Sunday, December 23, 2007

New York missive no 6 - Central Park at dusk, MCR bookshop & elsewhere

23 December

That’s one of the things I love about this city, its spontaneity. Got a text from Em to saying that she was delayed at Heathrow, so not to bother going out to the airport to meet her this evening. Then half an hour later, Em F calls out of the blue to say she’s in New York, and what am I up to this evening. So planning on lots of catching over wine and a meal somewhere in West Village, starting out in the Weekhawken Street apartment of course, which is now solely my territory for the week, as the others are all away for the holidays. Strange how when Em F and I were seven, eight, nine, we used to play at travelling the world, spinning the globe then pouncing on a random country which would be the place we’d travel in our game that day, taking skittles & M&Ms as our malaria tablets. Now we’re pretty much doing that with the real globe, having met up in Krakow earlier this year and now in NYC (didn't need malaria tablets in either though). How small the world can be sometimes, for those of us who can move around it freely.

22 Dec

I’m in S’nice at the bottom end of 8th Ave, one of those sit-for-hours cafés with communal tables where people work on their laptops, emanating caffeine-fuelled creativity or wannabe creativity. I’m struggling to eat a brie and pear sandwich with loads of caramelised red onions without getting it all over the keyboard. One day I’ll learn to do one thing at a time. Looking forward to a quiet, much-needed evening of recharging batteries before Em, H and M get here for a week of xmas antics, tomorrow evening.

This afternoon, or more like this dusk, I explored Central Park for the first time. When I finally made it there – after a ridiculously delicious brunch of poached eggs and hollandaise sauce on cornmeal bread with spicy black beans on the side with B at Miracle Café where he used to play his bass, and a trip to Union Square farmers market, where the statue of Ghandi with his stick and loincloth seemed rather incongruous next to the swarms of Christmas shoppers laden with bags of produce – it was already 4pm, so there was only an hour or so left of daylight. It was a cloudy, damp day, but still beautiful: with a trippy tinge due to a late night last night and some hair of the dog fresh hot cider, that’s being sold everywhere on street corners at the moment. As I walked through the park the sillouettes of the winter branches got progressively blacker, the squirrels more agitated and the joggers sparser. I just made it up to the Jaquie Kennedy Onassis reservoir before darkness fell and it was time to break out into the shiny shop-lined streets of the Upper East side. It’s nice to think of the park remaining there throughout the night, a patch of peacefulness in the heart of the city, undisturbed other than by perhaps a few rough sleepers, who must be getting fewer now that it’s getting so cold.

In the park I was keeping half an eye open for wild animals: I’d had my latest instance of accent incomprehension today, when B told me he’d once been surprised by a wild hog in Central Park. It was only when he mentioned that the hog was sitting in a tree, that I realised he meant hawk. Apparently the hawk flew down right next to him, grabbed a pigeon in its talons and retreated back up to the tree to demolish it.

Not sure whether the guy typing on his laptop diagonally across from me appreciates my presence. He had the table to himself until I got here and was in a writing flow: now another ticking brain and typing pair of hands so close by has ruffled him a bit. I’ll just sit here quietly and hope things settle.

So it’s been a while since I last wrote here, due to long days of work and nights of play. Last Friday was the JBH holiday party: Ve’s husband runs a hedge fund, and given that there are only two or three employees, turns his end of year work party into a free-for-all in the Lower East Side apartment they use as an office (guess when you’re a hedge fund manager you can rent an apartment with city views for an office). On one of the walls a guest had stuck a note saying “Strategy for 2008: Buy less, sell more”. Apparently the party was more civilised than previous years. But the remnants, me included, who were left over at midnight decamped to Von bar and had no trouble injecting a couple of hours more life into it. Weirdly, J happened to be in the same bar. Manhattan’s small like that. And there’ve been several little coincidences that make me feel like things are in the right place.

Like the two books I bought the other day when MCR bookshop on Prince Street lured me in with its rows of tempting titles and smell of coffee. Both, after I’d bought them, disclosed on the inside pages surprising little connections with my life over the past few weeks. One was a collection of short stories by Daniel Alarcón, which I bought mainly because I liked its flimsy binding and soft thin pages, its title, “Guerra en la penumbra”, and the fact that Alarcón was born in Lima. Only after I bought it did I realise that although he was born in Lima, he was brought up in Alabama: the coincidence being that there’s been a bit of an Alabama theme going on with me at the moment (early days yet, so won't go into it). The other thing I realised only after buying the book was that the original was in English, and what I had was a Spanish translation, albeit with Alarcón’s input. A bit silly really, though good practice for my Spanish I guess, like my chats with Gloria the cleaner in our office. The other book was “Al norte del infierno” (another cheerful title) by Miguel Correa Mujica, whose trajectory has brought him from Cuba, to Florida (que sorpresa) then Manhattan and now Weehawken. Ok, not Weehawken Street, but still. Some people here when I say that I’m living in Weekhawken Street think that I’ve been conned by real estate agents who’ve successfully passed that area of New Jersey off as part of Manhattan. Apparently it’s happening with bits of Brooklyn, like one area that’s been described as part of “Wall Street” with no reference to the fact it’s over the bridge.

So to give a whistle-stop update on some of last week’s activities...Last Sat evening spent ensconced with B in the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, which is apparently where Dylan Thomas had his last drinking session before he died. Sunday was mostly spent in a vegetative heap on the too-comfy sofas in the apartment (which I’ve mentioned before), watching cheesy films with S. Tues was a chilled out evening with Mi – the first time I’d met her – listening to her boyfriend play his guitar at one of the “upstairs sessions” at the Living Room on Lower East Side. A girl perched on a stool in the middle of the stage asked the musicians questions between their songs, in an intimate radio chat-show format. Weds, a drink with L from PILI in the closest relatively good bar we could find to work: there’s a dearth of bars and restaurants in the Garment district, though that no doubt will be addressed one day. And Fri night, an “Oh Death” gig at mercury lounge along with various support bands. There were plenty of bearded fans jumping around in front of the stage but Oh Death didn’t seem 100% into the thing...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

New York missive no 5 - DUMBO to Doris

Soon New York will be completely smothered by a patchwork of acronyms: the acronymed areas rapidly encroaching on those still with names. There’s TRIBECA (Triangle Below Canal), SOHO (South of Houston), NOLITA (North of Little Italy), DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), BELDEL (Below Delancey), now SOHA (South Harlem) – those last two, and probably many of the others too, the creations of real estate agents wanting to give a hip veneer to previously no-go areas and attract people who otherwise wouldn’t want to live there. The question, as always, is when those people move in, where do the previous inhabitants go?

On Monday night I was in DUMBO, with its warehouses now worth a lot, its tucked-away theatres and galleries and its fantastic views up to the towering Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, stretching their way over East River and yelling steely aspiration. One of the galleries I walked past had a whole carousel on display through its glass wall. It was spookily unlit and silent, its horses frozen mid-leap, with wild gazes and open mouths.

I was in DUMBO for an event at the International Center for Tolerance Education: an update on the “myth of the motherland” project that’s sending young US poets to African countries, so they can report back with poems that dismantle the myths of how Africa’s seen in the West. Other than a niggle that African poets are probably better-placed to do that, it was an inspiring event (that niggle was shared with a Sudanese woman I met there, who has spent a few months in New York on a fellowship at the ICTE. She’s been amazed by people’s urge to “do something” to help other countries and the way that the actions they take are based on a dangerously simplified knowledge of what those countries’ reality is: bottom-up action’s better than top-down was her message).

One of the poets was an honest, inspiring Palestinian American woman called TS (when’s a woman a woman not a girl – anyway, she’s 20). Along with her studies at Columbia she’s a youth worker and is getting her first book of poems published by Penguin next year. The poem she recited was about a gutted fish… “And I sew her, back up”…Right at the end of the poem the image of the gutted fish fuses with a victim of rape. TS is wary of her poems being captured in Penguin’s print, because she’s a slam artist and all of her work so far has involved standing up on a stage and improvising. The book’s going to be called Respect the Mike.

On a table at the entrance to the event there were scattered, books, leaflets and free CDs. Flicking through one of the books, a fat hardback called “Face of human rights”, I came across something Sergio Vieira de Mello said soon after he became UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “We all know, after all, instinctively, when rights are being violated.” It’s important we remind ourselves of that powerful simplicity from time to time.

Well one minute I’m talking about dangerous over-simplification and the next, the power of simplicity. Within both though, is the need for reality and directness, and to prevent distance from distorting.

[J’s just got home excited with a new drum from Guinea: his old one had collapsed from overuse].


It’s got cold in New York all of a sudden, and people are walking around like penguins wrapped up in thick dark coats (I’m one of them). Not as cold as Chicago, according to A, whose also just got home, back from a work trip there. Christmas commercialism is working its way through the city too: the ersatz Christmas songs in the shops and bombardment of advertising is not good; the smell of pine from the stacks of Christmas trees lined up on street corners is.


Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech resonated with me, with its appeal to strengthen the direct, physical connection with literature that we get from books and from teachers, and its warning against the seductive virtual connection to the “inanities” of the internet. But I do wonder if she’s talking from experience about the internet; I can’t see her being an expert at Google searches, nor as having explored the way the internet can bring abuses straight to the attention of people who can do something to prevent them, exposing and provoking. And if travels on the New York subway are anything to go by, books are not as neglected as she implies. Every fourth or fifth person is clinging with one hand to a handle and with the other to a book that they’re engrossed in. And with a mysterious third hand to a plastic coffee cup.

Speaking of internet connections, my Verizon debacle is nearing a resolution, though I’m wary of speaking too soon. Another connection confusion made me laugh yesterday, when it transpired that the reason why my first foray into the New York dating scene wasn't going anywhere was a wrong digit in a phone number. So on my list of things to do today is to call the right number.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Walnut interlude

I suddenly realised today the new office needs walnuts. In the London office, there is a regular supply of walnuts brought by U from his farm in France. They provide the perfect distraction from the computer, involving physical exertion (to an extent), making noise, some random and slightly dangerous shelling, and something good to eat, all in one. But I won't be smuggling them over in my suitcase next time I come back from the UK. I'll have to find an alternative, or an American walnut farm.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

New York missive no 4 - Hudson hangover cure

Just discovered an effective hangover cure - walking out onto the pier in the Hudson river park on a bright winter's day and letting the biting wind whisk the fuzziness away. The fuzziness is a result of too much wine during a night in Nolita, with a mainly English crowd. A connection there, I think, between the "too much wine" and the "English crowd". What is it that makes us incapable of drinking in moderation? Not to nourish national stereotypes or anything... The evening started civilised; met S's friend Al for a meal at Nolita House. At one end of the restaurant was a rowdy office party, but in the main area we could, just about, hear ourselves talk over the hubub. Gorgeous chicken empanadas and an asparagus thing, followed by not so exciting salads. Then to Tom & Jerry's to meet R and others, on to a random party saying farewell to a guy who works for an advertising agency and who's moving back to Australia, who none of us knew, and then a lower east side club for dancing till started falling asleep.

Weds and Thurs were Upper East side evenings. On Weds, the launch of Michael Conroy's Branded! at Carnegie Council, which I only caught the tail end of after learning that getting a taxi during rush hour doesn't mean getting round Manhattan quicker, then catching up with J over sushi. On Thurs, a delicious meal at Park Avenue Cafe (currently called Park Avenue Winter, guess it's a seasonal thing) with cousin K, V and two foreign office friends currently posted at the UN. The restaurant was white, spacious and sophisticated, somehow managing to be cosy within the whiteness.

This is turning into a bit of a restaurant guide.

Got very angry with Verizon on Thursday, trying to sort out a phone line and internet connection for the new office, which you wouldn't have thought was that unusual a request. But my anger was abated on realizing that it's shared - everyone else who's ever had to deal with them is also angry. It was one of those experiences of spending about three hours getting passed on the phone from one unhelpful sales assistant to another, to another, only to arrive back where you started (or even further back). Tried going in to the shop thinking that face-to-face contact would help, but the guy there had to phone the company up too, and went through exactly the same process. About three times. It was so extreme it was almost surreal [might add some thoughts expanding on that when I've got more time]. But hey, unhealthy to get frazzled by that kind of thing. Remembered P's advice, from when we shared notes about the unexpected pot-holes, bumps and dead-ends you come up against in relocating to NY; they're inevitable and you just have to ride them.

Had better stop writing or I'll miss my plane from JFK back to London for next week's trustee meeting. Am already relishing the thought of 7 hours watching movies on a Virgin plane...should sleep, but know I won't.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New York missive no 3 - Gottino

Just back from wine & lots of good things to eat at Gottino, with Ve (going to get complicated this initials thing, with two "Vs" already). There seems to be a food-theme to this blog, which given I'm in New York is inevitable.

Gottino is a new Italian place in West Village, so new that apparently it isn't "open" yet. Though I'm not sure what "open" will look like, as they already seem to have a steady stream of contented customers. Apparently they're testing out what works and doesn't work. I suggested that they never "open", relying instead on word of mouth and the feeling of exclusivity that people get from being among the first to try it out.

The barman who tended us knew his wines but got stuck on quinces. There was a basket of unripe quinces on the bar, and when Ve asked what the plan was for them, he tried bluffing then gave up. "We were just discussing that earlier...Yes, I think they do ripen off the tree, like apples...But well, for the moment they're there for decoration. I might be wrong about the apple comparison, so if you find someone who knows otherwise..." Next time I find a quince farmer I'll ask.

"Gottino" is apparently Italian for "a small glass of wine shared between friends" (shared roots with "gota" no doubt). But the atmosphere's so relaxed and the food and wine so good that it should be renamed gottinazo, or however the superlative works in Italian.

Found a good walking route to work today, feeling upbeat with Maná blasting through my headphones. Went up 9th Avenue through the Meatpacking district - which in the early mornings before the shi shi shoe shops and swanky bars open does still feel like a meatpacking district, with its off-loading lorries and gaping warehouse doors - then up into Chelsea and right, across to 7th Avenue and the dusty, seen-better-days chaos of the garment district.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

New York missive no 2 - 11, Weehawken Street

24 Nov

I’m sitting on the ridiculously comfortable purple velvet sofa in the Weehawken Street apartment. Murray, the plump ginger cat who was inherited from the previous occupants, is purring at me. I know what he wants. I’ve been feeding him this weekend as the others are away for thanksgiving so now whenever I get home he expects a can of turkey Friskies. He’s going to have to wait, at least an hour, and I’m going to have to resist his pleading. Apparently six months ago he was almost dead he was so fat. I’m worried the two cans per day I’ve been giving him are too much, so will be a bit stricter from now on and let him know who’s boss.

Oh-oh I’m talking pets and I’ve only been here a week.

This is a city of things coming up out of the ground. Film-famous steam spills out of manholes and spurts in columns from red-and-white striped tubes as the subway releases its heat into the cold Manhattan air. Heads emerge through pavement trapdoors from cellars, the underbellies of buildings that no doubt brim with things that don’t fit or shouldn’t be seen above ground. I’m amazed at how this island doesn’t sink under the weight of life it bears. Good thing it sits on granite.

Weehawken Street has its pavement trapdoors too, but most of the flotsam and jetsam is on full display at street level. It may be the shortest street in Manhattan but what it lacks in length it makes up for with character. It’s one of the last bastions against the Duane-Reed-Starbuckisation of the city. It’s now part of the Weehawken Street Historic District, hence protected from the glassy sky-reaching new apartment blocks that encroach to the north of it (the kind that are marketed as “artists lofts” when no artist could possibly afford them). The sea-faring industrial ruggedness of the Weehawken Street buildings still seeps through from behind the graffiti, the corrugated iron door-fronts, the “do not urinate or litter” sign that’s carved in stone on one of the walls.

At the Southern, Christopher Street end is the “Dugout” gay bar, with its bright orange beer banners hung outside, open till 4am seven days a week. At the other is a tiny art gallery that I haven’t yet explored, where, apparently, you can do things like poke your hand through a window to get it hennaed. And in the middle, on the East side, is our building, no. 9-11. Can I lay claim to it in that way having only been here a week? The historic district “designation report” describes it as a 3-story, neo-Romanesque style stables building with upper-story residence (i.e. the apartment I’m in now, along with purple sofa and ginger cat). It’s made of dark red bricks. It was clearly once elegantly functional and is now lopsided and fallen into disrepair. It was used as a stables till 1922, and since then has been “Lynch’s Garage”, “Weehawken Garage”, “Ray Electric Co”, Meier & Oelhaf marine repair, then GLC Productions – a music production studio. Apparently the fluorescent green walls of the stairwell decorated with enormous purple dinosaurs are a legacy of GLC, who left a few years ago. All the floors apart from ours are now empty, but ours is busy and colourful enough to make up for the quiet downstairs.

Time to give Murray his Friskies.


Went on an Annabel exploration today, taking the L-train out over Queens to the end of the line at Flushing, where I emerged into a forest of Chinese-language signs. I followed my nose down a wide road of supermarket warehouses and gas stations to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a former dump described by Scott Fitzgerald as a “valley of ashes” and now the largest park in Queens. It’s a cross between the football-pitch part of Hackney marshes – open and windswept – and Regents Park, with its wide tree-lined paths and its Canada geese shedding feathers and droppings beside man-made ponds. Actually that doesn't do it justice, there's a lot of beauty there too.

The sun stays low at the moment, even in early afternoon. When planes flew over head on their way to La Guardia airport I’d look up only to be dazzled; there’d be just brightness and the loud roar of the engine.

At one end of the park is the Queens Museum of Art, with its huge architectural scale model of New York city that gives people a birds-eye view of the metropolis and that helped me get my bearings. Two of the artists currently exhibited there fired my imagination. Tahera Seher Shah, originally from Karachi and now living in the US after periods in Belgium and the UK, whose “Jihad Pop Progression” pictures are crazy constructions of pencil lines that combine Islamic symbols with architectural drawing to expose souls' struggles in an urban environment. Or something like that. And Yue Minjun from China, currently living in Beijing. He's labeled a pioneer of the “cynical realist” school but I doubt he likes labels. He paints wonderful bright pink Chinese faces with hundreds of evenly-sized teeth that stretch their mouths into eerily ecstatic grins. In one series the faces are clad in professional hats, a soldier, a fireman, a naval officer etc, in another painting they clamber over the Statue of Liberty, another they are striking martial-arts poses, another they are lined up like the terracotta army. A dramatic dismantling of authority and political symbolism, that also questions what follows.

From the art museum, I went on what was a much longer than intended – my fault for being map-less and underestimating distances – meander through Queens suburbs (past a temple with the sign "Ashram Inc", but not much else of note), till “boom” I hit Roosevelt Boulevard in Jackson heights, the heart of Americanised Colombia / or Colombianised America. La hora del almuerzo. Spoilt for choice of restaurants I went into one creatively called “El mesón Colombiano” and had a bandeja paisa; practically half a cow and half a pig on a plate (in the form of steak, sausage and chicharones), along with rice, beans, eggs, avocado and plantain. And an arepa. Despite the long walk back down to Manhattan afterwards, I’m still digesting.


A changing-room conversation I overheard in the gym, between two women in their forties (maybe fifties? Women work hard to look young here):

“Oh” (as if she’d meant to ask earlier), “how’s your sister doing?”

“She’s doing fine. She had her first chemo the other day. It wasn’t pleasant, but wasn’t too bad. This stuff happens. We’ve got her a nice wig, for when her hair falls out. She’s had her hair cut short already, so it doesn’t come as such a shock.”

“My friend’s hair didn’t fall out till right after the last session. Then wompf, it all came out in one day. She was going round the house with a vacuum to pick it all up. You know, it’s just not genetic any more, is it? Everyone’s getting it."

It sounded a bit like she was talking about a fashion accessory.

"How about the place that’s treating her?”

“Yes, it’s a good one, out of town.”

“Because you want to feel like, well, pampered. Not quite like being in a spa, but…comfortable.”

They finished drying, dressing and make-up applying, said their goodbyes and headed out to work.

Then in the café where I worked that morning (due to a temperamental internet connection at HRF) – ok yes, it was a Starbucks – the guy sitting next to me took three pills of different colours and sizes from his bag, laid them out on the table and swallowed them along with his coffee and muffin.


Tom Wolfe may have tried burning the vanities in Bonfire, but they survived. The flames just make them stronger.


25 Nov

There are clear signs on the streets of New York that the social safety net has big holes. On every block and in every subway train there’s someone who’s slipped through, pushing their home in a shopping trolley, searching through bins or rattling a McDonald’s cup containing just a few coins, holding out hope for more. Most turn a blind eye but some step in to fill the gaps. Like the Colombian Jorge Muñoz, profiled in yesterday’s New York Times. Alongside his job as a school bus driver, he cooks mountains of food everyday to take at 9.30pm to the day labourers sheltering under the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 73rd Street in Jackson Heights. Some of them will be back from work, others will have been waiting there all day for a job, without luck. Jorge gets his food from sporadic donations by local shops and from friends who work in the Long Island food industry, who told him one day of how much is thrown away, prompting his idea for the night-time kitchen.

Speaking of food donations, saw V for lunch in Brooklyn today - the Park Slope area inhabited by lots of young professionals, some with pushchairs. When she arrived in NY she worked for a while in the Cup Cake Cafe till her costume-designing jobs built up: at the end of each day piles of cup cakes would be left behind, which they distributed to people sleeping on the streets nearby. According to V the cakes there far surpass Magnolia's (of Sex and the City fame) - the long winding queues of people outside Magnolia are misguided...Having not tried either I've yet to pass judgement. V's found time here, along with cake-selling, costume-making, fashion-showing, gig-going etc., to learn to trapeeze.


For thanksgiving on Thursday I, along with hundreds of others, got the Southeast line from Grand Central out of the city, passing an explosion of Autumn trees. I spent the day at cousin K and V’s house in White Plains, where along with two of their daughters and a gaggle of grandchildren we feasted on turkey and all its trappings, chatted and played games. It was a relief to be in the still of the countryside. But I still got a rush when I arrived back in the city that night.

New York missive no 1 - Mojo

Well I’m in what I think is going to be one of my regular coffee-drinking, NY Times-reading people-watching cafés…Mojo on Charles Street, just round the corner from the apartment. There’s a steady procession of Saturday-morning customers queuing for their caffeine fixes. Every second customer has a dog, confirming the fact it’s the must-have accessory here. Big men stroll the streets with tiny dogs on leads. Women use theirs as a conversation-starter, a bit like baby-talk. There are more street-signs for dog-owners than there are for cars.

Am just a bit bleary-eyed, after being awake for something like 26 hours yesterday (found myself going out to 4 in the morning after coming off the plane, in true just-arrived-in-NY style), then waking up at 7, partly due to the time difference and partly due to the long heater down one side of my room that doesn’t switch off. I’m either going to have to fix it, or live a carbon-wasteful life for a while with the heater on full and the window open, an improvised thermostat.

The bar we - as in my just-met roomate S and some of her friends - ended up in last night was Fat Cats, a sprawling basement at the end of Christopher Street with live jazz, ping-pong, pool, chess and scrabble. Though by the time we were there most of the scrabble games were abandoned to their unimpressively short words and people were focusing more on their beers. Emerged to find a street fight that was quickly dispelled by a big-bellied plain-clothed cop, his car lights flashing, his gun bulging from his back pocket and his chest plumped up to say “in case you hadn’t noticed, look who rules the roost round here.”