Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New York missive no 97 - "The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces" stands the test of time

Recently I read William H. Whyte’s “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.” It recounts the results of "The Street Life Project”, which he began in 1970. Over a period of three years Whyte and his researchers observed and filmed “16 plazas, 3 small parks, and a number of odds and ends" in New York City. They examined how people used those spaces, how long they stayed, where and how they sat. In essence they looked for what made a small urban space work (like sunlight, water that people can interact with, the presence of food vendors, openness to the street, moveable chairs) and what didn’t (such as the absence or opposites of those things).

The researchers’ persistence in promoting their results paid off when in 1975 the City Planning Commission incorporated their recommendations into a new open-space zoning code. Since 1961 developers had already been incentivized to provide public plaza space; they were permitted 10 more feet of commercial floor area for each square foot of plaza space that they provided. The 1975 changes required that those plazas be amenable to the public as well as simply existing. And it asked them to provide a sign informing people of how the plaza is amenable:

“A plaque or other permanent sign shall be displayed in a prominent location on any urban open space for which a bonus is granted. Such sign shall indicate number of trees, and number of movable chairs, and any other features whose listing may be required by the City Planning Commission, the name of the owner and whomever he has designated to maintain the urban open space.”

Now as I go around the city I keep noticing the public plazas ensconced between soaring office buildings, and their accompanying plaques. Like the plaza between 29 and 30th Streets near Sixth Avenue. Here’s its plaque:

And the towering building that owns it, 835 Sixth Ave:

And one of the two “Weeping European Beeches,” next to the “reflecting pool.”

The style of Whyte’s book, while short and readable, seems a bit dated now in a 1980s textbook way (it was published in 1980). But the new plazas that appear with their shiny plaques are testament to the durability of his ideas. Human habits change little, it seems. If you observe them long and closely enough you will come to conclusions that stand the test of time.

Not that new additional features aren't introduced of course. The 385 Sixth Avenue plaza has a huge film screen on one wall that shows peaceful landscapes, or conceptual video art, or sports events in the summer time.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

New York missive no 96 - Occupy Wall Street, the map of Taiwan, slavery in rural & urban areas

The man on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 28th Street comes and goes. When he’s gone he invariably leaves a trace, like this one.


My fascination with all things maps continues. I learned recently that Taiwan is sometimes referred to as a sweet potato because that’s what its shape looks like when viewed on a N-S map. And that when viewed W-E it looks like a whale.


Recently I finally read Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. One of the many things that struck me about it was his descriptions of the differences between how slaves were treated in the city and the countryside. Such as this one:

“I had resided but a short time in Baltimore before I observed a marked difference, in the treatment of slaves, from that which I had witnessed in the country. A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his nonslaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave…”

It made me think about cruelty in urban and rural areas today. Can the same be said, that in an urban area people are more aware of what their neighbors are doing so they behave better? The density of housing is such that in many cases I’m sure that’s not the case anymore: abuses can be buried in the crowd, and even when they’re noticed often people won’t want to intervene, hardened as they are by it, or used as they are to not interfering with others’ business.


I think that ports and peripheries are where the heart of a city can be found. In Manhattan, not that it’s a city in and of itself, there is little port and periphery left. But there are remnants of them on the far West side of Midtown. A few Saturdays ago J and I arrived over there early for his swimming class. He was asleep so I passed the time walking in a loop down to the river and back, along streets in the 50s.

On the walk we passed symbols of how the city functions. Of how the basic dynamic is one of wealthy people living it up and poor people working to keep them doing so. We passed gleaming car garages. I had no idea there were so many out that way. The cars posed in their glass-walled showrooms like frozen zoo animals. We saw two massive docked cruise liners spewing out their passengers who emerged onto the city streets with an air of conquest, and spewing out their workers who crossed over the West Side Highway straight to a call center to speak with home. We got a glimpse into the stable where the horses who pull carriages for tourists in Central Park are kept. It was gloomy in there. And we saw a man cleaning out the stable, tipping horse poo into a steaming bin.


I’m glad that the Occupy Wall Street protests and related movements around the world are focused on national governments. That’s as opposed to past protests with more international targets, like the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” against the World Bank. Because ultimately it is the governments that individuals, in democracies, have voted into power, and so we should, if things were functioning ok, have some influence over how that power is used. The fact that we don’t is the heart of the matter.

I recently re-read the final chapter of Joel Bakan’s The Corporation and again was convinced by his argument: that given corporations in their current form are only legally accountable to their shareholders they cannot be expected to act in anyone’s interests but their own unless compelled to by the governments that created them (“incorporated”) them in the first place. “Many among the corporate elite and their defenders would likely sing ‘Hallelujah' the day activists against corporate abuse abandoned government,” he says.

(sign down in Zuccotti Park)

Monday, September 19, 2011

New York missive no 95 - The 9/11 memorial trees; and "Hopper's Vision of New York"

Since 9/11 beautiful clear days in NYC have an ominous tinge. One morning last week the sky was a pristine blue. The temperature was like body temperature with a slight breeze to keep things fresh. The city contents were enhanced by clean light: its skyward walls, yellow cabs, the passing faces of people weaving fast along the sidewalks etc. etc. All that beauty felt fragile.

Maybe that’s even more the case at the moment given that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 has just gone by, along with its saturated media coverage. I’d just caught snippets, thankfully, due to a 16-month-old JNH now permanently on the move. But I did see a bit of a documentary about the making of the 9/11 memorial, and in particular the bit about its trees.

They are about 400 swamp white oak and sweetgum trees. They’ve been cultivated at an arboretum in New Jersey, and must be among the most tended-to trees on the planet. Prior to their re-location to the memorial site each one had its own tub, with regulated conditions including a feeding and irrigation system. Each had its own perfect, private ecosystem carefully controlled by man.

There’s a video about the trees here.


In the big New York Times “Book of New York” – a collection of 549 of the newspaper’s articles about the city – there’s a piece from 7 September 1980 by Alfred Kazin, called “Hopper’s Vision of New York.” I love its last two paragraphs. Sometimes in the thick of the daily rush a piece of prose, a poem, or a painting holds things still. What I like about these two paragraphs is that they do that, while discussing paintings which do that too.

“...But there was one exception to the cozy, picturesque painters of New York: Edward Hopper. Unlike so many American paintings just before and after World War II, 'representational' and 'abstract' alike, his work was not slap-dash, hurried, theatrically self-conscious. The immensely tall, immensely quiet man I often saw walking in Greenwich Village seemed tensely alone; he reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s impression of Robinson Crusoe – 'a man staring at a pot.'

"Hopper for me was like his unprecedented paintings of solitary people staring at the glass in New York bedrooms, coffee shops and offices. Perhaps he had taken the advice of the philosopher Wittgenstein: ‘Don’t think! LOOK!’ Yet you could not have guessed what the handsome man was looking at as he edged his way through Washington Square park. His figures never looked through the glass they were facing. Their masked, identical hawklike faces were concentrated in thought unavailable to anyone, perhaps, especially to themselves.”

Sunday, August 28, 2011

New York missive no 94 - Ducks in the kitchen, history lessons, Irene

One of the (many) things I love about having a kid is the random things that pop up around the place. Like today I realized I was carrying a blue felt drumstick along the street. And sometimes ducks appear in the kitchen. JNH has a set of rubber ducks – red, blue, green and yellow. Even though he only really plays with them in the bath somehow they manage to find their way out. So I might find a red duck on the kitchen table with the food. And once the green duck made it outside in JNH's stroller till he dropped it. We walked back down the street a bit to fetch it: it looked very forlorn and out of place there in the middle of the gray sidewalk.


I was asked the other day if we had been taught anything about the American Revolution at High School in England. We weren't. It was a reminder of the skewed and dishonest portrayal of history that most kids are given. And it made me wonder, where can you find a realistic high school education in history, and what would it look like?


Last Monday I was engrossed in Crossing the Boulevard on my subway ride to work on the N train. The book is full of the stories of immigrants living in Queens. It conveys their experience through a beautiful combination of their words, and photographs of them and of objects that have played an important part in their lives. I had the book open at a page with a large photograph of Sultana Wakili, a woman from Afghanistan who had come to the US recently to join her daughter. It’s tempting to tell her whole story, but buy the book if you want to find it out – along with many, many other unforgettable stories. Talking of the ideal history lesson, this book would be a good place to start.

The woman sitting next to me on the train said, “excuse me, who is this lady?”, pointing at the photograph. I explained. She went on to show me what she was reading – a book of biographies of Jewish Nobel Prize-winners, in Russian. She said that she had bought it in a store in Brooklyn and that maybe they would also have copies in English. “I like history,” she said, and went on to say that in Ukraine, where she is from, she was a history teacher. She mentioned that Kiev is over 2000 years old.

She (I never discovered her name) won the green card lottery and came to the US in 1992. First, when she had no English at all, she worked as a nanny. Now that she speaks some English she works in a post office in Manhattan, carrying on her English studies from 6-9 in the evenings. Her subway stop was approaching. She said thanks again for showing me the book and added, “the lady is very beautiful, for that race.” Once a book like Crossing the Boulevard is released it can continue to inform and influence attitudes if not change them in all kinds of ways.

She said that encounters like ours on the train made her happy. “When you have a conversation like this on a Monday, it’s going to be a good week!” and she was on her way.


Hurricane Irene has been and gone. She was more tropical storm than hurricane by the time she hit New York. On Saturday there was plenty of pre-disaster capitalism on show as queues of people (ourselves included) hit the shops to stock up on essentials like water…and whiskey. Booze sales definitely got a boost this weekend.

I’d been wondering if we should sleep in our kitchen, in the middle of the apartment, to avoid any flying glass if the beloved pear tree fell. But we all slept like babies through the night in our usual places, lulled by the sound of wind and rain, and woke to an Astoria that was ruffled but not battered.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

New York missive no 93 - The man on the corner of 28th Street and Sixth Avenue

New murals have sprung up all around the Western end of Astoria's 30th Ave, the second phase of the Welling Court Mural Project. This is one of them.


One of the most creative people I have ever come across is a man who set up his home on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 28th Street in Manhattan. Some days I walk that way to work, some days not. Each time I passed his abode of boxes something new was going on with it. Once, there was a small pink stroller perched there with a “For sale” sign. Another time, one of the assorted collection of objects on display was a Beatles LP record with a note, “You don’t have to be English to love the Beatles.”

I rarely saw the man himself, an elderly white man. Sometimes a cardboard roof covered all the boxes and I presumed he was asleep inside. Other days, the whole home was exposed but its inhabitant was nowhere to be seen.

Then one day only fragments of the home were there, a few scattered boxes. The next, there was no sign of it at all. I felt like the space where he had been was a wound on the sidewalk. It may be over sentimental, but I really felt like the destruction, removal, whatever it was, of that man’s sidewalk home was a blow to New York and to spontaneity and other things.

Last Thursday on my way to work suddenly the home was there again. It was as if nothing had happened, except for a certain fingers-up bravado in its appearance. A large, closed umbrella stuck out from one corner. Elegant branches were propped along one wall suggesting a well-trimmed privet hedge in the suburbs. And the whole thing was festooned with American flags. There must have been ten of them.

On my way back to the subway station the man was there, standing up inside his home with a row of second hand books spread out in front of him along the sidewalk, and a bucket full of rose petals. “I’m glad to see you back,” I said. It was the first time I’d spoken to him.

“Come here, come here”, he said with startling enthusiasm. He beckoned and held out the bucket of rose petals and told me to take one. A plastic cup containing notes and coins was next to him. I took a rose petal and gave him 25 cents, in retrospect very stingy of me. What’s a fair price for a rose petal?

“Take more, take more.”

“One’s good,” I said. “Thank you.”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

New York missive no 92 - O Sole Mio

The other day JNH and I were strolling through Astoria Park and we came across a piano with the sheet music for O Sole Mio clipped up ready to play. We plonked our way clumsily through the tune under the plane trees, with a view of the East River. (Astoria Park is wonderful but biodiversity isn’t its forte – nearly all its trees are planes). The piano is part of the Sing for Hope project – there’s another one, a pink one, which I pass in Herald Square on my way back from work each day.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

New York missive no 91 - West forties on a Saturday morning

JNH and I have had a peaceful routine the last few Saturday mornings. We take the N train to 49th Street and walk across to his swimming lesson at the top of the Skyline hotel in Hells Kitchen, on 49th and tenth. All being well, he falls asleep in his papoose after the second or third stop. That leaves me free to read on the train (currently Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" - stunning) and free to amble and daydream on the walk three blocks west to Tenth Ave.

We pass the milling tourists at the northern end of Times Square in their pristine shorts and t-shirts ready for a productive day of seeing the sights, their eyes and cameras angled up at luminous billboards. We pass theatres – their old bodies clad in the new clothes of their latest show.

We pass brownstones and redstones that have seen better days, and the occasional gay man in sweatpants walking his dog. We see a few surviving fragments of the theatre district’s seedier past, like a peepshow squeezed between new restaurants on Ninth Ave. And today (walking down 47th) the Puerto Rican Travelling Theatre, the Actors' Temple - Congregation Ezrath Israel, a pet shop.

We emerge on 10th Ave by a small park whose plaque taught me today how Hell’s Kitchen apparently got its name. Click on the pic at the top of this post to read it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

New York missive no 90 - Naming colours, and Astoria Park on a grey morning

One day I was getting on the downtown 1 train at 59th Street when a young Chinese girl asked if I could help her name a colour. She was clutching a large board. It had scraps of different coloured material and paper stuck onto it. Rather desperately, she said “excuse me, but what name do you give this colour?” I paused then offered “ivory".

“Good, ivory," she said, and wrote it on the board. We got on the train. She sat next to me, and for the next few stops we worked through the rest of her colours. Some were easier than others. There was “baby blue”, “mauve“ and "black”. We both got off at 28th Street: she was headed to the Fashion Institute of Technology where presumably her colour-naming would be put to the test.


The day before JNH’s birthday I took him for an early morning stroll around Astoria Park (pre mum and baby music class). There was a slate sky and the East River was still. A black and white tugboat slid down it pulling a nondescript cargo. The arch of Hell Gate Bridge was reflected in the river to form an open mouth – leading to the winding throat of the Hudson if you were approaching (as I was) from the South, and to the clanging city and out to sea if you were approaching from the North.

It reminded me of a passage I’d just read in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The passage describes the city of “Despina," that can be reached by ship or by camel. When a camel driver approaches, he sees the shape of the city with its skyscrapers, radar antennae, wind-socks flapping and “chimneys belching smoke” as a ship. “…[H]e thinks of it as a vessel that will take him away from the desert, a windjammer about to cast off…”

When the sailor approaches, he “knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wine-skins and bags of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking him away from the desert of the sea…”

The book pushes its idea a bit too far. It describes many, many incarnations of cities to drive home the point that cities have the same contents – it’s the angle they are viewed from that changes and changes them, like a kaleidoscope. But it has some gems, like this paragraph that I pounced on and tripled-lined in the margin. It captures what I’m trying to get at with my 30th Ave website:

“Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.

‘But which is the stone that supports the bridge?’ Kublai Khan asks.

‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me’

Polo answers: ‘Without stones there is no arch.'"

Monday, May 2, 2011

New York missive no 89 - blossoms and lingerie

Walking down 28th Street to work I pass a little door sign to "A & J Lingerie", with in smaller font beneath it "and more".

The lingerie shop is tucked in among flower shops (this is 28th Street after all). So the sidewalk in front of it is festooned with blossoms. The blossoms are an appropriate preface to the lingerie, with their delicate petals in pastel colours.


On a rather different note, last night Obama announced that US forces have killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. He was buried at sea. During the day I've had two competing scenes switching back and forth in my mind. The technicolor cheering and chatting on TV screens cuts to a dark underwater silence where Osama's body drifts among fish.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

New York missive no 89 - St Michael's cemetery

One of the pieces in “Forgotten borough – Writers come to terms with Queens” is Marc Landas' "A Queens Necropolis: The Burial and Building of New York." It starts with a fabulous description of boats in the mid 1800s bringing the dead from Manhattan over the East River and up Newton Creek to Calvary Cemetery in Queens.

Queens is full of cemeteries that received waves of dead from Manhattan: produced simply by the expanding population, or the revolutionary war, or outbreaks of cholera – and that are now still in use for Queens residents.

C, JNH and I went to one of them yesterday morning. St Michael's Cemetery is an 88 hectare triangle of land that hangs down from the Long Island Expressway as it slices its way from Astoria to La Guardia airport.

We’d planned to spend the day doing something special. I’d come up with various options in Manhattan then tagged “or we could go to see St Michael’s cemetery” on the end. C knows my fixation with cemeteries. He said he thought that was probably what I really wanted to do and he was right.

We got the M60 bus a couple of stops to the cemetery and wandered in. We found ourselves in the midst of a funeral. A crowd of South Asian mourners was congregated outside the building where we slipped in to ask for a map. They didn’t seem particularly sad though. The gathering felt almost like a celebration.

We guessed that perhaps the dead person had been a taxi driver with an extended network of friends and colleagues who liked and respected him and who had come to send him off but were not as affected as close family would be. Some of the mourners had big SUVs which they stood next to proudly. It was a very Queens scene.

The young woman in the office must have been a bit surprised to see us there, baby in a papoose, requesting a map. “Are you looking for the grave of anyone in particular?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing Scott Joplin," I said. I’d heard that he was buried there. “And if there are any other noteworthy graves...” Though I didn’t really mind if the graves I was looking at were of famous people are not.

“No, he’s really the only famous one here,” she said with the strongest New York accent I’ve ever heard, and a little loudly for my comfort given the funeral gathering next to us. “But Scott Joplin is very easy to find…” She pointed us to a beige SUV and told us it was on a corner just beyond it, with a little American flag marking the spot.

The grave is a small stone slab lying flat in the grass. It says, Scott Joplin. American composer. November 24, 1868 - April 1, 1917. I loved its simplicity.

And I loved the higgledy-piggledy authenticity of the rest of the cemetery. There were few ostentatious mausoleums and fancy statues (it was founded in 1852 by the Rev. Thomas McClure Peters who wanted to "provide a final dignified resting place for the poor who could not otherwise afford it", according to the cemetery website).

There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the layout of the cemetery though maybe we were missing it: there are old gravestones close to recent ones, some are clustered closely together and others are spread out.

The stones echo the waves of immigration to New York and particularly to Queens. There’s an Irish name next to an Italian name, next to Greek next to Chinese next to Puerto Rican. What a story, what stories, the cemetery could tell. Yet unlike Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and others with their detailed tourist information, even tours, St Michael's seems to exist un-narrated.

The stories of the people who are buried there are merely hinted at by the minimal details on their gravestones.


From St Michael's we wove by foot and bus down to Woodside where we feasted on what must be the best Thai food in New York at SriPraPhai – one of those much-hyped restaurants whose hype is totally justified.


San Francisco and New York, two cities that other than their liberal leanings couldn’t be more different. We spent five days in San Fran taking JNH to see his tia Z, who has lived there since she was posted there with the army (now she works with kids with learning difficulties).

If you project the two cities to the future then San Fran is the clean, green machine city with purring hydrogen-fueled air-taxis and New York is the apocalypse, in a good way. I say in a good way because I’ve got so used to its pulsing chaos and endless surprise that San Fran felt too pristine and smooth. (That impression was probably amplified by the fact our hotel was in the swanky Mariner district. San Fran does have its rough edges, but they seem to be segregated from the bulk of the city rather than infusing it as in New York).

That said, we had a good time. Z has a car and we spent the first day moving from district to district: up to admire the view from Twin Peaks, down to her place in Bernal Heights, up and down to Mission for Peruvian fish, up and down again to Dolores Park...next day over the Golden Gate bridge to Napa Valley, then day three downtown and Fisherman's wharf...we crammed a lot in.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

New York missive no 88 - Choosing tributaries

I choose my own tributaries. In a world of seemingly endless sources of information (seemingly being the operative word), that strikes me as the most practical approach. At least, it’s the only way to make some sense of it all and weave a narrative. We all do that to some extent of course, even if the tributaries sometimes bring surprises. Thank god they do.

Given the quiet, incessant choosing and filtering, references that seem to be coincidences but in fact are nothing of the sort arise. One example from yesterday: the artist Jacob Lawrence popped up twice. In the afternoon, at an exhibition on the Apollo Theater at the Museum of the City of New York, a description panel included an image from one of Lawrence's Migration Series paintings. Then in the evening as I fed JNH listening to the radio my wonderful former journalism teacher Hariett Gilbert referred to him, during an episode of the BBC program The Strand.


One of the things on my 40 before 40 list was to learn about and make maps. I’m making a gentle start. I'm channeling some map-related sources into my life and finding that I’m holding on to random references to maps as I come across them.

I devoured Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer on my subway journeys to work. About which more in a later post when I’ve had a chance to digest it properly. (In the meantime, just “a magnificent book”).

A couple of recently-encountered quotes:

“This is a deep and mysterious happiness, to confirm the accuracy of a map.” Don DeLillo, in his short story Human Moments in World War III.

“More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors.” The last line of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Map. Of course the whole poem is about a map but that line bowled me over.

And I’d had the idea, before JNH was born, to decorate a wall of his room with maps. Then I realized that it would look rather pretentious and ridiculous in a baby’s room and not be much fun for him at all. (Instead there are black and white stencils of a boy sitting in the moon blowing bubbles, some animals and a quirky tree). Maybe when he’s older.

In the meantime he does now possess a special map. His baptism present from m and d was a 1799 wooden puzzle of the "Post Roads of England & Wales", passed down through m's family for 8 generations to arrive, for now, with JHH.


On Friday C and I saw three girls leaping in excitement on Steinway Street just south of 30th Ave waving a big Egyptian flag. We walked further up the street to see what was going on in “little Egypt”. It was a few hours after Mubarak stepped down. The street was surprisingly quiet, perhaps because of prayer time or work or both. But that image of the three girls with the flag was plenty to stay with me. A real-life image to accompany those rolling across the TV screens.


Today JNH went on a swing for the first time. We were in the playground on 45th Street near 30th Ave, which still had un-melted snow on the ground. That’s another image that will stay will me. His big two-toothed grin framed by the blue of his snow-coat, swinging forward and back, forward and back.

Monday, January 24, 2011

New York missive no 87 - Out of the ordinary

The white of snow brings out dark lines that in other weather go ignored.

I knew early on that my journey to work last Thursday would be different than usual. Walking along 30th Drive towards the 30th Ave subway station, first I saw a tiny dead mouse on the sidewalk. It was smaller than my thumb and looked like it had been frozen by the cold.

Then I saw a dog doing an orange poop. (The dog had positioned itself on the grassy verge in such a way that you couldn’t help but see what it was up to). The poop wasn’t orange in a normal way. It had swirls of fluorescent plasticy-orange like the jackets of track maintenance people. I got to the station, and learned that there were no trains running from 30th Ave to Manhattan because of an “incident” at Queensboro Plaza.

So I walked down to Queensboro Bridge and over the river. Walking across that bridge is always a bit thrilling. It’s thrilling because the bridge soars high above East River, its thick steel girders reaching to Manhattan which is, of course, center of the universe. But the thrill is qualified by a “bit”, because the thick steel girders and a mesh fence stop you from seeing much of the river below except in glimpses. And your walk is accompanied by the roar of traffic.

For me, the bridge now always makes me think of being driven across it in a taxi, in labour with JNH. I was being whisked towards an experience I knew would change my life, change “me”, for ever. It was good to revive that vivid memory unexpectedly on a diverted Thursday morning journey to work.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New York missive no 86 - NYC subway people who stay still

Most people in the New York City subway system are moving. Even when they’re standing on a platform waiting for a train they fidget, peering down the tracks as if to lure the train into the station. When it arrives, on they get and off they go to their next destination. But there are some people who do not move. You could call them fixtures.

On the NQR southbound track at 34th Street station there is the man who sits on a box at the bottom of a pillar and plays his accordion. I see him when I’m waiting for my train on the other side of the track. He plays classic melodies. La Vie en Rose, Lara's Theme. If you close your eyes you could be on the South Bank in Paris, just about.

On the NQR northbound track at 34th Street station there is the black guy with his possessions in plastic sacks piled high in a shopping trolley. He occupies the end seat on one of the wooden benches at the northern end of the platform.

Occupies, that is, until one day when I saw that a Navajo Indian had taken his spot. The new occupant had a sign, “Navajo Indian. Trying to get back to Arizona. Please help.” He was gazing into the distance and held out a little Dunkin’ Donuts plastic cup. The first day I saw him there I put a dollar in the cup. His eyes sparked up and he opened his gold-filling filled mouth to say “god bless you” before gazing back into space again. Who knows if he is really trying to get back to Arizona, but I felt motivated to give him the dollar.

The second day I saw him there, the black guy with the shopping trolley came down onto the platform. He looked distraught when he saw somebody else in his seat. He leaned against a nearby garbage bin, his trolley and bags gathered around him. And there he was, leaning against the garbage bin, when my train arrived, on I got and off I went.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

New York missive no 85 - resolutions, Dominican Republic, and Oakley sunglasses

Well, so much to write and not the time to write it in.

Briefly, new year’s resolutions include: interviewing people in my neighborhood for a new website I’ve set up www.30thAve.org, taking JNH swimming, and doing a bit of yoga and running (no over-commitments there!).

It’s funny looking at my list of “40 before 40”, half-way down this post, to check how I’m doing with six more years to go. I’ll do a line-by-line report sometime soon. But to summarize, I’m making inroads. That's strangely without trying to, or taking the list seriously at all. As if it was more premonition than to-do list (ok, not the novel-writing bit).


We spent Christmas and New Year in the Dominican Republic with C’s sister D. Two selected highlights: visiting the municipal cemetery in Santiago where C’s mum is buried; and the discovery and purchase of a painting of a “Gallo Loco” by Miguel Ulloa in the village of Guyacanes.

In the cemetery, I remembered the many times I’d wandered as a tourist around cemeteries in Latin America, and looked at the names in the stacked niches. And here I was visiting the grave of my mother-in-law, with the grandson she never knew snoozing in a papoose on my chest. D had lost the key to the padlock on the niche grate, so the flower vases inside were empty and there was a lot of dust. But a man who worked at the cemetery tipped a few buckets of water over to clean it up. And as always when visiting a grave it was the moment that mattered rather than the physical thing. The fact that here we were, C, D, JNH and I, pausing together in our lives to think about E.

On our way out, D and her friend R who was also with us came across the graves of other people they had known. “Mira, aquí está tal-y-tal….y aquí su esposa…etc”.

In Guyacanes village, near a small resort where C, JNH and I spent New Years in the company of lots of large Italians, I stumbled across an art gallery with one of Miguel Ulloa’s “Gallo Loco’s” in it – a crazy cockerel against a bright orange background. Now it’s hanging above our bed in New York, greeting us each morning with an imaginary cock’a’doodle doo.


Racial lines are accentuated everywhere in DR, it seems. In the car parks in Santo Domingo, the people leaving their cars were light-skinned, the people minding them were dark-skinned. In the resort, most of the guests were pale-skinned, all the staff were dark. JNH was much admired by everyone – would he have been so much if he didn’t have a whiteish complexion and blue eyes? The obsession with paleness seems a bit ironic given that white people haven’t exactly had a history of benevolence on the island. As C pointed out, much of it comes from a superiority complex over Haitians, as well as advertising influences from allá.

I was struck by hearing "allá" in DR understood instinctively to mean the US, while among Dominicans in New York of course allá is DR. It's as if the actual allá isn't in either place, but somewhere in-between.


When the 33 Chilean miners were extracted from their 69-day burial they were wearing Oakley sunglasses. Oakley had donated them, to protect the miners’ from the glare. They were going to need them.