William A. Viall III: Stuck on MacDougal St.

This article appeared in the Providence Journal

01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, May 22, 2005
NEW YORK
AS I MAKE MY ANNUAL HAJ to Manhattan, one of the first things I notice is a fellow with a blaring iPod in one ear, audible above the street din, talking into a cell phone in the other ear. Those little white buds from Apple sprout from every ear in Gotham this spring, as if some new evolutionary mutation.

"Cell phones, iPods, lap dogs -- it's all about Me," declares Jack, the newly minted honcho of Greenwich Village's Café Reggio. "The other day a young NYU student tried to engage me with the dog in her lap. The poor animal was just a prop. I told her I can't have this conversation. They're plugging in, cutting lines of communication, building distance. The Reg and I are making a stand against that. We're about connecting. Multiculturalism and diversity are here to stay, so you'd better embrace it all. I spend my days trying to make myself understood to hill people from Ecuador, Russian waitresses and Euro tourists of every stripe."

Manhattan is the mecca of Western tolerance and inclusivity. Its multiculturalism -- not to be confused with what academy mullahs preach -- is a panoply of the world's tribes, crammed together, cheek by jowl, beneath steel-and-glass skyscrapers and wooden water tanks, amidst yellow taxis and billowing street carts, all seeking co-existence.

For java quality and convivial atmosphere, nothing in Manhattan equals Wickenden Street's Coffee Exchange, but Reggio, on MacDougal Street, is an object of art. It is virtually unchanged since it opened, in 1927. Beneath the stamped-tin ceiling, its dimly lit walls are covered with dingy oil paintings and dust-caked plaster busts of Italian cultural heroes. The opening scene of the film Shaft was shot with the protagonist seated behind the Chinese carved-wood table.

A recent AIG commercial depicted Yankee Manager Joe Torre at the same table, Number 15.

Spewing goodwill and mirth, Jack has worked the tables at Reggio for the last 15 years, trafficking in his manuscripts with loose acquaintances, entertaining the amenable with his sly, rapid-fire patter and novel observations. From Baltimore, he is more New York than New York. Everyone working on MacDougal knows him.

Walking over to the West Village to do Reggio banking, Jack says he feels MacDougal's pull weakening, as he becomes just another pilgrim on the city's streets seeking redemption.

With his new managerial position comes a one-room flat directly above Reggio. I get to visit, since his cable modem has not been talking to his iMac for months, and I'm here to help. For my efforts, he foists on me a conspiracy-theory book that hangs all the planet's woes including 9/11 on the Freemasons. But visiting the inner sanctum above MacDougal is compensation enough.

"I'm settled now," he loves to say. "Above a saloon, it's true, but walk up a flight. I'll be expecting you."

We must have spent a half-hour volleying Casablanca dialogue. The trip back down the single flight is what Jack calls his harrowing commute to work.

Down in the café, lithesome and lugubrious Russian waitresses perch upon George Steinbrenner's fulminating face adorning The New York Post's front page. It seems that during every one of my spring pilgrimages, the New York Rangers stage an ever-more-improbable meltdown, as the highest-paid team in hockey misses the playoffs. With the entire NHL having self-destructed this season, the Yankees filled the void. The five boroughs were in a funk over the Pinstripes' slow start.

The Post bellows about "Mount Steinbrenner erupting" and "$200 Million" . . . the team's collective salary . . . "For Nothing."

The Post turns the world into high theater, and we deconstruct it with glee. Jack attributes Yankee troubles to the Curse of the Giambino -- Jason Giambi, alleged steroid enthusiast.

After the holy trinity of pizza, falafel and coffee, Jack and I take a few rounds at the Minetta Tavern. Except for Taaka, the manager, we have the place to ourselves. Jack's favorite team is whoever is playing the Yankees that day. He claims to be a life-long Arizona Diamondbacks fan. On the Minetta TV, the YES channel reruns the day's Yankee defeat, and we roar every time A-Rod flies out, which is frequently.

"Mel Stotelmyre no longer calls the bullpen for Mariano Rivera," Jack chortles. "He's phoning in their order to Arturo's for the portofino, spumoni and a couple bottles of grappa."

Taaka isn't amused.

Caricatures of visiting celebrities, mostly forgotten, cover the oak walls. The newest addition is a photograph of Taaka with heartthrob du jour Matthew McConaughey, looking sultry -- narcissism personified. Two feet away from McConaughey's photo hangs the wonderful oil portrait of Joe Gould, Manhattan's most renowned bum.

"There's a here here," Jack says. "Hendrix played his first New York gig at Café Wha, across the way, and slept in the Minetta Alley. They tossed Kerouac from this place for calling a guy a fag."

"I thought he was gay."

"He was, but didn't start out that way. I was going to do my dissertation on him before I bailed on grad school," Jack confides.

"Like single-speed bikes, Kerouac is a rage that I never quite see the point of," I say. "Every time I read him, I wish I was reading Miller.".

"Henry Miller was very much into Kerouac."

Jack puts forth the story that Mike, the Mayor of MacDougal -- a madman with a high, wild mane of gray hair and undetermined number of teeth, set in an ever-diminishing face, one of Joe Gould's "God-knows-whats" -- wrote Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," before his mind departed from too much acid.

"Jack, that's not possible. This is a story you people concoct to have fun with unwashed rubes like me in from the wastelands. It's coincidentally the favorite indoor pastime of the Russians, I might add."

Jack sticks by his story, which leaves me thinking that he is so concerned the planet is fading to gray that he will stop at nothing to keep things lively. He goes on to tell the story of how the public phone at Reggio rang one day. The Mayor picked up, and earnestly spoke into the receiver: "Yes, no, yes, I see." Hanging up, he declared that the Devil was shooting a movie Tuesday on Great Jones Street.

For a time, the Mayor would preen daily into a small shard of green glass wedged into the bark of the tree in front of Reggio.

The Mayor of MacDougal and Jack, the deputy mayor, are what New York attracts and what is so attractive about the city. It bursts with the planet's malcontents, plagued with unique ideas and concerns that just about encompass the human spectrum of interest. What they contribute is mostly puerile musicals, hucksterism of every shade, and a good deal of chicanery. But now and again the odd Dylan, Millay, Gershwin or Hopper slips in to find inspiration in the city's panoptic, and humanity is left the better.

William A. Viall III is an adman based in Providence.