/queer bent. Places like this, too, are a part of my roots – not just bookstores, but those of the really fringe variety. It goes all the way back to volunteering at Monkeywrench Books┬áin Austin 15 years ago, a place I’m infinitely pleased is still around. I used to ride my bike there even in the 95 degree heat (hardcore punx y’all) and spend at least half of my shifts there just reading, so I definitely got more than I gave.

Obviously they’re different projects, and I have no idea what Monkeywrench is like now, but the contrast to Bluestocking was interesting. A lot of the same sentiments were on display – political resistance, skepticism of late capitalism (to put it mildly), opposition to the prison system. But Bluestocking feels like feminism comes first and foremost, in terms of what they stock as well as the general vibe – less aggressively crusty, for one.

From there, we explored a bit more of the Lower East Side. It’s an anomaly, really the last trace of New York ca. 1970-1990, the pre-Giuliani hive of scum and villiany and offbeat creativity that used to define the city. We saw maybe a half-dozen crust-punk train kids, trawled through some truly interesting thrift shops (rare anywhere else on the island) and had beers at McSorley’s. McSorley’s was founded in 1856, making it the oldest bar in New York, but what’s special is that it seems to have barely changed (or been cleaned) in 160 years. I’d guess that if it were anywhere else in the city, it would have been either torn down or turned into a kitsch museum.

The part about all of this that mystifies me is – the rents in the LES are still exorbitant, at least for a livable apartment. I assume there are all sorts of rat-infested tenement walkups that you won’t find on Zillow, but a standard 2 bedroom is still nearly $3,000 a month. Yet somehow these places that are committed to the old and the fringe are hanging on down there.

And (for better or worse) they attract other elements of Old New York. As we were on our way to catch a train home, we saw paramedics leaning over a tall, tan man lying on the sidewalk. His face was streaming with blood, and a huge pool of mottled crimson was on the sidewalk below his head. We had no idea what might have happened – though there were no police, so maybe it wasn’t a fight. But it was the first time I’ve seen blood, here in the new, cleaned-up, oppressively expensive New York.

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