Famous Fat Dave turned out to be not that famous, not that fat, but definitely Dave. With tight rings of brown hair counter-balancing a plush beard, Dave is loud, funny, knows New York like a cabbie (probably because he used to be one) and a tour guide (he used to be that too, along with a pickle seller and bread truck driver) and is still only in his mid-thirties. Michelle slipped into matchmaking mode when we found he was on the market.
Dave swept around the corner to pick us up in a 1982 New York checker cab, no longer officially a cab – although some people still think it is and climb in uninvited and tell him where they want to go. The four of us piled in and I was reminded how these old cars look wonderful but the ride, rattles, wandering steering and hard seats all suck. Dave loves this car and often pats ‘Sweetie’ as you might an old family dog, as we career along.
He explains that his tour is not about fine dining, but about casual, odd places that have extraordinary food. Please say if you want to eat more at any stop, he encourages, or if you want a drink. With this kind of open invitation, we assume that Dave’s fixed price is comfortably above his costs.
First stop was Fernandos, a strange little restaurant in Brooklyn where we were served delicious arancini (rice balls) and pasta. Owned by gravel voiced American/Italians it could have been a movie set in which members of the mob sit down the back and eat spaghetti while they plan their next heist. Closer to reality, Fernandos claims to be the only place in the world to have a drink called Manhattan Special on tap. It comprises aerated sweet black coffee, ‘soived cold’ which might sound awful but everybody loved it. Later we found it was also available in bottles, but it lacked the subtle magic of the draft version.
Next came another remote deli squeeze-in called Charlie’s in Bay Ridge. Charlie’s round, stubbled face sat above a substantial set of chins and constantly quipped great one liners. He gifted us his home made mozzarella and Dave paid out for warm rolls with sliced prosciutto, oregano and sun dried tomatoes. Then on to a Russian deli opposite a huge soviet style development built by Trump senior. This Brighton Beach neighbourhood comprises mostly unsmiling Russians, except for the one armed deli proprietor who was chatty and engaging. Dave filled up containers with pickles and took us to Coney Island to munch them while we sat looking at a cold sea and listening to the shrieks of riders having their insides rearranged by gravity defying machines. To weigh down the pickles, Dave loaded in hotdogs with ketchup and mustard after which we waddled back to the checker. As a grand finale we stopped at an odd looking bar that served big fat burgers doused in beef broth – rather in the manner of putting out a fire. They looked gruesome but tasted sort-of okay, maybe because we were all well past capacity and only eating to fulfil the contract and please Dave. On the way back to our hotel, Dave gilded the lily with a box of baklava which we could hardly look at, let alone bite into.
We have a kind of compulsory list of galleries and museums that failure to see will bring fines and floggings from those we have called upon for travel advice. With this in mind we visited the Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle. It traces, through clothing, the various social movements of the last 60 years. When denim became the rage, Levis ran a competition in 1973 for the most artistic treatments of denim jeans and jackets. It attracted 2000 entries and the results were quite startling and captured in a book by photographer Baron Wolman in 1974. The winner was Billy Shire, whose agenda included getting some publicity for his studding business. He liberally coated a denim jacket in his stock and finished it off with a working bicycle bell attached to the front. I think it was the bell that swayed the glittering array of judges. I don’t know what first prize was, but a year’s supply of LSD would have been appropriate.
We also flashed into the Museum of Natural History and were allowed to touch the biggest captured meteorite to hit the earth – that we know of anyway. There was also a promising big bang show in a massive sphere where we stood around looking into a dish while the voice of Liam Neeson boomed around the walls and told us how it all started. The whole show lasted four minutes, which isn’t very long to cover the history of the universe. Moreover, the pictures were blurry. This big bang was a big fizz.
Along Central Park South in Bartoux art gallery, a number of sculptures by Bruno Catalano caught my eye. In various sizes, they are metal figures of people striding along carrying various types of cases, except that half their bodies are missing – which is the artistic part, because it tells us that when we journey we leave part of ourselves behind. I fell in love with ‘Wade’, a black man one meter high. I asked the price. A mere $US38,500, and I’d better snap him up before somebody else does. I fell out of love with Wade. I’d rather have a new car.