Sunday, November 29, 2015

New York missive no 138 - Patient angels on 49th Street

Each Saturday on the way to the boys’ swimming class we pass a couple of bronze angels perched around a bowl, their chins resting in cupped hands. The statue, or bird bath, or whatever it is – is outside Lillie’s “Victorian” restaurant. The bowl contains small stones and cigarette butts. Clearly its current function, even if not its intended one, is as an ashtray. But the boys’ have their own story. They run up to the angels every week: “Look! The poor angels are STILL waiting for the chef to bring them their food!”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New York missive no 137 - Bridget Riley's stripes and Miles Davis

Through a random Twitter stream scroll I encountered a London Review of Books article by Bridget Riley on the process by which she developed her colored stripes paintings. I was in bed and sleepy, and it was only towards the end I realized it was written by her. Instead I read it somehow as an unknown artist’s reflections on their journey with lines and color relationships. Eliminating the fame made a difference.

I had been one of those people who responded to Bridget Riley’s paintings with “but it’s just stripes.” Now I get them.

She says:

My studies of the greys paved the way for the colour movement in Late Morning (1967-68). In that painting, I began in a very simple way to draw with colour. The blue to bright green movement is the form. At the core of colour lies a paradox. It is simultaneously one thing and several things – you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours.


You cannot deal with thought directly outside practice as a painter: ‘doing’ is essential in order to find out what form your thought takes.

This discovery-through-doing reminds me of the kids’ book “Andrew Drew and Drew” that follows a little boy as he populates blank pages with creatures that emerge from his imagination.

"he drew...

"and drew...

"and drew...

"Andrew never knew...

"What would happen...

"When he began."

It also reminds me of JNH and CMH's prolific drawing and doodling. “This is heart rain.” “We’re playing ice hockey…”

The day after reading the article I happened to be wearing a new stripy dress. It’s a cotton Summer dress, in bold thin stripes of bright green, red, yellow and black. I was working near home that day, in the air-conditioned predictability of a Starbucks.

A disheveled man in his sixties who’s sometimes there working his way through piles and piles of documents with furled corners said as he walked past, “that’s a wonderful combination of colors." Or something along those lines.

With the sudden switch from work-mode to talking-with-stranger-mode, I came out with a rather odd response, “Thank you. Though it wasn’t me who designed it!” As if I wanted to correct him on misplaced praise.

That didn’t throw him off though, and he embarked on a story about Miles Davis. The man said he was once with a friend of a friend who had to pick up the jazz musician, and Miles was taking a long time coming down to the street so they went to see what was going on, and there he was, captivated by a small TV set. There was no show on though, just the bands of colors that used to appear when programming ended.


“Mummy, why do you like rivers so much?"

“Because they are always changing and always the same.”

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New York missive no 136 - A rock monster, and Mack the Knife

Last weekend Dad was visiting on his way back from one of his three-week work trips: this time Colombia and Orlando, Florida. On each day of the weekend we went to a patch of the city packed in a different way with dense layers of memory.

I’ll start with Sunday. We took the M5 bus all the way up Riverside Drive to Washington Heights where C grew up. The trees were still leafless so the Hudson was clearly visible through a lattice of gray branches, unlike Summer when thick foliage obscures it. We got out at Fort Washington and 172nd, and walked to the apartment building at the Western edge of 171st where C lived for the first four years of his life, while his parents were still together. Just down the street was “El Peligro.” It’s a ramp on the side of the New York Presbyterian hospital (where C was born), that he and Z would run up and down. E would warn them they’d get in trouble with security guards, telling them it was “peligro”, which of course just heightened the appeal.

Manhattan is narrow at the top, a tough rock promontory squeezed between New Jersey on the West and the bottom of the Bronx on the East, separated by river and joined by bridges. We walked up Haven Ave, past a half-built Columbia University medical school building. The rendering on the hoarding showed that it will be a transparent glass and steel tower with jagged angles, utterly different from the stoney-faced apartment buildings nearby. We reached the park. The map says it’s called J Hood Wright park though for C it’s “the park”.

Some features were new, like a dog run. Others were not, like the exposed schist rock where the land shows what it’s made of. Those rocks were formed 450 million years ago. They are perfect for clambering on. C and Z climbed on them as toddlers, and now CMH and JNH did, and we followed. It was bitterly cold (still, at the end of March!). The boys’ brightly colored winter hats stood out against the rock. The rock, too, had its own brightness: the gray glistened with flecks of mica. CMH determined that a small hump of the rock that stood somewhat separate from the rest was a “monster”. Not a bad monster – he kept running back to it, calling “Monster! Monster!” and giving it a hug.


On Saturday we took the 7 train to the Louis Armstrong House museum in Corona. In 1943 Armstrong's wife Lucille (his fourth, and last wife – he said she gave him more than the three others combined) bought the house without Louis knowing. He was always on the road on tour. When she gave him the address and a taxi brought him to the front door, the story goes that he told the taxi driver he must have got the wrong address. Such a big house couldn’t be his own. He had been brought up in a poor district of New Orleans known as “The Battlefield”, and now, despite earning half a million dollars a year and being able to afford a huge mansion if he’d wanted, he couldn’t conceive that this was his home.

He and Lucille lived there for the next thirty years, until Louis’ death in 1971. It has been kept as they lived in it, and guides show people around accompanied by recordings of Louis speaking and playing. In a rare interview in 1983, Lucille Armstrong said something along the lines of “Louis is still everywhere here”, and it certainly feels that way. They didn’t have children of their own, but when he was home from touring Louis spent hours with the children who lived nearby, playing his trumpet with them on the stoops. Photos of them are in his den on the second floor, along with recording equipment, and paper where he wrote down what was on the cassettes he recorded. Each would end with the words "s'all".

Soon before Louis died, they bought two adjacent lots and turned them into a stunning square garden wrapped in brick walls, shaded over by trees. CMH – who conveniently slept while we toured the house – grabbed the trunk of a conifer and shook it gently so that the previous day’s snow splashed down.


Dad had introduced JNH to the song “Mack the Knife” the previous evening. We were listening to the song and reading the lyrics, which piqued JNH’s interest, which somehow then led to us watching a video of Rubén Blades’s salsa homage to the song, "Pedro Navaja". JNH was startled when Mack knifed a man in a dark alley (we stopped the video at that point) so I had to explain that he was only acting. Mack keeps popping up in conversation now. So-and-so is a bad guy, he'll say, but "not as bad as Mack the Knife."

Saturday, February 14, 2015

New York missive no 135 - blizzard that wasn't

On the morning before the great blizzard of 2015 (declared historic before it happened), I dropped off the kids, and, as flakes began to fall, went to a supermarket on my way back home. I had decided not to go into the city to work in case the storm kicked in early.

I found myself not only buying food for two meals, but also, randomly, Apricot jam. The 24/7 news coverage and warnings of “do NOT leave your home” had had an effect. I needed that jam, even though I’d not eaten jam for years. It was Bonne Maman, the kind with the red and white-checked table cloth pattern on the lid. When I was young I thought we could only get in France, and it was special. Now it’s hit the Astoria supermarket shelves, the latest brand meme clustered in stacks by the checkouts.

In the end the mighty blizzard wasn’t mighty after all. Just a foot or so (Boston got hit much harder). But still, those two days ran as if in slow motion. They capture some of the little details that compose our lives at the moment.

C and I went together to pick up the boys around 4pm, two hours earlier than usual, for the half-hour walk back home. The snow flew hard and fast, the wind threw it into our faces. JNH talked all the way, saying I hope it’s not the end of the world, and maybe we are at the bottom of the earth but then where are the penguins? CMH was strolled. He sat behind the rain cover peering out with an intent expression.

Back home C cooked fish stew, while JNH and CMH stuck small colored pieces of paper onto white paper and drew around them. When I had explained to JNH how movies are made he had wanted to feed drawings into my computer to make them move. After initial disappointment that that is not how it works, he settled with the idea of cutting out small images and sticking them onto a plain page, to make his own “movies".

At some point I went to the corner store on 30th Ave to buy something, I can’t remember what (beer?!). “Of course we won’t be closing” said the South Asian guy who runs it. And one of the Mexican flower sellers was STILL there by the flower stall that runs down the edge of the store enclosed in clear plastic sheeting. Were people really going to be buying flowers during a snow storm? Ligia's Alterations, the dressmaker's with faded yellow décor, was closed.

Our block is a bit of a time-capsule. It’s a sliver of old Astoria that clings on while the neighborhood around it gentrifies and changes. T, who lives next door, told me how when he was growing up in the same house, all the back yards were connected to each other by a pathway, the children running from one to another.

He’s still here, with his wife (sons are grown and left home now), and his brother-in-law who is usually in an alcohol-or-something-haze. While the “Don’t tread on me” and Tea Party slogans in their front window make me think the less interaction, the better, a note that T put in our letterbox about finding contractors in the neighborhood had a wounded veterans’ organization logo, which in turn made me think maybe the brother-in-law is a veteran, and that maybe he has more interesting stories to tell than most people, if the conversation goes beyond a hello sometime.

Next door is an elderly Greek couple G and I, and beyond them, M, a portly woman in her sixties who wears sweatpants, a purple anorak and baseball cap, who has also lived on the block forever it seems and always knows the comings and goings.

The following morning we awoke to piles but not mountains of snow. C coincided with other neighbors in shoveling it off the sidewalks. Daycare was closed so I was working from home – a morning of back-to-back Skype calls, as often happens when I’m working from home which makes C comment that all we do in our work is talk (only partly true). Then a break when the boys spilled out into the backyard pounding through snow that reached up to knees in JNH’s case, practically hips for CMH.

G and I next door have let their garden overgrow so it is full of bushes and a sprawling tree. A couple of days earlier we had seen a striking bright blue bird there. “That’s a blue Jay,” JNH said. I’d never seen one before and wasn’t sure, so looked it up later and sure enough it was. His latest cartoon obsession is Wild Kratts, in which the two zoologist Kratt brothers Chris and Martin mix up sequences of being in the presence of real animals, with sequences when they become animated characters that assume various "creature powers". Like flying at the speed of a peregrine falcon. When we saw the brothers live at the Bronx Zoo this summer, tía D, visiting from Santo Domingo, concluded that they must be gay. Why that's so and why it would be an issue if it is, was unclear.

JNH regularly spouts animal trivia. “We have to be careful of the poisonous copperhead." "Mami, the Tazmanian Tiger is extinct,” etc. Yet it goes beyond that - he’s genuinely concerned for nature it seems. This week he wanted to write a letter to the bad guys, telling them to turn their guns and machines into factories that can make salami, chicken and paper out of things other than animals and trees.

Lunch, more work, then late in the afternoon the four of us went down 30th Avenue for errands. The atmosphere was quiet and festive at the same time.