Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New York missive no 48 - Call it Sleep, Great Gatsby

Café frequenters coming and going like ghosts. Some chew on pencil ends, some leaf through pages, some alternate typed sentences with spoonfuls of granola. Look up from your book and the person across the room has gone. Am in Doma, the epitome of a West Village café for people writing, reading, chatting quietly, any upbeat tune followed by a classical one or something peaceful, out of respect for customers trying to think.


New York might have a reputation for ceaseless progress but I’ve been struck by how many people have nostalgia disease. An affection for things past. Not pride in the past, in the way European city inhabitants are proud of their historic monuments, those solid stepping stones of progress (here there’s no need, the evidence of progress is now, everywhere, and it doesn’t always look good). More an anti-progress sense of past. A resistance to the “achievement” that’s meant to define this city. Hence the mourning of markets that make way for high-priced apartment blocks. Hence the fond capture of surviving eccentricities through words, photos and recounted stories, keeping them alive a little bit longer.

Two recently-read New York books are filtering into my days at the moment: Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (don’t really need to preface Great Gatsby with “Fitzgerald’s”, but did so to be fair). Call it Sleep is infused with light – light in the form of “bright brass faucets”, the flame of a “shadowy lamplighter”, the hypnotic brilliance of a shaft of sunlight on East River, light that’s analogous to language and that the child narrator David uses to navigate his experience growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of last century. So I’ve been noticing lights about the place more than usual. Light trickling along subway tracks before a train emerges from a tunnel. Plates of silver light lying on wet pavements after rain. Gold light catching on thousands of windows at sunset.

And then Great Gatsby for various reasons, including its playfully relentless life’s a dream message (echoing so many other life’s-a-dream-messages gone by, “que toda la vida es sueño / y los sueños, sueños son”). For example saw B for the first time in ages last Sunday. I was amused to realise that much of what I’d been feeling was the result of an over-active imagination. The dreams themselves are real though, even if transient. And even if the dreams are transient, the fiction that captures them (in Fitzgerald’s case not mine!) endures.

Mmm, well a little cynical perhaps. There are real things too!

Monday, March 30, 2009

New York missive no 47 - The Cambria

Things overheard out and about recently include “he’s a nice, normal guy, but he carries a small pocket knife” (on W11th), “es una bruja, es una pesada” (in Doma), and “if it’s illegal, I’m in” (outside Fashion Institute of Technology on W27th).


Have been thinking about productivity recently. More than ever, it seems, I’m most productive if I have a tight deadline. So the best sentences I write for my Writers Studio exercises are invariably the last-minute ones that spring up onto the page just before I leave for the class at 5.55 on a Wednesday. Or funding proposals flow so much easier when I just have a couple of hours to work on them. Maybe I should establish a new work-pattern that involves squeezing things I need/want to do into a little last-minute pocket of time where there’s no room for distractions and alternative tasks. Then all the remaining time can be filled with idleness – a place that often births pleasant surprises.


Ch and I saw a fabulous play at the Irish Arts Center last Friday night. For all the following week I was like a boa constrictor slowly digesting a big meal. Called "The Cambria", it was the story of Frederick Douglass’ sea voyage (on the Cambria) to Ireland, following the publication of his autobiography Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, for which slaveowners had put a bounty on his head. With minimal staging and just two actors playing the full cast of characters on board the ship – from holier-than-thou liberal choirmistress to sneering slaveowner, from Frederick Douglas himself to the Captain, for whom the voyage is one of moral discovery – the audience felt like it had been on board too. What theatre’s all about.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

New York missive no 46 - Paul Auster & an 80s party

On Thursday L, D and I heard Paul Auster giving the Lewis Mumford Lecture at City College’s school of architecture. He called the lecture City of Words. It was in the college’s Great Hall, which has tall stained glass windows hexagoned in delicate greens and blues lined up along its walls. I couldn’t help stealing glances away from the stage to watch the dimming light fall through them: by the end of the lecture, at 7.30ish, it was extinguished.

Light and stained glass windows aside the lecture was good, of course. Auster was a tad lazy in that he didn’t write new words for it. Instead he read old ones in the form of short extracts from his books that captured city experiences. But hey, he is a writer not a speachifier, and the extracts he read merited resuscitation. There was a magical moment as a quiet bell started ringing outside while he read descriptions of homeless people from City of Glass, as if it was his homeless characters acknowledging their presence out on the streets. He read from Moon Palace which I found scarily unfamiliar. I knew K and I had both read it when we were in Madrid but I didn’t remember it at all (omigod how many words have tumbled into my head just to vanish like in quicksand, best not to be thought about…now I realize why EF from the age of six-ish kept little notebooks she jotted thoughts in every time she finished reading something). Yet the Moon Palace extract was also familiar, in that it echoed recent thoughts - like when the narrator/Marco Fogg says “you cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.” That’s the beauty of literature, an echo chamber for experience.

The extract was from when Marco is living in Central Park. While there he realizes that “once you throw your life to the winds, you will discover things you had never known before, things that cannot be learned under any other circumstances. I was half-dead from hunger, but whenever something good happened to me, I did not attribute it to chance so much as to a special state of mind.”

Well I should be writing a big funding proposal instead of this, but my head is a little fuzzy after an 80s party at SK’s that spiralled into what will no doubt be one of the parties of the year, in the unpredictable and spontaneous way that parties sometimes do. The apartment was rammed with people in ridiculous costumes dancing away, shouting quirky conversations over the music, everyone oozing a love-everyone-mood induced by no more than wine and vodka. So much for recession-gloom…or maybe it was a collective finger-up at recession-gloom.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

New York missive no 45 - Uptown moments, David Foster Wallace

Am digesting lots of sushi and a blowfish saki. JB and I just went for a meal at a Japanese restaurant in mid-town following a consultation at the UN. Very Japanese, in that at first we were led to the upper floor even though there wasn’t a single person eating there, and then to the far right-hand corner of the upper floor, presumably because we didn’t blend in with the clientele downstairs. We manoeuvred our way back down though.

So before they’re layered over with more downtown images I’ll record some of my uptown moments (not that I won’t be still be going up there sometimes!). There was the first McCain-Obama debate in the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Its walls were draped in history in the form of photographs of jazz musicians who had played there, and the auditorium thrilled with the flush of history in the making.

There was a night of music, when Ch, Sa, L and I had planned to go to Smoke jazz bar but found it full for the first session. Instead we went (through a friend of L’s Mum), to a free Brahms concert performed by Russian musicians in an old hall somewhere in the W 70s. The violinist and pianist both had paunches and ill-fitting suits. They gave their brows dramatic mops with handkerchiefs between each movement. The pianist’s pile of hair flopped about as he swayed on his piano stool. The page-turner was a teenage boy with a prominent red polo logo on his shirt. There were quite a few fur coats, big hair-dos and smartly turned-out Russian children in the audience. Yet these visual details were just a merry accompaniment to the music itself, deep and dreamy and oh such a relaxing way to spend the first part of a Saturday night. That was followed by wine at the French Roast on the corner near there (I had thought the one on 6th Ave and 11th was the only one, so was disappointed to discover it’s not unique). Sa then headed home to his Thai lover and Ch headed home to sleep as she was running a half-marathon next day, and L and I went back to Smoke to catch the last set. It was a celebration of the drummer Jimmy Cobb’s 80th birthday. He played, and played good - after all he was the drummer on most of the Miles Davis albums - but this was clearly the third and final set. At midnight on the dot he and the band laid down their drumsticks and trumpets and made a beeline for the bar.

Other uptown things...English conversation classes with mother tongue Spanish-speakers from Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico in Washington Heights (an excuse for me to practice Spanish as much as help their English)…a fascinating talk at New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen branch on Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series…and a stunning walk one morning down from 145th, after turning up at the swimming pool in Riverbank State Park to find it closed (oh where oh where are the good big open and affordable Manhattan swimming pools?!). The sun was just rising as I walked through Harlem, gently kissing quiet streets awake.


I've come across several examples of privatization-of-public functions gone crazy recently. Which is a little ironic in the midst of a financial crisis in which companies are being bailed out and bought out by governments all over the place, though both are symptoms of blind faith in the market. For example in Dan Baum’s new book about New Orleans he apparently describes how “the Superdome turns into a Dantean circle of hell. The coroner can’t figure out why no one is bringing in bodies. Soldiers aren’t allowed to pick them up; neither are state police. Eventually an outside contractor arrives, and the coroner says bitterly: “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Dead people rot on the streets of New Orleans for a week and a half so the feds can sign a private contract.” Or there’s the court case underway at the moment in Pennsylvania. Two judges have pleaded guilty to taking over $2.6 million in kickbacks from two private youth detention centers in return for sending teenagers there - some of them for minor, first-time offenses. Apparently one of the judges sentenced over 5,000 juveniles since the kickback scheme started in 2003. Everyday I’m immersed in cases of business behaving badly. It’s easy to become a bit numbed by them, to let my sense of outrage get worn down at the edges, until a case like that electroshocks it back to life again.


A strange, intense appreciation has come over me, naff as that may sound. An overwhelming sense of privilege and being awed by the tiniest things.

Is it because Spring’s coming? (Albeit in fits and starts via the occasional disruptive snowstorm, like last weekend's which is now melting in heavy splashes from scaffolding and windowsills).

Is it because of the crisis-recession-downturn-or-whatever-we-like-or-dare-to-call-it? Out for dinner with PK the other night we got into talking about how "it" is making us reassess priorities and value the things we have. Which of course was easy for us to say, who still have jobs, and who had just emerged from hearing Jesseye Norman speaking at Carnegie Hall (she’s as charismatic a talker as she is singer, her conversation sparkling with vivid anecdotes). I doubt most people who have lost their jobs, houses, healthcare, pensions, or all of those are savouring a reassessment of priorities, they’re in a dark place living day to day.

The downturn has also birthed a new breed of guilt-quickly-transformed-to justification for spending. Several times recently I’ve heard myself and others rationalizing carrying on as usual, deciding to eat out, have an extra glass of wine rather than spending more cautiously and saving, either on the basis that “we may as well enjoy it while it lasts”, or on the basis that doing so will support the economy, keeping small businesses and shops alive.

But back to the intense appreciation feeling. It was echoed in a speech I read this morning over coffee (back at Mojo’s again, yay!) – David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address. I’m no longer surprised in this city when I find echoes and reflections between things I see, hear and read: the frequency of interactions means it’s inevitable there’ll be connections between some of them. And alertness to connections is a kind of survival strategy too, weaving patterns and logic through what could seem disconnected sequences of events.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience,” Wallace says. And, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness…if you really learn how to pay attention…It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation [he had just described a stressful trip to the supermarket in cinematic detail] as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital T-True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.” (His "try" there a tiny but such a loaded word). The speech throws open window upon window upon window of possibilities. I guess you could sum his message up as, "it's all in the attitude." But in the most profound and liberating, and challenging, of ways.