Novelist Mr Mateo Askaripour’s Insider Guide to New York City
Mr Mateo Askaripour knows a thing or two about selling. His debut novel, Black Buck, is a New York Times bestseller and recipient of rave reviews from the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mr Colson Whitehead. It’s also a mesmerising story set in the world of sales, informed in part by Askaripour’s experiences on the slippery slopes of corporate America. The novel, the TV rights of which have already been snapped up since it published last year, charts the dizzy rise of Darren, a young, black rep in New York’s hottest tech startup. Funny, smart and on-the-money regarding race and ambition, Black Buck sells itself to the reader from its razor-sharp opening pages. So, as New York opens up this autumn, who better to sell us on his locale again? Below, Askaripour charts five of his favourite spaces in the Big Apple.
New York. Do you smell that? That’s right. It’s the unmistakable aroma of hot garbage, weed, urine, pretzels and, you guessed it, honey-roasted nuts. Those sounds? Oh, don’t mind them. After a while, you get used to the wail of ambulances, cop cars and toothless children screaming for no other reason than because they can.
You’d think that after a while, people would stop visiting a city that is about as relaxing as a root canal, but no, you all keep coming – day after day, month after month and year after year. That’s because, while the grit far outweighs the glamour and glitz, there is an undeniable heart that beats throughout every street, borough and person who calls this city home.
But perhaps the best part of New York is that there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re into kayaking or comedy, breaking shit to bits or Broadway shows, it’s hard to come here and leave without a few unforgettable memories, even if they’re of hour-long subway delays, dog-sized rats and women sitting on a man’s face in Union Square.
So, take my hand and allow me to sell you my New York. Actually, don’t touch me. And stand six feet behind me. OK, that’s good. Now follow me as I sell you on a few of my favourite spaces and places in this fine city.
Washington Square Park
Our first stop is Washington Square Park, which, I dare say, is the most New York place in New York. Entering via the northwest entrance, you’ll see an elm tree with branches soaring in the air like it’s at an MDMA-filled rave or Sunday sermon. This tree, known as Hangman’s Elm, is more than 300 years old, making it the oldest in Manhattan. However, the only known person hanged was a woman, named Ms Rose Butler, a 19-year-old enslaved woman accused of arson. I even included her in my novel, Black Buck.
There are three things guaranteed in life: death, taxes and someone in Washington Square Park trying to sell you weed. Don’t mind them, they’re harmless, but I wouldn’t buy their weed unless you enjoy smoking oregano. Continuing on, you’ll find the park’s centre, the fountain, which, depending on the season, may have children and adults alike cooling off under the geyser of water. There’s art for sale, political pins, men somersaulting over one another all to the sound of a beating drum and, among so much more, a musician serenading visitors with the 900-pound piano he often lugs in and out of the park. If there’s any place to be, in any season, this is it.
I told you not to buy that weed, and now look at you, eyes redder than the devil’s nipples and mouth drier than that dead pigeon we just passed. But, my friend, you’re in luck – we’re about to eat. I thought about taking you to one of my favorites, Red Bamboo, or even heading up to Chelsea Market where there is an endless variety of fine foods. But since I like you, I’m treating you to V-Nam Cafe, a tiny spot in the East Village that only sits about 13 people.
V-Nam Cafe’s not the type of place you’d find on any “best of” lists and it’s definitely not Zagat-rated. If you want that, Katz’s Delicatessen is a two-minute walk away. No, V-Nam Cafe, which is next door to a funeral home, is the definition of “no frills”. Its menu has typical Vietnamese fare: pho, spring rolls and the most perfectly toasted banh mi you’ll ever find, with few drink choices. People say “less is more,” when less is really just less, but it works here, because I’ve never had a bad meal at V-Nam Cafe. And when you want to go to the bathroom, you have to walk through the small crowded kitchen to get there; something high-end restaurants manufacture to give them an “authentic vibe”, but which V-Nam Cafe has plenty of all on its own.
That was good, right? I told you. Don’t ever forget who put you on to it, either. Now it’s time to walk it off. Nah, we’re not going to the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge; those are tourist traps. We’re heading to the Williamsburg Bridge, filled with hipsters riding fixies and its own fair share of foot traffic, but also graffiti and a hint of grime that the more popular and polished connectors of boroughs are lacking.
The thing about the Williamsburg Bridge is that it’s steep, so whether you’re walking or riding a bike, you’re guaranteed a workout, unlike sitting on your couch with a Shake Weight. The view from the top isn’t to be slept on. I know you’ll need a second to catch your breath, we all do, but there’s something beautiful about the way the light catches the sewage-filled East River.
You can see Domino Park, a five-acre, $50m park that was built on land occupied by the Domino Sugar Refinery. I can’t front, while Domino Park is a gentrifier’s wet dream, it’s not a bad place to hang out, especially at night. I recommend you walk as far north as you can, stopping to visit McNally Jackson Books, Oasis and the area’s lesser-populated park, McGolrick Park. If you don’t know what kava is, but are interested, check out Kava Social. It’s… potent and legal.
All right, enough of that. Yeah, some of Williamsburg is cool, but don’t forget it was called “Los Sures” for a reason. Anyway, we’re heading south, to the neighborhood I can’t spend enough time in: Fort Greene. By the way, do you have a few million dollars on you? I’m trying to buy an apartment here and the prices are rising faster than Mr Donald Trump’s blood pressure when Fox News declared Mr Joe Biden the winner.
There’s history in all of New York and while many neighborhoods compete for my heart’s affection – Harlem and West Village included – Fort Greene is hard to beat. Not only does it have two bookstores, The Center for Fiction and Greenlight Bookstore, the hilly, Revolutionary War-era Fort Greene Park and countless restaurants, such as The Quarter, Peaches HotHouse and Black Forest Brooklyn, there’s also the Brooklyn Academy of the Music (BAM), where you can catch a movie and performances, as well as the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA).
Mr Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, is located here and it is, or was, home to some of the greats, such as Mr Richard Wright, Ms Erykah Badu, Mr Saul Williams and Mr Jeffrey Wright.
Our final stop. Can you believe it? Look at you, well-fed, cultured and… wait a second, where did you get that Yankee fitted and pair of Timbs from? Calm down, you’re not a New Yorker yet, but we’ll get there.
This majestic building that sort of looks like the White House is the Brooklyn Museum. The Met has its appeal, sure – and there’s the MoMA, Whitney, Guggenheim and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is a library but with the feel of a museum – but, for me, there’s no place like the Brooklyn Museum. I’ve danced salsa in the lobby, seen my first real Basquiat here, visited the Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power exhibit twice, watched Shaft, heard Afrobeats bumping and bouncing off Beaux-Arts Court’s glass-tile floor and travelled back to the 1980s, where I got a taste of what it was like at Studio 54 without having to stand in line for hours. The museum is even free on Thursdays, from 6.00pm to 10.00pm.
Whatever you do, and wherever you go, trust that no two visits to New York City will ever be the same and even though there’s much to complain about, there’s far, far more to be grateful for.
Illustration by Mr Calum Heath