life is cheap on canal street
tucan: the manhattan neighborhood that gentrification forgot
the real estate pages of today’s new york times offered up a bit of information i know all too well. to wit: highest avg. sq. ft.: 10013 – tribeca. this means that, like most loft-owners in my neighborhood, i am living in a bowling alley. the problem is this: at this point in my life, i don’t need 2000 square feet. i’m single. i need a quart of milk. i need a bagel. i need a cappuccino. i bought my bowling alley cheap in 1981, and in 2006, i can’t afford to move. i looked at some small, dark, one-bedroom apartments in the village, and learned the chilling truth. hey, what do you expect for a million bucks? i thought if i sold, and traded my 2000 square feet for say, 700, i’d get to live on a tree-lined street, with a deli on the corner. somewhere downtown, where i feel at home. not so. i’m not going anywhere. i’m stuck in tucan.
tucan. what does it mean? too close to canal street. my windows are over canal street, but my street is named “lispenard.” have you heard of it? neither has any cab driver in new york city. every time i attempt to direct them to it. they invariably take offense and say “just tell me the address.” a hostile silence always follows my reply, and a gender war generally ensues. lispenard was an eighteenth century new york landowner, and a hugenot, but that’s no excuse for mail addressed to liz bernard street, lithpen arch street, and lesbianard street.
canal street used to be a rank, fetid canal which was paved over in the nineteenth century because of the rats and mosquitoes which plagued the area, causing a threat to the public health. the rats and mosquitoes that plague the area now are entirely different.
in addition to its colorful native fauna, canal street offers many sensual diversions. this is especially true in summer, when restaurants release their pungent effluvium onto the impassable sidewalks of my exotic kingdom. the fragrance of burned and skewered meat of questionable provenance is offset by the sickly sweet incense hawked on every corner. mornings i awake to enjoy a nautical whiff from “sea world”; it’s just like the one in orlando, except for the frying in recycled animal fat.
perhaps that same aroma thrilled peter stuyvesant as he wended his way to the tombs for a public lynching, as my neighborhood has been a place of criminal punishment and correction since the 1700’s. it’s comforting to know that the prison next door isn’t maximum security or anything. it’s just a temporary home for the dregs of society, a brief stopover on the way to riker’s.
when i moved here it was famous for hardware, which is notoriously silent, but canal street is now both the car alarm and store alarm capital of the world. here every deafening variation of beep, ring, and scream is installed and tested. the five-alarm combination blast is le specialité de la quartiér. a demonstration of state-of-the-art noisemaking is performed on a nightly basis.
in december of ’99, i experienced a period of silence, during a freak snowstorm. i will never forget that magical seven minutes.
recent immigrants from china’s first words in english? “louis vuitton.” on the sidewalks of canal street, a thousand street vendors hawk worthless, identical trinkets to an indiscriminate public. i must walk in the actual street, or “highway.” with the holland tunnel at one end, and the manhattan bridge at the other, canal street offers not only an unparalleled assortment of ten dollar rolexes, old perfume, bootleg usher cd’s, name belts, and counterfeit prada bags, but a unique opportunity to be mowed down in one’s prime by an unlicensed crackhead speeding an eighteen wheeler from miami to maine. traffic lights are not even a suggestion in this wild and carefree environment. if one is foolhardy enough to attempt a crossing, you’ll find yourself in soho, a popular suburban mall.
footsore families from as far away as france, belgium and jersey city blow their paychecks on blinking, beeping, digital objects that their clever offspring generally break before they hit the tunnel. these gewgaws are made by tiny infants slaving in sweltering hovels somewhere in china, who earn twelve cents a year. if these poor children only came to tucan, to work in our sweatshops, they could earn almost ten cents more. certainly, there are phenomenal bargains to be had in my kingdom. i noticed a man selling brand new, handknit sweaters for two dollars. two dollars. who, i wonder, is making these sweaters? on weekends i am serenaded by a man shouting “onedollaonedollaonedollaonedolla.”perhaps he is selling mink coats.
these people are hungry for life. that is why they like to festoon canal street with the greasy leftovers of their overpackaged repasts. these they freely distribute from the windows of their gridlocked vehicles, while their powerful mobile sound systems regale us with competing hip-hop salsa, and r&b. crank up that megabass! it’s a fight to the finish as each pulsating speaker strives to assert its owner’s superior musical taste. apparently, if my britney spears wipes out your christina aguilera, it’s proof of my sexual prowess.
this fun-loving festival of refuse, wailing, honking and shouting lasts from friday afternoon until monday morning, when the road rage and deadly exhaust emissions of bewildered foreign tourists and families of angry shoppers is replaced by the road rage and deadly exhaust emissions of angry interstate truckers and angry new jersey wage slaves.
tucan is the only neighborhood in new york with no korean grocery or grocery store of any kind. the food emporium is thirteen blocks away, in “tribeca.” if i get a bizarre hankering for, say, shrimp congee, pork buns, or blood soup, hey, no problem! if i get a bizarre hankering for milk, however, i can hike up to soho to gourmet garage or bean and beluga, and pay double. if i get hungry, i order a couple of slices from “pizza plus plus”. what’s the extra “plus” for? i don’t know, but i’m glad it’s there, and i’m lucky if i can get it. all restaurant delivery area maps just stop at canal street. i’ve begged pizza plus plus to stock two percent milk and orange juice, but the closest they get is fanta. perhaps i could learn to like it on corn flakes, if i could find those. a couple of years ago a store renovation near lispenard and broadway raised my hopes for a gristede’s, but no, it was a duane reade. they carried not only fanta but slim fast. is that food? i was grateful for the duane reade. now even they have gone out of business. there was a starbucks on broadway and spring, but they closed. tucan is the only manhattan neighborhood that is degentrifying.
june 23, 1983 is a day i’ll never forget; the day i learned the truth about tucan. it was also my wedding day, and we were very late getting to the u.n. chapel. i was dressing, looking for something blue. it turned out in the end to be my bra straps, both of which are plainly visible in the wedding pictures. the doorbell rang unexpectedly. “i’m from the e.p.a.”, said an official voice, and i rushed to the buzzer. a mere seventeen months into my initial inquiry, the city had seen fit to investigate the horrible smell.
it came from somewhere on canal street, but where? a sickly-sweet mixture of rotten meat, rancid oil and bad human hygeine might begin to describe it; it hadn’t been there, and then one day it was there. i let the inspector in over the protests of my anxious future ex. “let them all wait!” i cried, “don’t you see this is the chance of a lifetime?” i knew that this special moment might never come again. the inspector placed mysterious gadgets in the windows, scribbled on a pad, and glanced up at me in my wedding dress.
“tell me!” i begged. “tell me the truth!” i will forever be haunted by the well-chosen words with which he summed up the situation. “nuthin’ i can do, ma’am, dis just ain’t a residential neighborhood.”
thirty -some years later, it still isn’t.
© laurie rosenwald