McDougal Street and the area south of Washington Square Park has an air of a place whose time has passed. Its stale counterculture has ossified into dead commodities in store windows, into the sterility of flourescent and neon-lit tatoo shops, where the rows of raucous designs are like dead butterflies pinned to a wall. It is an area that has been overused by kids, trampled and worn down by the urge for “entertainment,” their comings and goings the worst side of transience, resulting in a hardness in the built environment: reinforced doors and metal fences around entranceways, plexiglass over store windows, an obsession with fixity and endurance around environments sold for light-hearted fun or the wise-assed chuckles of joke t-shirts.
There is a tiredness in the air, which places of manufactured fun usually create. The tiredness comes from the trap of repetition, which anyone knows will kill a joke. Every day, every year, that T-shirt shop will still be peddling wise-ass humor, the “Jesus is my Homeboy,” the “New York Fuckin City,” the Che Guevara – which in becoming a commodity loses its subversive joy and turns stale and hard as a slice of pizza left overnight on the floor of a hotel room, a cigarette butt stuck in it. Besides the repetition, humor and joy are only real in a context of free play, a mixing with oppression and anger and heartache. But here on McDougall such things are not acknowledged, they are excluded from the gospel and rites of fun. Taken out of their contexts like koalas snatched from their eucalyptus, humor and joy turn into fun’s hired thugs, a grinning pleasure which pretends that sorrow and darkness do not abound, and which pretends we are happiest when isolated as individuals, “free” – free to consume whatever we “want.” If this is freedom, it is only freedom to forget real pleasures and real pains. If this is freedom, then I am Ethyl Merman’s lesbian granddaughter. Which I am not.
Yes, there is a tiredness on McDougall that is dissipated by the crowds and slow-moving shiny cars on summer nights, but it is there nonetheless, visible in the same heavily secured store facades, in the same jokes and transgressions built on the detritus of the counterculture, in the stale scent of air exhaled from bars, in the faces of the waiters and bartenders, like people forced to watch a cartoon for the thousandth time. Yeah, lets pierce our scrotums and then talk about it over a drink, and then split the bill exactly down the middle as any good, defensively individual American should, “transgressing” against a ghost of tradition that is long dead, and then conforming utterly to the values of private property which in fact rule.
But I love Mamoun’s. It is worn to the bone, so run over by customers that there is absolutely no attempt or strength left to maintain a facade of cheer, or irony, or even control. It is so overrun there is barely any place left to sit; if you don’t pay much attention you might be fooled into thinking that there was a tiny soup kitchen in there somewhere, what with the line stretching easily to the door and beyond. Of course, such a thing occurs pretty easily. The place is so tiny – made even tinier by dimness – that four people in line fill up the center aisle. Mamoun’s is an aisle. The couple of chairs and tables on either side of the aisle are afterthoughts, carelessly pushed about and never cleaned. They were only placed there when Mamoun’s crotchety grandmother bugged him to no end. “What kind of restaurant has no chairs and tables??” she asked grimly.
These places to sit are no more than annexes to the aisle, which is demonstrated by the difficulty of getting in or out of a seat. If trying to stand up, one’s shoulder inevitably bumps the backpack or arm or ass of someone in line; if it is busy one is really hemmed in by bodies. What makes it all the worse is that everything one might want, from napkins to extra hummous, is at the back, where the counter is, so if you didn’t utilize your 12 seconds at the front of the line, and grab a handful of napkins, you are fucked into elbowing against the current of people trying to escape the counter, or standing up to leave.
Mamoun’s is the joy of latent chaos in the violent order of the city. Mamoun’s is the pleasure of grabbing an empty bench and a wobbly table and hunkering down over felafel, buffeted by the buttocks and back packs of the crush of people. This pleasure is equivalent to the joy of camping on a windy night, to the feeling of having secured a tiny respite which does not at all diminish the sense of being besieged by an awesome nature. In Mamoun’s, one feels intensely and bodily the aggressive, desperate energy of the city, the absurd sense of competition usually veiled by the counter-violence of rules and the nasty looks of old crones tougher than General Patton. In Mamoun’s this aggression is unleashed as jostling, as dimness, as dinginess, as curtness from the hard counter man who barely needs to look down anymore as he seizes the ladle of tahini sauce and dumps it wildly all over the sandwiches which he grasps, dripping, with wax paper and stuffs into the little rack atop the counter, barely one second after the ladle has clunked back into the pan of sauce. For 2 dollars a sandwich, what more can one expect? Such a severely low cost makes these 3 counter men, scrambling like mice (only more sullen) around their cluttered box, invulnerable to customer anger or dissatisfaction.
The space for their scrambling is barely 8 by 8 feet square; the floor is littered with shredded lettuce and sandwich papers. The head man, probably 23, wears a t-shirt and a gruffness; a bit more surly and I could imagine him lighting up a cigarette and puffing away defiantly as he sauced your sandwich. Periodically one of them lifts a trap door and descends into a hole for a bag of lettuce.
Much of my pleasure in Mamoun’s is how the eaters and makers practically mirror one another as harassed and harried survivors, of the city and even of each other. The eaters are scarcely better off than the aproned workers, even though some customers do carry briefcases and an umbrella. But even they must undergo the ritual ordeal. All are plunged into the same bustling pit. And the tamborines and curvy voices of Arab pop sift down into the din. It is a hectic joy. One dumps one’s own trash and feels the encrustations of time and solitude peel away.
I took my nephews and brother in law there one night when they were visiting from Arizona. We had just left the ---- Café (another McDougall spot I love despite my ranting), where I had ordered them cannoli, and as I passed the dim opening of Mamoun’s I asked, “Hey, have you all had felafel before?”
“I have, once near the airport,” said Dallin. The 4 boys shook their heads. They have the seriousness of athletes and others for whom goals are everything. Well, the youngest is a bit goofy, thank god; he is unafraid to say something is “pretty.” No doubt his mom and dad are crossing their fingers on him.
We squeezed around the table, the older boys gravely pushing and pulling at the bench in order to fit. I stood and retrieved the 2 warm sandwiches from the rack and the 5 of us disappeared them in around 30 seconds, handing them around as we had done the cannolis. “Wow, that was good,” said the oldest. I suggested a couple more, and the boys all sat up straight. The table under our hands was scarred with the names of people here and gone, and tahini drooled over our hands and onto that pitted surface.