Category: NEW YORK

Mary Help of Christians

This is the Mary Help of Christians on East 12th Street between First Avenue and Avenue A. It was built on the site of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, took six years to build and was completed in 1917. Modeled on the Basilica di Maria Ausiliatrice in Turin, the new church immediately became the spiritual home for a multitude of immigrant families in the then largely Italian community, and has grown as a place of social and cultural significance in the East Village for almost a century. In 1953 it was the venue for the wedding of FDR’s daughter, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and Anthony di Bonaventura, the son of a 17th Street Italian barber. The church is referenced in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, who lived across the street at 437 East 12th Street for many years. The intersection of East 12th Street and Avenue A was renamed Father Mancini Corner in honor of Father Virginio Mancini, the church’s parish priest from 1949 to 1986. The church closed in 2007, but every evening for the past four years as I’ve walked past I have seen a small group of women huddled on its steps praying quietly in Spanish.

Earlier this year the church, rectory and neighboring school (essentially half a block) were purchased by developer Douglas Steiner, who soon revealed plans for “urban development.” “Urban retrogression” would be more accurate, because the specifics of the typically shortsighted project include the usual “prime retail opportunities” plus another non-descript, shoddily-built “luxury” glass condo, guaranteed to attract and house entire swarms of iPhone-gazing potential citibikers. Of course, it would have been far more lucrative in the long-term for Steiner to convert the historic structure for modern usage, but like most in his field he’s only after a fast buck.

Local residents and preservationist groups acted swiftly, appealing to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission that the historic structure be spared. The application was declined. This summer further protests against the demolition were held after fragments of a wall were unearthed which had originally formed part of the Catholic cemetery that predated the church. Among the 40,000-plus graves was that of Venetian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who worked with Mozart on Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte. Again these pleas also were rejected.

By now this type of story is all too familiar to New Yorkers. Over the last few years I’ve watched as renowned and beloved aspects of the city’s vast heritage have been unceremoniously wiped out, eventually taking entire communities with them. Such destruction (both physical and spiritual) is now becoming more frequent and increasingly reckless. What this all amounts to is nothing less than a corporate whitewashing of the city’s history, culture and character—ironically the very same character that is used to lure certain types (and you know which types I mean) into neighborhoods like this one.

I may be naïve or romantic, or maybe just European, but that a place of such architectural, cultural and social importance can be destroyed against the valid wishes of a fearless and vocal community extending far beyond the borders of the East Village, all for the greed-driven or politically-driven benefit of a clueless few, leaves me incredulous. Yet it is highly indicative of the culture that has been perpetuated by this city’s highest powers in recent years. The consequence is that many New Yorkers – the real kind, those that think for themselves and see straight through the bullshit – find themselves victims of what can be best described as a culture war. As the minority it should come as no surprise to us that our side is losing.

greed

“The poets ’round here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be.”

Insatiable criticism

In New York, it’s often said that “everyone’s a critic.” The phrase may have had its origins in the theater world but these days is best applied to the city’s thriving restaurant industry. Every New Yorker seems to have a favorite neighborhood dining spot or an opinion on the hottest new place in town. So imagine the chance to try dozens of restaurants in one evening, all in the same location! Last night my wife and I attended “Best of the West”, the fifth annual edition of a culinary tasting event showcasing the finest restaurants on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The event’s honoree was a real critic, and an insatiable one at that, former New York magazine restaurant reviewer Gael Greene (who, if in attendance, kept her wide-brimmed hat pulled down all evening). This is the kind of organized fun that ordinarily I would not be seen dead partaking in, but we had accepted two tickets generously offered to us by a friend. I say “generously” because I believe the offer was a gesture of genuine kindness, though having now successfully survived the evening I am beginning to wonder if the tickets were not offloaded onto our unsuspecting selves by someone who knew what they were otherwise in for.

I worked in the food and wine industry for several years, and when I finally left my feelings could be summed up in one word: relief. That may seem excessive, but last night those feelings came flooding back. I’d seen these kinds of events before, so to an extent I knew the drill. However my initial skepticism had been softened by my optimistic wife who insisted we’d have a good time, or at the very least a free dinner. I reluctantly obliged, but my fears appeared to have been justified when we arrived to find a line of people snaking halfway down 77th Street. Strips of reinforced fluorescent paper were slapped on our wrists and we sheepishly joined the back of the queue. Judging by the size of the line and the ages of the eager people in front of us I presumed that a Duran Duran reunion tour was also kicking off inside the jumbo wedding tent that had been erected for the occasion in a school playground on Columbus Avenue.

That we were clearly among the youngest attendees was no surprise since tickets for the event started at a staggering $125 per person. Surely others had also been given free passes. How else to explain the crowd of people apparently content to drop that kind of cash in order to sample dozens of two-bite portions, when a proper meal at a nice restaurant could be enjoyed sitting at a table for considerably less? I soon realized the event was the perfect marriage of big city salaries and suburban tastes (or at least where the two come to mingle). The New Taste of the Upper West Side website offers the following advice: “For those who would like one-on-one encounters with the star-chefs before the evening revs up, we recommend VIP tickets.” Those go for two-hundred bucks a pop, but I’m not sure what the extra seventy-five buys you. Just what exactly does a “one-on-one encounter” with a star-chef entail? Does he take you back to his kitchen and show you his utensil drawer?

As we were herded into the vast feeding pen (as my wife so accurately described it), stewards took wine glasses equipped with blue lanyards and placed them around our necks, presumably so we could practice the sophisticated art of hands-free drinking. From the other side of the playground’s chain-link fence I watched ordinary people going about their business in the warm May evening, on their way home from the park, or on their way out to dinner. I longed to escape and join them, but the line of cops to my left prevented me from making any sudden moves. I lowered my shades and tentatively entered the arena.

“Arena” is the most appropriate word for the venue, for this was not a restaurant, nor even a party, but rather a barbaric spectacle worthy of Ancient Rome’s notorious appetite for food and flesh. The object of the game is to sample every one of the forty-odd dishes being frantically prepared by the overworked sous-chefs hunched over fold-out tables. Faced with this incohesive smorgasboard, my wife and I took one look at each other and decided to bend the rules slightly, heading straight for the wine and liquor stand. Even at this early stage it seemed excessive alcohol intake was our only hope of salvaging the evening.

I was on my third Aperol Spritz by the time I managed to get near any food. Pushing through a pack of salivating young women in heels I was able eventually to scrounge a small plate containing two sushi rolls, which we considered a satisfactory appetizer. The next two restaurants were both serving ravioli, or as the heavyset man standing two inches behind me called them, “ravioles”. I had initially planned to plot my consumption strategically, so as to replicate as closely as possible a true dining experience. Clearly this would be an impossible task, and my plan was hastily discarded as it became evident I’d be better off taking whatever I could get. Every stand was occupied by a clamoring mob of plastic-fork wielders or an impatiently indulgent queue matched in length only by the line for the portable toilets (that’s what you get for $125). Any chance of deriving any pleasure whatsoever from what dishes I was able to sample was rendered an impossibility by the entirely unpleasant setting. I don’t care which celebrity chef made it, nothing tastes good when served on a plastic saucer and eaten while standing next to a large recycling bin.

The generally hellish atmosphere was made worse by the repulsive Europop din that pulsated incessantly from all corners of the giant marquee. When we had arrived, Joe Bataglia & The New York Big Band were midway through a cheery set of standards, but they’d swiftly taken a break, possibly due to general nausea. When I got to their end of the room I leaned over towards a saxophone player and implored him to begin their second set. Slumped in his chair, the aging musician gently lifted his hands as if to speak, then lowered them again and stared at the floor. I think he’d lost the will to live.

By now the music had been blocked out anyway by the licking of fingers and loosening of belts, as unsated customers gorged themselves in a vain attempt to ensure they were getting their money’s worth. Meanwhile, I was bombarded by inane chatter at every turn: “Omigod, this is like the best lobster roll ever!” or “Have you tried the meatballs? They’re a-mmayyyyy-zing!” The event’s website had promised “a multitude of tastings to tantalize, stimulate and motivate discerning palates.” I was motivated alright – but only to get the hell out of there. Unfortunately discerning palates rarely remain such once the term “all you can eat” has been released into an air of bloodthirstiness. I have no doubt more food was wasted than consumed last night amidst the bacchanalia.

To my bitter disappointment I didn’t spot one celebrity chef. How a celebrity chef differs from a regular chef I do not know for sure, but I think it has something to do with the size of his hat. That such a category of stardom could exist is utterly ridiculous to me, but wholly indicative of America’s twisted and complicated relationship with food. Such is this country’s insistence on equating taste and eating habits with class and education that ordinary food, the kind the rest of the world prepares and enjoys on a daily basis without any song and dance, has been elevated to something that only a television personality or top chef can possibly create. Consequently all food is expected to fall into one of two categories: “Ewwww…Gross!” or the aforementioned “A-mmayyyyy-zing!” Good food is not art nor rocket science — if it were either it is unlikely the human race would have advanced far beyond the Neolithic Era. Nor is it supposed to be a substitute for sexual satisfaction (although my wife remains convinced that none of these so-called gourmands could have been getting much action elsewhere).

Grabbing a handful of mini-pastries from the dessert zone we made our escape by heading for a side exit, just as the band returned to play “Copacabana”. The fading daylight caught me by surprise, piercing my weary eyes. We’d been inside the tent for a total of forty-five minutes: two had involved eating, the remaining forty-three were spent being shoved in the back. Having failed to find a (possibly non-existent) coffee stand we walked a few blocks down Columbus and bought our own, still reacclimatizing to the civilization we’d abandoned less than an hour earlier. We then sat in the park and sipped it as the night grew dark, still in a state of culture shock, horrified and bewildered by the grotesque scenes just witnessed. As I wrestled to remove my fluorescent wristband, my stomach began to feel like it was digesting a lead weight, even though I barely recalled eating anything besides a greasy tuna-fish slider. For the next hour the pastries sat untouched on the bench beside us, and remained wrapped for the duration of the seventy-block walk home. Frankly, I’d lost my appetite.
 
 
 
Frans Snyders, “Still Life with Fruit, Dead Game, Vegetables, a Live Monkey, Squirrel and Cat” (before 1657).

Fare game

As intrinsically associated with Manhattan as fire escapes and pretzel vendors, New York’s yellow taxicab’s icon is rivaled only by the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. But when Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled The Taxi of Tomorrow back in May, ending months of speculation as to the future of this ubiquitous presence on the city’s streets, he brought an untimely end to decades of sunshine-colored style and swagger.

Of course, you’ll still be able to hail a yellow cab, but a few years from now it won’t be a Crown Victoria with aged tires and temperamental brakes. Sure, the driver will still be a cranky foreigner who always insists on taking Sixth Avenue, but he’ll be behind the wheel of a Nissan NV200 minivan, the winning car in the city’s Taxi of Tomorrow design competition. The Japanese manufacturer beat out similar concepts from Ford and Turkish company Karsan, earning itself a ten-year contract to provide New York with some 13,000 taxis starting in 2013.

The NV200 is not New York’s first minivan taxi: similar designs were introduced as early as 1996. Since the 1960s the Taxicab and Limousine Commission has leaned heavily on the Chevrolet Caprice and Ford Crown Victoria, which for decades vied for fares alongside the iconic Checker, the last of which did not retire until 1999 (though production stopped in 1982). The current version of the Crown Victoria has become something of a classic in its own right, having been on the road since 1998. However, in the last few years an increasing number of alternative vehicles have joined the fleet: as of 2011 there are seventeen approved taxi models in New York City, some of which have hybrid motors, though the Crown Victoria still represents 60% of all New York cabs. Aside from offering a smoother, comfier ride, it has endured precisely because it looks and feels like a taxi should. Unfortunately Ford retired the model earlier this year, hence the need for a replacement.

Crossing 23rd Street near Madison Square Park today I happened upon a public display of the Nissan NV200, a pop-up exhibit located in the shadow of the Flatiron Building, in the new pedestrian area that until recently was part of Fifth Avenue. At first sight, the winning vehicle appeared to possess one fatal flaw: nobody will want to be seen dead in it. An awkward oblong with an extra-high ceiling and sliding doors, the car belongs in the kind of suburban town people once came to New York to flee from. By 2019 all New York taxis will be the NV200, which already looks set to go down in history as an eyesore on the city’s roads and a running joke among New Yorkers — though in an unfortunate twist its imminent ubiquity will mean the joke is on them.

The NV200 has sparked further controversy over the fact that this state-of-the-art vehicle is inaccessible to disabled passengers. Naturally, the city is keen to draw attention to the taxi’s partial-electric motor, high fuel efficiency and host of revolutionary features, which include a panoramic sunroof throughout the whole back seat, passenger airbags, anti-bacterial non-stick seats, independent passenger climate controls and passenger charging stations –- one outlet and two USB ports.

This list of specifications is indicative of how New York’s priorities have become skewed. Yes, we live in a fast-paced city that supposedly never sleeps, but who needs to plug in a laptop and charge an iPhone in a taxicab? The fact that we have convinced ourselves otherwise says everything about our disengaged, entitled society and the people running it. Though it may have nothing to do with the New York we think we know, the unfortunate reality is that the Taxi of Tomorrow is perfectly in keeping with the New York of 2012. This is just the latest episode in Mayor Bloomberg’s corporate crusade to eliminate character and individuality from the street and transform the city into a luxury playground destination for the rich and famous (or just plain rich).

After an initial plan to equip all taxis with hybrid engines was quashed, in 2008 New York cabs were given a fresh look, including new door decals (which replaced the old stenciled “N.Y.C. TAXI” lettering) and an official logo. Created by Swiss graphic designer Claudia Christen, the new branding even featured handy instructions on how to hail a cab, in the form of a stick man with his arm raised.

The first sign that taxi rides themselves were to be disrupted was the 2008 mandate for the insertion of a small television screen into the backseat, a pointless and universally despised device with a particularly rebellious touch-screen OFF button. Its presence ensures that each passenger is routinely greeted with the jolting theme from ABC’s Eyewitness News moments after getting comfortable. Admittedly, there are few places left in the world that televisions have yet to infiltrate, but this so-called Passenger Information Monitor (or PIM, as nobody calls it) conveniently doubles as a credit card payment machine whose functionality rate tends to hover just above fifty percent. Of course this will all seem quaint once the NV200 has rolled into town, complete with its 15-inch television screen, suggesting it perhaps also offers a choice of the latest movie releases on demand.

Unwanted accoutrements notwithstanding, for me the New York taxi experience has yet to be tarnished. My favorite thing about riding in the backseat of a cab is that you are treated to so much of the city and so many aspects of urban street life — not to mention myriad architectural marvels if you sink in your seat — flying by in a matter of minutes. But many are oblivious to what’s whizzing past their window, and miss it all because they’re too busy consulting an app to tell them the quickest route to the Bowery Hotel.

I remember the first time I walked out of JFK Airport and stood in line for a taxi to take me to Manhattan. That cab ride was and remains the most intensely memorable one-hour car journey of my life. But if I’d been asked to step aboard a Nissan NV200 I may have opted for the subway. I’ll never forget the sense of power I felt when I hailed my first cab one evening on Central Park South. I still take great comfort in watching the endless, steady stream of taxis gliding down the Avenues at night. Today the few Checker Cabs still running on Manhattan’s streets are used to advertise banks or chauffeur newly-weds, but on the rare occasions when I spot one — parked on a shady street or speeding uptown — I can never quite believe my eyes. It’s like a glorious dream.

Years from now, when the Taxi of Tomorrow has become the taxi of today, immortalized in a thousand movies, will it provoke a similar emotion? Or will people be turned off by the predictable mirror-image of their own suburban existence? New York’s rapid transformation over the last ten years has the potential consequence of coming full-circle: sooner or later the city will finally stop being desirable for the precise same reasons it became desirable (again) in the first place. It will have become too safe, too clean, too un-different. Maybe then — and only then — they’ll bring back the Checker.

Afterthoughts

Before the cloud of dust and ash had even reached Brooklyn they were already calling it our generation’s “J.F.K.” We all remember it — where we were, who we were with, what we were doing. I’m not going to tell you my memories of 9/11 because they aren’t probably much different from those of most other people who weren’t in New York that day. Surely to do so would be to weigh in on an already over-saturated topic, to intellectualize other people’s all-too-real tragedy, and to appropriate their daily pain in an empty gesture of solidarity. I’m not an American, I wasn’t in New York ten years ago and I didn’t personally know anybody who died in the attacks. Who the hell am I to get in the way of those who are, were, and did?

I was hesitant to write about 9/11 at all until a New Yorker friend convinced me otherwise. She talked about the “ownership” of 9/11, her view being that it belongs to us all (unlike 9/12, which belongs only to New York). Indeed, as much as those events were an attack on the freedom of the Western world at large, it was New York that had to grapple in the aftermath of a very real disaster. Yet while the city was distracted, its back turned, its energies drained and emotions exhausted, somehow “9/11” was swept upon — by politicians, media, or simply the circumstances of an imminent global threat — and rebranded as an American tragedy. It was a subtle shift but one which opened up the city to the rest of the country, welcoming swathes of out-of-towners who’d previously avoided New York at all costs (“too dirty, too dangerous”), and perhaps consequently setting in motion Manhattan’s rapid and alarming suburbanization.

I know more than one American who has admitted to me that they didn’t know what the World Trade Center was on 9/10. Today several of my Facebook friends — many of whom have never been to New York — have updated their statuses and changed their profile pictures accordingly to reflect the supposed mood of the city. I even read about a guy who remained incredulous last Friday when a colleague wished him a “Happy 9/11”. Given this, plus the slew of discussions and hollow sentiments gushing our way this anniversary week, I wish more people were as reluctant to share thoughts on 9/11 as I am.

Ironically, while the rest of America has embraced New York in its visitor-friendly post-9/11 guise, so New Yorkers increasingly yearn for what has been lost over the last decade. I’m always surprised just to what extent the city I wake up to in 2011 differs from the New York that has always existed in my head, where, along with DON’T WALK/WALK lights and Checker cabs, the Twin Towers are still very much there.

I visited the Twin Towers once when they really were still there, and rode the startlingly fast elevator to the top floors and observation deck, where I walked about for roughly a half-hour under the hazy July sun, marveling at the view and taking photos with my Pentax K-1000. I have one super wide montage (which I pieced together once my photos had been developed) looking north where you can see the curvature of the earth. I took another great shot looking directly across at the other tower, and I remember being able to see the Colgate HQ across the river (the giant clock is still there). NY1 called it the hottest July 5th on record at the time, and you couldn’t make out much beyond Central Park because of the haze. My mum went during a crisp November a few years earlier — in her photos you can probably see Connecticut. There was a point near the gift shop and restaurant where you could step down to the windows and put your toes against glass. It was pretty scary (in a fun sort of way) at the time; the memory became terrifying a few years later.

After moving to New York it never occurred to me to visit what had by then become habitually referred to as “Ground Zero”. I don’t know if having lost loved ones would be greater incentive to visit or a big reason to stay away, but I find it odd that people travel across America to visit the former site of the World Trade Center and pose for photos in front of what has begun only recently to resemble something other than a building site. (It’s still the only “tourist attraction” I can think of in which people come to see something that isn’t there, rather than something that is.) But I’m sure they all leave with a commemorative fridge magnet to take home.

Having said that, I think after all the speculation the new memorial site is far more perfect than anything I could have imagined. Those two square pools are a powerful sight. Maybe it’s naive to hope that the re-opening of the site will act as a sort of closure for the city, and that vast space as it develops can finally return to being a living, breathing part of downtown Manhattan. But it will probably be a long while before I go down there.

I certainly would never have dreamed of going downtown today. Instead I stayed at home, curled up on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a bumper edition of Sunday’s Times (which I’d bought on Saturday night). I got seriously choked up during the TV memorial service when kids barely old enough to remember their dads started to cry as they read out their names. The list was especially moving when they got to the most common last names, like Smith, and it began to read like a phone book.

A decade of cheap tourism, internet theorists, airport security lines, late-nite terrorism gags and numbing scenes of war on the nightly news has made it easy to forget that few people in this city weren’t directly affected by what happened on 9/11. Ten years is nothing, and when I speak with New Yorkers — or anyone for that matter — I never bring it up. And despite everyone’s desire to move on the subject should continue to be treated with caution and respect, a tough task for many given the current choice of platforms encouraging extreme opinions and knee-jerk reactions.

Too many New Yorkers wear the fact like a badge of honor. Let’s always try and remember that some have earned theirs.

Some like it hot

Summer’s here and the time is right… for freezing indoors?

I knew summer was officially upon us as soon as I arrived at work last Monday morning. Two colleagues were perched awkwardly halfway up a stepladder. One was holding a drill, the other a raw piece of lumber, while each used his free hand to grip the large air-conditioner which teetered precariously between the window frame and the sidewalk six floors below. Beads of sweat sprung off both men, as if time was against them and their jobs (or very lives) hung in the balance. Before I knew it the large sash windows around me were slid shut — sssshhhhhhh-clunk! — and with that went my last breath of fresh air until late September. The bulky machine was plugged in and stirred into life, immediately releasing a wheezy drone. Their makeshift installation job having apparently taken hold, my colleagues slumped back in their chairs and purposely mopped their brows, as if by the skins of their teeth they had narrowly averted a minor local disaster.

By all accounts, it got pretty hot in New York this week. I wouldn’t know, since I now spend my days holed up in an air-tight chamber where the temperature hovers at a permanently tolerable sixty-eight degrees. On the other hand, the noise level is now akin to that on a construction site, though the rickety jackhammers cutting up Sixth Avenue are a far lesser disturbance. The aging AC unit’s grating, incessant din is so obtrusive that even on the occasions when I hear the telephone ring, answering it is pointless.

While I understand the importance of feeling comfortable in the workplace, I consider the air-conditioner a far from essential appliance. My office has no direct sunlight and seven windows which, when opened, create a pleasant through-breeze. On an especially hot day we might require, at most, a fan. In the AC’s defense, it is fair to say that I have not broken a sweat in over a week. Instead I now have to bring a sweater to work, an item of clothing that most would agree should no longer be a necessity come July. On occasions when I pick up the AC remote the whole office leaps up to monitor my actions lest I adjust the temperature or — gasp! — switch the thing off entirely. Maybe I’d have a greater degree of tolerance for the air conditioner if this wasn’t the fourth successive summer I’ve had to put up with the decrepit device, which each year is dragged out of hibernation rather than being put out to pasture.

For many of the city’s inhabitants, it seems no sooner has the depressing winter melted away than the sticky summer ahead becomes the target of their seasonal discontent. Most temper this sweat-related stress by cranking up the AC, which of course is designed to help suffering city dwellers beat the heat. Yet while air-conditioning may be a quick fix for this problem, to what extent does it also encourage it?

New Yorkers survived decades of hot summers with just loose clothing and Coca-Cola for comfort. But images of neighborhood kids frolicking under the gushing spray of the fire hydrant down the block are rooted in the middle of the last century, long before the air-conditioner came along to turn living spaces into temperature-controlled unnatural environments. Perhaps people defer to the AC simply because they can’t remember things any other way. Over the last fifty years this oversize, low-tech, energy-inefficient apparatus has become — along with the baseball cap and dip — something that America as a society has convinced itself it cannot live without.

I’m British, therefore hardly in a position to complain about warm weather. In England, the two days out of the year where temperatures might warrant air-conditioning hardly justify the purchase and installation of such an appliance. Elsewhere in Europe it gets scorching hot, but our continental cousins have come up with their own devices — such as wooden shutters and leisurely lunches — to combat the soaring afternoon heat. I’d never actually laid eyes on an air-conditioner until I arrived in New York. My wife and I had one at our old apartment which we took with us to our current place, where it has remained wrapped up in the closet ever since. As a foreigner living in a foreign land, I don’t wish to tell people how to live, but there are several advantages to enjoying your summer AC-free.

Not taking into account the needs of small children and the elderly, the air-conditioner actually presents more health problems than it alleviates. Exposure to temperature extremes can encourage allergies while doing no good whatsoever to skin, eyes or throat. More significantly, habitual AC use prevents any possibility of a natural acclimatization to warm weather, perpetuating the very problem it is intended to relieve. Precisely for this reason people feel the effect of the heat all the more as soon as they step outside — where the air-conditioner continues to make its presence felt in the form of that irritating drip that has a habit of landing on your shoulder instead of the sidewalk.

Unfortunately, this is not the only threat to the well-being of Manhattan’s pedestrians. So prevalent is AC use that it’s not uncommon for store-bought air-conditioners to be installed improperly. A few years ago an upstairs neighbor’s hefty appliance was destroyed after plummeting onto our second floor terrace (which, fortunately, we were not eating dinner on at the time). Last September a 67-year-old man was hospitalized after an AC unit fell six floors before bouncing off a canopy and hitting him in the head as he walked his dog down Second Avenue.

A more long-term concern is the enormous waste generated by continuous and unrestrained air-conditioner use. Studies have proven that the average AC unit wastes 40% of its input energy, while research suggests that air-conditioners use up over 15% of a home’s annual energy consumption. Needless to say, all of this puts a major demand on the electrical power grid. Just today both the AC and my computer abruptly shut down when a colleague attempted to use the office microwave. Luckily I’m not the one paying the Con Edison bill.

When I dared broach this issue with my boss his quipped response (“Go back to f***ing England”) suggested the matter was not open for discussion. It seems air-conditioning has become so deeply embedded in our culture that its necessity cannot even be questioned. Even elevator small-talk has been reduced to an impromptu appreciation of the air-conditioner’s savior-like qualities, and how it has once again rescued us all from an otherwise brutal summer of pure misery. New York’s latest heatwave should come as no surprise to anyone who’s spent a July here before, but if these same people were denied their precious AC I get the feeling they’d collapse not due to heat exhaustion but rather from sheer panic. Just what exactly are they so afraid of?

There are so many elements to the New York summer that make it such a pleasurable experience for the senses: a daily diet of gazpacho and watermelon, intermittent bursts of salsa wafting from an open window, the glistening patina of perspiration on tanned limbs… Like it or not, summer’s here and it’s going to get hot. So what if you sweat a little? It’s nothing a cold beer can’t fix.

All mapped out

A couple of years ago I purchased an original 1974 New York City Transit Authority Subway map, the kind that comes folded to fit into your pocket but when unfurled makes for a beautiful framed addition to one’s home. I won’t tell you what I paid for it, but let’s just say the same amount of money if converted into swipes of my MetroCard could have bought me several trips to Brooklyn and back on the N train. It may seem ridiculous to drop a significant sum of cash on something that was once handed out for free at every subway station, but this particular map has, over the years, earned a special place in the hearts of graphic design fans, cartographers and commuters alike.

Last night I had the pleasure of meeting the map’s creator, Milanese designer Massimo Vignelli, at the Museum of the City of New York. Vignelli had gathered with other “celebrities” of the subway map world for an exhaustive panel discussion entitled The New York City Subway Map – Form v. Function in the Public Realm. Looking like a doyen of style who’d stumbled into a convention for math professors, Vignelli, now 79, recalled how in the late 1960s, not long after he’d opened his studio in New York, he was approached by the city’s Transit Authority to redesign its subway map, which at the time was in desperate need of a graphic update. Around the same time he also introduced the New York subway’s iconic white on black signage (his original of black on white proved too easy to deface). Vignelli’s new map debuted in 1972, and represented a radical departure from its predecessors, in that it abandoned the timeworn convention that the underground map should echo the geography of the (overground) city.

map 1972

Elaborating, Vignelli went on to explain eloquently the difference between a map and a diagram, and how his design was a functional diagram that did not need to double as a map representing the city streets. As a result, his map is full of peculiarities: the Second Avenue F stop appears East of the First Avenue L stop, the 33rd Street 6 stop is north of the 34th Street EE stop, while Central Park is represented by a truncated grey square. These are “mistakes” that according to Vignelli, matter little. Based on a network of horizontal, vertical and 45-degree diagonal lines, with each IRT, IND and BMT line represented by a different color, Vignelli’s design has, according to its creator, a rare, logical beauty that has never been improved upon.

The MTA has sought for over thirty years to improve upon Vignelli’s map, ever since they ditched his beloved (if at times baffling) concept in 1979. Yet in attempting to merge a street map and a subway diagram, New York’s map has in recent years become an increasingly cluttered mess, incorporating bus transfers, tourist information and all manner of other unnecessary extras which only serve to further confuse the straphanger looking to get from A to B (or to the A or B train). John Tauranac, the man who headed up the map’s redesign post-Vignelli, defended some of his original introductions, including the use of one color for grouped lines, such as the ACE or 123. But with the map’s latest incarnation provoking a chorus of scorn, even he admitted that the design now needs a rethink. Eddie Jabbour agreed, going so far as to produce his own map from scratch. His “KickMap” is a clean, fresh alternative to the existing subway map that he even proposed to the MTA. When they declined his offer he converted the idea into an iPhone app, which has already been downloaded by 350,000 users. But surely we can’t rely on the latest technological advances for such an important element of daily city life. While it’s true that most New Yorkers who navigate the subway frequently do so from memory, occasionally we must venture off our routine routes, at which point that graffiti-covered oversize platform map suddenly proves its essential value.

map 2008

In 2008, Men’s Vogue celebrated Vignelli’s 1972 design with a modern-day update (below), retaining the original map’s abstract elegance while eliminating the abnormalities that caused such confusion. To me it seemed the perfect map for New York City’s subway. The lines and their colors are all recognizable, while Vignelli and his work are currently enjoying a reappraisal. His is the only subway map in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, while his preferred Helvetica is the only typeface to be the subject of a movie. The 1972 map is as much a part of New York’s transport heritage as Checker Cabs.

The reintroduction of a Vignelli-inspired map would provide graphic consistency between the map itself and the subway’s omnipresent signage, which has remained virtually unchanged for over thirty years. Since working with the MTA, Vignelli has been hired to produce similar identities for the subway systems in Washington, D.C. and Milan, as well as for Ferrovie dello Stato, Italy’s national rail network. It strikes me as the last place to embrace function over form, so why does New York, the city where Vignelli made his international name, seem reluctant to reward him with the recognition he deserves?

Island life

“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
— Thomas Wolfe

Last week, three years after moving to New York, and two and a half years after marrying my lovely American wife, I received my Green Card in the mail. According to the letter which came attached, I am now a Permanent Resident of the United States of America, although to me my new immigrant status still seems excessive. After all, I’ve only ever been to twelve of the fifty states, and generally never leave the island of Manhattan except to return to Europe. As John Lennon once said to an interviewer in reference to his deportation struggle, “Couldn’t they just ban me from Ohio?”

A colleague of mine left me a note which read “Congratulations, official New Yorker!” It was a sweet thought but one which left me confused. I wasn’t a New Yorker, just a Brit who got lucky enough to live here. Naturally, it begged the decidedly abstract question: when does a “New Yorker” become a New Yorker? I’ve heard it said that you’re only a New Yorker after you’ve lived here a certain number of years, but if so, how many? Whatever the answer may be I’m probably a few years away yet, but I’ve certainly feel like I’ve put in enough overtime studying this city to have shaved a few months off my sentence.

I know I have no greater right to be here than anyone else in my boat, but I doubt most new arrivals devote hours to meticulously researching the shooting locations of long-forgotten New York movies. Nor do they embark on a pilgrimage to the Upper West Side to photograph the city’s last remaining phone booths, or spend entire afternoons seeking out Manhattan’s humblest coffee shops on a self-assigned mission in search of the city’s finest egg cream. Nor do they drop $60 on an original 1974 Massimo Vignelli subway map (an exorbitant amount of money for something that was once handed out for free).

While I recognize that not everybody cares about these things (and nor should they), I also believe that a person is obligated to obtain an historical, cultural and social sense of their city, especially their chosen city, because I consider it important to understand where you are and what that means. When I see a group of young people in untucked shirts and trilbies exit a Barbie-pink stretch Hummer on Avenue B, it makes me sad that none of them look up from their iPhones long enough to realize they’re standing feet away from the former home of Charlie Parker. That is, if they know who Charlie Parker is to begin with. Personally I think they should make all would-be New Yorkers take a test. Anyone who fails has to spend six months in New Jersey swotting up on their Newyorkology. That would hopefully weed out all those who consider food trucks to be the height of urban chic.

Edward Hopper once said you get the greatest sense of a place upon arriving or leaving for the first time. I think he was right. To this day I still get a slight twinge the day before I leave New York or when heading to the airport at dawn, as if I begin to appreciate the greatness of the city knowing I’m going to be away from it (if only for a few days). But each time I return to Manhattan after a trip, I get a rush of the same excitement and awe that I felt the first time I got in the back of a yellow cab. Somehow the city looks, smells, even feels different. Streets I walk on every day are seen in a different light. Even the people with whom I jostle for space on the crowded sidewalk suddenly appear exotic and appealing. Could this be the same town I left less than a week earlier? That elusive magical feeling hits me like the first few seconds of “(Love Is Like A) Heatwave” and — at least for the duration of that cab ride — I remember why I always wanted to be here in the first place.

elizabeth lennard 2

Maybe you become a New Yorker the first time New York feels like home. Not long after I moved to the U.S. I took a trip to visit my girlfriend’s family in West Virginia. It was the first time I’d left New York City, and I remember feeling an unexpected sense of blasé familiarity when I landed back at JFK, an airport I had until that moment associated only with extreme excitement and anticipation. Now, it was other places gave me that feeling; New York had become “normal”. The slightly bittersweet compromise but inevitable consequence of living somewhere you’d always dreamed of living is that that very special feeling — that urgent, frantic desire you once felt, perhaps even years before you got here — is lost. Of course, it’s replaced with something arguably much better: the real and more rewarding experiences that come with actually living somewhere.

Colson Whitehead says “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” I can definitely relate to that, and I’m always surprised just to what extent the New York in my head differs from the city I experience everyday in 2010. I confess to occasionally standing on street corners and squinting, trying desperately to recapture the sensation of walking down Broadway for the very first time, or even attempting to recall how I’d imagined New York all those years before I ever arrived. But whenever I start to wonder if this is a city best enjoyed through books and movies or my own imagination, something will jerk my senses suddenly and it all comes flooding back: early evening light on the side of a building, the sudden sight of one of the last Checker cabs bouncing down Seventh Avenue, or the inviting mix of pizza and Martha & The Vandellas floating out onto the sidewalk on a July afternoon. It’s all here, and it’s all real.

My daily commute is punctuated by the clatter of storefronts opening, a siren’s intermittent wail, hosed sidewalks, and, as I stand waiting for lights to change, the urban morning aromas of coffee, perfume and garbage. My heart lifts as I turn onto Irving Place and glimpse the Chrysler Building, half-hidden by summer’s haze or gleaming in the crisp winter sun. On the walk home I always remember to turn and look the wrong way up Lexington Avenue, to glance at all that steel and chrome rendered golden by dusk. Just in case I ever forget what I’m doing here.

In his 1949 essay “Here is New York”, E.B. White eloquently suggests there are three New Yorks, that of the native, the commuter, and the immigrant, claiming “the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal.” He says the immigrants give the city “passion”, which accounts for its “high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.” Certainly New York, more than any other city in the world, owes its very existence — social, cultural, political, even physical — to the steady influx of people who have dared to dream that this could be their home.

Jeremiah Moss says “a New Yorker is someone who longs for New York.” While it’s true that not everybody who lives in New York automatically becomes a New Yorker, by the same token he implies you can be a New Yorker without actually living here. New Yorkers are a unique breed unto themselves, and maybe it’s enough to be one in thought and spirit. Maybe New York really is a state of mind. Maybe you’re a New Yorker when you can’t imagine living anywhere else. In which case, though my adjustment of status was only recently made official, maybe I’ve been a New Yorker all along.
 
 
 
 

All artwork by Elizabeth Lennard.

I’ll take Manhattan

The other day I came across a tatty copy of New York magazine dated June 15, 1987. The cover story was entitled “The Buildings New Yorkers Love to Hate”, a list of the city’s most unpopular architectural landmarks which included the World Trade Center and the former PAN-AM Building. Most remarkable however, were the local listings towards the back of the magazine. The Restaurants section included just three eateries for the whole of Brooklyn. If you’ve been to Brooklyn lately this may seem hard to imagine, though if you were around in the late-eighties probably not quite so much. Indeed, the first time I visited New York eleven years ago it never even occurred to me that I might even venture across the East River.

When they hear the words “New York”, most outsiders think of Manhattan, and who can blame them? After all, when Frank Sinatra sang, “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere,” he wasn’t talking about Red Hook. Many visitors mistakenly consider Brooklyn another neighborhood, when it is actually New York’s most populous borough and existed as an independent city until 1898 (today it would still rank as America’s fourth largest). But no-one ever crossed the Atlantic with aspirations of making live hummus in Carroll Gardens.

But suddenly it seems Manhattan is no longer where it’s at. Indeed, if you believe everything you read, you’ll be told that Brooklyn is now everything Manhattan once was: cool, exciting, edgy. In short, the place to be. Before we go on I should make one thing clear: I’m not talking about the Brooklyn of Coney Island or the Dodgers or even Spike Lee; I’m talking about New Brooklyn. New Brooklyn looks a lot like old Brooklyn, except it’s a bit prettier and a lot more expensive. Though New Brooklyn garners plenty of media press attention, nobody does a greater job at promoting New Brooklyn than the New Brooklynites. The New Brooklynites are easy to spot. They are usually white, might have a beard, and definitely don’t speak with a Brooklyn accent. If you meet a New Brooklynite there’s a good chance they will soon tell you how glad they are to be living in Brooklyn, and how you really should be living there too.

manhattan 2

Call me a contrarian, but when someone strongly urges me to do something, my natural inclination is to not do it, even if my original instinct might have told me otherwise. Maybe I’d have moved to Brooklyn by now if it weren’t for all those Brooklyn dwellers recommending I do so as soon as possible. Even my boss (who lives in Brooklyn) will regularly bring up the question as to why I’ve yet to move there, imploring me to “get off the grid”. I sometimes imagine he would enjoy enormous satisfaction were I to transfer out to Ditmas Park, so I too can endure an hour-long commute on the Q train at the cost of $89 a month. Many people who live in Brooklyn still work in the city; by living in Manhattan I currently use the subway only once a week at most, so I’m already saving money plus two hours out of every workday.

Much of the problem regarding the Manhattan-Brooklyn divide is definitely psychological, a syndrome by which I am affected as much as anyone else. I can be in Park Slope almost as quickly as it takes me to reach upper Broadway, yet I wouldn’t think twice about hopping on the 1 train up to Zabar’s for a cinnamon babka. Ask me to schlep out to Brooklyn and I’ll pull out a list of excuses.

Certainly Brooklyn’s rapid, ongoing transformation and continuing cultural divergence from Manhattan is arguably one of New York’s most significant changes of the last twenty years. There are several factors which New Brooklynites will always cite when discussing the advantages to their borough. The first usually concerns the lower overall cost of living. Yet while a railroad apartment in Bushwick may be considerably cheaper than a two-bedroom in the West Village, as New Brooklyn continues to generate hype so its rents in the more desirable (and exclusive) neighborhoods become comparable to those in Manhattan.

Such areas are also epicenters of Hipsterdom, an alarmingly unimaginative subculture whose primary concern is appropriating aspects of bygone eras and passing them off as its own. Skinny jeans, horn-rimmed glasses, plaid shirts and ironic facial hair: these are the cornerstones of the young New Brooklynite’s carefully cultivated wardrobe, items which must be worn at all times with the nonchalant attitude of someone who isn’t really trying. It also helps if you have some tattoos (you can almost guarantee that most of these people had very dull parents). Most hipsters look like they haven’t seen a gym — or the sun for that matter — since they left their altogether drearier hometowns (which to be fair probably wasn’t all that long ago).

Manifesting itself through music, fashion, even food, New Brooklyn has in recent years developed its own brand of taste and style that often appears a deliberate antithesis to Manhattan’s urban brashness and cutting-edge commercialism. Small businesses label their products as hand-crafted, home-made, organic or artisanal, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the giant, soulless corporations which proliferate across the river. Yet the sheer number of like businesses which have cropped up over the last couple of years only diminishes their collective value. Suddenly it seems, every kid in Williamsburg is making Prohibition-style soda while attempting to grow a moustache. The appropriation of this down-home folksiness is clearly an attempt to lend weight to fleeting projects by referencing something real. In this sense Brooklyn is the crafts to Manhattan’s Arts. But as it continues to bemoan Manhattan’s so-called superficiality New Brooklyn has unwittingly created its own culture which is no less manufactured. At least Manhattan isn’t bullshitting anybody, and I’ll take an egg cream and a tuna melt any day over a gluten-free vegan cupcake.

I don’t wish to suggest for a minute that most of those who love Brooklyn aren’t genuinely happy living there, or that everyone should want to live in Manhattan or feel unhappy if they are not. Manhattan is definitely not for everyone, and of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with eating local or buying homemade, except for the holier-than-thou attitude that too often accompanies these ideas and lifestyle. Like the vegetarian who pulls a face when you order steak, the worst kind of New Brooklynite takes on an air of tremendous self-righteousness when you confess to enjoying the simplest of pleasures, as if drinking non-microbrewery beer could jeopardize your friendship. New Brooklynites’ constant praising of their borough can sometimes come off as obsessive, and in extreme cases it seems like an inverse reaction to not living in Manhattan, as if they are grappling with some trauma. Maybe they’re irked by Manhattan’s history of condescension towards the “outer boroughs”. Or maybe the very act of living in Prospect Heights gives them a warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction akin to donating money to Africa or buying a T-shirt to benefit Haitian earthquake victims.

Of course, these phenomena are by no means exclusive to New Brooklyn’s population, but rather representative of the white, middle-class youth of America. Indeed, we are already witnessing the commodification of “New Brooklyn” as it enters the corporate mainstream. Take for instance the common brand of twee, faux-naïve songs which now permeate movie trailers and national television commercials for some of America’s biggest companies. In this week’s New York magazine (which incidentally lists nine restaurants in Williamsburg alone), Adam Sternbergh identifies every large city in the Western world as having its own Brooklyn, specifically a neighborhood with “nice blocks, good restaurants, and beards.” That the new Brooklyn can be defined so succinctly conveys everything about its limitations and its arch self-awareness. New Brooklyn, its look and sound, is now being used to sell everything from Japanese hybrids to portable e-book readers. Perhaps the most significant event in this trend was the launch of a “Brooklyn-themed” bar/restaurant set to open this autumn in — you guessed it — Manhattan.

manhattan 3

That there are people who feel the need to define “New Brooklyn” — through its cuisine of all things, and on Manhattan turf — says a lot about the borough’s pervading complex of inferiority. It’s also in complete contrasts to the island’s greatest strength of total defiance and utter indifference. Manhattan cannot be tamed, and somehow manages to resist the waves of social or economic change. Sternbergh argues that it’s Brooklyn’s supposed positive qualities which make it so obnoxious, and that the same phenomenon could never happen with Manhattan because “they only ever made one Chrysler Building.” Manhattan could never become a brand because its brand is too vast, too diverse and far-reaching, Movies, art, jazz, tourism: these are things that are too beloved and universal to be considered “cool” anymore.

Though separated by a small body of water called the East River, Manhattan and Brooklyn can at times appear like two worlds in the same city, of which their inhabitants are two very different species. From its breathtaking verticality to its teeming street life, Manhattan, more so than any other major city, is a direct result of its geography. While Brooklyn and Queens are still home to some of New York’s largest ethnic communities, Manhattan’s cosmopolitan population is forced to exist on a narrow twelve-by-two-mile island. This tremendous concentration of people, their different cultures and languages, is what gives the city its unique, relentless energy, and in extreme cases can breed bouts of aggression or creativity, sometimes in the same breath. It’s these immovable confines which have helped make self-absorption and ambition two of the most common traits among Manhattanites — without space to move outwards, the city can only look inwards and upwards.

All of this has enabled Manhattan’s inhabitants to consistently defy categorization and stereotype as they go about their daily lives. They rarely question their presence on the island — many seem to live in a self-imposed exile of sorts, and are often unable to imagine themselves anywhere else. Though often perceived as neurotic or narcissistic, the truest Manhattanite is a model of fierce independence, flagrant individuality and unwavering positivity. To stroll the city streets is to experience a warm, unspoken understanding — a camaraderie among strangers, an unlikely mutual respect between all those who share a sidewalk.

Yet for many Manhattanites, moving to Brooklyn is seen almost as an urban rite of passage, an inevitable step in the life of a New Yorker as young adulthood gives way to parenthood, and that Chelsea studio suddenly becomes untenable. But for now, my favorite reason to visit Brooklyn is the ride home as the N train trundles over the Brooklyn Bridge. Downtown skyscrapers soar into view, my pulse quickens and I am thrilled at the thought of my apartment nestled hidden somewhere within all of that brick and concrete. Why would I want to be anywhere else? Perhaps Tom Waits put it best when he was asked to describe New York. “Well, it’s like a big ship,” he said. “And the water’s on fire.” I’m not quite ready to jump ship just yet.
 
 
 
Film stills from “Manhattan”, 1979 (United Artists).

Breakfast in America

In case you hadn’t noticed, the World Cup got underway last weekend in South Africa. For one month every four years, the planet’s greatest sporting event has, historically, had a tendency to consume my every waking second. This year is no different, although since Italy lifted the trophy in 2006 I’ve obtained United States residency, meaning I am experiencing the tournament from this side of the Atlantic for the very first time. This situation has led to some interesting observations, some more expected than others, as I grapple with the clichéd notion of being an avid soccer nut in a country that — as we’re so often told — just doesn’t care.

Johannesburg is six hours ahead of New York, so I get to watch the day’s earliest match before leaving for work. Once in the office I close my internet browser and hunker down until I can return home, where, thanks to the miracle of DVR, two more games await my viewing pleasure. Though avoiding the score has proven more difficult than expected. I’ve had to change my route several times when I’ve seen soccer fans amassed outside a sports bar, and was even forced to move to the other end of a subway car when I heard some Brazilians talking futebol.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to set the alarm for football matches. During the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan (when I was still living in England), most games were scheduled for the early morning, a novelty which resulted in BBC commentator John Motson developing a tiresome fixation with breakfast-related puns. Watching football on American networks can also bewilder, but for entirely different reasons. I still don’t understand why the commentary is called “the call” (as in “Martin Tyler with the call”) or why half-time is known simply as “the half” (“We’re goalless at the half.”). The alternative is the local Spanish language channel Univision, where the World Cup is co-hosted by young latinas in figure hugging national team jerseys, and any punditry is generally forsaken in favor of dancing, chanting and fervent flag-waving. Over on ESPN coverage is generally quite polished, with some big names on the panel: Klinsmann, Gullit, McManaman, McCoist, Lalas, Bartlett, Martinez (OK, some names are bigger than others). It’s clear the anchors are being fed information about players and previous tournaments by a soccer intern with encyclopedic knowledge of World Cup history, in a desperate but comprehensible attempt to dispel the myth that Americans know nothing about the game.

Whether you see it as a failure or a refusal, the fact that America has never fully embraced soccer is both fuel for those who dismiss the sport and a burden to its genuine fans. New York, of course, is a bit different. The city is still a natural port of call for anyone arriving from overseas or across the border, and some 36% of the current population is foreign-born. That’s a lot of soccer fans. New York State has no official language: English is obviously the de facto language but of the nine million people who live in the city less than half are native English speakers. On a day like today — when the air is thick and temperatures hit the mid-90s and football is blaring out of every bar, deli and taxicab – New York feels a lot closer to Naples or São Paulo than the United States.

That’s not to say the locals don’t make themselves heard. Yesterday I saw dozens of young Americans in USA jerseys heading to bars to watch their team’s match with Slovenia, while for several weeks shoppers on 57th Street have been subjected to Clint Dempsey’s screaming face looming large on the exterior of NikeTown. The United States’ games have even made the front pages of the Times, Post and Daily News. Despite only intermittent success in recent years, interest in the national team has steadily risen to a point where they today merit respect and generate media frenzy and support during the World Cup. Many casual American soccer fans become genuinely curious about the tournament, and perhaps even a tad envious of the kind of passion it invokes in people of other nationalities.

But come September it’s unlikely these same fans will be getting up at nine on a Sunday morning to watch European league matches. For this reason I sometimes sympathize with the professionals representing the United States, as they’ve had to work doubly hard to garner support from skeptics and casual, fair-weather fans whose interest is piqued only every four years. It’s like when people get excited about synchronized swimming during the Olympics.

A college friend of mine (and self-confessed soccer ignoramus) wrote to me recently asking me for my take on why the game has never taken off in the United States. After all, since the 1960s a host of characters from the worlds of football, politics, entertainment and business have tried to make soccer a more serious sport here, without ever fully succeeding. In the 1970s some of the sport’s biggest names — including Pele, Beckenbauer, Best and Cruyff — made the NASL a marketing man’s dream, but the novelty wore off by the early 1980s and the league collapsed soon after. In 1994 the United States even hosted a highly successful World Cup (breaking all attendance records), but the MLS (which was created as part of the U.S.’s hosting bid) has had a turbulent history ever since, and remains a relatively weak league whose rosters are populated mainly by young American talent and veterans from South America, despite more recent high-profile European arrivals, such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry.

Soccer is the most played sport at high-school level in this country, and extremely popular in the major cities and particularly among the under-30s, but I don’t think it will ever “take off” in the way my friend was implying. The problem is precisely that: football doesn’t really “take off” anywhere – it’s ingrained culturally and people either get it or they don’t. Sadly for America everyone gets it but them. In Asia, large populations with growing economies such as Japan, China and India, have embraced the game more fervently in recent years, but they didn’t have their own hugely popular and highly lucrative sports leagues in place. In the United States the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL are very much ingrained; soccer is not really necessary, neither economically nor culturally.

Then of course there is the game itself. A lot has been made of the cautious nature of the first round of matches at this World Cup, but it seems the ones who complain about the football (or the vuvuzelas for that matter) are the ones who don’t really enjoy soccer and probably begrudge having to sit through it. Many Americans I’ve spoken to this week have questioned the number of matches which have ended in parity, their impression being that a tied result is somewhat unsatisfactory. That a game must have a winner strikes me as a deeply American idea. I got into a very heated row with my boss twice this week after he suggested football would be improved if they eliminated draws from the sport entirely. Most surprising when you consider my boss is Italian — albeit one who moved to the Bronx in 1970 and now catches a football match only every four years (and then only when the Azzurri are playing). Major League Soccer conducted a similar experiment when it relaunched back in the mid-nineties. Concerned with the prospect of tied games, the league’s commissioners imposed an instant one-on-one sudden death shoot-out in the event of a match ending level after ninety minutes. In a perverse twist on the penalty shoot-out, the forward would start with the ball from the halfway line with only the goalkeeper to beat. This attempt to avoid alienating mainstream sports fans by making league matches — and penalty kicks themselves — more exciting only alienated soccer purists, and the league soon reverted to a conventional win-lose-draw points system.

In this regard both the MLS and my boss were guilty of seeing the game purely from the perspective of entertainment, which in this case means the ball crossing the goal-line. Personally, I’d always prefer to watch a tight 1-1 draw between two quality teams than an end-to-end goal-fest between two average ones. Fans who describe close World Cup or Champions League matches as “boring” also fail to recognize one of the elements that makes the game so special. Football is different to practically all other sports in that scoring is supposed to be difficult, so when a goal is scored it’s a big deal. It is a game built on patience and tactics, which of course enhances the tension and drama, which in turn are what make important games so absorbing. In basketball there is no element of tension or drama until the last 120 seconds of the fourth quarter, and that’s only if the teams are closely separated.

The very nature of football is contrary to the instant gratification provided by high-scoring American sports, which are first and foremost entertainment (and big business). Football is obviously entertainment in Europe too (and an even bigger business globally), but there are deeper cultural, social and political elements that give the game a greater resonance beyond the stadium, which if you’ve never lived in Europe or South America is perhaps not something that’s easy to comprehend. It’s for these reasons more than any other that I think soccer remains a sport that most Americans won’t think of again for another four years. But until then, if they ever change their minds they know where to find the rest of us.

Empire State of Mind

New York said goodbye to an icon this weekend. On May 14 the Empire Diner closed its doors for the last time — or rather, the first time, since this Chelsea landmark had until last Saturday night been serving locals and tourists, artists and cops, partygoers and insomniacs 24 hours a day since it opened in its current incarnation thirty-four years ago. In 1976, the diner lay closed and abandoned when it was purchased by three young New Yorkers — Jack Doenias, Carl Laanes, and Richard Ruskay — who transformed the Tenth Avenue eatery into the self-proclaimed “Hippest Diner on Earth.” The Empire Diner’s success was a prime example of the neighborhood’s renaissance, as galleries, hotels and restaurants began to pop up between the gas stations and auto parts stores which had until then dominated the landscape.

As a child growing up in the UK, I probably first caught glimpse of the Empire Diner during the opening shots of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Later, it also made an appearance in Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, but by that time I was already all-too familiar, having gazed many times at the cover of the Tom Waits LP Asylum Years. Released in 1986, this double-album compilation featured John Baeder’s painting of the Empire Diner on its front cover. It was an appropriate choice of artwork for a Tom Waits record: the man had made a career of verbalizing bittersweet tales of urban folly to anyone who’d listen, like some down-and-out character permanently slumped at the end of the counter. Whether it was the image of the diner glistening in the Manhattan night, or Waits’ midnight rambles, I knew I had to check this place out for myself.

Years later, after moving to New York, I finally got my chance. It was a cold, November evening, and I’d arrived from the Theater District where I’d been volunteering at a contemporary dance performance. Instantly recognizable from the outside by its chrome exterior and giant “EAT” sign, inside the diner was altogether less familiar. On entering I was surprised to be greeted by a calm hush, and certainly not the usual hustle-bustle which characterizes many open-all-hours places. Instead, people spoke in soft voices and on the piano someone was playing “Song For You” by Leon Russell, making the Empire Diner the first and so far only diner I’ve ever seen with a live pianist. I sat down at the polished black counter, ordered, and gazed at the yellow cabs silently gliding up Tenth Avenue. I immediately wrote about my experience on my blog (now defunct), soon after which a certain Eileen Levinson wrote to me thanking me for my kind words. I returned with my wife the night of my twenty-ninth birthday: the overtly camp staff was hilarious and delightful. I left with a t-shirt with the “EAT” mantra emblazoned across the back. When my parents came to visit, they insisted we go to the Empire Diner for burgers.

The Empire Diner’s iconic status continued to be maintained: in March a digital image of the restaurant — drawn using an iPhone app by Portuguese artist Jorge Colombo — appeared on the cover of The New Yorker. So it was with much surprise that I learned of the imminent closure less than a month later. As soon as I heard the news I wrote to the owners, Renate Gonzalez and Mitchell Woo, expressing my shock and sadness. Renate immediately responded inviting me to the official closing party on Sunday afternoon. Arriving for the last time, I found a relaxed crowd settled on patio furniture clustered outside the restaurant, whose famous chrome glistened in the late-afternoon sun. Inside the diner, the atmosphere was decidedly more raucous, as the diner’s most flamboyant followers got down to a soundtrack of eighties club hits. There was something quite sad about seeing the last remaining survivors of a city’s much-flaunted party scene enjoying a final dance on a Sunday afternoon. This may have only been the closing of a restaurant, but what does it say about New York?

It seems not a week goes by that New York City doesn’t say goodbye to another family-run business or cherished establishment. Most of these closures go unnoticed by many, although certain blogs, such as EV Grieve and Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, manage to meticulously document these aspects of the city’s transformation. While I strongly sympathize with the aforementioned bloggers common stance, I personally think nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, and I’m always cautious about extolling “the good old days”. After all, a lot of people were glad to see the back of them. As one commentator pointed out, “People who hate the new Times Square probably were never mugged in the old one in 1989.”

A city must always keep evolving, and nowhere is reinvention more possible than in New York. But what about when your favorite coffee shop is converted into a Starbucks? Or when the corner deli where you’ve been buying milk for twenty years is suddenly shuttered, only to reopen serving only something the kids are calling Fro-Yo? Or when an entire historic block is razed and an eco-indulgent glass condo is built in its place? I’m not alone in feeling that New York, once just a trendy, rebellious cousin to the conservative USA, is becoming victim to the steady encroachment of corporate America. Of course, this phenomenon exists the world over and is evident elsewhere — look at the state of popular music or sports — but what’s most alarming is the rapidity with which such changes occur in this millennium, particularly in a fast-paced commercial capital like New York.

New York is a city of immigrants, one which has always been driven by the arrival of new people. But in recent years, New York, in presenting itself as a desirable place to live, has gone out of its way to invite the wrong kind of transplant: a sort of suburban-urbanite, one who associates the city not with history or culture, or even crime, but with luxury and status. These are exactly the kind of people who not too long ago would have turned up their noses at Manhattan: too dirty, too dangerous, too cold. They’re the kind of people who don’t know what an egg cream is and aren’t about to try one. Sadly it seems the latest generation of adults has scant concept of a New York, or a world, pre-internet, pre-Carrie Bradshaw. I’ve met people not much younger than myself who didn’t know what the Twin Towers were until they watched them fall on TV on 9/11. If these people are the future of New York it’s not hard to understand why certain long-standing businesses are failing.

Ms. Gonzalez and Mr. Woo, while clearly saddened to be leaving what has been their place of work for the over three decades, remain philosophical. They plan to bring the Empire experience abroad and are currently looking for a future site for the diner. It wouldn’t be the first time a landmark eatery has up and left town, silently in the dead of night. The Moondance Diner closed in 2006 and reappeared somewhere in Wyoming. Last year, the Cheyenne Diner was closed, dismantled and rebuilt down in Alabama. So look out for the Empire Diner in a town near you. As for New York, like the day they decided to plant deckchairs in the middle of Times Square, it’s just another small step towards suburbia. The hippest city on earth just got a little less hip.

Spin City

A few months ago, on the same day I turned thirty, I signed the lease to my first real New York apartment. To celebrate both occasions my wife surprised me with an unexpected gift: a record player, complete with amp and tuner. Nothing fancy (it had been donated to her by her boss) but perfect for a young couple looking to get its groove on in a one-bedroom third-floor walk-up.

I owned only two LPs at the time, which I’d acquired in the vague hope that sooner or later I’d have my own turntable on which to play them. The first was The Nightfly by Donald Fagen, purchased for a dollar at East Village Thrift Shop on Second Avenue. According to jazz-rock legend, this was one of the first commercial albums to be fully recorded digitally. I’d only ever heard it on CD, but on vinyl its grooves were warm and full. I later read that “I.G.Y.” (the opening track on side one) is the go-to choice for sound engineers and audiophiles when setting up their equipment, deeming it also a worthy selection with which to debut my own home sound system.

The other record was Some Girls, which I’d bought in the original elaborate sleeve from a guy on the street somewhere on upper Broadway. Arguably the Rolling Stones’ most New York-centric record, the album held fewer surprises but sounded as tough and taught ever. Thrilled with the new addition to our home, the next morning we took a stroll through the neighborhood in search of expanding our vinyl collection. Within a couple of hours we’d amassed such a heavy trove of classic LPs that we had to turn back. That night we spun our latest purchases at my birthday party, which meant my meticulously-compiled 2009-1979 reverse chronological playlist had to be eighty-sixed at the eleventh hour. But who cares when you’re replacing it with a gently worn copy of Al Green’s Greatest Hits?

Almost overnight, I’d been presented with a new project to distract me from more important responsibilities. Suddenly a day without a visit to a record store was considered a day wasted, and my walks home from work became invariably interrupted by a fast perusal of the NEW ARRIVALS section at Academy Records on East 12th Street. Whether you consider this activity a worthy hobby or simply another means of parting with significant amounts of cash will depend on how you feel about John Coltrane (particularly the stuff on Impulse). At first I was quite discerning in purchasing used vinyl, spending money only for recordings that belonged on my personal all-time favorites list, or, alternatively, for those that were relatively unknown to me but that my wife or I considered intriguing enough to excite or entertain, at least for an evening or two. This responsible approach began to slacken however, after it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t take me much more than a week to pick up everything Dave Brubeck, Van Morrison and Blondie ever recorded for next to nothing.

spines

Despite the fact that most young people these days don’t even own a stereo, let alone a turntable, there are still several old-fashioned record shops well worth a visit operating just blocks from our apartment. Greenwich Village is generally pricier ($48 for Sticky Fingers?) and subway rides to other stores often prove less fruitful, with some on my list having long-since closed. Strider Records on Jones Street (of Freewheelin’ fame) has so much inventory stacked on the floor you can’t even get inside. Instead you have to stand in the doorway and tell them what it is you’re looking for. I’ve spent upwards of twenty dollars on a couple of occasions — usually for classic be-bop — but the majority of LPs in my collection cost less than five bucks, some as little as fifty cents, and others even less. Leaving work one summer’s evening I tripped over a 1947 Metropolitan Opera recording of La Bohème which had been left lying in the middle Lexington Avenue.

I’m thirty (as I mentioned earlier) and like most people my age I grew up hearing music on vinyl at home, or on TDK cassettes in the car and on my Walkman (we didn’t have a CD player until 1993). Part of the pleasure of building my LP library has been the subconscious recreation of my parents’ own record collection, and the subtle discrepancies between US and UK releases. For instance, did you know that the design of Columbia spines slightly on either side of the Atlantic? (I remember always reading the spines while on the telephone — back in the days when phones stayed in one place.) Like any level-headed person my Dad keeps his collection in alphabetical order (anybody adhering to an alternative filing system ought not to be trusted), but when I was little he’d always have a stack of new records or stuff he was currently playing propped up on the floor. I know for a fact I spent more time staring at the cover of some albums than actually listening to them.

As much as I’m a close listener, I’ve always been an avid consumer of music, in the sense that I’m interested in the whole product. For me, most of my favorite music is inexorably connected to its album, its cover design, its release date and in some cases even its personal relevance or standing within a greater cultural context. So I’m routinely surprised by people who are willing to pay for digital downloads of albums. Yes, it’s on your hard drive before you know it and in a matter of seconds has been unzipped and dumped into your iTunes. But it leaves the customer without anything else — artwork, liner notes or a lyric sheet — with which to enhance the listening experience. Personally, when it comes to my favorite albums I want to know who played the instruments, who wrote the songs, where they were recorded, who photographed the band, who designed the cover. For these simple reasons I’ve never felt compelled to pay for music in a digital format in my life.

These days if I’m interested in a new recording I’m likely to order the CD online, firstly because it’s cheaper, but also because when I try to think of where I’d purchase a CD physically in New York my mind goes blank. Tower Records, HMV and Virgin Megastore have all pulled out of Manhattan in the last few years and, incredibly, CD sales are now said to lag behind those of vinyl records. If I were to buy a new CD in person today I’d probably have to go to a chain bookstore or a giant warehouse selling microwaves and flat-screen televisions.

Conversely, there are plenty of people not much younger than me who’ve never walked into a record store to buy music. No doubt they enjoy the convenient immediacy of the digital format, plus the fact that it takes up no extra physical space in their home. But their kids will never know the feeling of lying on the living room rug, seeing a record they’ve never heard, and imagining how it might sound. Theirs is the first generation that won’t grow up listening to albums, which doesn’t bode well for the future of music — or society, for that matter — in general.

I own an iPod, but I only use it at the gym or the airport or if I feel like zoning out on a long walk. It’s great for those purposes: it weighs almost nothing and even clips to my clothes. But I can’t imagine it being the only way I listened to music. The MP3 has transformed the way society purchases and listens to the musical product. It has encouraged the demise of the album as unique art form and promotes an already pervading culture of instant gratification. In the digital age, where attentions are already spread too thinly, a song doesn’t stand much of a chance if it hasn’t grabbed its listener within the first five seconds. The difference is akin to that between watching a movie from start to finish and simply clicking on a series of memorable clips on YouTube.

What makes an LP special is that unless you are willing to get up every three minutes to flip a disc over you’re inclined to sit through the whole side, thus hearing the record just as it was made to be heard. Without a convenient means of skipping tracks you’re far more likely to be taken by surprise and, if you’re lucky, discover something new. Just as the virtual e-book cannot replicate a shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks, a record player’s tactile quality makes for an ultimately more rewarding listening experience that truly enhances your living space. Every home should have one.

Still making sense

When David Byrne took to the stage to greet the crowd in Brooklyn last night, he was accompanied by an unusual accessory. Not a guitar, nor even a tape recorder containing a drum machine backing track of “Psycho Killer”. Instead, the former Talking Head wheeled out a white bicycle, which had apparently been designed to match his outfit (and hair). While many of the 27,000 who’d crammed into Prospect Park had taken the subway to attend the free concert, Byrne, now 57, explained how he’d simply ridden his bike across the river. It was a typically quirky introduction to the evening from a man who in recent years has become as active in his advocacy of two-wheel travel as in making music. He even designed a series of bike racks which are dotted around New York City.

Things didn’t get any less predictably unexpected once the music started. The set was billed as focusing solely on Byrne’s long-term, on-off-on again collaborations with Brian Eno, who produced a trio of early Talking Heads albums: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980). In 1981 Byrne and Eno made the experimental record My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, their last project until last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, from which the evening’s opening number was plucked. Unfortunately, the song, “Strange Overtures”, is lost amid a half-baked sound which struggles to generate much interest. Initially disturbed, I can only assume that this was a technical hitch, as shortly afterwards the pulsating Afro-beats and Dadaist chants of “I Zimbra” float effortlessly into the warm air, setting the tone for the rest of the evening.

Though often inaccurately bunched together with punk and post-punk acts due to regular appearances at the same venues, Talking Heads were really a no-wave group, whose interest (in the early days at least) lay firmly in the underground cultures of avant-garde art and New York’s club scene. Combine this with Byrne’s obsessive fascination for foreign rhythms, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and quizzical observations about the rest of the country, and one has arguably the quintessential New York baby-boomer band: wordy, witty, worldly, but not afraid to shut up and get down when the music takes them. The band’s distinctive sound seems to have been spawned by the city’s streets on a hot July day, when Manhattan could be mistaken for Calcutta. No song captures the oppressive rhythm of a New York summer like “Born Under Punches (And The Heat Goes On)”, which always sounds like it was written and recorded in a jungle (made of trees or concrete). Tonight the song hangs in the thick air and seems to drip like dew off sticky humid leaves.

This hypnotic track is immediately followed by “Once in a Lifetime”, perhaps Byrne’s best-known composition. The song has gone a long way in helping seal Talking Heads’ position as the most enduring and influential band of the American New Wave and Byrne as rock’s ultimate everyman anti-hero. Lyrically, both this and the next song, “Life During Wartime”, have long-since seeped into the realms public consciousness: “You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile…”, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco…” Almost thirty years after he wrote it, when Byrne asks, “Well, how did I get here?”, I still wonder if he’s figured out an answer.

When I saw Byrne seven years ago on a similar summer evening in Leicester, he was accompanied by a group of young singers he’d met at a high school. Tonight he’s backed by a troupe of hyperactive dancers and gymnasts, whose back-flips and leapfrogs somehow manage not to distract but to enhance the musical experience. For the most part Byrne remains passive to their performance, as if unaware of their presence.

Things slow down for “Heaven”, which Byrne sings with soaring concentration. The careful choreography (even Byrne’s Stratocaster is off-white) is reminiscent of the Stop Making Sense tour, captured so memorably by filmmaker Jonathan Demme in what is still perhaps the greatest concert movie of that decade. That feature leaned heavily on Speaking In Tongues (1983), Talking Heads’ first record produced without Brian Eno since their debut LP in 1977. Likewise tonight’s curated set-list finds no room for the radio-friendly material from later self-produced albums Little Creatures (1985), True Stories (1986) or Naked (1988).

For the encore Byrne is joined on-stage by percussionist Steve Scales, whose inclusion in the expanded Talking Heads band helped define the funky sound of the live albums The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (1981) and Stop Making Sense (1984). There’d be no dusting off of the big suit tonight, but nobody questions Byrne when he reappears sporting a white tutu pulled up over his original outfit. “Take Me To The River” is a rare case of a covered song improving on the original, and it belongs as much to Byrne as it does to Al Green now, while “Burning Down The House” always does exactly that. Both songs demonstrate Byrne’s long-standing interest in gospel music and religion-induced performance.

At show’s end David Byrne disciples young and old (this was the most family-friendly concert I have attended) filtered off into the streets and down into the subway, their bodies still jerking to Byrne’s rare brand of spasmodic rhythms. By all accounts Byrne hopped back over the bridge on his bike. I bet he was home before we were.


David Byrne, Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn — June 8, 2009

Strange Overtones
I Zimbra
One Fine Day
Help Me Somebody
Houses In Motion
My Big Nurse
My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)
Heaven
Moonlight In Glory
Life Is Long
Crosseyed and Painless
Born Under Punches (And The Heat Goes On)
Once In A Lifetime
Life During Wartime
I Feel My Stuff

Encore 1
Take Me To The River
The Great Curve

Encore 2
Air
Burning Down The House

Encore 3
Everything That Happens

Scenes from an Italian restaurant

Though I try to keep this website up-to-date with what’s going on in my New York life, there is one tale I have yet to tell. In fact, the subject matter is of such a dark and depressing nature I have had to wait until the onset of Spring to even discuss it. And after I write this, I hope to erase the entire experience from my memory. Here goes.

Around mid-January, I found myself to my surprise, still in New York, but also jobless and soon-to-be-homeless. Having exhausted all other avenues of potential employment I became desperate, and began handing out resumes in every cafe, bar or restaurant where I thought I could stand to work. With no prior experience in the food and beverage industry I was compelled to make up a phony resumé which stated I had worked at various places in Italy. I deliberately chose places where I used to hang out, the thinking being that if probed I could probably invent a believable answer. To my surprise I was granted an interview on the Upper West Side at Nice Matin, a spacious brasserie-type restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 79th Street, in the same building as the Hotel Lucerne. That afternoon on the way over there I dropped my resumé off at a small unassuming Italian ristorante a block further up and across the street. This turned out to be my first (and biggest) mistake.

I didn’t get the Nice Matin job as I wasn’t legal, but a couple of evenings later I got a call from the other restaurant, and the next morning I went to meet with the manager, a slightly tense woman (let’s call her M). She wanted someone to answer phones, make coffees, serve desserts, and whip up the occasional cocktail. It sounded like an easy and fun gig, so I started the next evening.

I thought my Italian experience would help, though I was clearly hired for this particular job as none of the current employees spoke decent English. I spent most of my time on the phone taking orders, which could often get out of control (especially when busy New Yorkers call for a delivery of “penne with butter”). My other duties included making coffees and cocktails (neither of which I was yet capable), serving desserts, operating the cash register and keeping track of delivery boys’ tips. At the end of the night I’d count the register, give the night’s takings to M and wrap a drawer amount of cash in a rubber band and place it in a tumbler in the back of the fridge. M turned out to be not only tense but also uptight: the kind of micro-managing, hands-on, control freak of boss I hope never to encounter again. She would criticize everything I did and generally treated me like a small child, permanently breathing down my neck. After a couple of weeks I realized I was in hell, but I needed the money so badly I had to stick it out. It was frustrating because I’m sure some restaurant jobs can be fun. This one wasn’t.

The place itself would get very full on weekends and quite stressful. This was the only restaurant in the western world which still uses the carbon paper check, which means to change something requires crossing out and rewriting on three separate pieces of paper, resulting in lots of scribbling and many screwed-up orders. You try mixing a flirtini, slicing a strawberry to be served atop a panna cotta, and making three decaf espressos while on the phone with an angry Central Park West resident who wants to know what happened to her side of grilled zucchini. Sometimes when the delivery boys were extra busy I’d be sent on foot to deliver food locally. This was always a thrill for three reasons: 1) it was a sudden chance to escape the hell of the restaurant and call home; 2) I’d invariably receive a handsome personal tip; 3) and more importantly, I’d be afforded a sneak peak inside the home of an affluent Upper West Sider.

M herself knew very little about Italian food or wine, believing penne alla vodka or spaghetti and meatballs (her bestselling dishes) to be the height of European sophistication. She also refused to acknowledge that someone could be more informed than her on this (or any other) subject. I got the impression she felt she was doing people a huge favour just by letting them eat in her restaurant, and I felt her general the-customer-is-always-wrong philosophy was an unfortunate attitude with which for someone in the hospitality business to be burdened. On many occasions people took issue with her petty rules and extortionate drinks prices. I ended up losing count of the people who left the restaurant abruptly saying something to the extent of “I’m never coming back.” She’d often tell busboys off with the line, “This is not a diner,” which she’d repeat, almost like a mantra, as if it were her who needed convincing.

The food actually wasn’t bad and we had a number of regulars, including author Philip Roth (who always ordered a Sprite with no ice). Michael Richards (Kramer from Seinfeld) ate there one Friday night, and former mayor Ed Koch came in once before quickly realizing he was in the wrong restaurant (this happened often). I also took several orders from the McEnroe household on Central Park West. Sadly employees weren’t treated to the same fare, but the nights were so long I’d actually look forward to my eleven o’clock bowl of over-cooked rigatoni swimming in thin watery tomato sauce washed down with a tumbler of Diet Pepsi.

A further sign of her rampant paranoia, M spied on us through a small camera connected to a computer located in an office upstairs, and when she wasn’t in the restaurant she would call to tell me not to talk to the other waiter or to ask the busboy not to stand in the window. Employees weren’t allowed to try the actual dishes we served, so when customers asked I had to say something stupid like “I wouldn’t know actually, but it sounds nice.” During the long day shifts, when the restaurant was generally empty, I wasn’t even allowed to make myself an espresso. When I decided to change the CDs in the CD changer (there’s only so much Norah Jones and k.d. lang a man can take) M scolded me for going through her private things. One day I saw actor Jerry Stiller (Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and Ben Stiller’s dad in real life) walk past the window. I wanted to chase after him shouting “SERENITY NOW!”

One particularly slow afternoon in March was livened up by an unexpected visit from the Health Department. Panicked, M immediately sent me upstairs to try and keep silent the cat which lives in the restaurant, but I guess she didn’t count on the inspectors finding the open can of cat food in the fridge. “You got a cat?!” one of them exclaimed. I could barely contain my laughter. M made up some lame story about the cat being there because her son was allergic, and they let it slide. That cat — whose name was Fusilli — was arguably the most ridiculous aspect of a ridiculous job. At the end of the night we’d have to take it out of its cage, feed it and then barricade it in the kitchen, where it would no doubt eliminate any vermin that tried to enter. Of course, before being tucked in for the night, Fusilli enjoyed roaming like cats do around the dining room floor and under the tables, and we were often let out several minutes late as Pedro the dishwasher chased after it with a napkin. On these occasions I’d just stand in the window and try and focus on the NBA game on the TV in the restaurant across the street.

As the weeks progressed and began to care less and less about the restaurant there were several changes in personnel. Bussers and delivery boys would rotate as often as the week’s specials, but the restaurant also went through its share of waiters. When the Nepalese head waiter suddenly quit, a series of potential replacements were brought in, none of whom lasted longer than a week. One of them was a tall American man. Around thirty minutes into his first full shift his face had already turned ashen with horror. Needless to say, he failed to show up for his next shift after his girlfriend suffered a “freak injury rolling out of bed.” M also rehired a girl from Staten Island, who had worked at the restaurant previously before leaving to perform as a dancer in Las Vegas. Now, back in New York, she had agreed to return to her old job, which was evidently much worse than she’d remembered. About two weeks later she landed a mysterious position aboard a cruise ship.

During my time at the restaurant I was working days at at a marketing agency in SoHo (another disappointing experience, but that’s another story) and nights at the restaurant, which meant leaving the house at eight in the morning and getting home after midnight, or after one on the weekends. Since I wasn’t technically a member of the waitstaff I wasn’t earning tips, but sometimes the head waiter would slip me two or three bucks which meant I got to eat a bagel or pizza slice for lunch the next day around 4:30pm before my shift started. So I was barely eating proper meals, and when I did it was sloppy pasta cooked by a tired little guy named José. I was spending more waking minutes per day hanging around on a Times Square subway platform watching the rats scurrying under the tracks than at home. And eventually I reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. In my final week at the restaurant M had just about pushed me to breaking point, criticizing my telephone manner, which she called “abrupt” (this after I’d answered the phone fifty times a night for the last three months) and even questioning my personal hygiene. So one day I called her saying there was work stuff I couldn’t get out of.

A couple of weeks passed, and I had still to receive my final check, so I went back one evening after work to ask for money. On one of my nights off, Paco, a smart former busboy who was still owed cash, had shown up on a Saturday night with the NYPD in tow — perhaps the one time I’d wished I’d been at work. I arrived alone and M, without as much as a hello, told me I couldn’t call her on her cellphone, then berated me for leaving so suddenly and accused me of having “convenienced myself.” This was the tête-a-tête I’d fantasized about. I could have said she was lucky I’d lasted two and-a-half months longer than her average employee. I could have told her that she was the most ungracious, unprofessional person I have ever come across. I could have told her keeping a live cat loose in the kitchen is a Condition IV violation of Code 4P of the New York City Food and Restaurant Services Act and that I could have her shut down with one phone call. But it really wasn’t worth the trouble — I wanted to rid myself of the whole scene, and erase the last three months which had unexpectedly managed to tarnish what was one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Manhattan. So I bit my tongue and walked out of there.

As far as I know the place is still in business, and to this day I still suffer from a slight nausea whenever I’m on the Upper West Side.

MoMA

It was exactly four months ago when I discovered I’d be spending the fall of 2007 working at The Museum of Modern Art. I had long dreamed of the opportunity to live in New York City, yet never imagined it would arrive in the form of an internship at arguably the world’s finest Modern Art museum. A heavy application process (including three essays) had ended with a carefully coordinated trans-atlantic telephone interview with a certain Larissa Bailiff, MoMA’s internship coordinator. I was extremely nervous beforehand, and spent that morning researching extensively the museum’s current and upcoming exhibitions. Fortunately, Ms. Bailiff immediately put me at ease, and we settled into a breezy chat which lasted over forty-five minutes. I like to think my British charm and wit over the phone was what secured me the position of marketing intern, as less than a week later, I received confirmation via email that I’d be spending the next three months stateside. I barely had time to obtain my visa and update my iPod before I was jetting off across the Atlantic to confront a healthy mix of the familiar and the unknown.

Having spent the last four years livin’ la dolce vita in Italy, how would I cope when suddenly tossed into the ultimate modern metropolis that is Manhattan? Quite well, as it turned out: all those years spent studying the city combined with intensive previous visits had earned me something of an honorary self-taught degree in Newyorkology, and I felt confidently able in dodging such infamous New York pratfalls as subway navigation, the delicate art of tipping, and the correct pronunciation of Houston Street.

It seemed like an eternity before I finally had to go to MoMA on Monday morning. In my eagerness I had arrived spectacularly early, and spent almost an hour reading in Central Park before I was due to meet Ms. Bailiff and the other interns. When I arrived at the entrance to the Cullman Building on 54th Street I was informed by the receptionist that the other interns had elected to go to Starbucks. Putting aside my usual boycott of the Seattle-based coffee giant I walked over to Sixth Avenue where I met three other interns — from Connecticut, Los Angeles and Paris. I was surprised to discover such an international bunch — something had told me I’d be the sole Brit. Instead nearly all of North America and Europe was represented. I was relieved to find all the interns smart and instantly likeable, yet I felt a bit like a reality show contestant meeting my competition rivals. I suppose this would make Larissa Heidi Klum. Larissa in person was as I had found her to be on the phone: warm, friendly and a very entertaining speaker, to the extent that a side career in stand-up comedy would not be out of the question.

After our welcoming talk and initial introduction I met my supervisor Julie Welch, who immediately struck me as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actress Annette Bening. Julie gave me an extensive behind-the-scenes tour of the museum before introducing me to the rest of the marketing team, including marketing coordinator Zoe Jackson and director Peter Foley. She then showed me where I’d be working: a tiny cubicle the size of a phone booth (but without the windows). When Peter suggested to Julie that I’d go crazy in there she gave me the option of sharing the back office with three other interns. But for some reason I chose to stick with the private cubicle, despite its lack of space. I took off my jacket and got down to work.

Though I never quite got over the fact I was spending most days sitting feet away from all those Picassos and Pollocks, it wasn’t long before I began to feel more at home within the field of marketing, a feeling which was enhanced when I attended our weekly marketing meetings. These would generally last under an hour, but I was fascinated to learn first hand of the department’s operations (as well as interdepartmental gossip). One day Zoë gave a report on her visit to Tate Modern, and it was interesting for me to hear how the Tate’s marketing department compared with that of MoMA. I was also amused to hear my colleagues’ take on their London counterparts, and it seemed odd to think I was on the New York side of things. Peter was an impressive director with a sharp sense of humour. I admired his absolute support for his department and the confidence he showed in forcing his opinion for the good of the museum.

By this time Julie and I had begun working closely on a guerilla advertising project, for which we held a meeting with two of Downtown’s hottest young media talents. They were “humbled” to have been contacted by MoMA and enthusiastically bombarded us with ideas, from posters to a MoMA blog (which they felt I should write). It was from this meeting that I began to expand on the MyMoMA idea, a concept I’d originally toyed with before my arrival in New York. MyMoMA is essentially a two-fold idea: 1) a fun, alternate MoMA brand designed to introduce the museum to a younger audience, and 2) a prepaid card with which a larger proportion of the city’s inhabitants could gain regular entry to the museum. I created a marketing outline for MyMoMA, including possible advertising techniques. The guerilla media project never got past the concept stage, and it was frustrating not to be able to follow it through. That’s something I soon learned about MoMA: as cool as it may appear from the outside, in reality it’s also a big business, and ideas must go through everyone from curators to directors to trustees themselves before you see anything happen. While I think the department was generally satisfied with my performance, I don’t feel like my work challenged me enough, and nor was I given the opportunity to show my full potential or range of skills. Of course much of this was due to the relatively brief three-month period of the internship itself.

Perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of the experience was the friendships that came about among myself and the other interns. Even Larissa said we were an especially terrific bunch. We’d all meet once on a Tuesday for our intern lecture, which each week focused on a different department within the museum. One week we were even granted an audience with museum director Glenn D. Lowry. I asked him why the museum was so expensive yet only stayed open until five o’clock, a question to which he seemed unable to provide a satisfactory answer.

I’d often meet my fellow intern buddies for lunch at Remi To Go or coffee at Zibetto Espresso Bar, while an ever-expanding group of us began to enjoy regular evenings at parties in Chelsea or bars on the Lower East Side. I would have ideally liked to have taken more advantage of the various perks offered by the internship, but somehow my plan to visit every New York museum on my days off was never fully realized. My volunteer work for NYC CultureFest and PERFORMA 07 kept me busy, as did frequent trips to West Virginia and Florida. I was probably too caught up in the excitement that living in this remarkable place inevitably creates. I often felt overwhelmed after work when having left the office at 5:30 I was suddenly faced with an entire city at my disposal. Some nights I would walk all the way back to my East Village apartment simply for the pleasure of being on the street, taking it all in.

The internship provided me with a truly unforgettable experience and made me the envy of almost everyone I’ve ever met. I learned a lot about MoMA, museums, marketing and working in the United States. It helped me focus my career in a more specific direction, and confirmed my suitability to this particular field. I met some great people, and the whole thing just flew by, as I knew it would. My long-term plan is to remain in New York, and a great deal of passion, patience and dedication is required in order for that to happen. Yet even if I do one day work in Manhattan again, nothing will ever quite compare to the feeling of strolling down Second Avenue and jostling with New Yorkers aboard the V train up to 53rd Street, where my very own midtown office — OK, cubicle — was waiting just for me.

PERFORMA 07: A first-hand review

Through a colleague at MoMA, I’d become aware of something called PERFORMA, a performing arts foundation founded by Roselee Goldberg. I was offered the chance to volunteer for this year’s month-long biennial, PERFORMA 07, and without a real job and lots of extra time on my hands I said yes. At a meeting at the PERFORMA office I was gifted a red PERFORMA (you’ll have noticed by now that PERFORMA is always written in capitals) tote bag and assigned to assist with various projects, performances and what I guess they used to call “happenings”.

Allan Kaprow invented the term in the 1960s with his 18 Happenings in Six Parts, a redoing of which I went all the way to the Deitch Gallery in Queens to witness, though frankly I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’m sure it’s a lot more enjoyable if you’re high out of your mind (or if it’s 1966), but to a 21st century audience the whole thing felt very dated and silly.

The next day I went to Washington Square Park to help set up a giant game of mahjong — you know, that sort of Chinese version of dominoes. This piece was conceived by He Yunchang, China’s most renowned performance artist. Of course, as China’s most renowned performance artist, He insisted on performing completely naked. So after we’d spent all afternoon lugging a thousand painted breeze-blocks from the Judson Memorial Church into the park, the artist appeared wrapped in a sheet, which he soon abandoned in order to play the game. I became roped into playing since we were short in numbers, but since I’m not a renowned performance artist I was allowed to remain fully clothed. After about twenty minutes a somewhat amused NYPD showed up and He Yunchang was asked to put his jeans back on, after which the crowd which had gathered quickly dispersed.

The next day I joined a group of students (and artist Zack Rockhill) in Cooper Square to construct an open-top rectangular igloo using enormous blocks of ice. This was a challenge which was overcome by teamwork and an overwhelming desire to go get some coffee. But everyone agreed the end result was quite beautiful.

The next day I was back at MoMA to assist a backwards march through the museum lobby, as a hundred or so pensioners, children and other people with nothing better to do on a Sunday made their way from East 68th Street to Times Square. Miraculously no-one was hit by a cab, though had they been they’d have struggled to garner my sympathy.

At the Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery on Hudson Street I was asked to attend the opening party of Ulla Von Brandenburg’s La Maison, in which 8 millimetre footage of an old French chateau is projected onto a dark sheet within a maze of brightly-coloured sheets. The whole thing was so dull that one visitor mistook the messy area backstage as part of the exhibit. I was reminded of that David Sedaris story where the guy calls his pile of dirty laundry “an interesting piece”. Fortunately, I was handed the task of tending bar, which proved to be a highlight — if I wasn’t getting any money I was damn sure gonna get me some Grolsch.

Afterwards I squeezed into hip Lower East Side nightspot The Box for Sanford Bigger’s The Somethin’ Suite. Apparently Erykah Badu and Lou Reed were there but I missed them both. That weekend I witnessed another bizarre performance, this time at The Atrium at 590 Madison Avenue. Spider Galaxy was the work of Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, in which a grown woman dressed as a brightly-coloured bird skips and flaps around a wooden “spider’s web” stage for ten minutes before flying/running off in the direction of NikeTown. I sat through this nonsense twice before also running off in the direction of NikeTown.

After all this volunteering and sitting through tiresome drivel it was about time I got my own back, and was thrilled to be given the chance to play the role of “heckler”, in Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street. In what was my off-Broadway debut, mid-way through the performance I was required to lead a bunch of “angry” audience members on-stage to confront the dancers. After the show I ran into Mikhail Baryshnikov for the second time in a week as he exited the theatre for the second time in a week (I’d also spotted him days earlier on East 4th Street as I waited for my laundry).

The finale and after-party were held at the Hudson Theatre on Tuesday, although after three weeks of PERFORMA I was more than glad I had tickets across Broadway to see Brazilian folk-singer Caetano Veloso, which I am pleased to say was the best performance I’ve seen this month.

Welcome to the future

It was a humid evening when I arrived in New York last Friday night. Aching and weary having spent most of the day aboard a Lufthansa jet, I was immediately awoken by the series of advertisements which greeted me at JFK Airport. As I made my way through the endless maze of corridors leading to immigration, my eyes were bombarded with the repeated image of what appeared to be a sort of executive Etch-a-Sketch, but which upon closer inspection was in fact a device they’re calling the Sony Reader. Some very clever people in Japan had figured out a way to compress multiple hardback books into one small tablet of brushed metal, allowing an author’s life’s work to be slotted into a holiday-maker’s carry-on luggage.

Upon learning of this revolutionary product for the first time, two thoughts immediately struck me. 1) If the Reader is a success – which means within a year or two we will be adding it to that cluster of gadgets we all believe we can’t leave the house without – what will it mean for the future of the printed page? Will books become obsolete? It certainly won’t help reverse the youngest generation’s already concerning preference for electronic screens over pens and paper (though could go some way to correcting posture among schoolchildren). 2) How long had I been on that plane?

I first came to New York City as a wide-eyed, highly impressionable 20 year-old. It was the sweltering summer of 1999, and I was achieving an ambition which had stood firm since childhood and throughout my teens, one which for some reason I had never imagined possible. As a boy, New York City may as well have been another planet, so remote seemed the possibility of ever visiting. The few people I met who said they had been left me in awe. Though apparently unattainable in reality, thanks to television New York was accessible daily. I became all too aware of it, and the attraction was something not even my overworked imagination could fathom. What I saw was a tough, gleaming city crammed with the tallest buildings and coolest people, where danger, excitement or something else entirely lurked on every street corner, and where the traffic and the music never stopped. It was the city for me.

Armed with a pocket fold-out map and my Pentax K1000, I spent every waking minute of that week absorbing the city like a sponge, memorizing every detail, taking in (and photographing extensively) every skyscraper, monument, museum, hot-dog stand and fire hydrant along the way. And I walked everywhere (though there’s nothing quite like the thrill of hailing your first yellow cab). I stayed in a hotel on the Upper West Side, and the greatest feeling of all was simply being on the street, strolling up and down Broadway, eating pizza by the slice, chatting with strangers and briefly living a life that could only ever be make believe. I went home with a case of NY-emblazoned merchandise and eleven rolls of exposed film, a changed man.

A lot had happened in the relatively short period which had ensued. Some would say the world had changed, but had New York? For better and for worse, it had, and it was a different kind of breathlessness which overcame me as Manhattan’s skyline rose into view from my taxi window. Reports claimed that crime had been declining since the nineties, when Giuliani began cracking down on the most minor offences, a trend which was supposedly continuing under Mayor Bloomberg. Meanwhile, the spectacular success of certain businesses had begun to monopolize retail space in Manhattan, resulting in a noticeable effect on the city’s physical appearance. There now seemed to be a Starbucks on every block, even in the traditionally less commercial neighbourhoods. In the Theater District, the vast billboards and blinking neon of Times Square had given way to Disney animation and state-of-the-art video graphics, which succeed in rendering even the Coca-Cola logo unrecognizable.

On the city’s not-so-mean streets, the NYPD’s azure blue Chevrolets, once immortalized by television cop shows, had been traded in for a fleet of nondescript white Fords. Those bouncing Taxi-era checkered cabs were long gone – now yellow minivans with electric doors drove tourists from airport to hotel. I read that all NYC taxis will be hybrid 4x4s by 2012. I’m all for saving the planet, but if I wanted a green city I’d have moved to Stockholm. Most shocking of all was that in response to its increasingly international population, every last one of New York’s iconic WALK/DON’T WALK lights had been replaced with a universal walking man/red hand. Now whether crossing Delancey Street or Abbey Road, the experience had become (almost) identical.

Practical types will say that change is inevitable, that cities must continue to evolve in order to survive and stay vital, and I’m sure even many locals would have not noticed or cared about such relatively minor alterations to their city. But for reasons however superficial, I was becoming slightly disillusioned. Here I was, finally living in Manhattan, and not a DON’T WALK sign in sight. I began to wonder if even the humble pretzel vendor’s days were numbered. It was as if the New York I had always imagined, the city I’d inhabited in adolescent fantasies, was suddenly being transformed and taken away. Had I arrived too late? But it’s like when you meet people who say, “You should’ve been here thirty years ago.” What am I supposed to do about that now?

Still a little jet-lagged, I woke up early the next morning and crossed Second Avenue (upon orders from the walking man) to the coffee shop opposite. From the other side of the street the Chrysler Building was clearly visible several blocks in the distance, its soaring concrete and chrome piercing the cloud-filled sky like a needle. It wasn’t quite daylight, but inside the diner people were already tucking into breakfasts of eggs and bacon and pancakes. I took a seat at the counter and ordered coffee. Turning to face the window, I stared out and watched as the yellow cabs glided silently through the Saturday morning drizzle. Had I been foolish in clinging to a New York that is no more (or never was)? Maybe it doesn’t matter if NYC ’07 isn’t exactly the city I’d exalted all these years. What I love most about it hasn’t changed a bit, and what drew me to this place as a child can still be found everyday. Steam rises from manholes, fire escapes adorn every building, the stream of taxis never stops flowing and people really do read The New York Times on the subway. And while there’s space enough in people’s lives for the printed page, there’ll be a place in mine for New York City.