Monday, February 18, 2019

Of burgers, traffic lights, and H. Rider Haggard.

My wife, who like H. Rider Haggard's "She," must be obeyed, had a hankering for a really good hamburger. This simple meal is surprisingly hard to come by. 

These days, anything really good is hard to come by.

First, you have the massive over-processing of food which has added chemicals and preservatives to everything as it has, correspondingly removed nutrition and flavor. Then, you have the closings of the once-ubiquitous New York tradition, the Greek coffee shop. 

There used to be a Red Flame, or a Lepanto, or an Olympus Diner on nearly every other corner in the city, but they are all but gone now, replaced by Starbucks, or Joe and the Juice, or Stumptown Roasters, or some other over-priced millennial roost, which, it must be said, I won't step foot in.

Finally, you have the renaissance of the luxury burger. A slab of ground-meat the size of Yogi Berra's catcher's mitt. These joints are too-upscale by half and sport names like Smash Burger and 5 Napkin Burger (where, btw, they give you but one napkin) and while I've been seduced by their marketing and their promise of the return of the golden age of burgerhood, well, they're just not very good.

Prime Burger, in the shadow of St. Patrick's on 51st Street off of 5th, closed almost a decade ago. 

They served a really superior burger and a raspberry-lime lemonade, all served by decorous old black-men who had the dignified aspect of aging Pullman-car waiters. A magazine called "The Gothamist," had this to say about Prime Burger, "Regulars like Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda, and Sammy Davis, Jr. once crammed into the tight booths with swivel trays reminiscent of school desks, but the nostalgic atmosphere isn't the only aspect that kept patrons coming back. Handmade each morning with beef from a supplier in the Bronx, the tender and juicy burgers are quintessentially New York. In 2004, the prestigious James Beard Foundation even bestowed an award recognizing Prime Burger as one of America's best classic restaurants."

Decades ago, a Columbia haunt of mine, closed. That was Happy Burger and it was a brusque, no-pretense kind of place, that believed, as Ed McCabe believed for the old Horn and Hardardt's, that "you can't eat atmosphere." It was all about the food. But it too succumbed to the fetishization of food as well as Manhattan's soaring rents.

My wife had zeroed-in on a place on Second Avenue and 83th Street called Mocca Burger. I was against it (to no avail) partly because Mocca Burger is kosher, which means no cheese and no bacon. And second, because kosher meat is about twice as expensive as meat should be. But as I said at the top of this post, my wife is She, who must be obeyed.

We hit the interchange in the Bronx, where 95 bisects the Bruckner, my Simca surging along at 90 mph, its three-liter BMW straight-six gobbling up the shell-shocked asphalt. 

"This is the spot where you phone in," I said, having timed these things, over the years, to perfection. "If you call now, I can negotiate the traffic and make my way over the (free) Third Avenue Bridge and the food will be coming off the griddle, or out of the oven, just as we glide to a halt in front of the restaurant."

My wife nodded with some regret. She has to grown to dislike those uncanny things I can do that are invariably right. I consider myself something of a Cassandra about these things. I can see the future, even if no one believes what I see.

Mocca being off Second Avenue, I avoided the FDR and drove downtown from the bridge exit at 129th Street in Harlem. I downshifted off the bridge and into the center lane of the mottled avenue. The right lane you avoid because of buses that don't signal when they merge left. The left lane you avoid because the whole expanse is filled with double-parkers and people who swing open car-doors as if they are the only inhabitants of our increasingly-crowded orb.

We were streaming downtown now and I made the light at 125th, a large cross-town street, and then at 116th, the next cross-town street going south. When I made the light at the next big street, 106th, I knew I had something rare going on.

Since records began being kept in 1966, no one has ever made it straight down without stopping from 129th past 96th street, but here I was. 

I put my foot down on the gas to get the Simca more in the center of the timed traffic lights and sped past 96th Street. I had done it. Call me the Sultan of Signal, the Lord of the Light. 

I mentioned this to my wife, as the Simca finally rolled to a red at the cacophony of 86th Street. She scowled out the window and pretended not to hear me. Moments later, I pulled in front of Mocca just as our burgers were being spatula'd off their kosher griddle. The puck-like discs were still steaming as she huffed her way back to our car.

Then, like Moses parting the Red Sea, from the right lane at 83rd and Second, I crossed four lanes of traffic and navigated a left onto East 82nd, and made our way home.

I half expected a call from Mayor De Blasio congratulating me, or maybe the ghost of political hack Mario Procaccino. But no phones rang in our three-bedroom.

And the burgers?


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