Reading New York

When I was 19, I traveled through India on trains and buses, but I found it impossible to read the books about the country that I had taken with me. Not from lack of curiosity, mind you—quite the opposite. Books about India were, in India, a distraction from what I wanted to see for myself. Ever since then, I’ve had a rule never to read about the place I’m visiting, or traveling through, while I’m there.

The subway reader

That’s not to say you shouldn’t read in New York; its bars and cafes are fabulous places for books. You can read all day without interruption at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam and West 111th Street, at Pick Me Up on the west side of Tompkins Square Park, at Spain on West 13th St, one of the quietest bars in Manhattan, and in many, many other places. Even on the subway, but not during rush hours. On some days, you can cast your eye down a subway carriage and all around are readers. You can believe for a moment that you’ve fallen into a land where reading is an underground pursuit, and you can wonder why New York hasn’t found its John Betjeman, the poet who goes to the end of every subway line, reading all the way to Pelham, Jamaica, and Far Rockaway.

There are parks and countless benches. Come to New York and do nothing but read, and, when you can’t find a book in a store, go to the New York Public Library. Its reading rooms are melancholy—I don’t know why they’re so gloomy, but they are—but it’s the greatest of public libraries. New York is deceptive: By reputation, everything is for sale, including your soul, but dotted here and there, in this capital of capital, are backwaters—at a library, in the open air, by the river.

Read about New York before you arrive; read about New York after you’ve gone; but don’t read about New York when you’re in the city. See it for yourself, without comparing it to how others have seen it. If you are going to break this rule, the one book to acquire is the American Institute of Architecture’s Guide to New YorkCity(which you can usually buy at a discount at the maddeningly crowded Strand on Broadway and East 11th Street). With its short entries on buildings and monuments throughout the five boroughs, the AIA Guide, now in its fourth edition, is the only printed commentary you need for the streets of New York.

Washington and Lafayette shaking hands on Manhattan Avenue and 116th Street in Harlem

And if you are going to read in New York, read about France and Paris, where bohemia first bloomed—in the fiction of Alexander Dumas, Henri Murger, and Gustave Flaubert. Bohemia was to begin with, and always has been, an invention, a fiction. And there’s no place better to begin an examination of the relationship between the United States and France than in New York now that Museum of Modern Art has reopened. The allure of France is everywhere in this city; visit MoMA on an ordinary day and see how much more crowded the fifth floor, devoted to the Paris school, is than the fourth, given over to the New York school.

Yet you don’t need to go to a museum to see the Franco-American relationship in action. Restaurants in New York that are no more than diners have French names—Le Monde, De Luxe, etc. Keith McNally has made himself a millionaire by opening brasseries and bistros, and really almost no interior, other than the great hall at Grand Central Station, allows an observer to witness the scene of New York better than the bar at McNally’s Balthazar in Soho, on Spring Street (between Broadway and Crosby)—though don’t dream of going to Soho on weekends, when you’re likely to be run over by the shoppers.

The permanent French connection in New York

By the way, what’s bohemian about Balthazar, you might ask, apart from seeing and being seen? Isn’t it just another trendy restaurant? Bohemians have a taste for high life as much as low life, and the more extremely bohemian they are, the more they move between the two. A friend, who is terrifically bohemian, lives in a warehouse loft in Bushwick, Brooklyn. One day in December I bumped into her outside a shop on East Houston Street, near a bar called Milano’s. She was selling clothes she had designed herself. Another day, I ran into her at a wedding at the Century Club. Last summer, she hosted Sunday jazz evenings at a bar called Rhone in the Meatpacking District. She exhibited her photographs at the Soho Grand Hotel. She’s everywhere, all about town. In the book where bohemia began, in the novel The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, first published in 1848, the year of European revolutions, Henri Murger wrote: “The bohemian knows everything and goes everywhere, whether they wear patent leather pumps or burst boots. They are to be met one day leaning against a mantle-piece in a fashionable drawing room, and the next seated in a seedy dance hall. They cannot take ten steps on the boulevard without meeting a friend, or in thirty without encountering a creditor.” This, to some great extent, describes my friend.

A few weeks ago, I walked through Williamsburg, from Dumont (435 Union Ave.), an appealing restaurant opened by a former barman at Balthazar, Colin Devlin, through the Hasidic district east of Brooklyn’s former naval yard, to Ici, a restaurant in Fort Greene (on Dekalb Avenue and Vanderbilt), opened by a former floor captain at Balthazar named Laurent. The restaurants of ex-Balthazarians are themselves a New York phenomenon.

The cemetery wall of old St Patrick’s in Little Italy

On that walk, as the light of the day faded, I got a call from my bohemian New York friend. She was throwing an impromptu party at the apartment of a friend that night. Would I go? Of course, though first I stopped at Ici and talked to Lucy, who worked the bar and is about to leave New York with her painter-husband for Rome. (I’ve heard many people say they’re about to move to Rome; I’ve even said so myself.) Then I walked through downtown Brooklyn and at dusk crossed the East River, over the Brooklyn Bridge. I called on some friends who live on Chambers Street in a building that was once an office tower. I walked past David Bouley’s Viennese restaurant Danube (30 Hudson Street), with its mesmerizing bar. And at that moment, as I peered through Danube’s windows, thinking as I was of the Neue Galerie on East 86th Street, the museum devoted to German and Austrian art—Egon Schiele, Gustave Klimt, and Oskar Kokoschka—I thought about the how the mood in New York, in an indefinable way, reminds me sometimes of what I’ve read of fin de siècle Vienna, and how Austro-Hungarian President Bush’s adventures in the Middle East sometimes appear to be.

I arrived at my friend’s party. I was delighted to meet many people I’d not met before. This bohemian is always able to make new introductions. And then in strode a friend, recently returned from Papua New Guinea, who I was glad to see.