Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Gogol Bordello at Webster Hall


I can't be the only person whose sense of social snobbery is most finely attuned in the mosh pit. Because I don't mind getting sweaty and bruised and crushed... as long as it's in the right company. They don't have to be beautiful (though that helps, if we're going to be breast to shoulder blade for the duration) but they do have to be into it. And have the right sort of facial hair.

As the support act took up their drums I did a quick reconnaissance. Surprisingly, given the band's late nineties vintage, there were groups of boys who barely looked in their teens - at least that's how it seemed to my tired old eyes. There were overgrown hobbity types and overweight men in European sports shirts, groups of students and thin girls with wild hair and a certain way of dancing with their eyes squeezed shut. I suspected we might have been the only ones who'd finally got round to downloading their albums the night before.

Once the main act came on stage, the mustachioed front man slugging from a bottle of wine, our carefully calibrated positioning went all to shit in the surge of the crowd. At one point we're close enough to the stage to feel the reverberations of the cymbals, but as the lengthy encore frenzied the crowd again and again we're gradually pushed inwards and backwards. After a slow, acoustic start the music is one incalzando after another, and although my feet are still jumping to the beat inside I'm shamefully begging the band to stop, to release us all, before we dance ourselves to death like fairytale villains. Yet when they finally do stride off the stage, the music coming from the speakers feels as thin and unsatisfying as gruel.

In the queue for the cloakroom we get one last encounter to take away with us. Taking advantage of a chaotic system, two ripped Jersey boys try to push in.
A man with a beard and a beer-belly taps one on the shoulder.
"Hey, you know that's not the line, right?"
One of the guys mutters something, but his opponent is not going to let it ride.
"Yeah, obviously it's A line. But not THE line. We're all waiting here."
"We've been waiting too."
"Well, you'll have to wait a little longer. Like the rest of us."
The two Jersey boys look at each other, shrug, and join the back of the line.
Half an hour later they're still talking about it.
"We could have had him. He must have been shitting himself. We would have, well, but we didn't want to cause hassle with you ladies around."

Chivalry lives on in the East Village.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Let it Snow...


It's a heart-warming winter scene. We've been slugging back mimosas and bloody marys since one, and now we're huddled round a spliff in the darkness watching the snow bleach dirty old Alphabet City a virgin white. Someone - maybe me - starts with the Christmas carolling.

"Hark the herald angels si-ing..."

A week before Christmas, it's the first real cold-snap of the year, and the stretch of pavement outside Marie O's is ringed in adult-sized snow angels. Winter coats are soaked through to the party dresses below. Hair freezes in antic halos.

"Dashing through the snow..."

Later that night, ten hours into the party, we're trudging our way through the blizzard to a bar a few blocks south. Crossing Houston we lower are heads against the wind and wade through snow banks. We are the Scott, Oates, Wilson and Bowers of the Lower East Side.

"Well the weather outside is frightful..."

It's a Friday night in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city, yet we have whole blocks to ourselves. We have stumbled into the Day After Tomorrow wearing six inch heels. We try to step in each other's footprints to avoid sinking up to our knees.

"A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight..."

And then we're finally at Schillers, and it's packed with other people sheltering from the storm, and with all the wood and facial hair and European beer it's like we've reached a hut in the Alps after a treacherous climb.

"So bring us some figgy pudding..."

I unwrap my scarf, order a glass of cheap red wine and try not to think about the journey back to Brooklyn.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Me and My Self-Harming Cat

"I can't believe you said that."
"Well... she's. I mean she's great She's friendly and everything, but she's not exactly attractive is she?"
"That's really mean."
"You said yourself, she's a bit gray..."
"I can't believe you're bitching about our cat."
"Well, all I'm saying is there's a reason why no-one wants to adopt her."
"Fine."

The following conversation came back to haunt me when I surprised my foster cat in the act of tearing out the fur on her head. The scratching was so fast tempo it sounded like the whir of a desk fan on the highest setting.
"Stop it puss. What are you doing to yourself?"
Small clumps of white hair polka-dotted the red blanket we'd laid over the bed to save the duvet from her claws and her cat litter footprints. She looked up at me, non-plussed. It wasn't feeding time, so she only kicked in the low-level purring when I put my hand to her face.

It was only when I got back from the theatre that night that I really saw the full extent of what she'd done. Her white head was slashed with red, where the ahir had been pulled up by the roots. She seemed to have forgotten all about it, whickering happily enough while I clumsily dabbed it clean with water and toilet paper.

I opened the bathroom cupboard, but the plasters and the antibiotic cream seemed all wrong. Wouldn't she just rip and lick off anything I tried to put on the wound, poisoning and chocking herself on my good intentions? I also thought about emailing the woman who had dropped her off. Did she need to go to the vet (and the selfish follow-up, and who would pay)?

With an internet connection like ours (purloined, unreliable) scouring is really the wrong verb for what we can do to the web, but I brushed up against a couple of cat behaviour sites and chatrooms looking for answers. The results were inconclusive, but one theme was repeated, in various hysterical and professional keys.

Our cat had low esteem. And it was all my fault.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Friend in Jesus (I)



Now I went to a Methodist boarding school and I've done my share of pew-sitting and hymn-book bothering, but the Jesus I was peddled was a jolly good sport. He excelled on the rugby field, but was never a sore loser. He abhorred cheating, bullying and drinking to excess. And in order to give JC a hand with that last one, the vicar ran the sixth form bar, making sure us sixteen year olds never went over our two-can limit. Those, as I recall, were the Scrumpy Jack years.

The Jesus we were praisin' at the Brooklyn Tabernacle seemed like a different fellow altogether, someone charming and charismatic, with an exacting taste in music and spectacle. In school we prayed apologetically, with heads bowed and eyes closed; here palms were raised to the ornate, opera-house ceiling, as if to catch the Glory raining down, and no-one mumbled over their Aay-mens and Hallelujahs. Now I love a hymn as much as the next girl, but back at school the choir's major attraction had been the A-House boys who sung in it. Here the music was praise, both tithe to and manifest evidence of the Almighty. And we got to clap along.

It was the Tabernacle's Christmas show, and we showed up an hour early, like the website said, to find all the best seats already taken by canny folk saving seats for their people. The crowd was a mix of black, white, Hispanic and Asian; out-of-towners and locals; people, like us, soon sweating in their Sunday best and others (the tourists? the real Christians?) in jeans and soggy sneakers.

We'd all come for the music. After telling a friend from Alabama about our expedition to Harlem to hunt out Gospel, he'd pointed out we had one of the most famous choirs in the world a block and a half from our apartment. In fact we'd walked past the Sunday service queue before, without ever really stopping to wonder why all those women in powder blue suits and pillbox hats would bother to line up there every week when there were more churches than bodegas in this part of town.

But now we were joining them, politely scrimmaging for the last few decent seats, then flapping leaflets about, trying in vain to cut a breeze through the fug.
Just as we were getting restless, the light dimmed. Everyone sat up a little straighter and shushed their grandkids. Showtime.
TBC

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cut-Price Christmas

"Why didn't you stop me?"
"I tried. You were pretty adamant."
"But I shouldn't have been wielding a hammer. Not after that many whisky and cokes. I don't even really remember much after we got home."
"With the knobless toaster oven."
"I remember that much."
"Maybe we can prop it up so it looks less wonky?"
"I can probably get the nail out and start over."
"Won't that damage the trunk?"
"Well we can't leave it like that... it's like the leaning tower of Pisa."

Five minutes (and some grunting) later
"You're right. Let's just prop it up. Are you okay to get lights and stuff?"

In one of the budget stores in downtown Brooklyn I bought: 1 x string of Christmas lights, 6 x silvery baubles, 3 x kitsch, homemade snowmen, 2 x black feathered baubles, 1 x pack of tinsel threads ("no lead"). It came in under $10, including tax. I also watched an old woman stomp out of the store after being accused of shoplifting by an over-zealous till-girl, who shouted at her hunched back.
"Why she have no bag then? That's all I'm sayin. How she gonna prove she paid? She got paid stickers? Cos I don't see no paid sticker."
I made sure I got my paid stickers.

Back at home we dressed the wonky tree.
"Wow, you got enough lights then."
"A hundred for two bucks. And they're wired in parallel."
"Good GCSE knowledge, right there."

A few minutes later, we turned off the overhead light and pushed in the plug.
"Huh."
"Ummm... do you think we can make them stop? Is there a switch or something?"
"I doubt it. These are seriously old-school."
"There must be a button. They can't just flash like this all the time. They're making me feel sick."
"Maybe there was a reason why they were only two bucks."
"Look. Right here on the package. It says '5 Way Flash'"
"Yeah, and it's flashing in five sections."
"Oh."
Silence.
"The tree's still wonky, you know."
"Mmmhmm."

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Brief Encounter with a Toaster Oven


You could tell we were in tony Brooklyn Heights because someone had taken the trouble to print out a notice in blue block capitals and stick down all the edges.
I AM/WORKING/JUST MISSING/A KNOB!
"Sounds like a haiku."
"Think it might be my new Facebook status."
Thanks to the opening night party we were already a couple of cocktails (or, in Chris' case, considerably more) to the wind, although it was barely half past eight. The party had taken place in a cavernous, empty duplex in a sprawling, fancy new building next to the freeway. As we pulled up in the coach we realise we'd actually walked past the building one nightmarish summer afternoon when we'd got stuck on the demon low road instead of the scenic boardwalk. We'd ended up walking for what felt like miles along the hard shoulder, as speeding cars and lorries whipped up clouds of dust from the disused industrial sites which boxed us in from the river. As it turned out, we got to relive that feeling of endless tramping as we followed sign after sign after sign round corners and through echoing corridors to get to the fabled suite 205. Once there, we got to take in the mind-blowing views of the Manhattan skyline, and the rather less awe-inspiring vistas of industrial decay. "Apparently there's going to be a park there soon," people kept on saying encouragingly.
We were so amply plied with premium liquor and lobster mac and cheese that we stayed until the average age of the guests had halved and the party was little more than us, the cast, their friends and the very amiable Brazilian barman. Stumbling home ("Look! This is how we escaped last time!") we came across a Black and Decker toaster oven balanced invitingly on a dustbin.
As we were examining it, a man walked up behind us and stopped to peer at it too.
"What have you got there?"
"Toaster oven."
"Ah, toaster oven. Very nice."
"Apparently the knob's gone, but it works fine."
"Always the knobs with toaster ovens."
"We're going to need some pliers."
"Well good luck with that. Best of luck in the world."
The man walked off, but Chris hardly seemed to notice. He was taking big sniffs of the inside of the toaster oven.
"Smell that?"
"What?"
"Just smell it."
"O..kay."
"Now answer me this," he said, slinging the oven under his arm, "why does our new toaster oven smell of weed?"
I checked to see if he was joking, then gestured to the guy who was sauntering away.
"I don't think it's the oven, sweetheart."
His face cracked into a relieved grin. "Ah, that makes more sense. Let's get this bad boy home."

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mercury Lounge: Rebel (Rebel) Orchestra


The girl from Massachusetts, dark hair scraped back, cheekbones and elbows dangerously sharp, took the microphone. What came out was deeper, throatier and more studiedly English than Bowie himself could ever have tried for.
"Ground Control to Major Tom..."
"That was unexpected," we muttered beneath the cheers. But, to be honest, the whole thing was unexpected. We'd only rocked up because the Slavic party in Park Slope had seemed too far away and it was getting late. We had Plan B expectations, which were unexpectedly upgraded. It was unexpected that the orchestra would be so young, that the girls would be hot in body-con dresses and wet-look leggings, while the music-geek-boys let them take the spotlight. It was unexpected that the crowd of proud leather-clad parents and curious hipster waifs would work up such a sweat. And then there was that ball-clenching version of Under Pressure...
There were twenty-seven musicians on stage and the sound they created was thick and textured enough to feel on your skin. Our faces got blasted with trombone and viola; we had to drag our pints to our lips through thick bassoon and breathy backing vocals.
The lead singer, between conducting and flirting with little Ms. French Horn, gave shout-outs to his mother, who would be loyally flogging CDs after the show. Next he invited a cast of glorious misfits to take the microphone. Alongside the two gravelly and purringly glamorous female singers, there was a plaid-trousered rawk kid, a rangy opera singer and a spy, suited man with all the sinister charm of a child catcher.
When we thought it couldn't get any better, the leader singer's meandering intro took on a familiar flavour:
"You remind me of the babe."
"What babe?"
"The babe with the power of voodoo..."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Overheard in Central Park

A man with a thick neck, sweating profusely, shouts at a boy with long hair curling over his eyes.
"You'll never catch it like that. Look I told you. Bring it in to your body. Kick me a high one and I'll show you."
Thunk.
"Jesus, I said a high one."
Mumble.
"What was that?"
"I said I'm getting tired. Can we stop soon?"
"You're tired. You're tired."
"Mom, can I stop yet?"
"You're tired? How can you be tired? I've just worked a seventy hour week. And Saturday, as well."
"Mom?"
"You're tired? How can you be tired? A twelve year old boy..."
"Ten."
"What?"
"I'm not twelve, I'm ten."
"Well I'm fifty and I'm still going strong. Just goes to show, doesn't it? I'm fifty years old and I've been working all week and I've got more stamina than you."
Swoosh. Thunk. Swoosh. Thunk.
"What are you doing? It's not... I don't know... karate football. What weird-ass moves are you doing?"
Mumble.
"What?"
Mumble.
"Jesus, I just told you how to do it."
Swoosh. Thunk.
"Did you see that? Now do it like I just did."

[half an hour later]
"Ok fine, we'll head back."
"Alright."
"But on the way we can play Golf Football."
Silence.
"So go on. Take the ball. Kick it towards that tree."
"But I'm tired. You said we can stop."
"We are stopping. This isn't football. It's Golf Football. See how many kicks it'll take you then I'll beat your score."
Silence.
The mother, who's sat on the bench staring out at the ducks, takes the ball from her husband's hands and thrusts it towards her son.
"You heard him. It's Golf Football."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Food Drive


"Sorry what was that?" I asked, dropping to my knees to force some more cans into her gray nylon bag.
"69... that was my first Thanksgiving." She smiled nervously, as me and the other young do-gooders fussed around with UHT milk and double-bagged turkeys.
"It's actually going to be my first Thanksgiving," I said, which was a lie that didn't really matter, since she didn't really seem to be listening.
"I worked for the government, you know. Me and my husband both did." She had the kind of subcontinent lilt I associate more with East London than with Manhattan, and her voice was low and quick, needlessly apologetic. "Such a lot of food."
"Yes, will you be able to carry it ok? Do you want to leave some and come back or..." I tailed off, not knowing for sure what would happen after our shift left at 11.
"You know I used to do this," the lady said, gesturing to the boxes of cans and pie crusts, "I used to help out in the holidays. We go to this church. But then my husband got sick, and I lost my job..."
We clucked, helplessly, looking at the floor.
"It's such a hard time for a lot of people at the minute," I managed, and she just sighed and heaved the extra plastic bags onto her shoulder.
"Have a good Thanksgiving."
"You too. Goodbye. Happy Thanksgiving!" we chorused until the lift came to take her and her non-perishables away.

The next person was an oriental woman in her sixties who flinched when the young white male helper tried to hand over her turkey. Again, her cart was soon overwhelmed by the volume of packets and cans that the schoolboys had collected for her. All the while she muttered under her breath, only letting out firm "no!"s when we tried to take things out of her bag to put the heavy stuff at the bottom, and a breathless "thankyougoodbye" when she left.

"Must be a story there," the worker said after she'd gone, and I shrugged, not really wanting to think about it.

Intellectually I know it's a great and godly thing to give all these people, 200 local families in all, a decent Thanksgiving, but when I was taking the subway back all I could think of was how these women looked when they left the church, bent double with the weight of 1 x pkt rice OR pasta, 2 x shelf-stable milk, 1 x pkt mashed potatoes (instant), 2 x can of soup (any flavour), 1 x frozen turkey (small) and of our easy breezy charity.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bus to Monhonk


Admittedly I was reading a book about Jewish boys playing baseball, but I'm figuring that with a mind so cloudy her eyesight wasn't that preternaturally sharp. After all, I myself hadn't realised what the novel was about before I got it home. It's one of those books where the back cover is used up with flowery praise instead of pedestrian clues about genre, cast or plot. In many ways these books give the same high-minded message as the unpriced sparklers at Tiffany's: if you need to ask too many questions, plebeian consumer, you don't deserve to take me home.

The woman came over just as I'd decided to abandon my Apple Snapple and Chris had shrugged off my latest suggestion that we head to the gate. There was still fifteen minutes ("seventeen minutes", Chris insisted) before our bus left for New Paltz, but since it was the last one for three hours, I was getting twitchy.

The woman who sidled over was white-haired and conservatively dressed. She had her head was tucked defensively into her neck as if expecting a blow from adversaries unknown. Her words came out in an unruly flow, as if she hadn't spoken for a while.
"I don't know if you're Jewish or not, you should watch out because they're really antisemitic around here."
She was staring at Chris, ignoring me, seemingly oblivious to the fact he still had his headphones on.
"Don't go over there." She gestured wildly to the Greyhound Desk. "They'll sell you the wrong ticket. And if you go there..." This time she pointed down an unmarked corridor. "...they'll shut you in. You'll get locked in. And you won't be able to get out."
"Ok, erm, thank you," Chris replied.
The woman nodded twice, clutched her bags to her and set off in one of the directions she hadn't warned us against.
"What she say?"
Chris repeated what the woman had said. Seems I hadn't been hallucinating, although the speed and intensity with which she'd delivered her warning had seemed so out of step with the prosaic surroundings of the grimy Port Authority cafeteria.
"God knows what that was about," he concluded.
"It's your beard. It confuses people."

After that he let me drag him along to Gate 34. I left my abandoned Apple Snapple, in case one of the waifs and strays wanted to finish it. It seemed like that sort of place.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rock n Roll Kareoke

"And singing Blondie, it's a first-time performer..."
"Ummm, actually..."
"Give it up for-"
"Actually I'm wussing out. Sorry. Next person."
The band shrug disdainfully. The host gives me an I'm-not-angry-I'm-just-disappointed look. She's still holding out the sheet of song lyrics.
"Why are you not going up?"
"Well my partner's wussing out, and I need him to start in tune..."
Chris rolls his eyes, and turns back to Big Buck Hunter. His was not the name they called out, after all. And, like his says, it'd be different if he knew the verses.

Eventually they do move on to the next person, and I go back to studying the list of song titles as if looking hard enough will reveal the meaning of life, or at least one of those Magic Eye pictures, the sort I could only ever glimpse cross-eyed. With well drinks this strong the corss-eyed thing wouldn't be a problem for long.

"Why don't you two do one together? Since you're both tempted to do one?"
Phil and I look at one other, shrug, and go back to scouring the song sheet. It's hard to choose how to pitch it: play for comedy appeal with Hit Me Baby One More Time, or go for guts and glory with some classic rock anthem that'll get even the most hardened barflys saluting us with sloshing pints of Brooklyn Lager. Or heading for the door.

In the end we stick with what we know best: Madonna, Material Girl.

Up on stage there's a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. They tell us they'll give us the nod when we have to go in. Like novice bowlers, we also have a gutter-guard in the shape of a Hanks regular who stands at the front beating time and acting out the lyrics. His interpretation of "some boys lie and some boys cry" is to die for.

After a few stumbles, and some initial bum notes, we vogue our way through the song. About three and a half people whoop and cheer as we finish. We are rock stars. We graciously thank our support band, our parents, our third-grade music teachers, and then reluctantly leave the spotlights.

Five minutes later I have one finger running down the song list, another stuck in my ear, Mariah Carey style, as I try to sing out some Counting Crows over and above the guy on stage who's exhorting us to Put Another Dime in the Jukebox, Baby.

Then inspiration strikes. I run to sign myself up for one more taste of glory. Time After Time. I knew that all those evenings I spent age fourteen playing Mah Jong, drinking Baileys and listening to my parents' Best Love Songs Ever CDs would come in handy some time.

"You say, go slow. I fall behind. The drum beats out of time..."
My gutter-guard syncopates his air-drumming, and I flash him a grateful rock-star smile...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Strumming their All at Union Hall


"Is it just me, or are that couple rocking matching plaid?"
"Shh, they're right there."
"Whatever. It's not like they don't know what they're wearing..."
It was a beer-on-an-empty belly night, and the nudging got started when the first act was still doing her sweet southern thing. The his-n-hers hipster lumberjacks were seated in the row in front of us, and were putting on a good sideshow of nuzzling and head-leans. Chris, plectrum still warm from his sixth guitar lesson, was providing a helpful running commentary on the chord changes.
"That's G. I can do that one... and there's D. It actually looks like quite an easy song... see, now she's moving into A7..."
Up on stage, the blond kept on playing away, blissfully unaware of the backseat strummer down in the cheap seats. When she started singing a song that rhymed "clean" and "Aberdeen" ("I have to admit, I've never been to Scotland") we started a brutal round of thumb wars.

During the break between sets I visited the unisex bathrooms and managed to drench my top with scalding water from the faucet. But by the time I returned Chris had exciting news to distract me from the spreading dampness.
"Matching plaid girl... she's in the band!"
"I knew it! And don't you think she looks just like..."
We both nodded.
"Yeah, that's what I thought when I first saw her."
The bassist, as she turned out to be, was wearing a flannel dress, and not a shirt as I'd first assumed. She didn't scream rock star, but her ankle-boots certainly did. I coveted hard, and decided for the hundredth time to start a band, or at least to wear my ankle-boots more often.
When the group was announced they were presented as a blond and her backing band. The plaid-clad bassist was stood at the back, next to a guy who made drumming look like occupational therapy for the mentally challenged. But that didn't stop her beau. Throughout the entire set he balanced a camera on his knee, angled towards stage left. In his director's cut of the gig, his partner in plaid had a spotlight shining right on her. She was the stand-out star of the show.
When I reached for Chris' hand to point out this boyfriendly devotion he mistook my gesture. Pinning my small thumb down with his supersize one he whispered: "Ha. That was almost too easy."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Taking Turns


"Do you want to go first?" I grudgingly asked the little boy, already knowing the answer, and he leapt for the steering wheel with a precocious and startling avidity.
I smiled an apology at my niece, who was sitting on the bench behind, thumb in mouth, shoulders beginning to slump with exhaustion and an excess of MTA-themed fun.
The little boy stamped the pedals. And spun the wheel. And flicked all switches. Then he did all of the above over and over again while we row-rowed the boat and waited for him to get bored.
However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a child in possession of something that another child wants immediately forgets their twenty-first century attention span. There is nothing so like a dog in a manager as a big boy in driver's seat with a toddler looking longingly over his shoulder. And nothing so likely to get you in the shit than moving along other people's dog-in-the-mangerish children.
"Shall we go look at something else Martha?" I asked, loud enough for driver-boy's parents to hear.
They took the hint.
"Let's go look at the trains."
"Time to get off now."
"Come on now, you've had your turn."
"Let's see what else we can find..."
He ignored them until an adult arm firmly yanked him out of the seat.
By now Barney had joined his little sister in the back seat. He nodded unenthusiastically at the idea of Martha getting a turn, and watched as she gurgled and beep-beeped away on the fraying seat.
"Ow!"
I turned around and driver-boy was back, sitting on the bench with Barney, elbows foremost.
"Now Barney's going next, then it's your turn," I decreed.
"I'm next," Barney agreed.
At that, driver-boy whirled his fat little hands at the boy in front of him in the queue.
"Hey stop that!"
I grab the boy's fists, and his parents come back and spirit him away, flashing me a dirty look for my troubles, as if I manhandle pint-sized yobs for shits and giggles.
"He's a naughty boy," Barney said loudly.
"Yes a very silly boy," I agreed.
"Is it my turn now?"
And a weary-looking Martha got swept off to push more buttons and twirl more knobs.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Takes Two to Tango


We were into the fourth hour of the workshop, and our third teacher definitely wasn't getting the tone right.
"Come on then. What else did you learn?"
We looked at the floor, at our aching feet, at the clock. There was still forty minutes to go.
She tutted. "Look, I know and I wasn't even in the class. I just peeked in. You did the hesitations too, didn't you?"
Collectively, we refused to be cajoled. Show us something new and easily mastered tango lady, or let us out into the sunshine.
She obliged with a move that halted the followers feet, and an arm gesture inviting us to step over our own foot.
"Remember, you're not forcing her. You're just giving her an invitation," she reminded us. I wasn't sure about the others, but it was getting to the stage in the afternoon where I couldn't be bothered to RSVP.
Unlike the other dances I've done, Argentinian Tango involves leaning in to your partner, as if the two of you are building a human house of cards. Three and a half hours of holding my body forward in four-inch heels had knackered my back, and at every pause I slumped in half, trying to stretch the ache out. There was also the question of hold to negotiate. Our first teacher, a slim, ethereal young mum in khakis had talked about the "hug pose", where your arms wrap around your partner's neck, faces close enough to kiss, as if it was an entirely natural, nonsexual posture. Maybe it is in the bordellos of Argentina, but in a strip-lit studio in Flatiron, things didn't feel that simple.
"Oh, you want to do it like that?" my partner asked, eyebrow raised, as I crossed my arms and leaned against him like a tired genie. "I guess it's safer that way."
I ignored the implication that the only thing stopping me from throwing myself at him was my training stance, and merely quipped,"Yes, no close hold please. I'm English."
I don't think he got it, but at least he didn't tread on my toes. And the clock was ticking down with each fumbled ocho.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Accomplice: A froggin'


We waited outside the herbal medicine store for our guy to come back with a translation. The message in the two fortune cookies had been in Chinese characters, and since they weren't the kanji for school, student, big, small, girl, boy, rain, snow, north, south, mountain, river or electricity I couldn't read them, and neither could any of the rest of Team Accomplice. Now that the sun had gone in it was getting cold, but Chinatown, with its neon signs and strange smells, seemed more vivid and filmic than I ever remember it being, crossing through it in the prosaic light of day on the way to the more concentrated attractions of Little Italy or the Lower East Side.

We'd volunteered our guy because he was half-Chinese, and although he came out the door shaking his head it turned out he'd come through for us.
"So the woman helped. The old guy just kept on saying it was a load of shit and asking who'd given it to me."
"So what does it say?"
"Can I have one frog, please."
"Frog? One frog?"
"Yeah, the old guy said it was a load of shit."

When we reached the address on the back of the note, it wasn't a sweet shop or a toy shop or anyplace else like we'd conjectured. Instead, it was a sort of fishmongers, overseen by burly men in mismatched t-shirts. After a bit of mumbled embarrassment I handed over the three dollars we'd been given and got a frog in return. A live frog - a supersized one at that - in a plastic bag, as if I'd won a prize at a fair and they were all out of goldfish.

"He's not real is he?"
He's definitely real. He's moving.
"It's not alive, surely?"
He's moving. Don't poke him.
"Can I take a picture."
I think we should call him Gerald.

We ended up being instructed to hand Gerald over to a construction worker, who ended up leaving him behind a dustbin. I was sad to see him go. I'd liked the weight of him, the calm way he'd sat in the bag on my outstretched palm. He'd only cost three dollars - less than a carton of organic milk - and he was the right sized pet for our apartment. The only problem I could foresee would be the fly-food.

It was only after the game was over, and we were having a drink with the actors and creator, that we found out what would happen to Gerald. Turns out for the last five years ten groups a day have been buying frogs from this same shop, and at the end of every day the construction worker returned them all, or released them by the river if the game had run late and the store had closed for the night. What's funny is that the Accomplice people had never explained to the fish and frogmongers what was going on, and they had never asked. They just sold frogs to tourists every hour, and then accepted them back at the end of the day, with an admirable absence of curiosity.

No wonder Gerald had been so blase. He'd seen it all before.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Models and Skaters (or Cake, Art and Breasts II)


Before the crush and schmooze and breasts of the gallery we were standing in the Rockefeller plaza watching the skaters. While the dating couples and the grimly clutched-together families made ragged progress round the edges of the rink, the experts laid claim to the centre. The showiest was a leggy little girl with flesh-coloured skates, who twirled and spun in elaborate patterns, breaking only to play a knowingly unfair game of tag with a precariously-balanced boy of roughly the same age, who had scant little of her skill and even less of her grace. More evenly matched were the group of teenage boys who took time out from their busy flirting and cussing schedule to carve up the ice with breakneck sprints and turns, or to play a slippery version of chicken. Their white-jeaned girlfriends wisely stayed well back from the crash zone.

Only one of the inner-circle skaters was on their own: a tall, slim man in a gray suit, dapper scarf and shaggy white hair, who, with a look of total bliss, danced across the ice for the benefit or no one or everyone or himself alone. In time with the music he skated back and forth, side-stepping and throwing his arms into the curve. Every new track seemed to delight him, and his style never altered as the beat changed from 80s disco to hiphop and back again. He, the boy-tormentor and the hockey studs whirled in elaborate, complementary patterns round each other, on and on, as in the slow lane people struggled to stay upright.

I was reminded of those two lanes later in the gallery, as we struggled to get out. For an instance the sea of people seemed to part, and a small man buoyed up by a tall teenager on each arm emerged from the foyer. I was in heels, but I still had to crick my neck to get a look at their faces, which turned out to be just as blandly lovely as you'd expect.
A man next to me nudged his companion. "Look, models!" And perhaps emboldened by the free Chablis raised his voice above the din: "Hello models!"
The companion cringed, but then, as one, the girls turned, found the man with their doe eyes and waved back.

I wondered if they were used to being hailed collectively ("Are there any models in the house?") and whether the skinny girl from the rink would grow up to look like them, and whether it's harder for a woman to excel for herself, rather than for an audience, and whether that matters anyway.

And then I vowed to learn to skate backwards without falling over before the winter's end, and to avoid the sort of art gallery openings that let outer-lane people like me in.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cake, Art and Breasts


We'd spent the previous fifteen minutes watching skaters on the Rockefeller rink, because Chris had been insistent that we didn't arrive at 9.30 on the dot. When we turned up to the gallery it was clear that the other liggers hadn't been so scrupulous. Ten minutes in, the crowds resembled were packed as tight and elbowy as Christmas Week shoppers, clutching coats, plastic cups of Chablis and each other.
"Wine!" whinnied one brunette, pulling her companion over to the table where an equally pretty girl was pouring glass that were snatched away as soon as she moved the bottle on.

We didn't know it then, but despite the high percentage of beautiful people, things were about to get ugly. The theme of the night was cakes and art, and it was definitely the former half of the formula that had got us up in Midtown East on a chilly autumn night. From the way the crowd was scrumming this way and that, noses in the air, eyes everywhere but the gallery walls, we weren't the only ones. As if part of some elaborate tease, one room showed a video of exploding treats, cream splattering across walls and faces, while in another cake-eaters with gold leaf on their mouths were projected onto a blank white wall. Menawhile, a camera on a miniature blimp recorded the crowd's reactions.

We tried to follow the river of heads and elbows towards a live performance, but ended up so tightly crushed and towered over that we barely got out with out Chablis intact. Then, amidst all this studied oddness, I hear a familiar strain...
"Oh Mickey, you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind."
A tall, black girl is holding a half-empty tray of cakes above her heads. When a woman tries to take one she pulls the tray away.
"Hey Mickey. Hey Mickey."
At the hand claps she stops, thrusts out a hip and lowers the tray. A red-faced ex-public school type saunters over
"Oh Mickey what a pity you don't understand.You take me by the heart when you take me by the hand."
The girl gives him a sultry look and pushes the cake into his mouth, like a bride on her wedding day. The man, smirks as best he can with his mouth full. Backs away.
"Oh Mickey what a pity you don't understand. It's guys like you Mickey..."
The girl moves on. She is wearing shorts and long socks. Her breasts are bare. There are two or three more 'Mickey girls'. All are black, with light brown skin, pretty faces and full, naked breasts. The men eating the cake and recording the girls on their iPhones are older, less attractive, white. This is an art show, but it feels like a cross between an x-rated Hooters lounge and a slave auction, except that no money (and not even a lot of cake) is changing hands in the open.

Later on, when we can't bear the crush any more and our Chablis is getting warm, we start the slow push towards the exit. Standing by the wall I see the first Mickey girl again. She's standing on her own, looking at the crowd, and she has a plain gray vest pulled on over her outfit, like she's heading to the gym. Strangely, she looks more vulnerable with her clothes on.

We leave without getting any cake.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Banjo Jim's



At bigger venues they may be happy to let you cool your heels between sets while techies fiddle with amps and one-two microphones, but at a tiny East Village dive like Banjo Jim's you take too long in the bathroom and you're suckered into staying for the next act, even if your wallet and your beer bottle are looking perilously empty. When your table of three is both out in front, and represents a good third of the total audience, quietly slipping out isn't a viable option. And, let's face it, it takes a harder heart than mine to walk out on the first Big City gig of a fresh-faced, one-armed guitarist.

We had headed along early to see ragtime piano being hammered out by a white-haired man with syncopation in his soul, and his wide-eyed, skinny-jeaned protegee. When we missed our chance to leave at nine with the serious musos, we found ourselves up-close and personal with Tony Memmel from Milwaukee. Using a plectrum gaffer-taped to the stump of his left arm he strummed out a collection of gorgeous songs about mosquito bites, and driving all night with his new wife to take their first holiday in Cleveland, Ohio. I didn't ask why they hadn't ever taken a holiday together before that. Perhaps his beard was a gesture of support for our Lord and Savior, rather than a nod to hipster chic.

Tony Memmel had a honey-soaked voice and a beautiful way with a guitar.
"He's playing at least four chords in the bar." Chris muttered. "I can only play one, and I've got two hands."
"Yes, but he's probably had more than two lessons. He also knows more than three chords."
This seemed like a fair point, so we hushed up, drank up, and let the boy play.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Buns and Puns


Of the myriad things that one would assume were vegetarian, but aren't (Bloody Marys, Welsh Rarebit, unexpected varieties of Walkers crisps) it was the Jello shots that really got me. And I mean really got me. I mean bantering-back-to-the-headline-act sort of got me. I mean arguing-about-the-equal-rights-implications-of-manscaping-in-front-of-a-room-of-strangers kind of got me.And this is how it happened...

We were at a late night, East Village comedy show which sold itself on three things: video projections of Jane Fonda-style workouts, home-baked buns and free vodka jelly shots. The first was equal parts mesmerising and distracting. I found myself losing the rhythm of the joke in pining for my old LA Gear hi-tops and wondering at how outmoded the chunkily aerobaticised bodies looked. The buns were an unqualified success. When my friend placed her first jello shot in front of me I looked at her askance and she had to give me the old gelatin talk. Manfully I agreed to look after her share from there on in, and proceeded to wriggle and slurp my way through the first five comics, including a mercifully funny funnywoman, who we applauded with added gusto.

It was when the final guy, the hyped-up headliner, was bitching about his girlfriend asking him to wax his back the jello moved me to speak. Aloud. And loudly.
"But you expect her to shave her legs, don't you? What's the difference?"
In fairness, rather than slap me down with a snappy line the guy actually started to defend his position. A few minutes later we moved from stand-up to debate team with the ease with which my tenth jello shot had slipped down my throat.
"...And also girls are trained up to shave their legs aren't they? I didn't even have hair on my back til I was, what, twenty-five."
"So what?" I counter, in what I imagine is an urbane fashion. "Lucky you. You had a period of grace. Am I right ladies?"
The ladies (who happily seem to be fellow gelatin-slurpers) whoop tentatively.
"Do you have a hairy back?" He asks, rather lamely.
"Not so much."
"And where are you from?"
"Brooklyn."
"No, I mean. you have an accent..."
I pause, sorely tempted to give the room my riff on the ridiculous and heartbreakingly earnest way that Americans seem to genuinely believe that they are the only people on the planet without an accent, but my vegetarian friend is looking increasingly alarmed, and I don't have the microphone, and I'm pretty sure the effect of the jellos shots is mostly psychosomatic, so I play nice and say, "Brooklyn via London. Land of the hairy backs," and let him move on to less hirsute comic territory.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Musee Mechanique


"People talk about bad losers, but you're worse. You're a bad winner."
"I'm not gloating. I just think the score speaks for itself." Chris corrected, helpfully.
It was 10:3, and not in my favour.
We were both so busy not-gloating and not-sulking that we left the black and white photo strip lying on the edge of the table football table. This scenario has apparently played itself out so many times - over Foosball, over Pac-man, over the one-armed bandit - that the museum has issued a book of these abandoned photo strips that you can buy for $20 from a vending machine by the door, which only took $5 bills.

Our library-loaned Fodor's guide had pointed out Musee Mechanique as the only must-do attraction amongst the clam chowder stalls and tourist hoards of Fisherman's Wharf. And it was easy to see the appeal... In amongst the retro shoot-em-ups and the Amstrad games were PG-rated peep shows, mechanical batting games and the monstrous Laughing Sal, whose maniacal cries had been drowning out conversations and making babies cry for a hundred years or more. In keeping with the vintage theme, most everything cost 25 cents to play. Clutching in my hot little hand a whole tower of quarters I got to wander the vast warehouse space, looking for where I could get the most bang for my buck, like a kid in a penny shop weighing white mice against space invaders in terms of value, sugar-rush and tongue-feel.

The football grudge match used up the last of our quarters - to the extent that we had to beg the bus driver to let us ride back to our hostel when we found only a couple of sorry singles lining our collective coffers. It was as we were paying our leave to Laughing Sal we remembered the photo strip.
"Glad we didn't forget these."
"They're not bad are they?" I said, "Except this one I mean..."
"Yeah you like like..." Chris trailed off.
"What?" I asked, frowning at my reflection in the square.
"I was going to say, you look like a loser, but that would be acting like a bad winner, wouldn't it?"
I snatched the photo strip back and tucked it away in the Fodor's, letting old Sal have the last laugh.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Blazing Saddles


Whatever the man in the cycle shop tells you, the Bay Area, just wide of the Golden Gate Bridge, is not "just like the South of France". It's especially not like the South of France on a dark and blustery Sunday, which feels even more frigid thanks to the warm, sunny-natured days that proceeded it. Not, in any case, unless the South of France has been covered with strip malls since the last time I visited.

"Just to let you know, I'm definitely walking up this last hill." I muttered, as the unnervingly hyper staff of Blazing Saddles cheered on an anguished looking biker as they grunted up the sharp incline to the store. We were being fitted for helmets.
"Then they won't clap for you."
"I don't want them to clap. In fact I'll warn them in advance not to clap."
Chris shrugged. You could tell that if I was going to get off and push, I should plan on doing it alone.

We started off in San Francisco, where a vicious headwind meant the flat, scenic bike path along the Marina felt like it'd been tilted uphill. By the time we were actually pedalling up the steep path to the bridge, my hill-addled legs were ready to mutiny.
"Sorry. We're cheating!" ho-hoed a couple who whizzed past us on electric bikes. Despite the evil glares of more than a dozen panting, unelectrified cyclists they singularly failed to fall off or run out of juice.

Cycling the bridge itself, watching the fog roll over the Marin headland and seeing the tops of pelicans plunge-diving for fish, was worth the climb - mainly because we knew we were taking the ferry back. In the end we had to sprint up the side of a dual carriageway to Tiburon to catch the boat at the last possible moment. Drinking sweet rose up on the top deck we ignored two venture capitalists verbally marauding South America and watched the sealions playing in the ship's wake.
"What is that, a porpoise?" Venture Capitalist 1, asked, jabbing a plump finger, but his friend was busy launching a mental raid on Brazil.

Back in San Francisco I found myself, against better judgement, sweating up Hyde street to Blazing Saddles HQ. Despite all my posturing, they clapped, I smiled, and I didn't even set them right about Sausalito and the South of France.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Beer on Bear Mountain


Despite growing up in Germany, the only Oktoberfest I've ever been to was held last weekend in Upstate New York, and featured a felonious long sausage queue and an equally criminal cover band. Their version of La Vida Loca made me long for some Ohm-pa action, and from the look of the dirndled grannies I wasn't the only one.

We'd spent the morning scrambling up rocks and then down quiet wooded paths. My legs had started to stretch out, and my feet were only just starting to stumble over rocks and branches. They always seem to realise they're tired before the rest of me catches on. I was heading up a splinter group who had taken the long route down (worryingly, I'm pronouncing this r-ow-t in my head) and we spent most of the easy downhill stretch speculating about whether or not we'd beat the others to the fest (we did). People were making craving noises about beer, and I tacitly joined in, just like I do when English folk get thirsty for tea, or girls get wistful for wedding dresses - because there's no prizes for raining on the parade. In the end I managed about a quarter of a pint of "German-style beer" before giving in and buying a plastic glass of Riesling, the only other booze on offer.
"Ohhh, it's really good. I'm getting drunk already." This from the only other non-beer drinker in the group. I feared I may not have been in the most sophisticated drinking company.
"Let me try that." Chris manfully pulled my cup away from me.
"Oh my God. That's so sweet, how can you even drink it?"
"It's...ok." Because it's not beer.
"No it's not even like wine," Chris persisted, "more like..."
"Wine cooler?" someone put in helpfully.
"Yeah, it's great isn't it?" the girl cooed.
So there I was, stuck between a stranger's preteen taste in liquor and my boyfriends practised wine smuggery, with the world's worst faux-German band giving it a tuba-heavy version of My Song in the background.
Well, in for a Pfennig, in for a Deutschmark.
Ignoring my toothache I downed the sweet, viscous liquid and slammed the glass down on the table. The gesture would have been more dramatic if I hadn't been drinking from a flimsy plastic container.
"Right. Who's up for another?"

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sponsored by Drambuie...


"So you really think that all these people are just here for the open bar?"
"Oh, I don't know. There seems to be a real resurgence in interest in silent film..."
My demurring noises were somewhat undercut by the appearance of Chris clutching four glasses between splayed fingers.
"It's madness up there. There's no way I'm going back."
The man, who introduced himself as a friend of one of the composers raised an eyebrow, and we ended up buying his silence with a Drambuie Fizz.

We were at Cinema 16, a silent short film and live music night, thoughtfully sponsored by Drambuie. If they were trying to generate word-of-mouth amongst the self-consciously cool hipster set who'd queued round the block to get in, it was working... sort of.
"What the hell is it anyway?"
"Yeah, no idea."
"Smells like gin. Brown gin."
"Or like Pimms." (Naturally my ears pricked up at this.)
"But sweet, really sickly sweet."
"You should have got a Rusty Nail. All you taste is the whiskey."

The setting was as improbable as the libations. We were in the Players Club, an establishment determined to old-school the Establishment clubs back in London. Paintings of actors hang from the walls, and every corner seems to support a twinkly-eyed Peter O'Toole body-double.

At the end of the night, after a mind-blowing Busby Berkeley vintage clip, and some varyingly pretentious shorts, we abandoned our lethal Drambuie-and-whiskeys on the piano and headed off in search of pizza. I had a quiet heart-pang as we left the flocked wallpaper, cosy fireplaces, bearded artsy crowd and free, paint-stripper drinks. Unlike Chris, my life wasn't full of invitations to private clubs. What if I never got to see the inside of one again?

Ten minutes later, with a slice of $1 Two Brothers pie in my mouth, I shrugged, officially consoled.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Belly-dancing Virgin


"Think about your line ladies. You wanna be on the diagonal. We gotta see those tattas."
"That's what I'm talkin bout!"
My tattas are unenticingly encased in a sports bra and a sweaty gym t-shirt. My booty, which I'm tilting and tucking and dropping and popping in ways which are going to hurt tomorrow, is not looking its best in gray sweatpants from the charity shop. All around me, strong, beautiful women in floaty skirts, jangling belts and the sort of crop tops I used to wear when my stomach was tween-concave, are shimmying up a storm. I'm the only white girl here, one of the handful under forty, and the only one who looks like they got lost on the way to a cut-price pilates class.

I was warned at the beginning of the session that "we have a lot of fun here", but between and after and during the fun there's a whole lot of stomach isolations and deadly reps. You don't realise how many muscles you use to shimmy until you've shimmied for an hour and a half straight. By the end of class one-armed sit-ups would have been a blessed respite.

"Come on ladies. This is going to give you an hour glass figure. Hour. Glass. What you want? You want cuckoo clock? No? Then five, six, seven, eight..."

As always, the hardest part is the five minute break, which I spend smiling shyly at people and hiding in the toilet. But when I come out for the last session something clicks into place. As long as I don't look in the mirror I too am a strong, beautiful woman doing snake arms and undulating my womb.

When I look in the mirror I am the awkward before-version of a dance makeover film, the white girl who studied ballet for years and takes notes after ballroom class but can't shake her booty for love nor money.

But I figure if I can just get my hands on one of those jangly belts, I'll be ready to start the dance-training montage.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

99 Cents and Up


"Hey Miss..."
"Yo, white girl."
Looking around, this is me. Althusser, eat your heart out.
A bunch of schoolkids are shouting across the crossing at me. I haven't dropped anything. They don't seem to be lost. I give that embarrassed half smile you never want to see captured on camera and head into the 99 Cent store. In my work-from-home uniform - blue knee socks, green t-shirt, orangey-red wrap - I'm not dressed to banter, and, in any case, it's a tiring sport over here, where the accent means you have to say things slowly and twice.

But inside, things are different. The shop planners of this store are geniuses of manipulation. I lose a good five minutes of my life staring at the display of Pedi-Eggs near the doorway, priced at a tempting $2.99 (everything is, as promised, 99 cents and up). It's only when I read the packaging more carefully, about how the egg is cunningly designed to hold your "skin gratings", I regretfully put it back on the shelf.

Likewise, customers standing in line are subjected to a blast of cheap mind-gamery. Below the counter is a wall of sweets more various and enticing than anything I've seen outside of Harrod's food store. There are Scooby-doo lollys, pixie stix and "internationally flavoured" fat-free coffee candy. Along the back wall, as high as a guilty parent can reach, are party favours and knick-knacks, plastic sunglasses and miniature pool tables, streamers and gee-jaws. And all 99 cents and up.

As I leave the shop, clutching my green tea and Tupperware, a middle-aged woman in front of me half-shouts
"Hey you!"
I brace for crazy, but she just pats the startled woman in front of her apologetically.
"Sorry. Thought you were someone I knew. Look just like her."
The woman nods, and the three of us leave the 99 Cent Store, and the ergonomic Pedi-Eggs, behind us.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Spaghetti Arms


Agony Aunts who recommend that lonely singletons take up dance classes to meet the man of their dreams have clearly not been fox-trotting down Dance Manhattan way. Our smooth ballroom class is a pungent mixture of the schlubby, the silent, the short and the smugly coupled up. Since some of best dance experiences have involved being whirled around the floor by shaky geriatrics and borderline sociopaths, I try to keep an open mind and a strong frame. Both of these become less easy during a too-close encounter with Mr Spaghetti Arms.

With axe-murders, it's always the quiet ones, and with dancefloor pervs, it's generally the vaguely presentable ones. Perhaps a modicum of success with women has addled their brain, or perhaps they'd just always figured that what worked for Swayze (God rest his soul) would work for them. They often adopt a style that Americans refer to as European: shiny shoes, flat-fronted trousers belted high, tight t-shirts. They wear hair product and too much cologne (presumably another suspiciously Euro trait). But the only way to really know that you've got a Mr Spaghetti in your arms is when the music starts and you get clamped to his sweaty chest, Argentinian tango style. It doesn't matter if the music, teacher and class title are all screaming "lindy-hop" or "waltz", because he won't be content until your breasts are flattened into him and your thighs are second-base entangled.

Dear reader, I got a bad dose of the Spaghettis last night. All the warning signs were there: 80s heartthrob hair, Simon Cowell trousers, muppet voice. When he danced with the instructor, he kept her at respectable arm's length. But out of the spotlight it was a different story. When it was my turn to dance with him, his arm snaked round my back and my hips were crushed into his. The worst of it was that he held me so tight I couldn't twinkle properly.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wanted: Reverse-Strip Gypsy Trapeze Artiste


The Hungarian folk orchestra started up again, but this time they were joined by a dark-haired girl sitting on the trapeze with her back to us. In time with the fiddle she made the swing sway, rippling the fringes of her shawl to show that it's all she's wearing. As the music gathered tempo, so did she. Swinging down off her perch she contorted herself in front of us, hanging from her knees, her ankle, her neck, and letting the scarf float where it will. For a full-frontal nude show there's something very innocent about it, especially when, to whoops, she lets drop the shawl and concentrates on her routine. Now the music passes in flashes of well-muscled arms, sinewy back, improbable breasts.

We all start clapping when the musicians start to jig, and the trapeze dancer's scantily-clad male helper brings her a pair of tights. Grinning and grimacing she wiggles, pantless, into the laddered fishnets, then into a halterneck read leotard, tied upside down. By the time the musicians finally slow she's fully decent and ready to take a bow.

So far the Hungarian Cabaret has tended to mostly focus on nudity and moustaches(in that order) but this reverse strip (like the cross-gendered Alanis Morissette, unlike terrible Zsa Zsa Gabor drag act) is like a reverse case of the Emperor's New Clothes. The body, unveiled, is factual, strong, unambiguous. The sexiness gets wiggled into with the fishnets.

With this half-formed thought I go back to devouring my chocolate coins and admiring the mustaches in the Soviet Era adverts.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Invasion of the Invisible Mutts


“Where’s your dog?”
“Right here.”
“No! Where’s your fucking dog? That ain’t no dog.”

The street was full of people walking empty harnesses, but this girl was not prepared to play along. Coming out of the Bergen subway, meaty hands on meaty hips, she bawled out passersby.
“What the fuck you playing at?”

Friends with leads gave their wards a tug and walked on. They only slowed when they were out of range of her belligerent confusion, letting their dogs hump and sniff and drink water only when they were safely out of reach.

The girl looked on, disgusted, as the full extent of the nonsense unfurled. Smith Street was crawling with the things. Kids, walking Great Danes or flying Chihuahuas, gathered outside an art shop. Couples strolled hand-in-hand, transparently well-trained hounds trotting along in front. A man in an electric wheelchair posed for photos with his silent best friend.

The girl disappeared back down the subway stairs, shaking her head.

When a fully-fleshed canine finally appears, he looks like the punch-line of a joke that his owner should have been in on.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Getting Down, Ambassador-style


It was when the dance corridor formed, and a senior diplomatic figure began crotch-hopping down the catwalk, that the night really became surreal. The caddish actor-turned-Hollywood star had already joined the embassy band for some gravelly-voiced renditions of 80s soft-rock hits, and now, with the DC socialites all gone home, and the semi-ironic scotch eggs all eaten, the joint really started hopping. All at once the polite arts social had turned into a raucous home counties wedding.
"Come on, don't be shy!"
Awkwardly I sashayed down the line, much to the approval of the open-shirted security guy, who'd we'd earlier mistaken for an 80s yoof icon. Actors smoked with junior staff. Senior staff flung each other around the improvised dance floor.


"Shit, I want to be an Ambassador," Chris muttered (not for the first time that weekend) as some over-exuberant dancing nearly landed some embassy staffers in the garden's flood-lit swimming pool.
"I think you need to be good at languages."

And, by the looks of it, the electric slide.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

If You Go Down To The Woods Today...


I'd often wondered where New York's mad folk went in the summer, when the subway stations get too warm to rave and spit in. This weekend I got my answer: West Virginia.

It started as soon as we got the train out of DC. The man behind us, his face covered with a sheen of sweat, his voice pitched unnervingly loudly, began asking the usual questions. You're not from round here are you? Where youse heading? We told him Harper's Ferry, and he just repeated over and over again "Yeah, I like that place. I go there all the time. Great place, that. I like it. I go there all the time. Lovely place. I go there a lot."

Turns out he wasn't the only one. We were greeted on the towpath by a bear of a man with a walking stick and a belligerence barely reined in. After failing to get a rise out of us by insulting our ancestors and casting aspersions on our orienteering skills he let us pass, shouting the ominous warning that he'd see us at the hostel we were all staying at.

Later that night we tried to play Scrabble while he bludgeoned a nervous middle-aged women into silence with an attack on vegans, veganism and the likes of her. When no-one will contradict him anymore he tells stories of his time as a prison guard in Alaska. We concentrate on our triple word scores, and wait 'til he's gone to his dorm to joke about the story that has dominated the day's headlines: mental health patient escaped in national park. Call em up kid, the search is over.

For some reason the new story seems less funny when I'm in the tent in the dead of night listening to twigs snapping outside. Thoughtfully, I wake Chris so he can listen too.
"What the fuck is that?" I hiss.
"It wouldn't be a bear. We put the toothpaste in the tree."
"And we're near the river. Bears don't like water."
Even to my own ears this doesn't sound very convincing. I try again.
"Maybe deer?"
"Probably rats."
"Rats?" My voice has leaped an octave.
"Well mice then. Or, umm, drops falling from the trees."
Now it's my turn to roll my eyes.
"You don't think it's..."
"What, crazy guy? Prowling round the tent?"
We laugh uneasily.
"I mean, I'm not serious."
But still I assess the tent for defensive weapons. DEET spray. Spare pegs. Guy ropes.

I fall asleep and dream of rigging elaborate man-traps in the West Virginia Hills and wake to find myself, and the treebound toothpaste, unmolested.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beer Table, Park Slope


It's difficult not to love a place where the food menu is so brusque and the beer menu is so lovingly rendered. Yes you can have baked eggs, waffles and bacon. No you can't have orange juice. You can have water or even maybe ginger beer, but only because it's got beer in the name. There's no messing around with sunny-side-up, no-foam-skim-latte type pandering to A-type New Yorkers. Nor is there any pussy-footing with calories and lean alternatives. The bacon is cut thick and fatty, like the quivering hunks that Yorkshire vet James Herriot gets offered by grateful farmers after he delivers a breached calf or two. And it tastes damn good.

If you're after a liquid brunch, however, it's a totally different story. Alongside the rotating drafts and the three suggested "breakfast brews" (cover your ears, you temperance ministers and sun-over-the-yardarmers) there is a daily menu, which blends from light ("pear, white bread, amiable") to dark ("chocolate, tobacco, hedonistic"). For someone like me, who tastes with their language centre as much as with their tongue, it was skillful beery propaganda. Conveniently forgetting that I don't much like taste of hops, I let my eyes linger over the descriptions. Mixed in among the fruits and floral notes were more intriguing influences, moods and feelings, inedible objects and abstract expressions. What, say, was "funk",outside of a 70s disco context, and did I really want my drink to have it?

We were there to cadge some swing-top bottles to pour our homebrew into. When the flubberiest bit of rind had finally defeated us we left, empties in tow, vowing to come back for one of their beer tastings. Yet still our Grapefruit Ale sits in its glass bottle, stowed away at the top of our wardrobe, the sediment forming a sinister off-white layer at the bottom. If only old Herriot were around, with a tub of hot water and his bag of stainless steel implements, to help us birth our firstborn brew. We could even take him for bacon in Beer Table to say thank-you.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Getting Down in Monkey Town


Chris was generously taking time out from his busy dancing schedule to fill us in.
"And this next scene, the one where she falls through the window, this was reshot thirty years later. Same actress. She's amazing. An amazing actress."
We smile and nod, as the amazing actress unwinds her snake and lashes out at Harrison Ford. On the opposite wall Tron casts neon shadows on the assembled crowd of moon-faced Brits, Yanks and Japanese.

We're came to Williamsburg's Monkey Town for the drum'n'bass, but stayed for the hellish monochrome murals and the toilets that talk back to you.
"I think it's something about STDs," our friend mumbles.
"Definitely a comedy routine." I correct brightly. "Jokes about mother-in-laws. Nothing too toxic."
A few drinks later and a different choice of bathroom later and I have to admit that the public-health spiel was not a product of her fevered imagination.

A couple of hours into the dancing and the music cuts. I take the opportunity to drag Chris away from the screens and refuel with a dollar coke.
"Bargain." We say to each other, but we still share.
Back in the back room the music's up again, but the dreadlocked, hard-bodied crowd have gone to smoke outside and swap Bladerunner trivia. At the birthday boy's instance we take the floor alone, throwing some swing-outs and backwards Charleston in with the usual sharp-elbowed, pointy-fingered, loose-hipped solo moves. The DJ spins on, unmoved.

In the background Rutger Hauer gives his famous improvised soliloquy. This time Chris doesn't even have to point it out. The dancers slink back in and raise their fists in salute.

Friday, September 11, 2009

This Wine's Got Legs


"First drink the wine. Then try it with a WASABI BEAN."
We laugh, but he's entirely serious.
"Just try it, and tell me it doesn't taste of buttery popcorn. You just try it."
The girl next to me squeals even before the bean hits her tongue. It's sort of sweet that despite living for years in the Trader Joe-d, Whole Foodified city she's never had wasabi before. I tell her the story of how I ate a spoonful of the stuff the first time I ever went to sushi. She's too busy glugging the wine to smile.
"It certainly takes the burn off. I'll say that much."

In the end, after being bribed with cashews, grapes dirty from the vine, and three varieties of chocolate, it's the rose we buy.
"We grow all our own grapes. Not many people do that. Not that I blame them. Look at my hair!"
We take the cue and laugh. The words are worn and shiny with use, like the wooden poles down in the basement where the grapes are beaten out of their skins. There must be a kind of bravado involved in taking them out yet again for another sceptical public. It's easy to laugh at the owner, with his heavily accented English and his unpalatable wines. A little too easy. The mother and daughter opposite me are making fun of the way he says "tort" instead of "tart". I want to ask them how many languages they speak, how many words of this man's native tongue, which we keep on trying to guess.
"He'll be Czechoslovakian." The mother says, ending the argument. "He sounds just like my gardener."
I keep quiet, and empty my glass. Really it isn't that bad, even without the wasabi bean.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Live at the Mercury Lounge


You probably know that Willy Mason isn't an old-time crooner with a young soul. You probably never got him mixed up with Willie Nelson, or had a couple years time-lag before you discovered the Where the Humans Eat album that your Mum was probably already listening to when it topped the pops. You'd probably not be shocked to hear that he's two years younger, and in every sense a little huskier, than I am. Let's just say he wasn't big in Japan.


"So who are you here to see?"
We nudge each other. We'd like to see all the bands please. That's what we paid our twelve bucks for.
"Willy Mason."
The girl at the door marks two more dashes against his name and stamps us in.
The venue is small. We've seen our friends' band play to bigger rooms and massier crowds. Almost as soon as we arrive a self-depreciating guy with a guitar and too-big shoes comes on. His name, Dave Godowsky, doesn't warrant bold type at the door or on website but he's got a lot of charm and some sweet, twisted tunes called things like "I hate the world, and everyone in it." Despite the Emo pose I catch him smiling when folks clap.

Willy's up next (the space is too small for formalities) and during the change-over we argue about whether it is sad or not sad to play at a gig where they tally the people paying to see you to see if you're worth your stage-time. We both think our arguments are strengthened when Willy thanks the Fung Wah bus service for getting him here in time. We've taken that bus before. Maximum points for gritty authenticity, minimum points for swanky superstardom.

For the record, Willy Mason has a voice like the strongest hot toddy you ever drank - equal parts bitter lemon and whiskey and honey - and each song he played sounded like a story you knew by heart but had somehow forgotten. He didn't play Oxygen, and no-one cared.

But the kids were here to see the dark and lean AA Bondy. Judging from the bodies pressing in for his set his tally chart was looking pretty healthy. His perfectly-formed songs appeared in unexpected clearings in his bands' dense soundscapes.
"Thanks for coming out tonight. You're a good looking crowd. Not that it matters, y'know. But it's nice that you look the way you do."
AA Bondy must have been dazzled by the spotlights, because I can tell you that we were a misshapen draggle of fans: too fat, too thin, too apt to spend our time alone. But we clapped and swayed our sweaty bodies and let ourselves be taken out of ourselves by his sweet-talking and dark strummed fairy tales.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cat Attack


We always knew Brooklyn wasn't gone to be one of those cutesy I Has Cheezburger kittehs, not least because she never sat still long enough to capture on film. What we didn't expect was the spitting, clawing hell-cat that ran across the room to sink her claws and teeth into Chris' bare legs. She'd hissed at him before when he'd crossed her path or accidentally backed her into a corner, but this was something different: a bloody, full-throttle attack that only ended with Chris physically throwing her away and us barricading ourselves in our bedroom. This was the same cat that had sat peaceably on my lap all morning as I typed on my laptop, purring like an animal possessed. Who rubbed herself in and out of both our legs as if trying to tie us to her.

The mewing from the other side of the door was pitiful, but when I opened up she ran past me to spit and arch at Chris once more. It took all my wheedling (and a tray of KitEKat) to distract her while Chris eased past and out of the door, holding a towel, matador-like, in his bleeding hands. I followed and our positions were officially reversed: Brooklyn held the bedroom, while the living room (complete with litter tray and door to the outside world) was ours.

It was to prove a hollow victory. In our haste to escape another mauling we'd left our wallets behind in the other room. While Chris washed off his cuts and bites I called the woman who had landed us in this fine mess in the first place.
"Look, are you sure it was a deliberate attack?"
"She ran from the other side of the room, and then she clamped on and wouldn't let go. It was scary."
"If you're really scared, just let her out a window."
"We're on the third floor."
"Look, I've thirty cats and dogs here that I'm trying to get adopted... can I come pick her up tonight. Seven, say?"
With a little firm talking I battled her down to a couple of hours. Which in reality, turned out to be five.

More pressingly our insurance cards were shut away in the other room and we had $2.80 in cash, scavenged from the change-bowl. And now we were about to have our first encounter with the much-demonised US health care system.

Meanwhile, locked in the outer room, Brooklyn yowled as if she knew she had just got herself exiled again...

Friday, September 4, 2009

The last days at the Double-D pool


"Hey honey, you look like a million dollars."
I smile tightly, thinking Oughta get back to guarding lives Mr Life Guard and narrowly avoid crashing into a kid practicing handstands in the shallow end. It's all shallow end at Gowanus' 'Double-D' public pool. Maybe that's why the lifeguards can afford to be so cocky.

Other things you should know before you get your feet wet.
1. The moniker is misleading. Call me dirty-minded, but I was expecting a poolside crammed with buxom beauties, like the girl I saw coming out of the subway whose GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN tee got edited by her curves down to the more enigmatic GIRLS FUN. But so far, so very little like an MTV Girls Gone Wild shoot.

2. It's an institution, like a prison is an institution, with certain shared features. Expect to be checked for wetness before you're allowed in the pool area. Cue unpleasant flashbacks to enforced showers at school.

3. Beware the velvet rope. The sectioned-off lanes at the end of the pool seem to be VIP lanes that you can only get in if you're wearing a whistle. If you attempt to gatecrash be ready to cover your ears. If your name's not down, you're certainly not coming in without a cacophony...

But the dog days, the salad days and the summer are coming to end, and on Tuesday the Double-D pool will be drained, the bulky shower-room attendants moved on and the life guards released back into the wild. And dusty Gowanus, with its garages and corpse-clogged canal will be a sadder, quieter place for it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Soft heart, sharp claws


"So can you take these two home? Even for a night or two?"
The woman's practiced brand of beseeching and bossiness was working its magic. The ancient Siamese rasped once more through its broken front teeth, and it was clear we were cracking. All that was left was to sign on the dotted line.

We'd walked up to the van intending to make vague noises about being available to foster at some point in the hazy future and within a couple of minutes had been guilted into stepping up and signing up for a pair of purring old timers.
"So you can take them home in a carrier right now?"
"Well..."
"Don't worry, if you don't have a car we can drop them off tonight. Shall we say seven?"
It wasn't really a question.
"What about this fella?"
"Ah ha ha..." For the first time her bustle slowed. "This one's not so friendly."
"Looks quiet enough."
"Oh no, it's quite freaked out. I think it'll need a few days shut in my bathroom. Just watch."
Gingerly she opened the cage door, and the meek black and white kitten transformed into a spitting whirl of claws and fury.
"Right. Gotcha." We turned back gratefully to our purring, placid twosome.


At six thirty that night we got a phone call. Turns out there had been some misunderstanding, and a frantic owner had come to pick up the two old dears.
"But you know, we're just round the corner. And don't worry, because we still have that other cat..."

Monday, August 31, 2009

Fire Island's Famous Plover Lovers


"You're camping right?"
It's raining, my bag is heavy and the mosquitoes are biting me through my knee-length socks. I leave Chris to talk to the annoying German woman and continue along the boardwalk.
"Don't you know there's a hurricane coming?"
Bitch. I throw her a bitter smile and keep trudging forward.
"Just stay clear of sites 23, 24 and 26. And 18. Then you should be alright."
Turns out German woman is a park ranger. And she's not kidding about the hurricane.

We manage to pitch our tent and gradually the rain dries up long enough to have a walk on the beach. It's the end of plover breeding season and there are dozens of the critters playing chicken with the tide, bustling after the drying rings of wet sand and away from the white horses. Their bodies don't seem to keep pace with their whirring legs, like tiny dancers who've perfected their isolations.

After a couple of beers on the beach Chris and I are dancing too, practicing lifts and handstands and cartwheels. We get inquisitive looks from the plovers and the surfers riding the swells. Unlike us, they are here for the storm, which is supposed to break tonight.

Next morning after a sleepless night in a wind-lashed tent and a renewed mosquito attack ("I thought they weren't supposed to like the rain?") we give it up, wave goodbye to the plovers and go home to civilization, and to Brooklyn.

The Ranger flashes a told-you-so smile as we huddle under our umbrellas in the line for the ferry.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

UK Interlude


I'm trying to concentrate on keeping my wheely bag straight, but the accents send my head whip-cracking. My mind's still mid-Atlantic, wondering at the impeccable behaviour of the four (drugged?) Hassidic children behind me, and here in the terminal every voice - the man overtaking me, the family dragging behind, even the tannoy announcer - sounds obscenely familiar. They are my long vowels. My illogical pronunciations. And I am home.

Growing up near our barracks in Northern Germany a young English voice meant someone I knew, or at least recognised by sight. Despite having the highest density of self-made millionaires of any town in the district (a fact I heard only once, and have since refused to verify or disbelieve) it wasn't the sort of place where tourists would go, and mine was the only British school within driving distance. Though there were Scots regiments and Northern regiments and officers and other ranks all the voices seemed to slur into one estuary English medley. In a small German town, it was easy to hear us coming.

Five years of boarding school and university left its mark on my voice, and stopped my head from swivelling, pack-like, when it caught familiar cadences in streets and trains and bars. And then Chicago, Tokyo, London - antennae raised, lowered and then safely shuttered down. Now in Brooklyn an English accent raises my hackles. I stare at them, and inside I say, in my coldest RP tones, Who are you, and why are you invading my territory?

But here, in the echoing corridors of terminal three I smile at the man and the family and the tannoy who sound to me like cider and black on a summer's afternoon.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Central Park Bacchants


"Look! Dionysus is being played by Mika!"
We sniggered into our programs. Even with my new glasses on the likeness was uncanny... the blood-hungry, woman-maddening God in the body of 2007's favourite fey Lebanese pop poppet. When Phillip Glass' ambient score swelled around him, actor Jonathon Groff seemed only a pout away from launching into 'Big Girls, You Are Beautiful.' No doubt the Bacchants would have enjoyed that.

Meanwhile out of the spotlights, in the darkness of the sticky night, a conspiracy was mounting. Central Park is not used to being upstaged. When the puny special effects aped a storm, the real thing swept in, lightening cutting up the purple sky. As the thunder rumbled, nature's soldiers readied themselves for a stage invasion. Singly at first, then in lines of ten together, they trotted out of shadows and onto the set.

"Look! Raccoons!"
Whispers and nudges were passed along the audience, and it took some serious Theban cross-dressing to drag our attention back to the play. In response, the raccoons raised their game.

"Fuck me, there's one under the seats!"

And after that not even Mika and his glittering trousers could compete with the Grace Kellys of the animal world.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

East Hampton Hard Hitters


"Too much Snapple and vodka in the sun." The tight-faced matron muttered, but if the heckler heard, he didn't seem to care.

"You've got nothing. Nuuuuu-thing. Call your editors, boys. It's time for a rewrite."
The crowd laughed, as if in spite of itself, and then turned back hurriedly to the field.

We were at the bottom of the 7th innings of the 61st Annual East Hampton Artists vs. Writers baseball game, and this year the sun was decidedly hotter than the celebrity sightings. Alec Baldwin and Chrissy Brinkley were both, improbably, batting for the Artists, but most of the players were a straggly collection of half-familiar names and determined faces. Despite the heat they were playing hard, and the scoreline was tight. As the commentators kept telling us, this was one of the most exciting matches in the history of the oldest charity event in East Hampton.

"Hah! What are you playing at? Writers, where's your fucking white-out?"

We were huddled in a tiny patch of shade watching silver-haired men walking their models around the perimeter fence. The girls towered above their consorts and the rest of the capped and reddening crowd, all shiny hair and sunglasses and painfully angular limbs.

Behind us, the voice grew louder and more raggedy, its puns worn thin and brittle with use.

"You're all over the place. Where's your three act structure now, eh? Whaddareyou... Jeeee...zus. Your team's a... what? An ellipse. Heh heh... Bunch of pen-pushing pussys. Strike! Isn't that what you do best, eh Writers? I said, isn't striking what you pansy-asses do best..."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Canada V: We Will Rock You, Tadoussac


We suspected the driver of the Gaspe peninsula bus had a couple of lucrative sidelines going. Several times during the four hour trip from Quebec City to Tadoussac the bus would stop on a dark lane and a small boy would come sprinting out to deliver a box of oranges or to take possession of a parcel carefully wrapped in brown paper and string. This suspicion was confirmed when less than five miles from our destination we pulled in to the car-park of a roadside restaurant and were told that we were stopping for forty-five minutes, like it or not. The waitress refused to serve us Irish coffees unless we ordered a meal each (she didn't clarify whether her qualms were legal, financial or moral) so we kicked up the road to a one-pump garage and asked if they had a torch we could buy. They didn't; or perhaps they just didn't understand our pidgin French. By now the sky was inky, and the prospect of pitching a tent in the pitch dark, by the light of a novelty keychain flashlight, wasn't appealing.

When we finally arrived in Tadoussac it was like we'd stumbled into a Quebecois replaying of Woodstock. Around the bonfire people were strumming and swaying, while strangers got acquainted in the shadows of the beached pirate ship. Minutes after we arrived the band started playing, amid clinking beer bottles and stamped approvals. Slinging down our backpacks in the corner we went to try and find someone who could tell us where we could set up for the night. A girl with long dark hair and a preternaturally chilled-out voice gestured vaguely into the darkness.
"It's easier in English, yes?"
Yes. Sometimes.
"There are some spaces. Just find somewhere you like and tell us where it is."
She smiles and turns to the next travel-creased punter. Dutifully we grab our bags and trudge outside. It's been raining all day and we're in flip flops. By the light of the fire we see a level area crammed with tents, and then a dark hump of trees, rocks and canvas. Swearing quietly, we scramble up slippery rocks with packs on our backs, looking for a free wooden platform where we can set up.

It's a marker of how dark, wet and confusing it is that it takes us the best part of an hour to find one. Behind us the Frog Rock band provide a pounding background track.

It's a new tent, and the only other time we've put it up was on a lazy Saturday afternoon in Fort Greene. Now the conditions are decidedly more adverse. With a bit of Heath Robinsoning we finally get the pegs in and stumble and slide back down the hill to pay.

Half an hour later, when we're sitting out on the deck, we get talking to a guy from Montreal.
"So you're camping... here?"
Uh huh.
"You know there's a campsite down the road where you can hear the whales from your tent, right?"

We shrug, clink beers and go back to listening to the good people of Tadoussac rock out.