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.”