The first extended cold snap hit this week, and so it is now the weather of chestnuts. They grow worse and more expensive each year; a dollar for a bag of eight from a vendor in the street, and out of those perhaps three not burnt, but that is not the point.
The point is first the smell and second the warmth. You buy your small brown bag of chestnuts, put it in your deep coat pocket--a little central heating unit--and then stroll up and down Fifth Avenue. As you stroll, you have a bit of the scent, a local sachet, dusky and evocative, Christmas in New York.
Should we talk here about about the season or the street food? In New York, where so much of everthing goes on the street, it is hard to separate the two.
In the summer you can buy an Italian ice, preferably lemon, and suck it out of a white paper cup; an excellent thing when the temperature hits 98 degrees and a heat inversion makes the air feel like grease. In the winter, if your hands are chilly, you can buy a pretzel, very hot--though pretzels, like knishes and hot dogs, are year-round food. ("Uh frank," New Yorkers say, when they step up to the sidewalk vendor, just like a piece of pizza is "Uh slice.")
In the summer, in the areas outside the Time-Life Building or in Central Park, you can get the exotic street food: a health-food sandwich on whole-wheat pita with bean sprouts; a crepe, with filling of your choice.
The chestnut, however, is a definite December food, and this week, if you strolled with the tourists down Fifth Avenue, from the Plaza to Rockefeller Center, you could see the vendors, largely Greek, in pea coats and babushkas and mittens with the fingertips cut out, out in force. The stroll down Fifth, for the Christmas windows, is, of course, another seasonal pleasure. The windows change after Thanksgiving Day, and early in December they light the tree in Rockefeller Center, next to the skating rink.
A good place to start, then, is the Plaza. They have a chocolatier where you can pay $4 for a single piece of chocolate, wrapped in a gold-covered box, adorned with gold berries and leaves and foil; a visual treat. From there, you go slowly, to F.A.O. Schwartz with a $2,500 space ship, Cartier's to examine an emerald necklace (what do you care, even if you are broke you can look). From a building under construction, you hear celestial music as you pass by. Looking up, you see that it is music on high, a brass band, in red hard hats, looking down. Everywhere, up and down Fifth Avenue, it is red and gold. The horse-drawn carriages, some driven with kids in black top hats, are trimmed with evergreen. The blind man's dog, in front of Saks, has a red wool cap pinned to its ears.
Saks is splendid. Six horse-drawn carriages wait hopefully in front, though in July it is exclusively taxis, and in the windows, large mechanical toys from New York's Belle Epoque bow to one another, moving through snow, bringing gifts. The toy men have handlebar mustaches; the women wear long skirts. In front of the windows are the vendors; a nuts and dried-fruit man; a hot dog man; the Greek chestnut man, of course.
He says that business is lousy, the weather has not yet turned really cold, the tourists are not out in force. But this is not new; there has never been a chestnut man in the history of the city who has said business is good.
Nonetheless, you buy your bag, stow it in your pocket and head across the street. A Volunteers of America Santa with recorded music and a Salvation Army trumpeteer are going one-on-one. By the time you walk the quarter-block to the rink under the gold angel at Rockefeller Center, the trumpeteer has won.
The rink is half-full, but there are two of the winter regulars, gray-haired ladies in their 60s or 70s who skate backward and wear little pink skirts. There rarely seem to be men of their age and never any who can skate as well. The two ladies join hands and dance. "I wanna lover with a slow touch," the rink music goes. It's probably a fine thing to be able to skate backward in a pink skirt in your 70s, even if there is only another woman with whom to hold hands.
You smell chestnuts and reach into your pocket and break one in half. It is the runt of the litter and half-burnt. But with a bag of chestnuts in New York in December, that is never the point.