Friday, July 31, 2009

New York missive no 56 - Brighton Beach, Governor's Island, and tapestries

New York’s stormy this Summer. There’s a humidity that brews then explodes at intervals, drenching pedestrians.

On Saturday, C and I got to Brighton Beach just when a monsoon-like downpour hit. Thousands of people in skimpy beach clothes were sprinting off the beach (we were headed towards it in search of L), scurrying for shelter even though they were already soaked to the skin, and not sure where the shelter they were scurrying to was, and flapping sodden towels behind them.

We squashed with lots of others beneath some scaffolding where L found us. In 10 minutes there was clear sky and sunshine and bodies beach towels were re-established on the sand. A long swim in the sea made me, as it always does, a happy creature. Then a feast of food from the former Soviet union in a 80s-style cafe blaring cheesy Russian pop. Despite the strong post-Soviet influence the beach was diverse of course - a cross-section of all New York escaping the streets to get salty and sandy, and relax (for the brief period that New Yorkers are able to).

On Governor’s Island the next day for a Judy Collins concert we kept casting wary glances to the sky. It had ominously dark patches like eye bags. But no rain. The rain didn’t come till the evening when AG and I watched from our window West Village fashionistas try to protect their meager dresses (the meagerer the costlier) and shoulder-slung shopping bags from the downpour. Then another storm came in during my writing class on Wednesday. We sat round in CW’s apartment commenting on each others work to the deafening accompaniment of thunder claps.

Unlike the previous week, CW's big cats left me alone. Then, I seemed to have the appeal of a saucer of milk – they didn’t quite lap me up but did stalk around my chair and slink across my shins which was somewhat distracting and gave me the giggles. They must have smelt C’s cats on me and liked it.

During the class we briefly described elements of our “material”, i.e. the stuff we want to write about. The classes have been all about mining that material without spelling it out. So it was interesting to pause and think about what exactly that material is. Here’s what I jotted down - very much an instinctive and provisional list:

Prisons: More broadly, freedom and what it means to have or not to have it. And also injustice – in itself (because it makes me angry, hence good material), and how people deal it out and deal with it. Interested in perpetrators and victims – the power dynamics involved.

Navigation: Of places and of lives – combining maps of cities and places with the ways that people navigate themselves and each other. How people need to put markers down, choose which direction to take and what’s significant, give meaning (or a sense of direction) to things where there may be none, etc. Exploration, openness, curiosity, exposure.

Legacy: How people want to leave their mark on the world. Something that will stay behind after they die. Could be something built, something written, something painted, or a child.

Leaving: How people hurt themselves and each other by leaving – but can equally hurt themselves and each other by staying. The tension that causes.

Mental health: How vulnerable our minds make us. Responses to trauma. And how people described as ‘mad’ are often the wisest.

Nature: As a backdrop to everything. Because that’s where we come from.

Other things: The sea, snakes. Magic in ordinary things.


Seems to be a Radiohead revival at the moment. Am in Mojo (heavy thunderclouds brewing outside) and it’s playing, and in my other early morning hangout, the Roasting Plant at 7th and Greenwich Aves it’s on all the time.


Tapestries are assuming significance. There was my encounter with Elias Sime's beautiful tapestries early this year, and the memories they brought back of my grandmother’s (among so many other things they were part of her legacy – the mark she has left on the world). There’s CA’s search for the right big tapestry for his wall. And to zoom further out of my immediate world, the new Director of the Met, Thomas Campbell, is a tapestry guru. Can't be many of them in the world. Rebecca Mead did a captivating profile of him in last week’s New Yorker.


As magnificent as the thunderstorms are the luminous calms that follows them. I'm about to emerge from the coffee shop into one.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

New York missive no 55 - Arrival of the High Line

Three walks up the High Line.

Something magnificent has appeared on the western edge of Manhattan. I say “appeared”, but it is more the result of dedicated design and years of hard work. Originally an elevated freight train line built in the 1930s, the last train ran along the High Line in 1980 and it has now been transformed into a long, thin park. It’s a splash of wild green slicing up through the mix of fast-disappearing warehouses and fast-developing expensive apartment blocks that make up the west of the meatpacking district and Chelsea.

A few days after it opened I walked along it to work (just a little detour west from my usual route, oh lucky me). It was 7 in the morning so there was hardly anyone else there. Just a man by an easel painting the view and a very occasional jogger. I took my time, taking what I thought were arty photos. Of the wide staircase up to it from the end of Gansevoort Street, with its high walls that make you feel like a train emerging into light from the end of a tunnel. Of the smart and scruffy urban scenes that crowd beside and below it – a yard full of scrap including a mannequin wearing a spacesuit, ceramic urns and an old tv set…glimpses of the Hudson river…pipes and air conditioning units…redbrick-blue-glass-plain-glass buildings…a metal rack of new cars (is that what they’re called?) – and of the High Line itself with its wooden walkway and freshly-planted plants that still looked a little vulnerable.

The second time, I walked faster – a more New Yorkerly pace now that the childish wonder had gone. Like a traveler getting used to being in a new city and putting on an air of “I know my way round this place”. (Oh dear, is that as long as amazement lasts – just one day – in this city where surprise is so commonplace? But that sounds mournful, which is unintended. It’s the constantly vanishing then regenerated sense of surprise that I love about New York, and the knowledge that I’m sharing that feeling with so many millions of others, alive and dead). The painter was there again with his easel. This time he was just beyond the new Standard Hotel which is meant to be oh-so-cool but from the outside looks little more than a concrete slab. And there was another man, who seemed to be experiencing what I had been the first time. Now he was the one dawdling with his camera, tugged this way and that by the quirky angles begging to be snapped.

The third time I walk along the High Line is about 10 days later, after returning from a trip to London and Amsterdam. Wow the plants have grown fast. The seedlings by the south end are almost trees already. There are wild flowers of all kinds, including some dramatic purple prongs. And hovering all about the place like bees are High Line staff in shorts and new T-shirts, clutching trowels, being productive and making me think what a fabulous way to spend a morning. The awe’s returned. (Thought I’d throw in a past-to-present tense change there…having experimented with it in latest creative writing piece and thinking it suits…).

As P said in a recent email from the Swiss mountains that are now her home: “Nature designs in perfect balance, every single element with a purpose and function and the most aesthetically pleasing result. You will never see a flower with clashing colours, a disproportioned tree, or hear a bird sing out of tune. And yet the number of different designs is phenomenal…So I’ve decided - nature is the icon and peak of design that all should aspire too…I think if you are to design something, approach it as nature would.”

Or in the case of the High Line, design it with nature.


A delightful conversation of sorts overheard in a coffee-shop last week. A man in his mid-forties and a younger woman were playing chess on a tiny board. I thought, but might have just been imagining it, that the man was savouring the times when it was the girl’s move, because she would be staring intently at the board and he was able to sit back and stare gently at her. The conversation was more remarks than conversation.

“I should have killed your bishop” (her).

Then a few moves later when he returns from the bathroom, “Man how exciting, how very exciting. I could get killed. Seriously killed.” (him).

“That’s what I like to hear” (her).

“Aha. But no.” (him).

“Damn I always loose because of that.” (her, as he deftly slips, with a little hop of a castle or prance of a knight – I couldn’t see – out of danger’s way using an escape route she hadn't forseen).


Last weekend was a precious weekend in Amsterdam catching up with K. We strolled and talked and strolled and talked. We saw herons disappointed on Sunday when it was raining and when the Albert Cuyp market outside K and T’s apartment was closed (hence no herrings for them). Silly birds they just stood there on top of cars and on rooftops getting their feathers wet, waiting for the rain to pass. We did eat herring though – hah – bought the day before. We saw a Klezmer band at the BadCyup. It was, it seemed, the first gig for the young girl playing the accordion. She was playing well and loving it but cringing shyly whenever she was brought centre-stage – K said she thought that’s what I would be like (something to do with my not liking having my photo taken no doubt). I admired the way that K has decorated their bathroom wall with covers of penguin books cut from “700 Penguins”. And we cooked. Hooray! I realized how crazy it is that I never, ever cook in New York. I resolved to do so more but am already doubting my own resolution. We made delicious veggie things from the Ottolenghi cookbook involving broad beans, radishes, pickled lemons, grilled halloumi, asparagus, coriander, garlic, grilled cherry tomatoes, courgette…(not all in the same recipe).