I felt a little giddy when a handsome and commanding man leaned over to open the door for me, smiled and said, “After you, Miss.” (He was so good looking that my pupils dilated.) And how nice to be called Miss instead of the Ma’am I have grown up to be. A pack of teenage boys followed closely behind him, swaggering with the false confidence of kids who just get by in life, mostly on the street.
The man wore a crisply tailored suit, but when he turned to the boys, he used his body in a way that demonstrated a common language. Is he their lawyer? I wondered. Then it struck me, standing there in the security line at the New York County Criminal Courts building. They were likely a team of drug dealers and the handsome man was their leader. A real-life Stringer Bell.
That peeled my eyes wide open and I saw my surroundings for what they were—not the fresh-scrubbed halls of justice but a dark, creaking hull of a ship stuffed with steerage class criminals and justice vigilantes.
The cops strutted around, their arms—made shorter by their puffed-up chests—dangling calmly at their sides. Assistant district attorneys, mostly female, clicked by in big-girl heels and Ann Taylor suits (tough cookies, my grandmother would call them) past other lawyers straight from billboards and subway signage, looking even slicker than they do on morning TV.
There were several men, clearly poor and perhaps even homeless, who might have been appearing in court for sleeping on doorsteps or buying dope. And everyone was in a rush and pissed off—including me, an average randomly selected citizen of New York County who was assigned a full month of grand jury service.
When I reached the front of the line to pass through the security screener, the officer on duty made me unhook and then remove the beaded belt I wore to cinch my sweater—it didn’t have any metal on it and I wondered if he was just using his power over me. He smiled and winked one ice-blue eye at me. I leveled my own gaze, raised my chin and said, “What’s your favorite place to eat around here?” If I was going to have to endure a month of civic purgatory, I damn well better find out where to eat in this neighborhood.
I asked everyone I met. Lawyers told me to follow the cops, they knew where to eat, though a warden told me the cops eat like swine: “Uh, gosh, no pig pun intended,” he said. Beyond the courthouse in the teeming, fishy streets of Chinatown, I posed the question to counterfeit handbag sellers. I walked up and down Mulberry Street, scouring the touristy menus, on the lookout for any last gasp of authentic Little Italy. I even walked around Tribeca, an area which feels like the Hamptons packed in warehouses and asked over and over again, “What’s your favorite place to eat around here?”
The New York City Courts are smack dab in the center of some of New York’s most interesting, disgusting and glamorous neighborhoods. If you have the patience, or you’ve been assigned to jury duty, your stomach will not go unrewarded. Here are my picks for good, inexpensive food when you get stuck with jury duty:
Banh Mi Saigon
Banh Mi Saigon (198 Grand St between Mulberry & Mott St) is my hands-down favorite. Newly re-opened in a big space (as opposed to its former location at the rear of a jewelry store), the baguette sandwiches are stuffed with roasted pork, pickles and shaved carrots and daikon. You almost feel bad paying only $3.75 for a sandwich it will take you two meals to finish.
The menu at XO Cafe (96 Walker St, between Cortlandt Alley & Lafayette St) is vast, but the reason to go is the roster of noodle soups, usually priced around $4.50. My favorite is the pork and shrimp dumpling soup, which is laden with freshly-chopped ginger and a few healthy stems of Chinese broccoli. This is a big favorite among Chinatown street vendors. [Update: Closed as of August 2011]
Try to overlook its pretentious tagline “Torrefaction,” because La Colombe (319 Church St between Lispenard & Walker St) makes the best cappuccinos I’ve had outside Rome, though they are the same price as a bowl of soup at XO. It’s worth it for a few soul-restoring moments where you can spoon your frothy milk in a real china cup. Listen in on the Tribeca movie moguls who are all “taking meetings” here. It’s Hollywood east. Their top-notch baked goods come from Payard.
This is the best place in Manhattan to slurp down soup dumplings. I went to Joe’s Shanghai (9 Pell St between Bowery & Doyers St) for dinner regularly, and each time the hostess rolled her eyes at me for needing a table for just one. Never mind her and enjoy your meal.
Mama (46 Mulberry St between Bayard & Mosco St), with its diner-style menu, is the only place to go when you’re sick of Asian food. It’s also where you’ll find all the cops. Turn off your iPod and eavesdrop on all the crap going down in your neighborhood that you really didn’t want to know about.
Need a beer? (Yes, you will.) Whiskey Tavern (79 Baxter St between Walker & White St), located next to an acupuncture parlor and a bail bond shop, is the lawyer bar. (The cops prefer to drink in the Bronx.) The prosecutors have their nights, as do the defense attorneys. Cheap, reliable stuff on tap and an array of bar food.