Monday, September 29, 2008

New York missive no 29 - Bohemians, theatre, street festivals, a soup kitchen

Oh to have been a Greenwich Village bohemian in the early 20th Century. I’ve been reading "Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village – the American bohemia 1910 – 1960” (with an emphasis on the 10s and 20s), by the Village Voice journalist Ross Wetzsteon. He died in 1998, two years before the book was published. He reveals the intimate and extrovert existences of a place that became a cauldron of interaction between artists, playwrights, rebels, social activists, feminists and the occasional philanthropist. They were fuelled by a potent mix of narrow self-promotion and broad dreams of social change (some of which were realised). There was Edna St Vincent Millay, the red-headed poet who everyone fell in love with, Mabel Dodge the salon-host, Jig Cook who determindly kept the Provincetown Players running till eventually he ran out of steam and retreated to Greece, Max Eastman the editor of the Masses, Jack Reed the dashing young journalist, the whispy playwright Eugene O'Neill...Between them they formed and dissolved movements, established magazines and watched them combust, and slept with one another. The lesson that it's easy to practice free love onself but hard to accept it in one's partners was repeatedly learnt and unlearnt.


Monday and Tuesday nights last week, two events on wooden stages with different subjects but posing the same resounding question: what is a government for? The first, a reading at Joe’s Public Theatre of JS’s play (written jointly with two others) about Hurricane Katrina, The Breach. The play switches to and fro between three stories. Of a family stuck on their rooftop as the waters rise around them. Of a bar tender wheel-chair-bound by multiple sclerosis who just survives the storm to learn shortly after that his son has been killed in action in Iraq. And of a young, earnest white New York journalist pursuing the “truth” of black New Orleans. At first the journalist attempts to dissect fact from rumours (primarily rumours about the levees having been purposely exploded to direct the force of the damage towards the poor and predominantly black ninth ward), then realising that a chunk of truth lies in the origins of rumour, whether or not they can be substantiated.

The second, a PEN event “Reading Burma” at Cooper Union involving writers and exiled monks who were involved in the Saffron revolution a year ago. At one point Kiran Desai and Orhan Pamuk were on stage. She read testimonies from victims of Cyclone Nargis, including a woman who went into labour as it struck. In-between the testimonies, Pamuk read excerpts from the government’s mouthpiece “New Light of Myanmar” trying not to wretch as he released its words. The excerpts poured scorn on international relief efforts. Surely, the paper said, the people living near the Irawaddy were resilient enough to find wild frogs to eat.

Whatever the sins of the Bush administration I’m not going to start comparing it to the Burmese regime. But both Katrina and Nargis exposed government neglect for all the world to see. Has that changed anything?


On X’s last Sunday in New York we went to China Town for the Mid-Autumn festival. It turned out there were various other festivals going on around China Town at the same time. A pickle festival on Orchard Street (lots of tents with lots of pickles and lots of crowds sweltering in oppressive heat). A farmers’ market. And the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy, involving ice cream-stands, temporary restaurant terrazzas and fairground rides with booming music manned by grumpy women in tight t-shirts. We met Mi and co for iced tea to cool down in a nearby café, ambled on to a dumpling bar for a $11 Chinese feast, bought mooncakes to take home then wandered over to West Village via the concrete Picasso statue of a woman’s face that I’d never noticed before in the midst of the NYU student housing off Bleeker Street.


“What motivates you?” is what the now 96-year-old Louise Bourgeois asks of young artists who attend the weekly salons at her townhouse in Chelsea. Her scrutiny, no doubt, can be transformational or devastating. She’s someone who speaks her mind, and her mind is forceful, permanently unpredictable and renewed. She’s also someone whose life and art are one and the same. When P was in New York we watched the documentary about her, “The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine”. Then a few weeks later Sa, Lu and I, energized by a huge brunch at Kitchenette and walk through Central Park, went to her exhibition at the Guggenheim. There we saw one of her enormous metal spiders (representing her mother’s spindly resilience and calm), several variations of “cumuli” – clusters of mound-shapes in marble or wood apparently evoking either penises or breasts though they looked much more like the former to me – and her “cells”, rooms that you can glimpse into through cracks and gaps in the walls to see organised-disorganised objects like spools of red and blue ribbon, a child’s train running over a red bed, a pillow embroidered with “je t’aime”, a mirror propped up against a wall, and dresses hanging on bone coat-hangers, as if you’d been given permission to watch someone’s subconscious and experience laid out together on a vivisection table. The spiral of the Guggenheim worked perfectly for her art which is full of spirals itself, inspired partially by the twisting of cloth at her parents’ tapestry restoration business in France when she was a child.


The stretch of Broadway between the express 2 and 3 subway stop at 96th Street and 109th Street where I live is a Manhattan microcosm. On the sidewalk, the rich from Riverside Drive penthouses rub shoulders with the poor from the projects on Amsterdam, and at any given time there will be haitians, jews, southerners, dominican republicans, native New Yorkers, old, young, students and shopkeepers. When I walk home at night there are always people on the street corners asking for money. Yet last week on the night after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt suddenly it seemed like they’d doubled – at least three on every corner. That must have been a coincidence, but the atmosphere everywhere is one of economic fragility and current or pending struggle. In the elevator the next morning a man and woman were talking about a mutual friend who’d found a job. When the woman said the job was in the postroom the man sounded disappointed. “Well at least it’s a job,” she replied.

Every other morning a queue of people, most without jobs or homes, forms outside St Bartholomew’s Church on Park Ave and E 50th. Inside, breakfast is served with military efficiency. Enter, hand over voucher, pick up tray with cereal, hot stew, sandwich and banana, find a space at one of the trestle tables, eat, call out for whatever you want more off “Juice! Cereal! Stew!”, eat, tip the rubbish in the bin and exit as another enters, hands over voucher, picks up tray...At 10am the room has to be emptied of the last breakfasters. “Time to go home,” called one of the volunteer organizers on a Sunday morning when I was there. Her colleague laughed and corrected her, “Well, time to go…”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

New York missive no 28 - Rooftop films

In the New York summer, movies appear on rooftops, by rivers, in parks and in emptied swimming pools. A couple of Fridays ago Ch and I saw La Fronterra Infinita on the roof of El Museo del Barrio in Spanish Harlem. It’s a documentary about the determined journey made by migrants through Central America to the US, or to as close to the US as they can get. Sometimes that might be a border town in Mexico, sometimes a detention centre, sometimes a rehabilitation facility for those who loose limbs in their attempt to jump onto moving trains. One man, in his late teens or early twenties, had lost an arm and a leg. He sat on a chair looking straight into the camera with bright optimism – I’m going to try again, of course. I’m going to get there, or as close as I can, find some work. Find some work.

Watching that desperate voyage while sitting on a roof in the very city the migrants were trying to reach - with planes coming and going overhead - was intense. The filming was un-intrusive. It didn’t attempt to narrate or analyse. The camera accompanied people on their journey letting their actions and conversations report for themselves. The simple explanation that many of them gave, “I’m looking for a better life,” made complete sense. “Porque le interesa los inmigrantes?” asks one of the women in the film of the camera, which doesn’t respond of course. Then she adds, “Todos somos inmigrantes”. Yes everyone is a migrant but some have an easier journey than others.

Back home I told X about the film. She said a woman on her LLM at Notre Dame had won a prize for her photography of women who were raped on their journey from Central America to the US. Their story hadn’t made it into La Fronterra Infinita – but it was there behind the scenes through shots of vulnerable-looking girls. “Me siento sóla,” one of them had said.

A week later, a series of short non-fiction films about New York City. It should have been on the roof of New Design High school on Grand Street in the Lower East Side but given rain it was held inside, in an old-school old school hall with greek figures painted in alcoves labelled “art”, “science”, “knowledge” etc. The films about people’s stories worked better than those that panned the city vaguely in search of arty images. Like Bird Strikes about a man who trains Peregrine falcons to clear the runways at JFK of migratory bird flocks and P Star's Redemption about an eleven year old rap star fulfilling the dreams her Dad originally had for himself, but putting her tough confidence to the test in the process. One of the more abstract ones that did work beautifully was Native New Yorker, that tracks in black and white cine-film a native American’s journey from the northern to southern tips of Manhattan. He clambers over rocks in Inwood, descends from the elevated to the tunnel-wrapped tracks of the 1 train in Harlem, stares at the “Imagine” memorial to Lennon in Strawberry Fields, sees the twin towers fall in a cloud of smoke (9/11 happened while the film was being made) and watches contortionists entertain crowds of tourists near the ferry piers.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Belize interlude

Belize, a small country where people have arrived by force or fancy and made themselves at home. They include, at various points in time: British pirates who set about stripping the forests of their wood – the saying goes that Belize City is built on foundations of mahogany logs and empty rum bottles; African slaves; Mayans fleeing wars with the Spanish and now poverty in Guatemala and Honduras; Mennonites; Chinese shopkeepers; North Americans and Europeans in search of their corner of Caribbean paradise; Garífuna who were shipped from St Vincent to Honduras by the British in 1797.

P and I spent a week on holiday there in August. For the first four nights we stayed in Hopkins, two thirds down the coast. For a tiny town that’s essentially a road running along the sea with buildings on either side of it, Hopkins is home to a surprisingly diverse cast of characters. They live in relative harmony with one another yet the village dynamics are being churned and tested by the fast growth of tourism. Not long ago the majority of the villagers were subsistence farmers living off plots of land between Hopkins and the Southern Highway. Now only a few of the subsistence plots remain. And income from the banana plantations nearby has been drained by competition after the region's trade preferences were lifted. The stretches of beach to the North and South of Hopkins are now strung with expensive resorts run by foreigners (mainly South African), that at first did their best to prevent guests from venturing into the village in an attempt to keep tourism dollars within their confines. And at the Western Union in the nearby town of Dangriga winding weekend queues of people waiting for remittances from the US increase the temptation to emmigrate.

We hopped off the bus from Belize City on the Southern Highway turnoff to Hopkins at dusk and were readying ourselves for a long walk to the village when a woman pulled up in her car and offered us a lift. She was called Shona. She was excited to learn I work for a human rights organization. “Me too,” she said. She works with the Human Rights Commission of Belize on indigenous rights, land issues and awareness-raising, and said she was eagerly waiting for materials to arrive from contacts in Geneva to use for the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration. Shona has lived for periods in New York but its city-madness doesn’t appeal anymore. “It’s fun when you’re young,” she said.

We stayed in Hopkins Inn, run by an Alaskan, Greg, and his wife Rita (who wasn’t around while we were there). It consists of four cabañas in the middle of the village, on the beach-side of the street. Greg was among the first Westerners to move there. He negotiated the right to his patch of land with the village authorities by promising he’d be running accommodation only – his guests would patronise the local businesses and he didn’t want to wrinkle the fabric of the community. Greg is nostalgic for how Hopkins used to be and is even considering moving on somewhere new, somewhere that hasn’t been overrun by tourism. While his cabañas are low-impact and integrated into the village, it’s hard not to argue he was the first to push the door open for tourists and it was inevitable that crowds would follow.

Not that there were big crowds while P and I were there. It was rainy season. And hurricane season too, though we weren’t there for one, and amazingly there was only one daytime rainfall during the week of our stay. On the first morning we hired rickety bikes with back-pedal breaking from a grandmother who lived in one of the wooden houses up the road from Hopkins Inn. Her grandchildren were still on their summer break and pattered in and out of the house with friends to be served up the food she had going on a stove in the corner. I’m tired but yes it’s fun having them around, she said. We rode the bikes Northwards along a red-earth road to Sittee River village, a little inland. Bumping over the potholes, sweating from the hot sun but energised by the breeze – that kind of exercise beats a treadmill in a Manhattan gym, but the fun would no doubt diminish if that's how I journeyed to work each day. The appeal of what’s different. In Sittee Village we rented a couple of kayaks from a very stoned woman and set off down the jungle-lined river, pausing to watch turtles, iguanas and herons on the banks. The one animal we haven’t seen, I said as we paddled our way back after a couple of hours, is a crocodile. And perhaps that’s no bad thing. Just then there was a swoosh as the scaly back of a big croc rose out of the water next to us as it swam upstream. For the rest of the kayak we paddled faster, our hearts pumping with the sensation of very-dangerous-animal-somewhere-nearby-unseen. It was with a mixture of relief and disappointment that we later learnt from a man who served us cold Belikin beers (the only beer to be found in most of Belize) at an empty riverside bar near the kayak place that the Sittee River crocodiles have never been known to attack a human.

P and I being P and I we did less sitting still and relaxing than we’d planned. But there was plenty to slow my mind down and relax, including a peaceful morning I spent while P went diving, sitting on a wooden chair under a palm-leaf roof near the cabañas and not moving other than to swim in the sea. I spent the morning engrossed in tales of Greenwich Village exploits in the early 20th Century as recounted in the fabulous “Republic of Dreams” (about which more later), daydreaming, and sleepily observing. A lizard strolled over a wooden beam above me, doing a few press ups each time it paused. A group of kids came and played in the sea for a while, the big ones throwing the little ones over their heads to land with a splash. A couple of orange buoys hung like a pair of saggy breasts from a palm tree. The ground was scattered with broken coconut shells, flotsam and jetsam.

Two evenings there we ate un-beautiful but scrumptious southern Indian food cooked by a woman from Bangalore who ran a restaurant by the beach. We never learned when and why she’d come to Belize. She got the special ingredients from Belize City, imported via the States. We drank beers and checked email (just once!) at Oliver and Pam’s place – he’s a German who moved there to set up a bar and windsurf, she’s his beautiful young Belizean wife who’s apparently gone from shy to strong and assertive since taking up her new life with him. Each morning Margarita, from Honduras, slowly and methodically cleaned our cabaña, sweating profusely. Only two of the cabañas were occupied, so it was fine she took her time. We bought snacks and random essentials like flipflops from the two Hopkins stores, both run by Chinese families. Apparently one is friendlier to the locals than the other.

Next stop was Mama Noots’ “jungle resort” about forty minutes drive inland from Hopkins. Its owner, Nan, spends a lot of the summer months away so we were lucky she was there and happy to have us to stay – Greg had called her up the day before. There were no other guests. Mama Noots is a huge clearing in the rainforest turned into a tropical botanical garden with a few cabañas dotted around for guests and a square restaurant in the middle, with transparent mosquito-net walls. Nan’s family founded the second-largest rum company in Belize. After a period living in the US and working as a nurse, Nan decided to realize her dream of establishing a botanical garden and renewable energy centre in Belize that would attract people from around the world as a "sustainable living" showcase. Her Dad told her about a place surrounded by waterfalls and inaccessible by road where he and his friends used to go hunting. She bought it, built a road, and set about creating her garden. Since then, the land all around hers has been designated a national park (though Nan has concerns that illegal logging may be going on further into the jungle – why else so much more flooding every time it rains?). But the dreams have proven to be just beyond Nan’s reach. She separated from her partner a while ago and now tries to keep Mama Noots going on her own – though with help for a few months at a time from her two daughters and of a few people she employees to look after the buildings and land. But although she taps some of the waterfalls for energy, there hasn’t been the money to turn it into the internationally-recognized eco-project she had forseen. She's now looking for a wealthy environmentally-minded buyer.

We went on two walks that day, swimming at the top of each one in a cold natural pool and having a shower, Jacuzzi and pummelling massage all in one under tumbling cascades. At the first waterfall there was no-one else. At the second, there was a couple. The guy had stripped down into his trunks for a swim. The girl was sitting in her trousers, t-shirt and walking boots sulking. Perhaps she was ill from the climb up. We suggested that we leave them alone for a while and come back later but the guy told us it was fine to stay. We probably annoyed the sulky girl no end by climbing right in and swimming about enjoying ourselves. The guy tried to undo her shoelaces. She did them up again. She put her head down on her hunched knees. Eventually, somehow, he enticed her. She swam around, carefully, but looking much better.

Then back for dinner with Nan who entertained us with her stories. For example that of her second cousin, who has made a fortune selling rum to Travellers. He is setting up a rum museum in Dangriga and approached Nan’s first cousin asking to buy the huge copper drum that their grandfather had used for distilling and that they had used as a swimming pool when they were kids. Nan heard of the proposition just in time, she said. She intervened by insisting the drum is “priceless” and that 2nd cousin should pay the 1st cousin several thousand more dollars than he had offered. No doubt he will agree.

Our third and last stop in Belize was Millers Landing on the Placencia peninsula in the South, run by Annie and Gary Miller. Annie’s from Texas and first came across the peninsula when she was sailing around the Caribbean in the seventies. Gary was in the navy (just old enough to have been a Viet vet?). They met somewhere in the Pacific. They are trying to perpetuate an idyllic hippy-seventies existence at their resort but it’s tarnished by alcohol – Gary knocks back neat liquor all day long and Annie almost keeps up with her beers. Their beloved Alsatian, “Brandy”, helps keep the fragile peace. The resort, which they built themselves, has elements of creative beauty – whether the wild flowers that fill the garden, the pathways marked out by pebbles, the colourful paintings on the walls of the rooms – and elements of bedraggled abandon. Gary explained as a thinly disguised apology that there’s no point in doing annual fixing and renovations until just before the busy winter season begins, in case a hurricane comes and wreaks its havoc. That was no doubt a good reason, even if not the only one. A few years ago Hurricane Iris flattened some of the nearby resorts, including Turtle Inn that had just been bought by Francis Ford Coppola. Apparently Coppola wasn’t too fussed – the resort’s former décor was funky but tacky by his tastes and the hurricane made it easier for him to start from scratch, giving it the impeccably elegant style it has now (one evening we went in to savour a cocktail among dining honeymooners, to the sound cidadas and a Mayan band). Iris swept through Millers Landing too of course. Floodwater filled the house to the ceiling. But it remained standing.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

New York missive no 27- Country first

“Country First”, “Drill Now! Drill Now!” said the placards festooning the arena at the Republican National Convention last week. I was on the cross-trainer at the gym and when I switched on the TV thought perhaps the channel was showing a spoof show, a parody extrapolating the aggressive rhetoric, war-mongering and insularity to an extreme. But no, that was the real Mitt Romney on the stage. “We need change all right — change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington! We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington — throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain!” Hello? Ah the administration of the past eight years must have been liberal then. “Did you hear any Democrats talk last week about the threat from radical, violent Jihad? Republicans believe that there is good and evil in the world.” It could be funny if it wasn’t so scary.

You could feel a fired-up fear of change among the delegates, who were apparently a few degrees more homogenous than previous years. They were clinging (oops mustn't say that) to the comfort of each other and of unity in the face of a threat. Never mind the precise form of the threat, just that it’s dangerous. Huckabee was up next. Midway through his speech he also suggested that Americans do want change. “When gasoline costs $4 a gallon…You want something to change.” The crowd prickled. Change? Ok it’s bad that gas costs $4 a gallon, but change? Isn’t that a dirty word? There was a trickle of hesitant applause. “If you're a flight attendant or a baggage-handler, and you're asked to take the pay cut to keep your job, you want something to change." Nervous clap-clap. "If you're a young couple losing your house, your credit rating, and your piece of the American dream, you want something to change.” Hesitant agreement. “But let me say there are some things we don't want to change.” Phew. A palpable wave of relief through the delegates. “Freedom, security, and the opportunity to prosper.” A tremendous cheer, as Huckabee proclaimed those powerful familiar values.

What wasn’t asked of course, was freedom, security and opportunity for whom, and at what cost for the rest? In what way does the legacy of the Bush administration – which would be perpetuated by McCain – represent freedom, security and opportunity?

Huckabee told the story of a schoolteacher who one day emptied her classroom of desks. She told the students they could have their desks back when they told her how they should earn them. None of them guessed "right". Eventually 20 veterans in uniform carried the desks in and the teacher said, "You don't have to earn your desk, because these guys, they already did." Recognition of the sacrifice by veterans, fine. Perhaps it would be good to think about ways in which that sacrifice won’t have to be necessary in the future. But instead the implication of that annecdote and of so many other remarks made throughout the convention was that this is a country whose freedom – even the education of its children – owes its very existence to the defeat of adversaries in warfare. Is that what the founding fathers had in mind, even if implicitly, when for example Jefferson concluded the Declaration of Independence by proclaiming that "for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." For all the superficiality and razzmatazz of the national conventions – both of them – they are fascinating in the way they strip naked the American ideal, posing questions about what exactly it is and how it can be achieved. And they expose the contradiction between a single national identity and ideal founded on values (epitomized by the “Country First” slogan), yet one that rests on the primacy of the individual. Obama, despite the disappointing compromises he’s been making in the crucial effort to win, seems first and foremost to be about reconciling that contradiction. In his acceptance speech he articulated clearer than ever the “common purpose" that runs through his politics. He recognizes that the individual is at the heart of politics and that in a country / a world in which different values, beliefs and ideals are permanently jostling against one another the solution is not to push them all to subscribe to one value system but to find ways to make them work together. The question is how to convince them to work together. And how to make working together go far enough, when some interests wield so much more weight than others.

I’d been on the cross-trainer for an hour, feeling physically weary from the exercise and mentally weary from the addictive pantomime on the screen. And I needed to get a shower before the gym closed at 11. But I wanted to catch Sarah Palin’s speech too, so on I pounded through Giuliani’s snide jokes about Obama (he spoke in front of a projection of the New York City skyline of course, driving home the permanent threat of terrorism and his own heroic response to September 11 - not necessarily in that order). "Barack Obama has never led anything, nothing, nada… He worked as a community organizer. What? He worked — I said — I said, OK, OK, maybe this is the first problem on the resume. He worked as a community organizer.” Raucous laughter from the delegates. The Obama campaign couldn’t let that one go. “Let’s clarify something for them right now," it responded. Community organization is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies.”