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BEATTS ME!

Sure, Polish Big Apple, but Keep Flavor

June 07, 1998|ANNE BEATTS | Anne Beatts is a freelance writer who lives in Hollywood

I'm writing this from that most cliched of writer's hideaways, a fourth-floor walk-up in fabled Greenwich Village. It has all the requisite touches: exposed brick, a skylight, a fire escape outside the bedroom window, even a milk crate doubling as a coffee table. You could slice away one wall and present it as a set on Broadway.

It's also small, stuffy and somewhat Spartan, and I'm dying to stop writing and run downstairs onto the street, where the action is. And despite Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's best efforts, there still is action on the streets of New York City. Why, only yesterday, I even dared to jaywalk, just to prove it could still be done.

Is it a kinder, gentler New York? Definitely. I've been here a week, and so far no one has screamed obscenities at me, something that's an almost daily occurrence in Los Angeles traffic. (I drive a convertible in L.A., which makes me particularly vulnerable, both to other drivers' unpleasant epithets and to freeway-exit panhandlers.) In fact, the only imprecations I've heard in New York have been directed at Giuliani, by cab drivers.

No doubt about it, it's a sweeter Apple, thanks to the mayor's cleanup campaign. Nowadays people frequent the city's parks for reasons other than buying and selling illegal substances, and when someone jostled me yesterday, he actually said, "Excuse me."

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Nearly all the pay phones work, and very few of them are smeared with dubious substances. What's more, my phone conversation was drowned out only twice by boomboxes. The streets are no longer littered with refuse, unless you count the Eurotrash that's invaded Soho.

Gone are the squeegee guys, who, I hear, have moved to Century City. I don't even want to think about what Mayor Rudy has done with the homeless who couldn't manage to relocate to Santa Monica. The movie "Soylent Green" springs to mind.

But what about the Old New York? The Manhattan that's always been a mecca for millions with more mischief on their minds than browsing through the "Mulan" merch at the Disney outlet on Fifth? Does Sin City still exist?

Yes, Virginia, there are still peep shows around Times Square, no matter what Michael Eisner might prefer. And singer Scott Weiland proved only last week that it's still possible to score drugs in Alphabet City, making the headline writer for the New York Post very happy by providing the opportunity to refer to Weiland as a "Stoned Temple Pilot."

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You can even find a helping of that good old New York haute attitude, if you look hard enough for it. I came across it at 44, the restaurant of five minutes ago in the Hotel Royalton. When I asked where the phone was, the impossibly slim creature in black behind the desk gave me the strong impression that if I didn't know, I didn't belong there in the first place.

(Or maybe she was just in shock that I wasn't carrying a flip-phone, every New Yorker's current favorite accessory. I swear, there are more of them at Balthazar, the restaurant of this five minutes, than in the entire 90210 Zip Code.)

There's something strangely futuristic about New York right now, and it's not just that there's a Hotel Millennium next to the World Trade Center. The first time I got in a taxi and heard the recorded voice of Joan Rivers telling me to buckle up, I regarded it as a novelty. By the third time, it was a nuisance. By the 10th time . . . well, this is a family newspaper.

Giuliani insists that hack drivers be subject to higher fines for traffic offenses, smoking or allowing their passengers to smoke, and playing their radios. But they're forced to listen to Jackie Mason, Dr. Ruth, Judd Hirsch and Eartha Kitt over and over and over and over, through a 14-hour shift. And then Giuliani wants to fine them for using obscenities. If the devil ever needs a vacation, I have an idea of someone who could fill in for him. Or perhaps Rudy might be happier as mayor of Singapore.

His latest crusade involves street vendors, whom he wants to ban from what he terms "congested areas"--an estimated 144 blocks, including much of the financial district and several stretches of Midtown. Now, it stands to reason that if you want to sell people hot dogs, you need to go where the people are, i.e., an area that might be considered congested, especially at lunchtime. Not according to Rudy.

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His Honor also would like to limit the sale of art, T-shirts, baseball cards, sunglasses, imitation Rolexes and, ironically enough, those rhinestone pins with "I (Heart) New York" on them. He also has proposed certain restrictions on the sale of books, thought by some to be covered by the 1st Amendment. Perhaps he'd prefer it if the vendors burned the books. Perhaps they could work something out with the roasted-chestnut guys.

Far from taking to heart the maxim that you can't fight City Hall, the vendors are fighting back with a citywide strike. The vision of summer in the city where you can't buy frozen lemonade is truly frightening. I don't know how Giuliani feels about kids and hydrants, but I can make an educated guess.

In fact, when I look at Mayor Rudy, I'm reminded of a school principal run amok. He seems bent on turning the city that never sleeps into the city that takes a nice nap every afternoon and then folds its mat and puts it away neatly. I wonder if he knows Kenneth Starr.

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