The terrifying thing about New York City is that, unlike Paris, one realizes that the streets are exhaustible, that eventually, one will have seen everything. And it will be time to go. I came to that realization the last two weekends, on journeys to the Bronx.
As Paul Bowles wrote of Istanbul, the character of New York “derives from a thousand disparate, nonevident details, only by observing the variations and repetitions of such details can you begin to get an idea of the patterns they form. Thus the importance of wandering.”
The first time I went to the Bronx this summer, I got off the 4 at Burnside Avenue and walked through a block party to Accra, a restaurant named after the capital of Ghana. I stood bewildered before the steam table, staring at hotel pans piled with chicken and whole fish. “What is that,” I said, pointing at an unidentifiable mound of bones in brown sauce. The woman who seemed to be in charge, by virtue of her ladle and authoritative stance, hip and head cocked, shrugged. “What?” She replied. Incapable of simplifying my question, I shrugged, too. We got two large plates of yellow rice, each easily half a kilo, flecked with dry fish and onions, roasted chicken, fried fish, dried salty beef in gravy, plantains, and black-eyed peas. As we ate—and it took a while, mind you, to finish the absurd portions of rice—a preview of the Olympics played on a TV. Flooded in black lights, even around lunchtime, the dining room looked like a diskoteka, a dance hall where partiers could eat sackfuls of yellow rice, if they wanted.
It is a two-mile walk from Accra to the Bronx Botanical Garden. The route follows Jerome Avenue and the 4 tracks up to Fordham Road. One of the filthiest rap songs I’ve ever heard is “Miss Fordham Road (86’ 87’ 88’)” by Action Bronson. I can’t say that I know how much prostitution still happens along Fordham, but I remember my friend from Yonkers warning me away from the area during my first few weeks in the city. “People get shot.” Now, I’m totally comfortable, and the stretch reminds me of 125th Street. Vendors hawk incense, bootleg CDs and DVDs, Welch’s Fruit Snacks, and discount clothing. Capital One Bank, Verizon, Foot Locker, Gap? That’s not to suggest that bad things never happen between Jerome and Dr. Theodore Kazimiroff Boulevard. Shit just goes down under the watchful storefronts of chain restaurants and big box retailers.
“Botanical Garden” is an unfair title for what is basically a giant, well-manicured park that contains a few spectacular, curated, carefully cultivated flowerbeds. It’s something like a six mile hike around the perimeter path. There’s an old growth forest in the center, complete with mossy trunks, sound dampening undergrowth, and a canopy to rival downtown Manhattan. (When the city shuts down Park Avenue to motor traffic for the “Summer Streets” promotion, it is possible to run down the center of the street and experience the full effect of New York’s concrete canopy. The skyscrapers tilt in-wards and cast a deep, jungly shade, a humid darkness that blots out vegetable life and brings out man’s more animalistic impulses.) After a visit to the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, a fragrant and refreshing thorny tangle, I felt hungry for a break on a bench and my novel, Volcano by Shusaku Endo.
The Bronx is like Endo’s title mountain, Akadake: “in youth it gives reign to the passions and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turns as quiet as a grave.”
My brother napped. Then, we went to dinner on Arthur Avenue.
The second journey began on Starling Avenue. We ate lunch at a Bangladeshi restaurant. (The name escapes the tentative clutches of my memory. Not Neerob, in case you were wondering.) “What do you recommend?” I asked the owner. He checked us out, and said, “the chicken biryani is very good.” My counter-offer: “do you have any little fish?” He smiled. “You like little fish?” Half-way between bemused statement and serious inquiry. “Very much so,” I said, and his smile widened. “We have lots of small fish.”
The waitress brought us two Styrofoam plates of white rice. If I moved to the Bronx from Brooklyn or Morningside Heights, I would need to adjust my diet to include an additional two kilos of rice a week. I suspect the change would improve my long-distance running.
We mixed a spicy stew of baby mackerel and peppers into the rice, alternating bites with two long flat fish lying in an puddle of red oil.
After lunch, we walked to Castle Hill Park. The path runs past a YMCA and Pugsley Creek, a marshy low-slung series of black sludge flats. I found a bench. When the rain started, we retreated to a branch of the New York Public Library, where I finished Volcano. Thirsty, we headed back to Starling Coffee Shop. The owner tried very hard to sell us a samosa, but we stuck with fatty sweet cups of coffee, spiked with chocolate and cardamom. To work up an appetite, we walked past Tremont to Morris Park Avenue. We managed to buy a loaf of Italian bread from Scaglione Brothers’ Bakery & Deli before another cloudburst, a thunderstorm that forced us into Dunkin’ Donuts. Finally, we snuck back to Starling under the cover of a drizzle. Kebab Curry Halal Food, our original lunch destination, was closed around noon. But by six, it had opened for dinner service. Naan, cooked in a tandoor oven and spread with ghee, is mandatory for mopping up a goat curry. I preferred the stiffer roti for scooping black chickpeas.
I needed something sweet, so we bought a plastic carton of jalebi on our way back to the train. Jalebi looks like an incandescent orange pretzel. Made from fried batter and soaked in syrup, jalebi disintegrates into a molasses-rich liquid on the tongue.
Everything above: just the measure for rainy evenings in the Bronx.