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Most of us live with a number of personal frustrations and miseries, but the city always offers innumerable activities, sensations, and pleasures that allow one the chance to escape for a time. Clearly, one of city's strongest assets is that its public world provides the kind of solace that can, at least temporarily, cauterize one's private pain.
For example, in the last month my wife and I ate at two elegant restaurants during New York Restaurant Week-two winter weeks where, as a promotion, some of the best of the city restaurants offer three-course prix-fixe menus for lunch or dinner at prices people of ordinary means can afford.
Our normal style is to eat out at reasonably priced ethnic restaurants that offer good food, but make little fuss about their service or how they look. So I'm a bit wary of eating at a restaurant like Danny Meyer's (also of Union Square Cafe fame) Gramercy Tavern that has extremely attentive and knowing waitresses and waiters, that serves inventive, subtly flavored food displayed like a carefully composed work of art (e.g., a dessert of passion fruit sorbet on top of coconut tapioca), and that has a warm, inviting rustic-style decor. I was put at ease, however, by the fact that the diners at the surrounding tables weren't formally dressed and exuded neither wealth nor hauteur, but were a comfortable mix of Japanese tourists, retired secretaries, schoolteachers and academics, and young corporate executives and students. Eating at Gramercy Tavern was pleasurable, but given my usual ascetic lunches of farmer cheese, non-fat yogurt, and fruit, I felt the food and accompanying sauces were much too rich for me to indulge in more than once or twice a year.
On another afternoon we visited NYU's Grey Art Gallery, located on 100 Washington Square East that offers four to six art exhibits (Diane Arbus: Family Albums) a year. Their latest, The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974-84, from January 10 to April 1, 2006, displays the work of 175 painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, performers, filmmakers, and writers who could afford the now inconceivable low rents of SoHo lofts and Lower East Side tenements. Downtown artists bridged the gap between high art and mass culture, they removed avant-garde art from isolation in elite circles, and directly confronted social and political concerns. It was a world of ferment and experimentation, and the gallery is filled with posters, photographs, paintings, videos, and books and magazines from the era. I don't have great affinity for most of the art exhibited, but still there were a number of original, raw, and subversive works that pushed the limits of traditional artistic categories, and grew on me with repeated viewings.
But if one's intellectual and artistic predilections are not so avant-garde-like mine- the city offers a plethora of lectures and symposiums (most of them free) almost every night of the week-at the 92nd Street Y, Cooper Union, the CUNY Grad Center on 365 Fifth Avenue (e.g., this spring Joan Didion reads from her latest book and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is on a panel on Jacksonian Democracy) and the New York public library, among other places.
Having spent my professional life lecturing and taking part in symposiums, I don't usually feel an urge to attend lectures. But one evening I did go with a friend to the 42nd Street Library to listen, with a great many other white-haired people, to a number of writers and critics perceptively and, at moments, eloquently discuss the work of Henry Roth on his centenary. Roth was the author of one of the masterpieces of American literature, Call it Sleep - a mixture of Joycean modernism and richly textured urban realism. He also wrote, after six decades of silence, Mercy of a Rude Stream, an autobiographical quartet of novels that depicts, in a more direct but less literary writing style, his painful coming of age in the Harlem of the teens and twenties.
There are also more active ways to enter the city's life than by going to a restaurant or attending a lecture. I always have my city walks. So one morning, the streets still packed with mounds of snow and gray slush, I trudged from my apartment towards the meatpacking district, located near the Hudson River in the northwest corner of Greenwich Village. It was once home to 250 slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, but is now filled with a hip young crowd (e.g., actors, models) and with clubs, high-end fashion designers, the ultra- chic luxury Hotel Gansevoort, and a spacious, handsome bistro like Pastis that serve them. One can only be hopeful that the meatpacking district's recent designation as a protected historic area will preserve what is left of its distinctive cobblestone streets, brick facades, metal awnings, and remaining meatpacking plants.
It was merely a walk, but for the moment it made me happy-just as the rest of the city's public life acts as a balm to those who are able to open themselves up to its infinite delights.