Sunday, February 24, 2008

New York missive no 13 - Of snowmen, haircuts and jazz

M had had her hair done for her birthday drinks at Employees Only, a West Village candelit bar where people come to see and be seen and that aims for an air of exclusivity by not marking its name on the door, and hanging thick velvet curtains you have to push through to get in. She looked great (she’d had a makeover as well). This time the haircut had cost $250. Last time she paid $450, and decided that it wasn’t worth it. It made me laugh when she said that you just can’t get your hair done here for under $200, given that just a few days previously I’d had mine done for $25. Admittedly, it wasn’t such a professional job. I’d had “get hair cut” on my (ever-re-charging) mental list of things to do last Saturday and when I walked past “Nick’s salon” on the corner of 8th Avenue and W13th Street decided to get it done right there and then. The salon has been there for 50 years. It has old leather-bound chairs, ornate mirrors and is scattered with hair clips, sprays, brushes, combs and adornments giving it the look of a grandmother’s boudoir. Some of the hairbrushes are still tangled with the hair of previous customers, which is just a bit offputting given how used I’ve got to the swept and sanitised environment of chain salons. The man who cut my hair was old as the décor. His hair was grey and long, down to his shoulders. He wore a waistcoast and courdroy trousers. He proceeded to chop the neglected ends of my hair very slowly, methodically, with drowsy concentration that made me wonder if he’d been at the whiskey most of the morning (a West Village woman in her 50s who was having her hair cut next to me had been served a glass). Yet in 10 minutes he was done. “There you are dear,” he said. “Really? Maybe..should a bit more come off the back?” I asked, but when he held up a hazy hand mirror for me to see, several inches had disappeared. Had I nodded off while he was working? It makes you wonder what other hairdressers are up to when they spend an hour pulling and tweeking and trimming. Anyway, it’s shorter, and feels good, and for the first time in ages I’m wearing it down (partly Ra’s doing), and people are even commenting on it (little do they know – it’s my haircut secret).

Next step…products. Then maybe next time I’ll spend a bit more, as part of this slow but sure New Yorkerisation of me: which I promise to myself I won’t take too seriously, but is doing me good. I’m watching it with amusement, like yesterday when I turned up an hour late by mistake to a salsa-class induction so missed it, and found myself buying not one, but two, dresses in a shop across the road instead. Eek, it’s a slippery slope…texted Va to tell him I’d missed the salsa (we’d been talking about it beforehand) and had spoilt myself instead, and he replied “Well done!”: not sure if he meant it ironically re missing the salsa or seriously re the dress-buying. Anyway, will just promise myself I won’t get to the point of the woman in the gym changing rooms this morning who was acting like the world had ended because she couldn’t find her sunglasses.


A snow-artist has travelled over the city at night, daubing white liberally over the buildings, trees and sidewalks. For a couple of days it was thick on the ground. Now it’s surviving in clumps in cold corners. Though somehow Central Park, free from the rising heat of the Subways I guess, is still smothered, luring little tobogganists, couples throwing love-filled snowballs and creative snowman-sculptors (the nearby art museums’ influence clearly seeps through the park: no-where else have I seen Miro, Gaudi, Giacometti-inspired snowmen).


I liked a Chicago Public Library poster from the “Helvetica” exhibition at MOMA (Helvetica as in the font that used to be omnipresent on signage, that Massive Attack used on their Blue Lines albumn cover, and that apparently means “Switzerland” in Latin). It says: “A is the first letter of the alphabet. There are twenty-five more. The Chicago public library has all of them in some very interesting combinations.”

I found myself in a MOMA-meander way in the Helvetica exhibition after seeing New Perspectives in Latin American Art, and then the Lucian Freud etchings exhibition (which included paintings too) – plenty of art for one evening. Freud's work isn't beautiful, at least in an aesthetic sense, but it's powerful, and your emotions get a battering when you see so many of his paintings and etchings at once: his humanised whippets; wide-eyed faces behind spiky plants; women’s flabby nude bodies that leave nothing to the imagination except, crucially, the women’s thoughts. There are paintings of nude men as well. As the text next to one of them said: “Freuds’s portraits of men are in many ways even more disquieting than those he has made of women, perhaps because we are less accustomed to seeing men exposed and examined so unabashedly”. Something to do with a fear that what’s underneath and inside doesn’t quite match up to the externally projected idea of a man? That’s not exactly uncommon among women either, just that men have got away for longer without being exposed.


B and I watched Cool Hand Luke a couple of weeks ago (which I was quite happy with, as it involves a cast of half-clothed muscley men and many a close-up of the young Paul Newman – as well, of course, as wonderful acting, and a vivid portrayal of the power dynamics of punishment and the insanity of chain gangs and flawed punitive systems more generally).

One of the classic lines from it is when the Captain of Road Prison 36 says to Luke, “What we got failure to communicate.” Communication failures (albeit in a a different context, so much so it seems a bit weird to make the connection) – starkly contrasted with parallel communication successes – have been a theme of the past few weeks, picked up again on Friday evening when L and I went to see The Duchess of Langeais which is essentially about the tragedy of a failure of communication between a couple due to barriers constructed by society and by themselves. Have come to conclude that however magic the chemistry between two people, if they’re incapable of conjuring a natural flow of communication the chemistry’s bound to combust.


Got home from a lively discussion at Bard college on Thursday on venture philanthropy and social investment to find the Weekhawken Street gang, most of them, sitting on the sofas and watching the latest Clinton-Obama debate. It was in Austin, Texas, where primaries are going to be held on March 4. Hillary had her moments, but throughout most of it she seemed uptight and prickly while Barack carried the conversation with apparent effortlessness and calm. There was a fantastic moment when he said that Hillary’s campaign has implied at times, though its criticisms of his rhetoric of change, that everyone who has voted for him is “somehow delusional"...that "somehow, they're being duped, and eventually they're going to see the reality of things. Well, I think they perceive the reality of what's going on in Washington very clearly". That squashed her. It was accompanied at our end by “Ooooos," "that hurts," air-punching and bouncings on the sofa. But whenever the conversation veered towards point-scoring and personal attacks he steered it back towards policy and substance. He warned off the “silly season” represented by recent accusations that he’d plagiarised lines by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick in one of his speeches: "The notion that I had plagiarized from somebody who was one of my national co-chairs, who gave me the line and suggested that I use it, I think, is silly." So far he’s managing to keep the momentum of a movement for change (far more powerful and deeper than a personality cult – which some have said his campaign is becoming), and rise above the increasingly desperate attempts to stop him by those who won’t believe it will happen.


Am feeling better for a lower alcohol-intake and some longer sleeps (hooray!) this weekend than the previous one, where one night of antics seemed to move seamlessly on to the next. On the Sunday evening, after Saturday’s long night of Belgian party-Café Mogador– 205 club–4am coffee shop, met up with P’s friend Ru for what was meant to be a quiet chat over a beer. But we were in the Blind Tiger on Bleeker Street, which has a chock-a-block blackboard of special beers and ales with names like Dogfish Head, Rockies Cold Hop and Sly Fox Black Raspberry Reserve…and we just had to try three each. Cozily tipsy we moved on to 55 for some live jazz, where Ra joined us. Just as the time before when I was there with M, we managed to annoy people by talking over the music, albeit in hushed tones. I’ve learnt that talking is just not the done thing there. The music deserves respect. On this occasion it turned out that the wife of the trumpeter was sitting on a stool next to Ru. She’d written half the music so perhaps not surprising that she didn’t appreciate our whittering over the top of it. We de-camped to Arthur’s Tavern where a fantastic blind guitarist was in full, funky flow and the punters were allowed to talk. The bar’s low ceiling was heavy with balloons and other party decorations and it felt like being in an Aladdin’s cave.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

New York missive no 12 - Extravaganza

Recovering from another late night that wound up in 205 club, at the end of Ra’s last Saturday night in NYC before going to India for 5 months. Am listening to Jorge Celedón on my i-pod speakers, which I’ve finally set up in my bedroom: it’s been a slow process of getting the various essentials, like music, and a duvet, which I just bought yesterday, together for this room.

Speaking of Jorge Celedón, B, Ch and I trekked to Queens last Sunday to see him in concert. I’m sure they wondered where on earth I was leading them as we walked down a windswept road of warehouses, drifting plastic bags and newspaper pages, somewhere between Woodside station and La Guardia airport. At the far end of the road the blue neon words “La Extravaganza” marked our destination. We entered a cavernous club with round tables set out across the room, a bar in the middle adorned with artificial flames and palmtrees, a stage and dance floor set up on one side. Waitresses wove in and out of the tables in gold and black corsets, their boobs bursting out of the ribbons. B was in seventh heaven as one of them leaned over our table to take our order: a bottle of vodka, jugs of tonic and Coca-Cola, a cup of limes, and a mountainous plate of meat. The room gradually filled up, a DJ started playing a mixture of salsa, merengue and vallenatos, and couples got up to dance. Two hours later, I asked the couple sitting behind us what time Jorge Celedón was coming on. “A la una. Más o menos," they replied. We felt the ultimate tourists when we decided, as it was a Sunday, not to stay on for the concert and headed Manhattan-bound at 12ish, just as the club was bulging with expectation. So another Annabel-escapade that falls a bit short for being over-stretched. But worth it for the atmosphere, and lessons learned for next time Celedón's in town.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

New York missive no 10 - Pigeon-feeding, super Tuesday, superbowl

“PIGEONS. DO NOT FEED THEM”. A sign by a patch of grass by fifth avenue around 56th street sums up one of the differences between here and London. In London that same message would have said something like, “Please do not feed the pigeons because of x, y and z. Thank you for your consideration." I leave it to you to decide which you prefer.


Last Sunday I went in search of greenery to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. A little like Hyde Park, it’s snaked by wide walkways that channel flows of weekend joggers, lycra-clad cyclists and horseriders (the latter not in lycra). There are little corners of wilderness too, rustling with busy squirrels. I was tossing up between continuing to an exploration of Greenwood Cemetery, or pacing through the park to Brooklyn Public Library at the northeast corner to hear a lecture by Patricia Williams on whether Obama will get the black vote in the Democratic primaries. I figured that the cemetery will always be there, and that it’s only once in a while that you have a moment of potential in American politics like this one. It was worth it, even just for seeing the impressive façade of the library: a towering stone doorway with gold embossed figures up either side. The lecture hall was only half full but there were still probably 200 people there – old, young, black, white, Asian. Patricia Williams is a Columbia academic and also a contributor to the Nation, and that academic-journalist combination came through in the way she was able to convey a thoughtfully constructed argument with conviction, humour and the creative use of words. If only all academics could communicate like that. I often think that the ideas of uncommunicative academics have an unfair start in life; they’re unlikely to progress far beyond university walls so have limited impact on changing things, even if they deserve to. Williams said she’s “almost 100%” behind Obama and planned to vote for him on “Super Tuesday” (two days later), but that at the same time she has enormous respect for Hillary. She’s infuriated by the way in which the media is trying to turn the contest into a battle between race and gender, and the way that Democrats themselves are in many ways seeing it as a battle, without listening to either side. She described her subway journey to the lecture, when a group of young Obama supporters had come through the carriage waving flags, wearing Obama hats, and calling out “Vote for Obama”. An elderly lady sitting the carriage had lifted her walking stick, "almost menacingly", and shouted “Vote for Hillary”.

A hip-hop fan sitting behind me asked if Obama has somehow skipped up and over a whole range of black issues, from the discrimination exposed by hurricane Katrina to the nascent exploitation revealed by the sub-prime mortgages debacle – and that his success so far as a black nominee can disguise the fact that the civil rights movement still has a long way to go. He’s not ignoring those issues, Williams said, but if he did confront them straight on at this point his rise would have been curbed well before now (which in itself says a lot), and that if he ever does make it to President he won’t be shy of addressing them. It’s true of course, that he’s a lot more than the “black” candidate. There was a strange moment when a woman said that her fear he will be assassinated is almost so strong that it would make her not vote for him. (What's politics all about then?!). The audience began to enter gingerly into a subject that’s partly taboo but partly unavoidable, feeling that by talking about the “if” they could be increasing its chances of becoming a “when”, but knowing that it has to be addressed. Would it provoke shock on the scale of 9/11 if it happened? What would it say about America to itself and the rest of the world? How would America move forward from there?

What I’m increasingly realising though, is that it’s dangerous to talk about America as a whole, as it feeds into its external power in a skewed way. It’s as a whole that America, the idea of America, seduces and will continue to seduce, yet it’s also as a whole that it threatens its own and others’ destruction. As always, reality and the way we try to understand it needs to be brought back down to the experience of individuals in its multiple forms, even when that doesn’t present the clear-cut answers we look for.

Well, “Super Tuesday”’s been and gone, and Hillary and Obama are still neck-and-neck. Watched the start of the results coming through at C’s apartment with a couple of others, eating chilli and chatting above the prattle of the pundits in the background as they tried to make news out of numbers before there was any news. Huckabee kept popping up being interviewed on all the channels as if he had nothing better to do.


Well it’s Super everything here at the moment. The evening of my Brooklyn day was the Superbowl: the New York Giants (underdogs) against the New England Patriots (who had won something record-breaking, like every game in the season). I watched with Ra in West Village pub, and having never seen a game before in my life went from being a complete novice to a screaming fan. The score stayed really low and close, though with a slight lead for the Giants, till 10 minutes before the end when the Patriots scored a touchdown – AGGHHH – and then, less than 2 minutes before the end, the Giants scored – HOOORAY! New York erupted in unanimous cheering, horn-honking and hugging. A novel first date, and a fun one. Which has confused me a bit, but I need to relax into the fact that it’s ok you can juggle encounters here to an extent. After all am making up for lost time.


The previous Friday had been to a party with Ch in a gorgeous apartment that had the effect of filling all the guests with envy and making them depressed about the deficiencies of their own abodes. The woman holding the party is an Australian who’s house-sitting the apartment for friends, which meant it’s full of all their furniture, paintings, books and the kind of global artefacts that say “well-travelled and cultured”. Given that, it was brave of her to throw a party, but then if I was living somewhere like that I’d want to show it off to everyone too. It’s on the fifth floor of an East Village walk-up. From the outside the building doesn’t look like much, but when you come into the flat you immediately feel welcome and at home. It’s one really long thin room, with a sloping roof, wooden floors and an exposed old brick wall. But the wow factor was the fireplace at the foot of the wrought-iron bed, which had a crackling log fire in it that captivated people with its light in the primitive way that real fires do (so rarely do we see them). The party was like two parties: we turned up at 10ish and the ratio of women to men was about 10:1. Ch and I then got into a long, catching-up conversation, then when we decided to go and get another drink, suddenly the ratio had flipped the other way round. Much more like it. I’m not that comfortable surrounded by hundreds of other single and semi-single women, who invariably are also not comfortable around hundreds of other single and semi-single women.


There’s a bit of a fun-serious swing going on with this blog. Last week went to a lecture by an Indian economist based at Columbia, A P. Columbia’s so omnimpresent in this city, or at least in the corners of this city that I’ve been hanging out in – there’s a lot more still to be explored that doesn't touch the university and that the university doesn’t touch. A. P. had a rather infuriating fixation with numbers (though understandable, given his profession). He viewed India’s growth in purely economic terms, arguing that along with that growth, the social divides and difficulties will gradually resolve themselves. Yet despite me not liking much of what he said, I couldn’t help liking him, as he conveyed his calculations with charm and a twinkle in his eye. I liked an analogy he made between India’s stagnant growth prior to the opening up of the economy in 1991, and cricket (what else?!). Just as you will never have the best cricket players if they only compete locally and nationally rather than internationally, you will never produce the best products unless you compete in the global marketplace. The problem with that argument though, is that marketplace competition is often for “cheapest” rather than “best”.