Monday, May 19, 2008

New York missive no 22

The weather's been inclement. One moment an unblemished sky, the next a rugged storm with broken black umbrellas abandoned in bins on the pavements, looking like dead crows. Right now there's a post-rains fluorescence.


What was amazing about hearing Mahler’s 8th symphony in Carnegie Hall, music aside, was the audience: it's so rare to see a crowd of New Yorkers sitting still, their attention held.

Because this is a city on the move. No wonder there are so few charity collectors on the streets – the chances of someone stopping to chat, let alone give a donation in the midst of their rush from a to b, are minimal. On the subways the announcement “stand clear of the closing doors” begins almost before the doors have opened, instilling a mild panic in the exiting and entering passengers. And Ch and I both had similar first reactions to our separate recent trips to Boston: how everything feels like it is in slow motion. Meanwhile, SJ, at the Boston meeting, said that every time he finds himself on the streets of New York he feels he’s going to be pounded underfoot by a stampeding crowd. He lives in Geneva. Yet in the midst of (because of?) the crush, there is still room for interaction. For unpredictable New York moments like the woman who said to me the other day “geez that boy nearly got run over by a Hassidic skateborder”, as a skull-capped boarder spun passed. Or the man who’d attracted a curious crowd on Christopher street as I walked home in the early hours this morning from a balloon-filled loft party. At first glance it seemed he was recovering from a near-fall down one of the rickety cellar trapdoors that lurk along the pavements. He was straddling it, one hand on the ground. But when I turned to look again I saw he was holding a 5 ft snake, writhing as he dangled it back into its canvas bag.


There’s been a lot of music recently. Starting 2 Fridays ago at CafĂ© Tacci with M and D, a restaurant on Waverley place. It's nondescript on the outside yet on Friday and Saturday nights it comes alive on the inside with the sound of opera singers performing on a small stage at one end of the room. They're accompanied by the 80-something year old diminutive pianist, Iya, from Siberia. Leopoldo Mucci's the omnipresent effervescent owner - he must give at least 200 cheek-kisses each night to the diners, many of whom he knows, and the singers, who see him as a father figure. The restaurant brims with laughter and a natural warmth. It becomes increasingly raucous as the night progresses and the singers start performing from all parts of the room. By dessert, you feel as if you’re on stage with them.

That Saturday night was the Frank Weiss quintet in the basement jazz bar Village Vanguard. Frank Weiss is almost as old as Iya. He walks with difficulty even with the aid of his stick, and wheezes when he talks, yet somehow conjours a pounding sound from his saxophone.

At a small reception before the Mahler symphony at Carnegie Hall (I’d found myself there through P, as one of his clients is a sponsor), the hall’s resident historian described how when Andrew Carnegie built the hall it was surrounded by fields. Carnegie had noticed that the buildings of rich Manhattanites were creeping slowly up the island, so had the foresight to realise that one day that location “way up North” on the fringes of the city would soon be slap-bang in the centre of the action. As a wealthy philanthropist I guess he had the freedom to operate on a long time-scale, not needing to make a short-term profit (that, he'd already done through his steel business). Gradually, the kudos of performing at the hall and being able to attract an audience up to its then Northern location grew. To sell out at Carnegie came to be a mark of virtuosity, and after a while musicians were falling over each other for the challenge of performing there. Talking the following evening with M at a very different concert – a bunch of youthful teenage rockbands mostly from California – she said that’s the sign of a true businessman, someone who thinks not five, but fifty years ahead. She should know, working for Bill Gates. It seems now though that the destructive domination of short-termism drowns the efforts of long-term visionaries, or imposes such rigid immediate demands that the impact of their endeavours is minimised. Ideas and arguments for creating a carbon-free economy are out there percolating, but I’m doubtful they’ll be realised and scaled up before our addiction to oil’s got the better of us, for example...

The mostly-if-not-all from Calfornia rockbands (Phantom Planet, the Hush Sound, Motion City Soundtrack and Panic at the Disco – yet we didn’t see Panic as we decided to prioritise eating Mexican food and catching up instead) were performing at the Roseland Ballroom. On the wall in the entrance was a board covered in ticker-tapes with the names of married couples who had met there. I wondered if the hall had considered adding a green dot (or something) next to those that are now divorced, then felt bad for snuffing the romantic magic. There were many tickers from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, then fewer and fewer in more recent decades. Gone are the days when ballroom dancing provided a practical mating ritual. Now people resort to other tactics.

Then the following Friday, music of a different kind. Em was in town again and I went with her to a Ukrainian folk music concert at the Ukrainian museum (aptly), where Mic's friend JK combined the music with tales of “rough and tumble steppe Barbarians” (liked the sound of them), battles, love affairs and fickle shiftings of allegiances from the 16–18 Centuries. There was an exhibition of maps from that period on the walls, enhancing the sense of borders blurred, bloody and loved. JK was accompanied by two other musicians, one of whom was the bright-eyed IT, whose mini bio in the program described him as a “multi-instrumentalist”. He lived up to that title during the concert when he played everything from a guitar to a tiny mouth-harp to a hurdy-gurdy. Then at the end of the bio was the note, "In his spare time, he researches the genetics of pearl oysters at the American Museum of Natural History." After the concert a bunch of us found ourselves (aptly) in the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant – next to and more authentic than Veselka – drinking beers, eating pierogis and listening to the sound of the tango night going on in the ballroom at the back. Mic recounted how he recently attended a Roma wake in California, marking the year's anniversary of the death of a guy called George. In accordance with Roma tradition, apparently, George’s clothes were distributed among the family members, everyone ate his favourite food, and on leaving were presented with things he had enjoyed – or, as a friend of Mic’s who was also there pointed out – the things that killed him: packets of cigarettes and potato chips.


I’ve been reminded on several occasions recently of the impact of the September 11 attacks on the city. When M and D and I got the Circle Line round the island, the commentator referred frequently to the towers, pointing out the gap where they used to stand and talking about events as “before” and “after”. Yesterday, on an exploration of downtown, I walked passed ground zero and went into St Paul's Chapel, now filled with photographs of the dead and stories in words and pictures showing how the chapel became a refuge for rescue workers after their long and horrifying days scouring the rubble and dust: podiatrists working on feet in George Washington’s pew, cots lining the walls for workers to sleep on, volunteer registers for people providing food. Prior to a Ford Foundation meeting, I looked up the bio of the woman J and I were meeting, and learned that she had set up a project to develop models of resistance to fundamentalism, following the death of her mother in the attacks. And when the Writers Studio gang came round for a barbeque last weekend somehow the subject of 9/11 came up and people started describing their very personal experiences of that day and its aftermath. Cl on how she had to deal with the children at her school, where the decision was made not to tell them what had happened yet one had sensed something was wrong and piped up “I’m scared”. Al on how he had seen one of the planes flying low down over Broadway and phoned S to say how crazy, now they’re doing aeroplane tours of Manhattan. T on how she’d found herself pulled into a close-knit circle of transvestites at the bottom of Christopher Street on West Highway for a loud and passionate prayer session, how the highway was lined with people clapping as the relief workers drove passed, how she and G had tried to take blankets down for the injured, responding to the instinctive drive to do something, yet was told there was no need – there were no injured, only alive or dead. How when they drove back into the city after several weeks of living outside (their apartment was below the line marking where people had to be evacuated), with a sense of relief at returning but trepidation of another attack, her heart sunk when she saw a police cordon blocking the road. She asked the police what had happened. They said don’t worry, we’re filming an episode of Law and Order. So yes, the city’s back to normal, the world didn’t end on that day. Didn’t quite end, G added.

That was a tragedy in which people’s grief was exposed for the rest of the world to see and channels of support were wide open, compassion flowing along the shock lines. Unlike the victims of cyclone Nargis in Burma right now, who are being left to die by their own government and who have no way of knowing that the international community is trying to send help.