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City Desk

City of Many Worlds

by Richard Brookhiser


Lexington Avenue begins at 21st Street, and runs pretty flat until Murray Hill in the 30s, where National Review lives. But in between is a stretch of short 19th-century buildings and ethnic stores and restaurants. When I moved to town, it had a faint Armenian aftertaste, though now it is Little India (COURIER YOUR DOCUMENTS TO INDIA FOR ONLY $18, says one sign; another offers SAREES JEWELRY EXPERT TAILORING HENNA TATTOOS). 123 Lexington Avenue houses one of the best spice and condiment stores in the country. The place still has an Armenian name; the owners are Indian; the purview is global. Walking in the door is a trip to the bazaar, without having to go through JFK. The only easier way to do it is to open the Arabian Nights.

They are aggressive buyers and marketers, going for both range and depth: There is every category of thing you might expect to find, and every tweak and nuance within each category. Pistachios sit at the front door — Afghan, Turkish, California. Red rice can be Bhutanese or Sri Lankan. There is a whole shelf unit — eight feet wide, six feet tall — of flour: oat and barley, of course, but also spelt, urad, moong, and teff. The couscous is Israeli, Moroccan, Lebanese, and Tunisian, offering more comity than the U.N., since the last three don’t pass resolutions against the first. Curry tracks the vanished Empire: West Indian, Madras, Malaysian, Singapore, Jamaican, Vindaloo X-Hot. Beans grow under any flag, in any era: Swedish Brown, Peruvian Giant Lima, Spanish Butter, Calypso, Jacob’s Cattle (“And Jacob said . . . I will pass through all thy flock today, removing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattle” — Genesis 30:31–2). Tea comes in common varieties — Earl Grey, Darjeeling — slightly less common — Russian Caravan, Gunpowder — and modern medicinal — Relaxed Mind, Peach DeTox, St. John’s Wort Blues Away. If South African hot chutney is your thing, Mrs. H. S. Ball’s comes in Sterk and Ekstra Sterk.

I recognize many items from years of menu grazing, though it is odd to see them sold as handy kitchen preparations. The store has packages of samosas (triangular Indian meat or vegetable pastries) and boregi (Turkish cigar shapes, ditto). I see tabouli, hummus, and matzoball mix, and bottles of Sriracha hot sauce, staple of Chinatown. But many of the products are utterly bewildering. The box of Moghli Pret says it is Facile à préparer (pour you maybe, not pour me). Another box suggests: “Use Jal Jeera Masala with Gol-Guppa and Pari-Puri.” Got it. A bottle of sweet almond oil Fights Dandruff, Relieves Constipation, and Strengthens Brain Power. Send Rahm Emanuel a case. A line of meat, fish, and poultry rubs in tins calls itself the Pride of Szeged (so I’ll know if I ever go there). 123 Lexington also sells kitchen utensils, and miscellaneous items. A Dhokla Stand with Plates boasts that it is “The Desire of an Efficient Woman.” Backgammon boards make no boasts; everyone knows they are the pastime of men married to efficient women. At the checkout counter, the irresistible impulse buy: Aphrodisiac Tea, to “spice up your Valentine’s Day.”

123 Lexington is an epitome of today’s city, complete with a view of the Empire State Building. But this building is also an epitome of yesterday’s city, for it is where the 21st president of the United States took the oath of office. Chester Arthur was born in Vermont and raised upstate; in his twenties, he became a New Yorker, a lawyer, and a Republican. In the 1850s this party affiliation meant civil rights: He represented Elizabeth Jennings, a black woman who sued the Third Avenue Railroad Company for kicking her off one of its cars (Arthur won). After the Civil War the GOP also meant patronage. Ulysses Grant appointed Arthur collector of the port of New York, an employment bureau for hacks; Rutherford B. Hayes, who called himself a reformer, rooted Arthur out.

Arthur moved to 123 Lexington Avenue because it was a fashionable neighborhood. Delmonico’s was on Madison Square, a few blocks away (its waiters, wrote a journalist, were “noiseless as images in a vision,” and “dishes succeed[ed] each other like the well-composed tones of a painting or a symphony”). Arthur would spend evenings there, or at the nearby Fifth Avenue Hotel, politicking until three o’clock in the morning. He took “great interest in matters of dress,” said one contemporary, and was “always neat and tasteful in his attire. . . . He loved the pleasures of the table and had an extraordinary power of digestion and could carry a great deal of wine and liquor.”

Strife between the Half-Breeds (reformers) and the Stalwarts (Arthur’s faction) resulted in a compromise Republican ticket in 1880, pairing James Garfield with Arthur for veep. In July 1881, four months after Garfield’s inauguration, the president was shot by a man who declared: “I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be president.” The assassin, Charles Guiteau, turned out to be a lunatic. But his statement put Arthur on the spot. Worse, Garfield lingered for two and a half months. Arthur learned of Garfield’s death before midnight September 19. Reporters flocked to 123 Lexington demanding a statement. “I daren’t ask him,” the doorkeeper replied. “He is sitting alone in his room sobbing like a child, with his head on his desk and his face buried in his hands.” Arthur took the oath of office from a state judge at 2:15 in the morning.

He did this and that. But I think of him as the man who lived twelve blocks from where I live, four blocks from where I work. He was a widower when he moved into the White House; there were women who would have made him happy, but he rebuffed them all, perhaps because he knew he had Bright’s disease, a fatal kidney condition. He died less than two years after completing his part-term in office. Madison Square has a bronze statue of him, which a guidebook calls “fashionably dressed.” 123 Lexington carries a small plaque.

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