Monday, March 31, 2008

New York missive no 16 - Pee on seats, Madame Butterfly

Just back from a Jazz for Barack event at Cachaca in West Village: organised by an earnest Italian electric guitar player in a blazer and hat, who was accompanied by a beautiful Asian violinist with a mane of orange-tinged hair wearing a red dress, a funky Japanese double bassist, and a concentrating drummer. I kicked myself for having not, in the end, gone to a fundraiser at a lawyer’s penthouse near here last Thursday. A woman at the jazz event had been, and said it was buzzing with about 300 supporters. C’est la vie. It’s great there’s so much activity going on in the penthouses and jazz bars of New York’s West Village – let’s hope there's as much among blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania, where the next key primary is in a couple of weeks’ time.


Sitting on the table in the sitting room is a book called “Let us now Praise Famous Women”. What a wonderful title. It’s pictures taken by “Women Photographers for the US Government 1935 to 1944” – and from a quick skim it seems the point is that most of the women photographers, and most of the women they photographed, weren’t famous at all. Fodder there for a story at some time. Perhaps I could have worked it into the assignment for my next creative writing class (at the wonderful Writers Studio), though have already got my idea ready for that. The assignment, based on George Saunders’ The 400-Pound CEO, is to use a self-deluded 1st person narrator, in the setting of a ridiculous place of employment yet with all the mundane trappings of a normal working environment. So I’m thinking of something along the lines of a company for the “Award for Sexual Misdemeanours”. The narrator will be a thinly-veiled version of Spitzer.


A woman who recently moved to NYC from another part of the US wrote in to Time Out a few weeks ago. She said she’s been amazed by the extent women leave pee on the seats of public toilets here (though guess she probably said ‘restrooms’, which I still can’t get used to). It’s so true. Time Out didn’t offer an explanation for the splattering.


The values that come across strongest in what I’ve read so far of Audacity of Hope are honesty and inclusiveness. By inclusiveness I don’t mean just the awareness that as much unites as divides us, but also that lumping people into clearly delineated groups of “them” and “us” is both unrealistic and dangerous. Each of us is a unique combination of experience and opinion and full of contradictions that mean we don’t fit snugly into the pigeon holes politicians would like to put us in.

Obama also talks a lot about the tension between individual freedom – that sacred American value – and the need to be conscious to the needs of others. That tension’s so apparent here in NYC, where millions of individuals are relentlessly pursuing a dream of their selves. I said to B the other day that sometimes NYC can seem like an adult playground. He disagreed – there's more work than play here he said. That’s quite true, but by playground I meant more that it’s a place where people come to experiment and play out their ambitions. Maybe because I’m a newcomer I’m coming across a disproportionate number of other newcomers, but so many people in this city have come to push their lives either forward, foot on the accelerator, or in a new direction, seeking a richer, or fuller, life. That’s all very well, but the desire for self-fulfilment can become all-consuming and narrowing, giving you a kind of tunnel vision.

The past two weeks I’ve become painfully conscious of that. As I go about working and partying, salsa-dancing and spending, I’m wrapped in a New York that’s only accessible to a small minority. True, NYC is a collision of sex, power and money like Pete of the NYT said, but it’s also a collision of no power, no money (maybe not “no sex”! – which is free, usually, and ignores boundaries ). If our lives are jigsaw puzzles with lots of pieces we need to fill in to feel complete, I’m doing quite well piecing things together here: working on something I believe in; writing more; dancing more; creating more space for friendship and intimacy; learning; exploring etc. etc. But there’s one major piece that I need to fill in to feel that I’m plugged right into the city and playing a more complete role, and that’s working closely with people who've had a rough deal for whatever reason. Whether that’s working with prisoners or ex-prisonners (who was it that said that if you want to know a country look inside it’s prisons – which is probably even more the case here, a country where according to a recent Pew Center report, one in 100 adults is in prison), or with the homeless. Yes no doubt this reeks of noblesse oblige but it’s how I feel.

In a simple symbol of the fragile balance between the individual and the collective, some of the tombstones at the stunning Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx have a small American flag on them. So you have a stone with a person’s name carved on it and the national flag fluttering on top (and not just on soldiers’ graves).

What is it I love about cemeteries? It’s the combination of stone and trees. The quietness. And of course the unthreatening reminder of our mortality, and the memories they resuscitate of people who have died. Hence last weekend’s mission to Woodlawn. I’d left things tight, setting out at 2.30ish and knowing that I needed to get back home to the apartment and then to dinner at S’s at 7. And I managed to get the wrong subway line up, so emerged on the NW side of the Bronx instead of the NE. Some directions from a couple of helpful Irishwomen and three bus rides later I got there though, and it was worth it for the hour I spent walking in the spring sunlight among grand mausoleums, simple headstones and shapely trees. The plots and pathways are all named after trees: walnut plot, primrose plot, pine pathway etc. Many famous people are buried there apparently, including musicians like Duke Ellington, Miles Davies and Celia Cruz, though given my limited time I didn’t try to seek out the big names’ graves which after all look much like everyone else’s. There was hardly anyone else in the cemetery, except for the occasional family purring past in a tinted-windowed SUV.

Then on to S’s for dinner: miraculously 12 of us from the creative writing course were able to make it. We feasted on Lasagne and chocolate brownies and throughout the evening unpredicatable aspects of each others’ lives emerged. Like how S used to run his family’s funeral home and was once asked by a widow to return her husband’s penile implant. And how Su’s mother, who contracted a debilitating disease in her late 70s, decided to move alone to Florida from New York, leaving her husband and daughter behind, and died within a few months of getting there.


On Weds saw an elegant production of Madama Butterfly at New York City Opera. It’s such a simple story, and with such a small cast compared to most operas, yet is still huge. L raised the good question as to how Puccini, from his base in Italy at the turn of the last century so long before rapid global communications, was able to portray the clash of American and Japanese cultures so well. While M pointed out that Madame Butterfly wouldn’t have survived for more than a week on the Manhattan dating scene, where her heart would no doubt have been repeatedly broken. Have had my own, albeit less dramatic, Madame Butterfly moments this week: not peering across the horizon hoping for a sighting of Pinkerton’s ship, but watching my inbox for the sighting of an email from a lovely architect I met in a café last week (he got my contact details, I didn’t get his).


Have good intentions of making it to the Om Factory (only in New York would you find a Yoga center called that) before work tomorrow, having had another more-nocturnal than planned weekend: a bizarre wine-tasting event at Taj then salsa-dancing at SOB’s on Friday night…an art auction in SoHo where the people were as much the exhibits as the paintings, then a conglomeration of various groups of people at WhiskeyHouse where Iv was celebrating his birthday on Saturday night. Let’s see if I make it: I had good intentions of early-morning yoga several times last week but kept oversleeping, zzzzz.

Monday, March 17, 2008

New York missive no 15 - Writing NYC

Writing is using specifics and individuals to describe the universal, that’s all it is. A story can be told over and over again in a thousand ways with a thousand characters and still it will be true. Writers – and among them I’d include poets, novelists, journalists and ‘even’ politicians who can write (Obama’s Audacity of Hope happens to spring to mind! - have just started reading it after finally getting round to finishing the wonderful Animal's People by Indra Sinha) – are busy resuscitating myths, breathing them back to life to be consumed by a new hungry reader.

There’s been a bit of a writing theme to the past fortnight.

e.g. Journalism-related:

Last Wednesday I went to a TimesTalks event called Streets of New York: Writers Covering the City, where New York Times journalists/columnists Clyde Haberman, Dan Barry, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill and Susan Dominus talked about just what the title suggests – writing about NYC. And yes, as their names give away, the panel consisted of four men (average age 50+ I’d say), and one woman (who was clearly the youngest on the panel). At times it seemed as though the men were a little unsure about how to react to this young female journo in their midst, hence ignored her, or came out with comments such as, “Well, I guess all of us find ourselves inevitably covering sport in our writing about NYC to some extent, except I suppose you Susan, so you can be exempted from this question.” But gender-imbalances and slight aura of fusty institutions aside, the event was a riveting masterclass in the rather precise art of writing columns on city life. At one point Susan Dominus said - not doing much to remedy her minority representation - that she wished she had a pen and paper with her, so she could take notes on the nuggests of writers' wisdom, well more like worldliness, that her counterparts were spouting in their answers. Well lucky me sitting in the audience did have a pen, as well as my little red diary that keeps getting used as a notebook and is therefore getting taken over by spidery scribblings. There's not much clear space left now in the “December” and name & address section at the back; November’s pristine days will also soon be numbered I think.

Jimmy Breslin, who’s been covering the city and its gangs and its under- and uber-worlds and its changes for years sat in the middle of the five, a bit like a king flanked by courtiers. With his bright white hair, high forehead and black-framed glasses, he remained totally impassive as Clyde Haberman, who was chairing, introduced him in laudatory terms. He remained totally impassive too, when delivering his quips and cutting comments that had the audience in stitches, and when painting pictures through descriptions of the people he’s met. Such as the man who was translating Mein Kampf and insisted on having a secretary in his room the whole time he worked, even though there was nothing for her to do. When Jimmy asked why he needed her there, he said it was because he didn’t want to find himself alone in the room with Hitler.

Even though the panellists ask questions for a living, none of them was particularly good at listening to or answering them (that was also the case when John Humphrys interviewed Jeremy Paxman last year; guess it makes sense that they’re not used to and don’t enjoy being on the receiving end of questioning, would be a bit like a dentist finding himself in his chair having his teeth extracted by his patient...or something).

On writing about New York, Jimmy said he hasn’t had a cold in 50 years because of the permanent inspiration that comes from writing about the city. For Pete, the fact that NYC’s a large city where “sex, power and money are concentrated” gives it “a sense of outrageousness.” He described how each day you come to expect / hope for a murder – which reminded me of my sense of deflation the previous Sunday when I learned the reason the stretch of the West Highway near our apartment had been closed by police in the morning was due to falling scaffolding and building materials, nothing more gory.

On nostalgia, they talked about how it's one of NYC’s dominant emotions, how you know you’re really a New Yorker when what used to be somewhere is more real than what is there now, how living in New York is like “being at a wake the whole time”, and how it's hard to avoid writing at least the occasional story on the market that’s been closed to make way for a Starbucks, the community center that's been erased by expensive apartments. Bad journalist me didn’t make it entirely clear in my notes who was saying what hence I’m avoiding attribution. Other, that is, than to say that none of those nostalgia points were made by Jimmy. His take on that was “Worry about today and tomorrow. You don’t get paid from yesterday.” And “Away with ghosts. To hell with them.”

On writing columns, Dan said the crucial difference between them and features is that they have an opinion (of course) - though not an opinion just in and of itself, but an opinion fed by facts and colour. Yes, said Jimmy, you need a person or story at the beginning, then, “rising up with strong legs in the middle” is “the opinion”. Use, said Pete, all senses to make it vivid; smells etc. (not hard in NYC) that bring it to life in ways that television never could. And a good column needs to get two reactions from the reader: “I didn’t know that,” and “I never thought of it that way before." Which begs the point that if you didn’t know it, of course you’d never thought of it that way before – but I guess he’s saying it's either/or, or that both are different versions of the same thing. Jimmy added a third reaction to strive for: “If you can get a smile you win.”

They clearly revel in their work; in the fun of exploring and reporting on the city, and also in the sense of power from telling it in their own words and being read. “It’s a delightful occupation,” said Jimmy in one of his most gentle and direct comments. Yet they did not overstate their importance either. Columnists are like soloists in a band, we get up for a few bars and then sit down again, one of them said. You just have space in a column for “some urgency, some vitality, a couple of grace notes, and then you're off.”

Well I’d like to write too about a very different writing-related scene – Ilya Kaminsky, a poet from Odessa – reading his extraordinarily beautiful poems at the KGB Bar on Friday night. And Tim Minchin the Aussie-born, London-living comedian I saw at New World Stages, followed by lots of sangria-drinking with some of the crew from the musical Celia (as in Celia Cruz). And the article in the Onion (hence spoof) re the novelists’ strike that’s having no impact whatsoever on any other industries or the economy. And the mastery of Animal as the narrator in Animal's People. But time for sleep, will write about those other writing things some other time…

Sunday, March 9, 2008

New York missive no 14 - Serendipitous encounters and slug-bearers

Am ensconced in ‘Snice with a Cuban Panini having been to the gym to sweat out the effects of last night’s beer (at the “Asia Roma” Karaoke restaurant in ChinaTown) and preparing for some long over-due EWINY updating. So where to begin? Perhaps with a bit of peacefulness. Last Sunday afternoon, feeling sleepy and a little fragile from overdoing it (I have a tendency to over-absorb when I’m in a new place, leading to self-inflicted moments of saturation), I climbed onto the 11 Weekhawken Street roof about half an hour before the sun went down. The city’s wavering on the brink of Spring. It still gets whipped about by a cold wind, drenched by driving rain at times (like this weekend) and scarves are still essential. But there are days when the warm nuzzles through, birds flit about etc. That Sunday afternoon on the roof was one of them. I lay on my back. I realised that despite first appearances an “empty” sky can be endlessly entertaining. Helicopters, seagulls – flying solo or in tattered flocks – and aeroplanes criss-crossed the blue canvas as I watched. Perhaps there was some disguised maths in the pattern they created, or a continuously written and unwritten score composed of their flight directions, the angles they crossed at, and the differences in their height from the ground. SW–NE, N-S, NNE–SSW, 30 degrees, 190 degrees, 20,000 feet, 10,000 feet, 500 feet...


Thinking of Spring and rejuvenation's reminded me of Lygia Pape’s “El Ovo”, one of the exhibits at an inspiring exhibition called Arte ≠ Vida at the Museo del Barrio. Or at least, not an exhibit in terms of a work of art in its own right, but a photograph of one: a dancer clambering out of a white box, through a hole that she’s broken in one of its thin plastic sides. The exhibition is about Latin American “acciones”, or performance art, throughout the last century. So rather than seeing the works themselves, the exhibition’s an archive of photographs, film footage and written descriptions about them: which could be tedious, but given the power of the work represented it was riveting. Many of them were created during the dictatorships of the 60s and 70s, and the exhibition prickles with the discomfort of art struggling to, having to, represent life alongside the un-representable pain of real experience. There’s a film of Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés – coloured outfits of capes, hoods and wings that he gave to people to wear and asked them to respond to. The art is the person and the costume and their movement altogether. One man is imprisoned in what looks like a cellophane bin over his head. He’s in an underground parking lot. He squirms and hops beneath it but never escapes, dancing with his captor. In another clip, coloured netting slides over the anxious faces of its wearers. And in another a woman’s liberated by a bright yellow cloth to the sound of samba. In Alfredo Jaar’s “Chile, 1981, Before Departure”, a thousand small Chilean flags stuck in the ground march in a line from the mountains down to the sea, through the desert. There are many others I could describe...but I will just write out this poem that the group CADA (Colectivo Acciones de Arte) in Chile wrote in Hoy magazine in 1981. They had wanted to have just a blank page in the magazine, but the editor insisted they provide some text: Imaginar esta página completamente blanca Imaginar esta página blanca Acediendo a todos los rincones de Chile Como la leche diaria a consumir Imaginar cada rincón de Chile privado Del consumo diario de leche Como páginas blancas por llenar.


Two encounters: New York’s full of serendipitous collisions of strangers. Last Friday I had two very different collisions, that may, or may not, lead to anything more. I was getting a bit of work done early in Mojo coffee before heading into the office. I was sitting in the corner seat by the window. A guy came in and jokingly said, referring to me, “this young lady will look after my car”, a snazzy one he’d parked just outside. We got talking and in a couple of minutes he knew about my work, and I knew that he owns some smart women’s shoe shops, one of which is on Hudson Street in West Village. I asked if he has any clientele who might be interested in supporting our work, and he said you never know, the shop and its clients do already support Human Rights Watch etc. So possible outcomes could be fundraiser in his shop (picture here inspiring presentations projected onto the shop walls by me and big cheques written out by the likes of Sara Jessica Parker); or a date (a google search revealed he’s single, enjoys cooking, likes eating pizza and cupcakes, is a member of Young Presidents Org, MOMA etc.,); or no more than that random encounter. 

 Then at lunchtime I’d been at a Foundation Center training session on using your board for fundraising, and on the way out met Deborah Koenigsberger, one of the thousands of inspiring people buzzing round this city who had an idea and made it happen. She owns a fashion store in the garment district. About 14 years ago she started getting depressed by the huddles of homeless people she’d pass on her way to work, and one day heard a Stevie Wonder song (I didn’t find out which it was) that inspired her to set up an organization to help. She now runs, as well as her fashion store, Hearts of Gold, that raises funds for women’s homeless shelters across the city, and provides support for women who have just moved off the streets. I asked if Stevie Wonder knew her story. She said, yes, he does, and is now a Hearts of Gold supporter. Possible outcomes: we stay in touch and share experiences on fundraising and growing our boards; I get in touch with her re volunteering opportunities with homelessness organisations in NYC; I feature her in an article I’d like to write (I have a rapidly-expanding list of like-to-write articles, soon will have to start writing them) about the ways in which NYC’s garment industry is still alive today; or no more than that one random encounter.

Following the abortive salsa effort when I turned up an hour late for a class, I’ve now had the class and a couple of private lessons. I’m going to have a few more private lessons before joining “salsa 2”: was most chuffed to be advised to skip over "salsa 1". My teacher isn’t, unfortunately, a dashing Latino who whisks me off my feet, but the diminutive Jenny, a blonde woman who’s half my size, in all dimensions. She’s a great teacher though, and giving me skills that I can put in practice when I do come across dashing Latinos to dance with. Got some way there when Mi, Ru, Al and I found ourselves in Gonzalez y Gonzalez in East Village last Saturday night, where I was whisked off my feet by a Peruvian guy – a good dancer, though not much taller than Jenny. Before that we’d been at Habibi, a gay club night with a Middle Eastern theme at Vandam in TriBeCa, where a friend of Mi’s (a guy) was doing a belly-dancing show. Despite feeling a bit bizarre when we first arrived to find we were four girls in a roomful of 400 men we soon settled into lots of crazy dancing, carefree in the knowledge that no-one was paying us the slightest attention, other than Ru who got occasional compliments on her pink top.

The previous evening Ch and I had seen a wacky beautiful play, called The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island at the Vineyard theatre. The slugs of the title are the little lead weights in cheap electronic products that give the illusory sensation of “heft” and “worth”. The story revolves around the discovery by the 25 year-old student GinGin that the people of Kayrol Island work in deplorable conditions to create those slugs for export. She lives in Manhattan with her father, the eccentric Dr Rushower who befriends random people he passes in the street and brings them together once a year to solve the world's most pressing problems. After one of these meetings, he dispatches GinGin and a wide-eyed young man called Immanuel Lubang to Kayrol Island, to establish an institute for the appreciation of the poetry of electronic device manuals (Immanuel’s speciality). On the island, GinGin’s preconceptions about the islanders are turned upsidedown. The actors weave in and out of a stage set of moving cartoon projections – scenes of Manhattan, of rows of Kayrol islanders traipsing down to the port with lead slugs on their shoulders, of GinGin’s English literature classes etc, - a technique that perfects the play’s playful exposure of our flawed perceptions of reality. “I read it in the paper,” a character says to Immanuel on his return to Manhattan, refering to a story about their trip to Kayrol Island. By which point we take that statement to confer no more legitimacy than “I saw it written in the sand beside an incoming tide”. A similar feeling of fragility, and of presented and misrepresented reality, pervades the Democratic party nomination process at the moment. It's got nastier since Clinton won the Ohio and Texas primaries last week and emerged determined to keep on fighting.


Last Monday I heard Jeffrey Sachs speaking at a Columbia Club event called “Crossing Borders, Crossing Disciplines – reflections on working in International Development”. He was excellent on the scale of the problems facing the planet, of which he said the most urgent are the environment, population and poverty. Yet somehow his ideas for solutions were swamped by the problems he’d described. Despite his call for joined-up thinking and collaboration, his proposed solutions, which revolved around the escalation of new technologies to tackle climate change, disease, etc. seemed a bit piecemeal, addressing symptoms rather than causes. So, for example, he made the depressing point that the amount the Pentagon spends each day on defense would be enough to provide mosquito nets for all those who need them in Africa for five years, preventing millions of malaria deaths. “So we need to tell the Pentagon to have a day off,” he said. Which, other than flagging up how difficult it would be to tell the Pentagon to have a day off, didn't tackle the heart of the matter: the problems with the economic and nation-state system that are the stumbling-blocks to the commonality and co-operation he calls for. How do we break out of the cycle that leads the Pentagon to be spending extortionate amounts a day on defense in the first place? He did hint at the direction we need to take to find solutions when he read extracts from Kennedy’s 1968 “peace speech”. And in doing so he made, it seemed, implicit connections between Kennedy’s vision of peace as dependent on co-operation and understanding between nations and Obama’s message of the need for a new, more open form of politics. 

In the speech Kennedy says: “I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men. I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war - and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. First: Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many of us think it is unreal. But that is dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable - that mankind is doomed - that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are manmade - therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable - and we believe they can do it again. I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the values of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal. Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace - based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions - on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace - no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process - a way of solving problems."