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.