You can take the woman out of Manhattan, but you can’t take Manhattan out of the woman.

“Kavanagh said it was evident she was from Manhattan.”

Queens Gazette, March 3, 2010

You can take the woman out of Manhattan, but you can’t take Manhattan out of the woman. Despite having been killed late last year and left under the eastern end of the Queensboro Bridge, Miss Mannahatta still, in Deputy Inspector Kavanagh’s opinion, retained that je ne sais quoi that residents of New York County, alone among the five boroughs, possess.

I immediately project myself into some kind of Kavanagh-overlaid-with-Dupin persona and begin to conceptualize a physical object, curio or charm that would signify Manhattan residence. What could this signifier be? A key to Gramercy Park? A membership card for the J. Hood Wright Recreation Center? A sloppily-xeroxed weekly schedule of activities from Gouverneur Nursing Home? A half-eaten piece of kippered salmon from Russ & Daughters?

Seeking expert advice, as the next step in my relentless investigation I consulted Lauren Cerand, the mixmaster responsible for Lux Lotus, my personal lodestar of look. Surprisingly, she chose to interpret the question in a more behavioral context:

Because most people are on foot, everything is very village-y in New York and so neighborhoods tend to really reflect the perspectives and interests of their inhabitants more than other places that I’ve lived. Usually when I leave my neighborhood in downtown Manhattan and go somewhere in another borough I am struck by how pretty (more trees, you can see the sky, etc.) and how quiet it is. But I didn’t move to New York because I thought it would be pretty and quiet. And I am sure you can tell that just by looking at me.

So there we are. It wasn’t a trinket or tattoo that Deputy Inspector Kavanagh had discovered, but rather that Manhattan-specific attitude he recognized in Miss Mannahatta, even in her eternal repose.

How can one tell where you live, dear reader?

(B.H. Hellmich’s picture of the Queensboro Bridge from the New York Public Library)

Round foil container? Lunch must be inside

Today’s takeout lunch: chicken (muslo de pollo al horno) with yellow rice and beans. If it comes in a round foil container, it must be lunch.

It’s raining, so I went to the nearby Dominican restaurant for takeout, instead of to the Guineans on 116th or the Ivoirians on 125th.

This particular Resto Tropical (yeah, I know, every Spanish restaurant is either Caridad or Tropical) gets a steady lunchtime crowd; the rotisserie chicken with rice (pictured above) or chicken with salad is a steal for $5 or $4 respectively.

“A face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery,” Balzac


…Godefroid examined [the stranger] closely and was surprised at his exceptional thinness, no doubt caused by sorrow, and perhaps hunger, and very likely hard work. Each of these debilitating forces had left its mark on that face, whose withered skin clung tightly to the bones, as if baked by the fires of Africa. His high, looming forehead sheltered two steel blue eyes beneath its cupola, eyes as cold, hard, wise, and penetrating as the eyes of the savages but marred by two deep and very wrinkled dark circles. His long slender nose and proudly raised chin gave the old man a certain resemblance to the popular image of Don Quixote, but this was the face of a cruel Don Quixote, a Don Quixote without illusions, Don Quixote as a formidable figure.

In spite of this severity, the old man could not entirely conceal the fear and frailty that indigence confers on all its victims. These two afflictions had created something like cracks in a face that seemed so sturdy as to defy even the devastating pickax of misery. His mouth was eloquent and serious. Don Quixote was complicated by the President de Montesquieu.


Le grand vieillard hésitait à répondre; il voyait venir Mme. Vauthier; mais Godefroid, qui l’examinait attentivement, fut surpris du degré de maigreur auquel les chagrins, la faim peut-être, peut-être le travail, l’avaient fait arriver; il y avait trace de toutes ces causes d’affaiblissement sur cette figure, où la peau desséchée se collait avec ardeur sur les os, comme si elle avait été exposée aux feux de l’Afrique. Le front, haut et d’un aspect menaçant, abritait sous sa coupole deux yeux d’un bleu d’acier, deux yeux froids, durs, sagaces et perspicaces comme ceux des sauvages, mais meurtris par un profond cercle noir très ridé. Le nez, grand, long et mince, et le menton, très relevé, donnaient à ce vieillard une ressemblance avec le masque si connu, si populaire attribué à don Quichotte; mais c’était don Quichotte méchant, sans illusions, un don Quichotte terrible.

Ce vieillard, malgré cette sévérité générale, laissait percer la crainte et la faiblesse que prête l’indigence à tous les malheureux. Ces deux sentiments produisaient comme des lézardes dans cette face construite si solidement que le pic dévastateur de la misère semblait s’y ébrécher. La bouche était éloquente et sérieuse. Don Quichotte se compliquait du président de Montesquieu.

—Balzac, The Wrong Side of Paris (L’envers de l’histoire contemporaine), Part II, Chapter 3, translated by Jordan Stump

Do we still see our fellows in the same detailed way? I wonder if this kind of descriptive language, this way of introducing a character, still exists in the language of the present day. I know that it’s often easier to look for a shorthand metaphor, a kind of picture-word that’s worth at least five hundred other words; I’m thinking of this kind of description in particular:

The headmistress was a tall, slim woman who looked a little like Charles de Gaulle.

To me Balzac’s description reeks of the past, of a different way of looking at people, of close examination of appearance as a way to better understanding of character. This kind of quote takes those old saws about how “suffering was written on his face” and walks the reader through one such face: M. Bernard’s thinness as the result of hard work and sorrow and hunger, the forehead-as-cupola, the steely blue eyes, and the reference to popular views of Don Quixote.

The larger question is this: do people even look like M. Bernard any more, especially in novels?

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Flat me!

Ongoing repair work in Upper Manhattan extends past the 181st Street IRT station to the handball courts in Fort Washington Park, near 158th St:

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Twice in a week on the ride downtown, my friend has run into these giant metal flat-causing objects: the first one, the bobby-pin shaped thing, actually did not itself puncture the tube: the pictured object had run itself into one of the rubber studs on the tire and out again, without puncturing anything airtight. A similar one had gone in at a deeper angle, passed through the tube and out again, and left two holes. I only found the pictured one while inspecting the tire after patching the flat.

Today’s evil coil of wire had such a latent desire to come along on our journey, it had managed to lodge one end of itself into the tire and through the tube. I could hear the other end flapping against the bottom of the luggage rack as she rode along. A hundred meters later, she halted, and I held it the coil in place while deflating the tube, then popped the bead off the rim and saw it projecting a half-inch through the tire and into the tube.

While I glued on the patch, she went to investigate: apparently as the workmen resurfacing the handball court scrape the cyclone-fence door open and shut, the metal pieces break off and stay in the pathway, waiting to ambush passing cyclists using the Hudson River Greenway.

Maybe slick tires are the answer, because the detritus seems to stick between the studs and work itself into the tube. Any thoughts?
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Finally, something useful on Twitter: @NYCTSubwayScoop shows pictures from 181st St emergency rebuild

The local subway station ceiling collapsed on Monday, giving me another excuse to ride to work (and to everywhere else), despite the current wave of 90-degree-plus temperatures and ambient humidity that makes it feel like riding through a foot bath full of Epsom salts.

For a couple days, there were no pictures of the damage, but now, it seems as if the MTA has been releasing them, and from this awesome ceiling-mounted angle. Check out for more.

Thiebou Dienn (‘cheb’) from a place on East 116th St, gotta love the tamarind

Thiebou Dienn for lunch today, the Senegalese national dish. This wasn’t homemade, like the last cheb photo I posted, but instead was sourced from the nice ladies at 62 East 116th Street, between Park and Madison.

One of my office-mates has been craving Senegalese food for days now, so when she pulled the menu for the old Guinean place I frequented before I went down to the Secret City out of the stack I had a twinge of nostalgia and quickly gathered up the gumption to call them and order two plates of cheb. I know you’re thinking, “Senegalese/Guinean, what’s the deal here; do I go to a German restaurant for spaghetti bolognese?” Maybe you don’t, but in my limited experience everyone who’s tried it enjoys eating cheb, even me, and making it is kind of fun too.

The restaurant had kept the same phone number, but according to the order-taker they no longer did deliveries, and when I went to their old premises, they had moved, so it was a mini-adventure in itself just getting to the place, which was bizarrely named “Akwaaba,” the Twi (Ghana) word for welcome. So Senegalese food from Guinean cooks in a restaurant with a Ghanaian name.

As you can see, it looked pretty good when I got the dish back to the office and unpacked, and the colleague was very appreciative of my efforts.

They didn’t stuff the fish (some kind of sea-bass, I think), which is certainly an option that the Senegalese gastronome would not forego, but they did include the tamarind pieces. I think tamarind and a white fish go great together, and I should probably try to do something a little less elaborate with those two ingredients soon.

For your own delectation, you can try these at home:

  • My favorite cheb recipe comes from an old, old New York Times article, now available here.
  • Epicurious has a version as well, that lacks the tamarind, but does include the dried smoked fish, which is an acquired taste.
  • An easy recipe, that doesn’t stuff the fish or make the rice with the cooking liquid, is available at the bottom of this page of collected African fish recipes.
  • A wiki page with the recipe is here: they include the tamarind and stuff the fish both.
  • And this one from the pages of the Times in this decade, is way too complicated. Dried snail, anyone?

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‘I’ll put them to fast for nine days with a sprig of thyme, then clean them till they spit with vinegar and salt,’ Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open


But this cold will pass. The woodlice will come out of the walls again with the spring rain; the snails will sail slowly through the young weeds on the path. There will be warm, wet mornings dark with cloud, and I’ll be out with my plastic bag and a stick to get a free dinner of snails, the petit gris. I’ll put them to fast for nine days with a sprig of thyme, then clean them till they spit with vinegar and salt, boil them out of their shells and cut the shit off them, then do a cold garlic butter with parsley and eat them off the special plates that Margo bought in the market. I shall eat them by candlelight and pretend it’s a dinner party. [Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open, Chapter 17]

…I soon found number eighteen; it was the door that banged in the dark wind and had a pile of costermongers’ garbage three feet high beside it. The door banged because it didn’t lock, and it didn’t lock because the traders used the street-level passageway for parking their barrows and empty crates. I stood at the foot of the stairs in the gloom for a minute, then got my flashlight out—where would anybody be in modern London without one? I looked for a push button to light the cement stairs that yawned in front of me; there was one, but it didn’t work. On the inside of the street door was a wire basket full of mail. It looked like disagreeable mail, the kind that arrives in buff envelopes, and evidently nobody ever read it, because it looked as if it had been there a long time. [Chapter 20]

‘But you weren’t prepared to try the famous knack on anybody else, were you? No, because anyone with any balls would have told you to fuck off, and you’d have burst into tears, just like you’re about to do with me. You’re like a sinister little boy, Eric; every time the beastly horrid sand-castle falls in you burst out crying and try and kick someone smaller than you are. I bet you think of yourself as the detritus of your society—it’s a good excuse for a wallow in self-pity. But all you are, Eric, is just a wanker.’ [Chapter 20]

I’m still working my way through Derek Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open, but I had to post these three, coming so closely on top of one another (all three within 20 pages) as they did, and each one so perfect in its own way. I’d unexpectedly come upon this Derek Raymond book at a different branch library, so after the week before last’s pleasure at reading How The Dead Live, I couldn’t leave it be but had to borrow it.

Aux escargots! To the first passage we go. How do you tell a poor man? He’s someone who can’t afford a long word. Out of the 128 words I’ve quoted, there’s only two of three or more syllables: vinegar and candlelight. It’s not the book’s narrator who’s talking, it’s the victim, quoted speaking on an audio tape he left behind. A regular clue.

But the only clue you get out of this passage is how exquisitely close his life is to the bone of subsistence, and yet how much pleasure he derives out of the search for nourishment. Even though his life (as described earlier in the chapter) has been reduced to cycling through one punishing task after another in order to ward off complete destitution, he still envisions waiting more than a week to completely prepare for a nice dinner. It’s left for the reader to decide whether he would actually let the little gastropods alone for nine days, or just skewer and roast them that first spring evening.

The second quote is delivered by the book’s nameless protagonist, a police officer (naturally). Describing the desolation of a squat through the mail that it receives is a stroke of genius, and to me a peculiarly English one; I can’t imagine Bill Pronzini’s nameless San Francisco detective nailing the exact color of envelope that “disagreeable mail” comes in, but the descriptor evokes for me both the desperation of the departed tenants to whom the mail is addressed, as well as the liberation of the current crop of squatters living there, who pay no attention to the mail basket because their names aren’t known to creditors, yet.

And the third quote I tossed in because you’re like me, and you always wondered what exactly a “wanker” was. Now we know, right?
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Archived (and blurry) pictorial tunafish recipe, just right for a lazy person’s Sunday dinner


In the picture, from four years ago, the canonical tunafish salad recipe, already blurry with the patina of age. Don’t forget the palm oil; the stuff is so yummy with fish. The little knoblike thing on top of the pickle relish jar? It’s a shallot.

I did OK tonight, whatever shortcomings from the recipe made up for by delicious fresh bread my girlfriend baked earlier. I had no pickle relish or palm oil, so a little olive oil and some tomato-apple relish from a home-canned jar in the back of the fridge had to do. No shallot either.

Tags: sandwich recipe tuna shallots olive-oil relish palm-oil photographs

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‘Iridescent bubbles of dank subterranean breath rose from the sweating sod’ Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd


Bathsheba never forgot that transient little picture of Liddy crossing the swamp to her there in the morning light. Iridescent bubbles of dank subterranean breath rose from the sweating sod beside the waiting maid’s feet as she trod, hissing as they burst and expanded away to join the vapoury firmament above. Liddy did not sink, as Bathsheba had anticipated.

She landed safely on the other side, and looked up at the beautiful though pale and weary face of her young mistress.

—Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd, Chapter XLIV


“Unpredictable soughs full of brown water threaded its endless slopes of sodden tussocky grass, and queer rocks were embedded along its rheumy skylines, eroded by the wind into vague and organic silhouettes.”

—M. John Harrison, “A Storm of Wings,” Chapter 6

I’ve trotted out another quote about swamps today, from the ‘Viriconium’ series of M. John Harrison, in order to point out by comparison just how good a nature writer Hardy is. In the few passages I’ve posted, we’ve seen how he engages all the senses through writing in order to make the environment seem more lifelike. The Viriconium stories are lively and elaborate fantasy stories, about a world at the end of time, and it’s not fair to make over-broad assumptions about books or authors through a single sentence. Here’s another, from indoors:


They stood in the shadow of a huge dead locust, or perhaps it was a mantis. Its forelimbs were folded hieratically above them, clutching something they couldn’t see. Leathery curtains of dried mucus hung down from its ventral joints and openings. Its fading telepathies trickled through Hornwrack’s skull in a reedy counterpoint to the perceptual disorganisation that swelled over him like triumphant organ music from the city’s living inhabitants. His eyes were watering in the lemon fog from the exploding atmospheric distilleries; his nose was running. A tarry fungus flourishing in the shade of the great corpse had begun to corrode the soles of his boots.

ibid, Chapter 10

Watch the master at work! Hardy first frames his scene in Bathsheba’s eyes, which emphasizes the things that she is seeing. “Bathsheba never forgot…” Then, he limits his description to one sentence (having signaled that brevity, too, with “transient little picture…”). And in that one sentence, he describes the color (“iridescent”), smell (“dank, subterranean”), texture (“sweating sod”), and sound (“hissing as they burst”). And then, to wind it up, he describes the overall impression of the bog through Bathsheba’s eyes and assumptions again: “Liddy did not sink, as Bathsheba had anticipated.” We readers know that the marsh is the kind of footing which appears to have the potential to swallow a traverser whole, because Hardy points out (in only four words, natch!) that Bathsheba held that impression.

In contrast, the Harrison quotes seem static and long-winded to me.

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