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Eating the Lower East Side with Clayton Patterson
in: New York Press, Volume 17, Issue 32, 2004

I'M FOND OF people whom I call Mr./Miss New Yorks, the ones that greet everybody they run into and know the lay of the land, but Clayton Patterson is more of a mayor type, documenting and keeping track of hundreds of us. He even stimulated the city's economy when he videotaped cops beating up locals in the great Tompkins Square Park riot of August 1988; a few of them got hefty settlements for their videographed beatings. Clayton, who has a gallery/office at 161 Essex St., oversees all activity in the East Village and Lower East Side.

A guy ran past shouting, "There's a fire on the roof!" and Clayton grabbed his camera and ran down to 2nd and A, where a few trucks had pulled up, and a giant ladder ran up to the roof of the corner bar. People gathered happily. They say New York and Paris have the last street life, and this fire site was a real mixer. I saw Dead Dean, who lives in the fragrantly delinquent Chinatown projects, scuttle past.

Eighty-year-old Warhol icon Taylor Mead limped on a cane on the way to Key Food to buy groceries, probably for the many stray cats he enables. He alone looked disappointed by the fire, which he hoped wouldn't interfere with his scheduled happy hour at the downstairs bar. I was worried about him carrying milk and cat food all the way back to Ludlow Street, but Clayton calmed me down, saying fondly, "That nasty little faggot is tougher than John Wayne!"

By the time Clayton, his wife Elsa and I hit Crust, I was pretty hungry. Crust is a French-style bakery owned by Warren, who grew up in Chinatown. Twenty-two years ago he opened one of the first pork bun coffee shops on the other side of Canal, and Clayton was one of the first customers. "Every neighborhood has a flavor, and for me it was one of Warren's pork buns, served with his special coffee, mixed with half and half and sugar." It reminded me of the time I had key lime pie in Key West, Florida, and the proprietor suggested I smoke a cigarette and drink coffee at the same time to really get the full sensation.

Warren opened up Crust 11 months ago after taking a nine-month course at the French Culinary Institute on Grand Street and doing some experimenting on his own. "The problem is, they don't teach you how to mass produce. They just teach you how to make one cake at a time. It's a great cake, but if you're a baker, you have to make 10." He was able to use his own Chinese-bakery experience to remedy this.

Among other items at Crust, which also serves sandwiches on his freshly baked bread, Warren invented Lychee Mousse and amazing chicken wings flavored with scallion, ginger, soy sauce, hot pepper oil and sesame oil. Perhaps, the web site for food explorers, should send a representative down there right away. Warren had just bought a Vietnamese dragon fruit, and as soon as he tasted it himself, he was determined to learn how to work with it.

I had the Raspberry Chocolate Mousse, a sizable round cake for $5, and Clayton tried the Passion Fruit Mousse, which he devoured. Warren explained that he cut the chocolate mousse with raspberry so it wouldn't be too sweet. I was living pretty large, sipping on Citrus Green Ice Tea without having to look at a preoccupied waiter with an interesting hair cut, à la Teany. I asked Warren how the neighborhood had changed. He said the street used to be filled with hookers, and Clayton said that Joel Rifkin got some of his girls there, the ones he liked to murder.

We walked past Love Flowers, which used to be a big dope spot for an orthodox junkie who loved the local hookers, and paused respectfully. I had to check out Warren's other spot, Ho Won Coffee House, which is where he starts his day at 4:30 A.M., just after I finish watching Celebrity Justice. It was crowded, small and lively. Warren got me a roast pork bun (60 cents), because they had already sold out of steamed. I told him I have had pork buns with pieces of bone and gristle inside. Warren prevents this by personally cutting up a fresh pork shoulder every morning, and he also bakes the dough himself. I could've had another.

I also got a sweet rice delicacy wrapped in bamboo leaf. It's a traditional Chinese snack that has become something of a lost art, and it's easy to see why. Warren, whom I was beginning to see as a food visionary, makes his with pork, salted duck eggs, peanuts and Japanese-style sweet rice wrapped in bamboo and artfully tied together with string. I later shared it with my friend David Moo, an aficionado, and he said it was the best one of those things (nobody knows quite what to call them in English) that he's ever had. I lost the rest of it before I got home, and was stricken with grief. How would the only food I had at home, stale rye bread, ever measure up?

I tasted a tiny bit of egg custard, which could be called a tart if they ever wanted to jack up the price. I'd never had anything like it but wanted to try the rest in private, when I could really think about it. The coffee at Ho Won is made using the vacuum method, because among other things it makes coffee just a pot at a time, so it's not sitting around in an urn all day. It was much better than deli coffee, and only 60 cents.

Full and excitable, I walked back down to Forsythe with Clayton, Elsa and Warren. Clayton, a keeper of nostalgia who doesn't even like crossing Houston to Avenue A anymore, had to stop and take a shot of some laundry hanging from a fire escape: "That is classic New York; soon there won't be any more things like that." On Ludlow, he stopped to take pictures of two guys lounging on ramshackle chairs: "That guy smokes with passion!" We ran into a guy darting into Barramundi, and Elsa gave me the scoop: "That guy is a legend! For $30, he would take your trash and put it somewhere. For years the fire department had a vendetta against him!"

On Essex, Clayton ran into Jeremiah, who used to be a roommate of Candy Darling's, and had just seen the giant gold-leaf "J" covering the glass wall of Clayton's office. "Why J? Why not C? It's useless!" he criticized. Outside of the Indian bodega, a kid came up and gave Clayton the latest news on a local murder. They knew who did it, but nobody could find the guy. "I've been photographing this kid since he was 12 years old," said Clayton, "and he was just murdered by a fucking screwdriver."

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