My mother thinks I’m the biggest pack rat in the universe, and she hates it. I can’t really blame her. My peripatetic existence ensures the accumulation of crap from all over the world, and whenever I move, I ship anything I can’t carry in a suitcase to Miami, where it piles up in my childhood bedroom, and, increasingly, into other parts of the house. Maman is always threatening a massive purge, even though she knows my soul might actually implode if she went through with this.
What do I collect? Sunglasses. Playing cards I find on the street. Dolls from different countries; soaps labeled in foreign languages. Coins, in particular pennies from every year of my life. Antique postcards. Airplane boarding cards and train tickets. Menus. Over four hundred cookbooks, particularly on the following subjects: the Savoie, Appalachia and the wider South, self-published cookbooks, community cookbooks, books on English cooking, and domestic economy manuals. I need a spreadsheet to manage them; they live in caches in France, New York and Miami. And then there are my Crap Boxes. Every year, memorabilia I can’t bear to throw out gets stuffed into big boxes labeled Crap Box 1, 2, 3, etc. My mother really hates those, especially when they start to smell. What can I say? These things matter.
Harley was waiting outside in the rain for me as I gingerly crossed a puddle-spattered sidewalk in Queens. He wasn’t waiting, really. He was scrutinizing the peach tree above his head, which this year has about two buds on it. “Last year, we got hundreds of peaches,” he said, shaking his head sorrowfully as big gloppy raindrops fell on our upturned cheeks. “Well, come on in.”
The foyer to his studio-workspace, a slightly grandiose description of the hallway, was plastered with maps, shoes and umbrellas. Upstairs was an airy space decorated with a comfortable disarray of books, baby toys and artwork. Harley’s wife Micki, an artist who teaches design at Parsons, was bathing their baby Hiro, the most beautiful, wise-looking nine-month old I’d ever seen. Micki's pretty, petite with a broad smile and capable hands. There was a large sign leaned up against a desk advertising five-dollar fortunes with on it a clumsily drawn picture of a gypsy, and, against the wall, a sculpture, made with books, of a building; some of Micki’s other sculpture/book works reside in the Brooklyn Public Library and can actually be checked out.
When we’d emailed about dinner, Harley had written, “I have created a couple of ‘Chinese’ dishes, including duck liver with yellow chive, and shrimp Jim Beam.” Interesting, I thought. I read on. “I know a handful of authentic recipes from Ding Hey, a small island in the Zhoushan archipelago. I also have been experimenting with “bagel dumplings” – Chinese style dumplings with cream cheese and lox filling.”
Who was this guy??
Harley had decided, in the end, to make John Pin’s stewed chicken wings. “John Pin is our kitchen god,” he said. “Literally. See his picture on top of the stove?” There’s a blurry black-and-white picture of a man tending a barbecue. Harley went to summer camp with his kids, one of whom calls later that night. “But I couldn’t get chicken wings, so I bought thighs.” Harley's not a man who flusters easily. Recipes are for chumps, as far as he's concerned.
He’d bought the makings of dinner at a Chinese market nearby, which serves the local Italian, Irish, Chinese and Hispanic community. “The Chinese guys all speak Spanish,” said Harley. “Kinda surreal.” His ingredients were attractively and meticulously laid out on the table, mostly prepped already, in bowls: chicken thighs, rice, taro root, nubby ‘grey' zucchini, a bunch of glistening watercress, a mound of bean sprouts, a few scapes left over from a last-week jaunt to the Greenmarket, chorizo-like Chinese dried sausages, corn kernels scraped off the cob, carrots, even a few peapods from the garden, and Fu Yi (fermented tofu) in a tub. “When I got here, those vegetable piles on the street [in Chinatown] were a mystery to me,” said Harley. “Now I know every one of them. I can say half of them in Chinese. I’ve cooked them all.”
Jocular, with a halo of frizzy gray hair that bobbed when he laughed, which was often, Harley popped open a few beers before he touched the food. He started by peeling taro root and dicing it, then popped the cubes into a rice cooker and poured rice and water on top. “My mother was a Brooklyn Jew, and Sunday-night Chinese food and a movie was a standby growing up. Chow mein and a movie, what a classic.” When he moved to New York, however, he began to frequent Chinatown, the easiest route to good, cheap food and a full stomach, and has gone back several times a week for twenty-five years. Now, everyone there knows him. (“Haw-lee! Haaaw-lee!!”)
Harley snipped watercress with scissors and peeled ginger with a spoon. He chopped garlic and sliced spring onions and mashed Fu Yi, the fermented bean curd, in a bowl. I was so absorbed by what he was saying that I barely paid attention to his motions. Until he picked up a pot lid by the champagne cork he’d wedged under its handle, so it was manageable even when hot. It was a brilliant kitchen trick I’d never seen before. “Oh, Marcella Hazan taught us that,” said Harley. “When she came to town, she wanted Chinese food, so Bill Grimes called and asked me to take her around.” Seriously? “She scrutinized the dumplings. I mean, dough is essentially pasta, right?”
In 1981, Harley, who grew up in Buffalo, moved to New York City to work at the Jewish Museum. His starting salary was $9,200, but one of the perks was a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side, which for several decades housed his accumulation of odd things, the number of which has since climbed to a precipitous 80 or so individual collections. “Wow!” I said. “You should be in the New Yorker!”
“Oh, he is,” said Micki. I was beginning to see why.
Harley’s collections include—follow me closely now—mutilated money, beer bottle caps from beers he’s drunk since the age of twenty, and stickers that come off fruit. The “Heavy” tags put by airlines on overweight suitcases, and the labels you find in your suitcase when some government inspects it. 140 pieces of used professional hockey equipment. Sugar packets from the 1950-70s. Collectible football cards, particularly from players with funny names. Pencils, paperclips, thumbtacks. Safety caps, like the ones that seal milk cartons. Fortune-teller hand bills. New York City Metrocards and tokens. Information about water, crabs, mustard and hair. 8,000 graffiti stickers, including one from Justin Pulitzer (“Most graffiti artists are white dudes”). Toy boats and tape. Matchbooks with maps on them. Rubber bands and chewing gum. Toothpicks and keychain bottle openers. Yarmulkes (46), seeds from unusual fruit (12), and salt. “Not too many people are salt nerds,” Harley said. Then he gave me a bag of salt from Saltville, Virginia, to take home.
There’s more. Over 300 pieces of Mr. T memorabilia, including a picture of Harley and Mr. T on the Jimmy Kimmel show. Hundreds of crappy scissors, the kind that hurt your hinds, including one with nine blades for shredding (“I don’t usually spend more than $1 on a crappy scissors, and that one cost $8, but if you calculate by blade, it’s a good deal. Though it doesn’t cut.”). 2000 shopping lists found in supermarkets. 6,000 keys. Straws. Autographs. Spoons, especially white plastic ones; that collection was once featured in the Smithsonian, next to a Tiffany sterling silver ice cream saw, used for Baked Alaskas. (Incidentally, a bookstore at which I used to work once also featured Harley’s plastic spoon collection in their window, too, though that has nothing to do with how I met him).
And then there’s Harley’s Chinese menu collection, the most famous of them all, which has grown to over 10,000. The collection, all forty linear feet of it, has gotten him on Geraldo, CNN Headline News, and into the New York Times eight times, as well as, obviously, into the Guinness Book of World Records. “I once went to Caracas to integrate the menus into the Chinese collection of the art museum there,” he remembers. “I matched them with colors—blue menus with Ming vases, green ones with the jade.” He’s got menus from all fifty states, as well as 3 linear feet of menus from other countries. He also collects the “No Menu” signs that people put on their door to keep the junk mail out. His favorite says “No Menus – No Nothing – No No No!” Another claims that leaving menus will result in an “Official $50 Fine.”
In essence, Harley’s collections are portable histories, time capsules. Take his record player tone arm collection. When Walkmans came into use, New Yorkers threw their record players out. Harley couldn’t fit too many whole record players into his 280-square-foot apartment, stuffed as it already was with the rest of his collections, so he simply started accumulating tone arms. “Somewhere in New York, someone who collects record players off the street is really pissed at me.”
Maybe one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but honestly? Tone arms? What’s the point of accumulating trash? Well, there is one. Harley’s collections are a diary of his life and a short, focused look at particular families of objects, the more specific, the better: football player collectible cards, but only those with funny names (D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Darnell Bing, Plaxico Burres); matchbooks, but only those with maps on them; spoons, if white and made of plastic. “You’re like a whole Dewey Decimal System,” a friend said once about Harley. Of his exhibit of Chinese menus at the Franklin Furnace, the New Yorker, in a 1991 ‘Talk of the Town’ wrote, “‘A Million Menus’ may actually shed more light on [Harley’s] unusual energies than on the history of Chinese food in America.”
One wonders where this relentless drive to hoard comes from. In kindergarten, Harley’s teacher once wrote home, “We always enjoy what Harley brings for Show and Tell.” Harley’s turned his obsession into a career, but ultimately, it’s about more than the menus. “It’s not about your stuff,” he said. “It’s what you KNOW about your stuff. I do not love the menus proper. There are some that I have not even read thoroughly. I continue to save menus because they connect me with people. That’s the heart of the matter.”
Micki collects nothing, but she’s really funny. Of the taste of the ducks that hang in Chinatown restaurant windows, she said, “They taste like walking across the Manhattan Bridge.” Oddly, she’s right. There’s an electricity between them that I love to see, middle-aged people really hot for each other. They’re kissy, they touch comfortably, and they look at each other with a fondness that could melt steel. “He’s the sensitive part of this couple,” she clarifies wryly.
At about ten o’clock, we ate. As I’d been scribbling and drinking beer, Harley, chatting casually all the while, had managed to churn out a stunning smorgasbord of small, glistening plates: spicy gray zucchini, Brussels sprouts and garlic in peanut oil, watercress soaked in Fu Yi, a bean sprout stir-fry with scapes, sausage, corn, mushrooms, peapods and hot pepper, rice cooked with softened taro root, stir-fried beef with tomatoes, tossed in Harley’s seasoned, twenty-year-old wok, and the pièce de resistance, John Pin’s stewed chicken wings, made with ginger, star anise, peanut oil, Yeo’s hot chili sauce, oyster sauce, and drumsticks. This dish rocked. Micki packed me leftovers in little plastic containers, which I ate the next day; they were even better cold. For dessert, Harley whipped out an apple corer and clove two apples. They were crisp and refreshing after the syrupy, spicy meal.
After dinner, Harley took me downstairs to the Museum of Choking Hazards, where his collections live. Given their scope, they take up a surprisingly small amount of space, organized and laid away in Container Store boxes. He foraged for the nine-bladed scissors and the picture of him with Mr. T. He showed me the graffiti stickers and the toy boats and the paperclips. But the room left a muted, dusty memory. The collections had been most alive to me when Harley had been talking impassionedly about them upstairs, elbow-deep in Chinese pickles.
“I haven’t really ‘made it,’” he said, and that’s when he looked sad. “My career hasn’t taken off in any meaningful way.” But I looked around at his quirky apartment, his boxes of memorabilia, his cool wife, his beautiful child, the laugh lines around his eyes, and I didn’t really believe him.