Friday, February 27, 2009

Doll's House

It's not that I'm scared of dwarves. It's just that I'm not used to seeing them naked, inches from my face. The crowd of schoolkids behind me are laughing and whooping as if they're at the rollar-derby. But tonight it's only my prim English sensibilities that are getting a bashing.

We've been invited to the closing night of the show at St Anne's Warehouse - part of the Bladerunner-cityscapes Down Under Manhattan Bridge (DUMBO to its friends). They weren't kidding about the Warehouse part. The lobby feels as big as an aircraft hanger, dwarfing even the regular-sized people. It's a fitting introduction for what's to come.

At one point in the middle of the play Torvald screams at Nora: "Small, do you think I'm small?" The company took that one line and spun out a nightmarish melodrama where two-foot men enact their dominace over a simpering range of six-foot women. Five years and half the world later, this is the final night of chirping and humping and ripping the hair off dolls. That's a hell of a long run. I don't know quite whether that's testimony to Ibsen's immortal words, or to the tenacity with which people cling to the few remaining tenants of the freakshow. It's dangerous to laugh at most people - Jews, Blacks, Women, Muslims, Gays - but, for the moment at least, dwarves still seem fair game.

The most disturbing thing about the show only happens on our walk home. The lights of Manhattan are to the right of us, the brownstones of chi-chi Brooklyn Heights to our left.
"I didn't realise about the kid til halfway through." Chris admits.
"What about the kid?" Even from the second row, I tend to miss stuff.
"Y'know, that they weren't a kid. It was an old dwarf woman. I think."
"Are you sure? Shit. I thought it was just a really ugly little girl."

So there you have it Doctor Freud: all sorts of unheimlich for you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Basketball Diaries

The pretty guy in the corner is telling a pretty good tale about how he and his friend managed to insult some Brits in Thailand, and ended up running for their lives, chased by a pack of wild dogs and wilder Geordies. He's mid-sentence when our book-club leader leans forward and declaims "Oh my God! That's the second person I've seen walk in with a didgeridoo. Oh wait, carry on. It's not a didgeridoo." It's also the second time that she'd interrupted the "story about a fucked-up friend" that she'd demanded at gun point a few minutes previously. I try hard not to roll my eyes. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Boerum Hill book club.

We're supposed to be talking about Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries, but it's clearly a thinly veiled excuse to air provocatively dirty laundry, and bully everyone else into doing the same. For a group of twenty and thirty-somethings there's a real heady whiff of the school locker rooms about it as, largely unbidden, people take turns to boast of their sexual exploits, law-breaking and myriad and multi hued episodes of wastedness. Smiling, smiling, smiling, I feel like I'm stuck in my own episode of wastedness. I begin to suspect that hell might be one giant book club, where the sinners never get round to talking about the book.

Trying to steer the conversation away from strap-ons and vomit(since I'm determined to finish my over-priced and suspiciously creamy cocktail) I ask whether the vivid story-telling of the book, with its diary format, reminded anyone of the blogosphere. The answer was fast and unanimous.
"No. I would never read a blog." There's a veritable Mexican wave of literary shuddering.
For the first time that night I flash them all a genuine smile, and set to work on my character assassinations.
Safe as houses. Safe as houses.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Better Talk to the Membership Office

It's like a scene from nineties techno-thriller The Net. I'm a fresh-faced Sandra Bullock still warm from Keanu's sweaty-vested embraces. She's the innocent clerk, staring in confusion at her retro computer screen. I've just swiped my ID, but there's a problem. A big one. Hyde Park Co-op are on to me. Looks like the game's up.

"I'm sorry, do you know a Chris Till?"
"Yes, he's my boyfriend." I've signed him in as a guest, in accordance with their Hippie-Draconian system.
"Well, looks like your membership is suspending until he signs up for some shifts."
"But he's not a co-op member..."
"Well, if you live together..."
"Ha! We don't live together!" In my defense, I've been pretty stalwart about sticking to this line with everyone I've met who might have co-op connections.
"Well, there must be some mistake then. Better talk to the membership office."

Upstairs I have to lie again; first to a young black guy, then to a woman in her thirties with dangerously shrewd eyes. Each time the tale gets taller. By now Chris is living in Manhattan. He only comes here to help me carry my groceries. I flirt with claiming a case of carpal tunnel, but am too scared of the terrible cripple-handed karma that might ensue.

Eventually shrewd-eyed woman sighs and puts me back on the system. The alternative is to call me a liar in the middle of the membership office, and even a miscreant like me knows that that's not very co-operative. Doe-eyed Sandra wins again.

The minute I get home, before I've even taken off my coat, I'm tearing into the Co-op's unsulphered apple rings. They taste so fine, and they're so reasonably priced. Nothing and no-one is ever going to come between us, no matter how strong the system or how many times I have to perjure myself in Park Slope.

Monday, February 23, 2009

China-town bus to Boston

"Do you think she's going to carry on talking all the way back."
"Looks like it."
Smoothly taking the cue, the girl behind us remembers another person that she needs to call. For the next twenty minutes she retreats from our very English tutting into bullet-fire Mandarin. To me, crushed up a half foot in front of her face, it sounds like her mouth is out of tune.

Sitting in a taxi earlier that day it had taken us half a news report to realise we were listening to the clipped tones of the BBC World Service. It seems an odd choice for our monosyllabic driver, but I can't imagine he changed it over when we jumped in the back. Everyone knows that Brits are terrible tippers.

American voices - already made so homely by indie rockers and the movies - are now what we expect to hear. Unfortunately this special relationship doesn't work both ways, and oftentimes people look at me like I'm speaking Chinese at them. In my head I chant, I understand you fine, so why can't you understand me?

This is nothing, I tell myself, as I gesture wildly in shops and banks and subway stations. If Americans have problems deciphering English accents, how much more strange for shopkeepers in suburban Japan who may never have heard someone mangling their mother-tongue.
"How mach is this?"
"How moch is this?"
"How muuuch is this?"
Fucking hell, lady. Take a wild guess at what I mean when I'm pointing towards your pile of eggplants and waving a fistful of unfamiliar currency in your uncompremending face.

Usually I just say Eggplant and Quarter Of and 'Erbs and try to quosh the childish thought that it's our language, we had it first.

Friday, February 20, 2009


There's a pause in the music, and all the couples around us can hear me hiss: Swing me between your legs! Chris grimaces like I'm wrong, and he's right because I stumble as get up the other side, and it's anything but a smooth move. I'm blushing as he leads me into a lindy-turn and wishing I wasn't such a show-off, or had paid more attention in lifts class.

The music's been a little off all night, a couple of high octane numbers that made us sweat out a mad, wild charleston, then lots of early stuff with strange syncopation and hidden beats. We sit out and watch what might be quickstep or foxtrot and then what is definitely collegiate shag, but done like its dancing, not like the strange show our teachers back in London put on. Right hands pointing straight up in the air. Camel step, camel step. There's a woman who could be an unfortunate forty or a very well-kept sixty-five rocking out in a black and white flapper dress and lace gloves. Her hips are probably a little fuller than when she was a girl dancing with clean-shaven sophomores, but she still dances in this nonchalent way like she knows she's the catch of the dancefloor.

There's a few kids our age who look like pretty decent dancers. They're swapping partners and trying out some pretty slick steps. We try to replicate them in the wings, but can't quite get the footwork. But given the fact that we haven't had a chance to dance for months we're not too shabby, we tell ourselves, it'll all come back. What does come back is the animal joy of it, of kicking higher and turning faster and not even thinking about it. We work well together, like two people who've told a story so many times they know when to prompt and when to sit back and let the other one hit the punchline.

The music slows and we corner these swing-kids and ask them where the action is in NYC. One of the baggy-trousered boys mention a place in Midtown.
"There's other stuff, but you always know you can go there on a Thursday night. And they have a beginners class too, which is free."
He says this line about the beginners class again, as if to rub the slight in. We've actually been lindy-hopping for a couple of years now. There are tight smiles all round.

Later, when the music picks up again it's tempting to redeploy the swing-out as a weapon of mass disruption. Baggy-trousered boy is, after all, within kicking distance. We'll give him a bloody beginners class.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


It's the first time I've been out of the apartment all day and I've been going stir-cabin fever crazy. My desk is set up so I look out my window at the sky and the street and the man who always seems to be on the roof opposite. Maybe he's practicing to be a cat-burglar. But on a day like this one even he's retreated inside. The snow which was swirling down this morning has turned into mean, persistent rain, and the blue skies I've been counting on have gone. It changes the mood of the whole room. Suddenly the bohemian garrott feels like a nightmare in a Ikea showroom. A showroom where you can't swing a cat. Although if I were a real New Yorker, I wouldn't feel twice about keeping some high-maintenance dog in here. A springer spaniel maybe, or a thoroughbred papillion.

We've run out of pasta which means I officially have a mission which requires me leaving my suddenly claustrophobic two-room apartment. Outside it's black, and the pavement is glossy with rain. I give the piles of rubbish sacks a wide berth, ready to run from any marauding parties of rats. Despite the dangers, I go to the bodega a couple of blocks away rather than the one on my corner. I love the word bodega. Going there makes me feel like Bill-and-Ted, off on an excellent adventure which involves crossing Atlantic Avenue. I really do spend too much time on my own here.

In this bodega the guy behind the counter doesn't spend all his time talking on his cell to Kirghistan. They also have piles of artisanal, organic bread piled up by the door. Boerum Hillites do like their artisanal, organic shit. Every time I go in I hover over the bread, looking at this one loaf of cranberry and walnut loaf. It looks really good. What worries me is that there's always just this one loaf, never more, never less. I'm tempted to make some sort of secret mark on it to see if it really can be the same one as three weeks ago. It wouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility. Last time I was in America I left a red pepper in the back of my fridge and only remembered about it two months later. It looked just the same. When you buy 'fresh' milk in America you know it'll be in date for the next six weeks. They do magic, very deeply wrong things to their food here. Maybe even to this poor organic, artisanal cranberry and walnut loaf.

After I pick out some fusilli I make sure to scurry back to the apartment before Chris gets home. He locks me in every morning to keep me safe, and I wouldn't want him to think that I'd escaped.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Brooklyn low-life

They started to scramble over the sidewalk as soon as we reached the top of the stairs leading out of Hoyt Street subway station. I grimaced as I saw the first one, a flash of tail disappearing into another patch of shadow. But that was only the start of it. As if I was walking out into a nightmare, or the final round of a schadenfreude-laden Japanese quiz show,I found my way was blocked by a sleek river of rats. We'd obviously disturbed them in a feeding frenzy. One after the other they came swarming out of the pile of black bin bags, each one fatter and more toothy than the last. There were dozens of them twitching and squeaking and oozing malevolence, blocking off my only way home. Chris was laughing at me. He'd managed to cross the stream of rodents before it was in full flow. I wasn't laughing. I was squealing like a girl.

Now show me a mouse or two, playing on the tracks in the London underground and I'll be pleased to see the little things thriving in a harsh urban environment. When one ran under my fridge in Mile End I barely looked up from my bowl of porridge. Likewise spiders hold no horrors for me. Even when they're big and close to my face I imagine them as Charlotte and gently ease them on their way.

New York's triumvirate of pests have a harder, nastier edge: rats, roaches, bed-bugs. They have none of the fear of people that the unobtrusive mouse or spider has. It's difficult to assign them benevolent personalities. There was no way that those rats were more scared of me than I was of them. That's whats so galling about those New York pests - they're taking advantage of your good nature.

In Japan we put up cockroach motels around our apartment. Despite being on the fourth floor we still spent half the year being terrorized by the little buggers, who seemed to have a penchant for scuttling towards us when we were at our most vulnerable: sitting on the toilet. The motels were cutesy little cardboard houses containing roach food and sticky floors. We assumed they also used some sort of poison, but not knowing the Japanese character for cyanide we couldn't be sure. We were thrilled when the first nasty little creatures checked in. Soon the motel was at full capacity.

Returning back from a month-long trip to Thailand I prepared to chuck away the traps. I couldn't help but notice that even the long-term guests were still moving, frantically jerking their hairy little legs in a vain attempt to escape. I dropped a dumbbell on the motel. Still they were moving. I threw it out the window. Four storeys below, they were still moving. Finally I threw it in the trash. For all I know those roaches are still stuck in their Hotel California, wondering if they'll ever be able to check-out.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Spare some change?

The phone rings for the second time is as many minutes.
"Hey Joe, how're you?"
He takes it literally. "Well, y'know, I don't really like to lay my problems on other people. But I've got a really terrible migraine, and asprin isn't working. The doctor can't see me til tomorrow, but says I can go to the emergency room. There's no way I'm going to the emergency room with a headache..."
"I'm sorry Joe." I pause for a sympathetic length of time, making the most of my free minutes. I pause so long it seems pretty crass to bring up the whole maintanence issue, but it's 10.30 by now and I want to take a shower. "Any news about someone coming to let me into the bathroom?"
"Oh yeah. Sorry. That's why I called. Plumber's coming up now. It's 5E, isn't it?"
"Well, there should be no problem. Like I say, Eddie's a mul-tie-talented guy. And if he can't I'm definitely sure I can come look at it, by, like, tomorrow at the latest... so bye, I guess" For some reason we're always awkward when we come to end phonecalls, Joe The Super and I, like adolescent lovers reluctant to hang-up.

In the end, all it took was 5 seconds jiggery pokery with a screwdriver and I was no longer locked out of my bathroom. If I were Eddie I would have drawn the thing out a little more in the dual interests of saving my face and preserving his professional mystique. As it was I just had to shrug apologetically and thank him out the door with indecent haste. Why didn't the damn screwdriver technique work for me?

I've never been a very practical person. I have a problem with directions and locks and child-friendly caps on mouthwash and medicines. Often inanimate objects seem to be out to thwart me. No matter what commanding tone I adopt they just don't recognise my mastery over them.

I was still rolling my eyes at myself for making such a mountain out of a molehill when I got to the subway stop. As I was going down, a gray-haired man was hauling himself up the steps, using the handrail as a climber uses his ropes, ice-pick and crampons. The effort made him pant. My futile wrenchings of the door handle seemed pathetic compared to his epic efforts to surmount such an everyday obstacle.

As if the ensemble cast of the Manhattan-bound C-Train had scripted a moral lesson for me, I was no sooner on the train than a pan-handler approached me for money. We don't have the term in London, but we do have the same genre of performance, and in either city I start to dig for my purse as soon as they start spinning tales of cold and hunger; just like all the other guilty, cossetted saps.

What was unusual about this guy is that for once I caught the second act. We were nearing my stop on the Upper West Side as he returned. This time I didn't put any money in his Dunkin Donuts cup. Taking me in with the rest of the carriage, he swept the cup around, his slurred diction took on a new passion and clarity:

"May God see all those people who didn't help me, who didn't look at me, and make life worse for them. That's all I'm saying."
"Charming!" I muttered primly, turning back to my book. Malcolm Gladwell was explaining that however much we like to idealise successful people, in reality their successes are produced by a complex set of circumstances, rather than any special quality in themselves. It wasn't until I'd climbed out of the subway that I realised the manifold ironies of the situation.

Damn, those C-Train players are good.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Revolutionary Road

I stop up short when I see the street-sign: Bethune Street. This is where Frank and April Wheeler lived when they were playing house in New York City. This is the street that became synonymous with what they'd lost after they'd moved out to suburbia and started to fall apart. It's a really good street. I can see why they'd miss it.

I'm supposed to be hurrying through the meat-packing district so that I don't miss the final tour of the day at the Chelsea brewery - Manhattan's last remaining beer distillery. Despite the Bethune Street hold-up I make it, and get told all about hops, wort, yeast and the perils of Bud Light by a smart-mouthed young guy with shaky hands. When he reveals he's been drinking all day, a bearded guy at the back pipes up: "I have a question."
"How do I get a job like yours?"
Quick as flash the Beer Ambassador smacks back "Lose a better-paid one."
We all cheer. We brave few, who've made the last tour of the day on Valentine's Day, bite our thumbs at the economic downturn, at the international hops crisis, at the devotees of Bud Light. But now the sample pitchers of beer are finished, and our tour-guide is telling us of his dreams to open his own micro-brewery, complete with a bar that doesn't look like an airport lounge. He's right about the Chelsea Brewery Lounge. TV screens blare from every surface, as if the owners were determined to distract you from the copper vats full of artisanal ale on the other side of the glass, or the view of New Jersey's sky-scrapers over the other side of the Hudson.

I guess New Yorkers would rather have New Jersey as a punchline than a backdrop. As if to prove the point, next door to the brewery a multi-storied driving range lets Manhattan's middle-managers and soccer moms take a cathartic swing at New Jersey City.

Friday, February 13, 2009


There are parts of New York that are battened down during the day. There's groceries on the corners and boutiques that are artfully covered in grafetti, but there's also rows of caged up windows and abandoned-looking warehouses. These Dodge-City stage sets only look right when the moon and the street lights are shining, and the best, bluesiest buskers have staked their pitch on the subway platforms. Then, even the rotted-out tenements look like bars, because all the bars look like that too.

For all its dandy past and alarmist Daily Mail headlines, London has nothing on New York by night.Even on school nights, the bars don't get busy until pushing midnight. There's no bell for last orders, no need for a quick calculation about whether the rest of the night is going to be worth missing the last tube for.

Last night the opening band that were scheduled to play at nine didn't even show until eleven thirty. So I sat in the gloom, trying to make my bad wine last me, wondering if New York will turn back the tide that has seen me aching for my bed earlier and earlier as the years go by. In Japan we'd stay up and take the first train back to Koshigaya on Saturday mornings, trying to avoid our genki, fresh-faced students who were up at six for extra baseball practice. But then we had the wriggling 4am sashimi at the fish-market to stay awake for.

Here, even when I make like Cinderella, New York still infects my dreams. Lurid Bollywood soap versions of my past and future stay with me in the mornings, making me feel like I have woken up in the wrong reality. And sitting at my desk, trying to write my way out of another dream-muddle, the Wombats' refrain plays again and again in my head. Moving to New York, cos I got problems with my sleep.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Golum

He must have tuned his hearing-aid to the wrong setting, because every time I shift my weight, he tuts, or shakes his head irritably like a dog with fleas. It started when I rustled in my bag for a cashew nut half-way through the scene where they're necromancing the Golum into life. The live score was an unsettling mix of scratchy strings and arrhythmic drumming, and I was impressed, but hungry. I'd grabbed a bench in the strange, palm-treed lobby of the World Financial Centre - the Winter Gardens - and was concentrating half my attention on the movie, half on the figures pacing about perimeters. It was a free show, but my friend was late, and I'd already gotten death-dealing looks from art-school goths wanting to take his seat.

By way of contrast to the monochrome print, the man in front of me was in a t-shirt tie-died all the colours of the rainbow. An iconic image of Our President (the new Che?) was screened on the back, and long white hair and beard draped over his scrawny, Obama-ed shoulders.

I liked him, in that casual way you like or dislike strangers because of their clothes, their books or the way they smell. Until he started with the tutting.

As I helped myself to some more mixed nuts, his polka of irritation seemed to build to a crescendo in concord with the percussion section. When he started muttering to himself I'd had enough. Tapping him on the shoulder I hissed.

"Look. Sorry if I'm disturbing you. I'm trying to be as quiet as possible. But surely it's better that I'm eating a organic, fairly-traded vegan snack from a reusable bag, bought at a co-op, than stuffing my face with a plastic-wrapped flesh-filled Starbucks panini like the rest of the crowd?"

Actually I didn't say a thing. Instead I contented myself with pulling ghoulish faces behind the irritable old hippie's back, causing the nervous pensioner next to me to drop his programme in surprise.

I always think you get the best view of the action from the moral high-ground.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


As soon as she opened her mouth I recognised that I disliked her. I knew it wasn't fair. She was taking the hit for someone I had met half a world away, and had only had to be moderately objectionable to trip the switch and have my full-watt annoyance blaze away at her. Whatever she said was overlayed with the other girl's grating, nasal voice. Any dissonance in tone or subject sounded like a radio caught between two stations and just served to irritate me further. In response I turned up my pleasant smile a few notches. I don't think she was fooled.

Like Cambridge, I find New York a town full of ghosts. Most days I pull in a sharp intake of breath on unfamiliar street corners where I think I spot a familiar face. The winter makes it worse - people wrapped up in scarves and hats could be whoever you half-want them to be. The backdrop too, plays its part. It's hard to put on your London blinkers when you're walking through a film set every day, hopping on those so-familiar silver subway trains and stepping in the shadows of sky-scrapers.

Back at my old college I see the ghosts of undergraduates past in the open faces and mannered gestures of the fresh batch of students. Here there is a new randomness to the ways my eyes assign characters in a crowd.

Yesterday I saw Matt Lucas stepping out of a car in Queens. He looked to be going for take-out. Walking past I muttered "What are the scores, George Dawes?" but he was busy fumbling for change in his pocket. I didn't turn to check it was him. Even comedians like their privacy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Can we see some ID please?

In Japan, there's a nasty little phrase: "Christmas Cake". If you're a single woman, no one wants you after the 25th (birthday/of December/trip to the clap clinic). After that, no amount of icing can cover up the fact that you're not as tasty as you're supposed to be, that your currants are shrivelling and you're not even particularly rich.

Well, dear readers, I'm officially Christmas Cake. The last time I was ID'd in England was the week before my eighteenth birthday, after which I had to trudge back to boarding school alone, crying into my ramped-up cleavage. Since those heady days I've toned done the make-up, abandoned the wobbly high-heels and somehow etched a "surprised" line deep across my forehead. Now every night I practise looking more credulous in front of the mirror.

So I figured I was pretty safe leaving my passport at home for a Friday night trawl through the East Village. After all, I would be squired by the boy, with his distinguished sworls of gray hair and media glasses. Throw in the retro English accents and we were positively vintage.

The entrance to Otto's Shrunken Head was blocked by a dwarfish man, with long stringy gray hair. "Can we see some ID please?"
We pantomimed big tourist shrugs. "Don't have any I'm afraid."
"No driving licenses?"
"No passports" He was clearly losing patience.
"Well, they've got our visas in, and we didn't want to risk losing them..."
"Then can't help you I'm afraid."
"But we're... but we're OLD"

It didn't cut it. At the next bar I smiled warmly at the bouncer, and willfully misunderstood his "Can we see some ID please?" gesture. Chris got in too, on the wave of my misdirection. This was a very different kind of joint. Dolly Parton blared from the juke box, and a rowdy group of aspiring Palinites were lining up to shoot moose on a video game. Tacked to the roof was a rope, so that when drunk girls danced on the bar they had something to hold onto. That seemed like a thoughtful gesture; one that you wouldn't find in many Tokyo dives.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Hey, I'm walkin here

"If you're wife can't cook, don't divorce her. Come to Mario's instead, and then you'll both be happy."
You can tell from his face that he's pretty happy with the way he's said it. Stretched mouth and nasal tone; a comically overplayed Italian-American drawl with accents of Scorsese and Cornish Pirate. He does it in one big shrug, palms raised to the sky, irony levels tuned to the max; then does it once more to make sure he's done the restaurant sign justice. It's an escalation of the "hey, I'm walkin' here" game we've been playing all afternoon, and I'm pretty jealous at how good he's gotten at it.

Except this time we didn't see Mario stepping out of the restaurant. Didn't realise we were mocking his accent, his sign, his goddamn heritage, while he was standing right behind us.
"Louie, come ower heeere for a secund."

At the sound of his voice we freeze, too scared to turn around. Running our eyes over the reasonably priced veal dishes, we stand stock still in front of the window. Maybe if we don't speak again he won't realise we were taking the piss. Maybe he'll think that's how we speak. Or maybe we'll look so much like potential customers that he'll let us go without a fight, figuring that he'll get to spit into our veal escalopes at a later date.

Mario and Louie are deep in discussion - something mob related? - so we scuttle away, vowing to be more careful next time.

When we got home there was a horse's head on the pillow. We were not as upset as you'd think. The meat at the co-op isn't up to much.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Brooklyn Ferry

Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current.

The hurry of people is different here. No-one tuts behind me as I fumble for my metro card amongst dollar bills and business cards I should have discarded. The bus driver waits - infinitely patient - as I stumble down the bus with two dining room chairs and a dinner service in my arms. In the narrow-aisled supermarket, shoppers throng and queue as if they'd had warning that the siege of Brooklyn was about to begin, or that they knew for certain that they were clutching America's last ever pack of S'more Pop-tarts.

Stand up, tall masts of Manhatta! Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!

I don't know why there are so many mad people here, shouting in subway stations, faces contorted with rage and confusion. They leer up suddenly into your face, like B-movie zombies, then shrink back into the shadows. Do they need insurance to get sectioned, or can they not afford their meds. Perhaps like Victorian hysterics, of World War One shell-shock victims, there is a modish method of madness available to dispossessed New Yorkers, and London lags behind the fashion once more.

I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,
I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questions stir within me

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The table by the door

Another girl walks in - dark hair, leggings - and it looks like she's looking around. I shift in my seat. This could be her. She's scanning the room, glancing everywhere but in my direction, so I go back to peeling the label off my bottle of hard cider. I'm loitering near the door like I said I would. I'm the only person sitting at a table on my own. I'm practically wearing a pink carnation. She can come find me.

As the girl stalks over to the bar my confidence slips. She looks a bit young, nothing like the fuzzy Facebook picture I'd stared at before running out, getting into an apprehensive frenzy and arriving a full, painful ten minutes early.

I picked my bag up, and placed it down again. There was no way I was going over to the bar. I'd already had my card marked once tonight.

It seems my poorly veiled natural awkwardness has been thrown into pitiful relief by this world- weary city, and I felt as all-elbows in this Billyburg hipster hangout as I did in the Upper Westside dining rooms with their attentive staff and winter views over Central Park. Earlier, faking it, I had strolled over casually to the bar, picked up what looked like a menu, and started scanning it for inspiration.
"Excuse me." The pixie-like girl to my right tilted her head at me.
"That's mine. That's my cheque. Can I have it back please?"
"Yeah, sure, whatever." I said, as if she was being totally unreasonable, and I had every right to keep tabs on her alcohol intake and nightly expenditure. "I'll just have a hard cider, I guess." The barman's moustache twitched, and the pixie snatched back her bill. With all the nonchalance I could muster I strolled back to my table and waited for my blind-friend date to show.

Turns out it wasn't the dark-haired girl after all. I wonder if she clocked me sitting at the table by the door, trying to look approachable.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Telling lies at the Park Slope co-op

"So do you live on your own?"
This was awkward. I'd only met the girl five minutes ago and we'd been swapping the usual personal shorthand: where we lived, why Brooklyn was 'way more awesome than Manhattan', and why, on a Wednesday morning, we weren't in the office like proper grown-ups. I may have massaged the truth a little about my work situation (if I was that busy and successful would I really spend two hours of my day learning about shift rotations and the ethics of selling organic beer?) but it seemed a little early in our friendship to be out-and-out lying, especially since both of us were sober, and neither of us were crying. On the other hand I'd seen my new friend herself put through the ringer during the q&a.

"Does my roommate have to sign up too?"
"Yes. Every member of your household has to become a co-op worker member."
"Even if we don't share food?"
"You don't share food at all?"
"No, not really."
"Not really? Not even oil, or salt, or toilet paper?"
"Because if you do you both have to join. Otherwise it's not fair. It'd be like we [wide arm sweep] were subsidising her food. And toilet paper." This was clearly a heinous co-op crime.

I'd already decided to pretend I lived on my own. The boyfriend could always come shop as my guest, and after all, we weren't made of money. But it's one thing lying to a not-for-profit community enterprise, and quite another telling fairly structural untruths to a potential new friend. In the long run it would be would be pretty hard to hide Chris. Admittedly, he might sometimes got left out of the conversation when I met a particularly beautiful man, but I usually fell pretty quickly into the smug-married "we" trap. And he did pay the rent.

"So do you have a roommate?" The girl was waiting for me to reply, but we were at the front of the queue, right next to the school-marmish administrator.
"Ermm... no. Just me. On my own. For now, I mean, until we, erm, I see how the money goes."
With that I stepped forward with my registration form, and fraudulently joined the Park Slope Co-op with a big fat smile and a terrible weight of bad karma.

Really, she should have known better than to put me on the spot like that. I'm not sure she and I are going to work out.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Stuffed pittas

They're having one of those conversations that are designed to be overheard.
"I just don't hear him talk about grassroots activism. Where are the issues? After twenty years in this game I don't feel so hopeful."
The game is social consciousness - or perhaps, a devil whispers, performative smugness - and the player they are talking about the great He, Obama. His handsome face smiles out of every window in our Brooklyn neighborhood, advertising special lunch deals and cut-price sales racks, and his Dreams of My Father is propping up our three-legged coffee table.

We arrived in New York the day before He was inaugerated. In Times Square in the snow I stood behind a middle-aged woman who was scratching a pen across a grubby notebook. It looked like a child's angry scrawling, so I inched backwards, not wanting to catch her particular strain of mad. As the whooping and pantomime booing gathered force, I glanced again at the woman's pad and saw a starkly rendered line drawing of the crowd. There are lots of crazies in New York, but probably she wasn't one of them.

Back in the back room of Stuffed Pittas, a grey-haired woman with a sharp nose was cross-examiner her neighbour.
"So you were working in Chicago for ten years? I'm amazed our paths never crossed... What organization did you work for again?"
"Well I did youth work, outreach work... all kinds of things. And I was in California for a while. All over really."
To me and the sharp-nosed woman, it sounds like he's lying, although I'm sure he isn't.

Across the room we speculate on who the group are, with their right-on mix of age and ethnicity, and their cloying earnestness. I plump for a singles' evening, a Guardian Soulmates social, stripped of all irony and stuffing its face on babaganush. I hear in New York they have the Brainiacs Dating Club. There are no formal entry requirements - not even an IQ test - which I find strangely worrying.

Monday, February 2, 2009


It was my second trip to Ikea in three days, and I'd been happy to spot the 'American Stevedores' sign as the bus took a sharp left. Not only was I on the right route (rhymes with gout, not boot), but I was almost in series two of the Wire. I felt like drinking in the daytime and donating a window to the nearest church - the one on the corner of my block had rung out its bells this morning, making me smile. Being on buses on my own makes me nervous. I compulsively check road signs off against my mental map (invariably faulty) and, where possible, an actual map. I always seem to be in the crease of my guide book's Brooklyn map. Serves me right for needing a crutch I suppose; there's something deeply suspect about using a guide book at all, when I'm supposed to be living here. My new apartment's not on the map, but I know where it is. Just not which way to turn out of it. Or which bus stop is closest.

Having gotten a little trigger-happy with the stop-bus-tape (not just buttons here, my friend), I got out far too early. Trudging along Atlantic Avenue with my bright blue Ikea sack slung over my shoulder, I had to move to let a woman past. She didn't bother to stop and look at me or my innovative storage solutions. Her bulging plastic bags were arranged on a metal pole which she held over her shoulders, as if she were harvesting rice rather than heading home from the 99 cents store. She was slight, wizened, and, in my head at least, wearing a faded blue Mao suit. I only wish she'd been there the day before, when my arms had given way in the street under the weight of two free dining room chairs and a brown 70's dinner service.