At the New York City Marble Cemetery (2nd St. between First and Second Aves.), the underground family vaults with eroded, stalagmite-like stone monument markers have been around since 1831. If only we could ask those entombed for their thoughts on the waves of momentous changes the neighborhood has undergone. Especially since this spot, ensconced in a tree-filled courtyard of apartment buildings, has become the final resting ground of two former mayors – Stephen Allen and Isaac Varian – and James Lenox, founder of the New York Public Library. Even though the cemetery is privately owned and (unfortunately) never open to the public – though you can get a good peek through its towering metal fence – it still exudes a certain peacefulness that’s hard to come by elsewhere in the neighborhood. (Nearby wind chimes make it really creepy at night, too.)
Loud, bright, plastic, and retro seem to be the four prerequisites for merchandise at It’s a Mod, Mod World (85 1st Ave., 460-8004). This is one of those stores you can browse in for way too long; it’s the perfect place to find a useless gift for someone who really doesn’t need anything. Wacky light-switch covers, inflatable picture frames, lamps made out of old toasters, and bizarre mobiles incorporating mutilated Barbie Dolls are just some of the mod, mod pieces sold here by artists on consignment.
Neighboring Indian restaurants The Milon & Panna II, both at 93 1st Ave., seem to be competing for gaudy décor. Tinsel, plastic flowers, and literally hundreds of strands of blinking Christmas lights cover the walls, ceilings, and windows here. Perhaps the flashing, multicolored lights and twinkling ornaments are meant to draw tourists away from the more popular Indian row on 6th Street. Regardless, the decorations light up an otherwise gloomy block, putting everyone (yeah, even me, goddammit) in a festive mood – even if you’re just strolling by.
For ultra-obscure movies that can’t be found on video, indie flicks that were never shown in mainstream theaters (often for good reason), documentaries, and retrospectives (they’ve shown everything by the Brothers Quay, for instance), the Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Ave., 505-5110) comes to the rescue. Primarily a museum for the preservation of avant-garde film (it was founded in the late sixties by Warhol associate Jonas Mekas), the Archives houses a film-study collection and reference library indispensable to any film student (and Lord knows there are plenty of them in this ‘hood). But if you’re kicking yourself for missing that showing of Breathless (Hello? Only once the whole weekend?), console yourself with this fact: They don’t serve popcorn.
Love Saves the Day (119 2nd Ave., 228-3802) (abbreviated LSD by no accident, I’m sure) displays just about every pop-culture-inspired toy that ever was. (But this is not a toy store; the sign warns that anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.) They’ve got KISS dolls, vintage lunch boxes, collectible Matchbox cars, etc… . and remember your Donnie and Marie Osmond dolls? Well, they have them here, too, and this particular set has been mutilated to resemble punk rockers – just like yours! You’ll also find an absoSmurfly remarkable collection of those annoying little blue guys, just beyond the racks of vintage wedding dresses and forties suit jackets. Plus, everyone loves an ornery salesperson (LSD has them in spades) – so browse and enjoy!
The East Village is stuffed with as many vintage clothing shops as, well, the number of stinky, stained “finds” you have crammed in your closet and can’t get rid of. Pricing can vary as much as quality, so keep hunting until you discover the one store that specializes in the polyester stirruped baseball pants you’re so fond of (the best ones in that category are Rue St. Denis, on Ave. B at 11th St., or Rags-A-Go-Go, on 7th St. between 1st and 2nd Aves.), then see if they’ll make a trade. If you’re looking for mint-condition merch only, check out the pink and glittery Prom Queen Superstars (100 St. Marks Pl.), where they’re kind enough to root through the garbage for you (though the prices reflect it).
Sometimes, even if you have a reservation at Il Bagatto (192 E. 2nd St., between Aves. A and B, 228-0977), you’ll end up waiting an hour for your table. (Good luck squeezing into the bar downstairs, too.) Then, once you’re sitting, you’ll most likely find yourself distracted by the commotion of the waitstaff – who flit around like butterflies, always moving, but just barely out of reach – and the bump of your elbow against that of the patron dining four inches away. But then your food arrives. And not only is it perfect, right down the the sweetness of the marinara and the softness of the focaccia, but it’s astoundingly cheap. And soon you’ll settle down, hoping that waiter won’t come by again for at least the next hour.
It’s got a virtual shrine to Louis Armstrong – dozens of framed photos – lining the walls. It has regulars so devoted the cooks have their orders memorized. They serve fresh, smartly seasoned Middle Eastern and North African food. And they’re cheap. What’s not to like about Habib’s Place (438 E. 9th St., 979-2243)? And Habib himself is always on hand, ready with a welcoming smile as he lounges out front, chatting with the customers. Tip: Bring singles – paying for a $2.25 falafel sandwich with a 20 dollar bill ($20 is a lot of money here) sometimes results in a frightening flurry of commotion, upsetting the mellow smiles.
At the Tenth Street Baths and Health Club (268 E. 10th St., 674-9250), twenty bucks gets you a full day of lounging, which includes a steam room, a redwood sauna, an ice-cold pool, a Swedish shower, and a sun deck. For a little extra they’ll whip you with an oak branch or scrub some dead sea salt into your skin (just ask at the front desk when you arrive, and they’ll schedule you in). If the thought of spending an entire day mostly naked and wet with aging members of the opposite sex grosses you out (as it should), opt for the single-gender days: men only on Thursdays and Sundays, women only on Wednesdays.
Though they would surely cringe at the categorization, it would be pretty silly to describe East Village nightspot Niagara (112 Ave. A at 7th St., 420-5917) as anything other than “retro.” For while they do invent their own tropical drinks (try the raspberry “Red Light District” or the tequila-spiked “A Good Spanking” – both come complete with those teeny umbrellas) in the tiny Lei Lounge downstairs, they certainly didn’t invent the tiki-lounge concept – nor did they purchase those kitschy, twirling Niagara Falls lamps new. D.J.’s spin upstairs and down seven nights a week: groove to the Dada-ist soul of Sunday’s “Van’s Drive-in 2000 (Get Mechanized Baby)” with DJ Holly Golightly or mellow a bit to Wednesday nights’ Continental Hush, brought to you by DJ Johnny Oh.