Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On the Things that They Lack

I can get used to:

the 'ow!' sound in the bus route
eggplants over aubergines
saying 'hard' before saying 'cider' - and then clutching a little bottle of unenviable sweetness while the rest of your party clink pint glasses
not getting the in-jokes in my well-thumbed Time Out NY
the expresses which express you up to Harlem when you're looking the other way
the way they can get away with charging five bucks for a packet of monster munch and a tin of Heinz tomato soup, then wish you a great day (even niceties are subject to inflation in the city where the tippers never sleep)

But I can't get used to the way that they don't have crisps in their bars - not even the self-styled pubs and the grimy dives. You can get mac and cheese, or crumbed oozes of pork fat; you can have a flight of puddings to go with your flight of wine, but when all you crave is the simple salty goodness of a packet crinkle-cut, deep-fried carbs, they look at you like you're just another crazy Brit, who's wondered too far from home.

Please don't even think of visiting me and my cat-infested sofa unless you're packing the Walkers.

Monday, March 30, 2009


The guy opposite us on the train is loudly approving the books we're reading, and I'm replying in that tight-lipped English way that means I'd rather be staring out of the window. As soon as it's politely possible I turn away and see that the Bronx streets have given way to sprawling necropolises and pastel-coloured suburbs - which, for many Manhattanites, are virtually the same thing.

But when we step out at Pleasantville, 47 minutes from the rush of Grand Central Station, we are instantly charmed. It's the chairs. While most stations have stained wooden benches or rows of brutally moulded plastic seats, Pleasantville has chairs of different shapes and sizes that people can group in sociable circles as they wait for their train. They aren't nailed down. They don't have anything scrawled on them or scratched into them. They're a uniform gray, and for a second it's like we've stepped into the movie and we're destined to bring colour and sin to Pleasantville.

Turns out there's plenty of colour here already. There's the canoe, for one. Our friend's house is on the edge of the water, the wooden deck looking out over it. There's a two-man boat which you can paddle around in, playing Jaws with the super-sized koi carp that all the households own.

But really it's the bells that get me. Usually when you're walking along a street in the city you can count the ways that any old one-family brownstone has been heartlessly cut up by looking at the number of buzzers by every solid front door. Here the sprawling wooden houses loom out of the greenery like the sets from every children's film I ever remember seeing. This is the America I remember. The homes have backyards and frontyards and porches with rocking chairs, but what they don't have is a menu of all the people crammed up inside.

At first we point them out to each other, but as our friend's car snakes up to her own beautiful lake-bound house we fall silent. I dig Chris in the ribs.

Toto, we're not in Brooklyn any more.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Eavesdropping at the Victory Coffee Shop

It's a balmy eighteen degrees outside, and I'm camped out in front of the coffee shop on the corner on my block. With one eye I'm editing a misery memoir of unspeakable depravity; with the other I'm watching out for Michelle Williams. I'm still feeling sad for her that greedy little Reese Witherspoon seems to have bagged Jake Gyllenhaal. Michelle and Jake must have already bonded way back on Ang Lee's set, but it seems that Jake and Ryan Phillipe have been running buddies for years, and Reese made smarter use of her in.

While I'm trying to make the child abuse more grammatically correct and idly matchmaking Hollywood stars, the pair in the table next to me have their minds on weightier matters.

"Of course there was this huge uproar when the Times did the obit and they didn't mention any of her relationships with women. I mean, I always felt like she was in the closet for, you know, for not the usual reasons."
"But for for the Times to exclude that part of her life..."
"I know. And it's so obvious from her theory that she's just so into sex."
"Did you see that teee-rrible review of her review of American in Paris?"

I'm still trying to figure out who the man in the unnervingly blue glasses is talking about, when there's some signal from the gods or their blackberries and they abandon the one other table to two stylish middle-aged women who've been hovering in the shadows.

The first topic of conversation is an epic man vs. machine debate which ranges from the scandal of children no longer being taught cursive script to the impossibility of a robot ever picking out decent fabric. I'm starting to feel a little intimidated, because one of these women works in Art and the other seems to have a personal assistant who she can call and order to write thank you notes for her. Then one of them gives a badly misremembered rehash of a Malcom Gladwell argument that I've read for myself and I'm happily sipping my Cranberry Fizz again, smug as you like.

Just when it seemed like my battery would die before the intellectualising at the next table stopped, they abandoned the debate and started talking about a mutual friend in that way that women do when they're working out how bitchy they can get before the other one protests. Since the sun was out, and the world was mellow, they managed a pretty thorough character assassination.

Much as they love her to bits, and despite the fact that she is 'of course, so creative' it's clear that she's a rabid waste of space.

If only Michelle Williams would come out and join me, we could have torn dimpled lil' Reese into Pieces just as merrily.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Beer-pong, Flip-cup and other Wholesome Sports

"Come on! Stop pissing around. They're going to lap us!"
Everyone's willing him to do it, but he's slipped out of the zone and the cup's just not flipping. His face is getting redder, and his movements sloppier. The peer pressure is on.

Earlier this evening the taunts were more vocal.
"I disown you!"
"You're a woman hater."
"Pick off the weak ones first!"

The last time I deliberately tried to hit people with balls was when I was seven and playing benchball in the Haig school gym. Not being much of a catcher or a thrower, I stuck to dodging and whipper-snappering about. It's a shame I didn't keep up those silky skills because two decades later it seems the game has definitely manned up. Now there's a ripped bald guy in a straining Care Bears t-shirt who is whamming those balls at me at 63 miles an hour. And I'm more than a little scared.

Only in one match am I left standing to the end. Usually it's an early bath and lots of backseat dodgeball playing from the relative safety of the sidelines. It's a fascinating game to watch. Even with rank amateurs the matches have all the pathos and grandeur of greek tragedy. On one half of the gym you might have the single best player from each team slugging it out to the death. On the other you might have four balls at once raining down at one meek, bespectacled girl, who so far has been too inoffensive to have been taken down like the rest of her team. "Finish it!" they holler from sidelines. "I can't look," someone else mutters. "It's like watching a puppy being slaughtered."

Now Beer Pong (Beirut, in some circles) also involves throwing balls, but to my my mind it's by far the more civilised endeavour. I always rank sports on a scale of what's-the-worst-that-can-happen? with paint-balling on one end (get shot in the face, lose an eye) and badminton at the other (wind up playing against someone who's not looking for a nice rally). In fact, Beer Pong might even pip badminton for the title of most-unpleasant-consequence-free sport. The aim is to throw your ping pong ball in to your opponent's cup. If you succeed, they have to drink a couple of fingers of beer. If they get theirs in your cup, you have to drink. To my mind it's really a win win situation - unless of course you have an issue with drinking moderate amounts of Bud. In my new beer-loving spirit I find it slips down like lemonade.

When people talk of frat-boy drinking games, it's usually with a heavy dose of scorn. I say: better to be coerced into drinking characterless American lager than be smashed in the face by Mr Care-a-lot's ball.

Altogether now: "Get the girl out first! Smash her!"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bar Great Harry, and the start of a new love affair

All the greatest human innovations have blossomed out of privation. Think of the clockwork radio. And, for all we know, the wheel. So I guess it should have come as no surprise that through my own personal adversity I've achieved a rather remarkable breakthrough. Faced with a city where 'hard cider' is a scarcity and the price of wine would make a Parisian cry I've been forced to come to a startling realisation: I might like beer after all. Only organic, artisanally brewed wheat beer of course, but hell, it's a start.

Of course it was the cheese that helped. Tart crumbs of chedder and square hunks of emmental that the bar laid on for free. For the world's premiere obese nation I've always found it remarkable that America is not in the habit of letting you straight line 'potato chips' with your booze. But with cheese and fatty curls of prosciutto on the bar, for once I didn't miss my Walkers.

The fulsome descriptions helped too. The Ommegang brewery were providing the yeasty thrills and their menu made their brews sound like puddings. I've always been a sucker for food porn - restaurant reviews have me salivating over my cheese and tomato sandwiches - so I let myself be persuaded that this time things might be different. This time I might actually enjoy it.

The last time I knowingly ordered a pint for myself was way back in that dive bar on the South Side of Chicago. To be honest, it wasn't so much a pint as a $4 pitcher, and lager snobs tell me that Bud light doesn't really count as beer. But these Ommegang brews were definitely neither chilled piss nor beer-flavoured lemonade. Chocolate and cherry and citrus and farmyard funk. Like any recent convert, I have an urge to evangelize about this brave new world of beer.

Besides, they gave me a free t-shirt and I'm easily bought.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Washington DC PD

As Chris pointed out, travelling from New York to DC by train is like a DVD box-set extravaganza. First you've got The Soprano's New Jersey, then The Wire's Baltimore, before you pull into DC, humming the theme tune to the West Wing. By bus it's the same deal, expect you feel like you're watching pirate DVDs. At the Baltimore bus stop (signified by a bleak looking pedestrian tunnel and a few knocked about trash cans) we saw an overweight police officer glowering down at young kid. Hopper, we figured, although I guess he could have been a boy scout out of uniform selling the cop some cookies.

Only an hour away,downtown Washington is a whole world of different. Here we saw uniformed scouts a plenty and cops everywhere. The police stopped a couple behind us for jay-walking. At least that's we what we figured as we pelted across another road and hid round the corner. It's also possible that they were just asking for directions. There's something about being in such a studio-set atmosphere which makes you assume that the most dramatic storyline is the most likely one.

We obviously weren't the only ones with HBO syndrome. As we were approaching the gates of the White House we saw a formation of police on shiny blue bicycles. As they got closer it became clear that they were escorting a small anti-capitalist protest as they marched down the mall. There couldn't have been more than twenty protesters, all young kids waving homemade banners. They were outnumbered by at least two to one by the mounted cops. Overkill, much? we muttered, but then the rest of the force loomed into sight. Another twenty men on bikes, a pack of motorcycles and then at least a dozen squad cars headed up the tail of the procession, lights whirling. At the back was a van of riot cops from the Truancy and Delinquency Department. I can say with absolute certainty that this was one protest that wasn't about to get out of hand.

My theory is that DC is filled with all the po-lease who don't want to walk a Baltimore beat. They've seen the Wire too, and have decided that they're going to stick with being on the third motorbike from the back, hiding the truant kids' protest from curious tourists and West Wing fans. And can you really blame 'em?

Monday, March 23, 2009

One Nation Under God

I’d always pictured this sort of circus going on in some dusty one-horse Southern town, where the heat makes people go a little wild about the eyes and rigid about the heart. But this is Washington DC. You can almost hear the strains of the West Wing theme tune as you stroll up the blossom-lined boulevards. What would noble-browed Josh say about this unnerving ruckus outside the Planned Parenthood building?

By the pathway stand young men and women in fluorescent tabards. They are pro-choice walkers. They volunteer to walk people from the pavement to the door – a journey of about eight feet, but one riddled with peril. In a circle on the buildings lawn are the pro-lifers. They’re clutching rosary beads and are praying loudly for the souls of the ‘murdered babies’. Any woman wanting to enter the clinic and talk about her options has to run the gauntlet of their vehement disapproval and personal spite. Like their pro-choice adversaries, this group is mostly made up of young, white women.

Now I’ve watched my Louis Theroux and I realise things get a whole lot worse than this. I’ve heard tales of mothers handcuffing their children to women who are entering the clinic – and I’ve always thought that they couldn’t really come up with a better advert for abortion than chaining their own inbred brats to an innocent stranger. Not only is it a grotesque metaphor for the way parenthood ties you down, but it’s also a vivid reminder that some people should really not be parents. But I didn’t expect this on the liberal, democratic East Coast. Now that Obama’s in the White House the battle seems outmoded. I smile a “good-morning” at the walker but refrain from screaming “Direct your humanity towards people who are already alive” at the circle of devout Christians. I don’t want to step into the fray.

Later, in the Museum of Native Americans I come across an even more outmoded battle. There’s an interactive display about one tribe’s efforts to revive their traditional Jump Dances and Womanhood Ceremonies. One of the elderman was filmed talking about it. He describes how the local church became suspicious of their dancing and singing, and set up a loud-speaker so that every time they perform their rites the church can drown it out with religious music. “It makes me a little sad,” he said carefully. Perhaps someone should tell the tabard-wearers that back-up is needed, but that this time they should come armed with heavy implements.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Playing Favourites At The Bronx Zoo

From the looks of the newest enclosure at the Bronz Zoo, Madagascar has pretty much done for lemurs what Finding Nemo did for clown fish. After years of being out-dazzled by their simian friends, the kids outside their enclosures now jostle for space as energetically as the crowds in front of the apes and spider monkeys. I’m happy for them. They’ve always seemed to me an unassuming species. Their eyes goggle out an appeal.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Old-timey Staten Island

The kids are taking an awful long time to do The Math but their fathers are still looking on proudly. We’re in a school room built in 1795 (which is not, boys, 340 years old) passing round a pleasingly heavy wooden instrument used to panel little boys’ bottoms. The hoard in our tour group are so darn gee-whiz impressed with everything - “It’s a staircase! There’s another floor! Can we go upstairs? Please...” - that my fingers are itching to try it out. One of the older boys is saying over and over again, “Gosh, I feel a chill all over me” and shuddering like I am inside over the tour-guide’s homey wisdom. I guess it’s sort of endearing. In a few years time he’ll learn that if people don’t pick up their cue the first time, it’s best to let it drop with a quiet shame. Although maybe he won’t ever have that fall from childish grace. This is Staten Island after all, where the normal rules don’t seem to apply.

Staten Islanders divide their recent history into Before the Bridge and After the Bridge. Legend has it that Before the Bridge was a time of pastoral delight, where Staten Islanders farmed their land in peace, trapped eels in wicker baskets and set the world to rights in rustic taverns. Forty years After the Bridge there is little trace of that Eden. The island’s thin Greenbelt is hedged about by sprawling suburban homes and a golf-course, yet its woods are alive with sparrows fleeing from the factories and strip malls and nail salons that cover the rest of New York’s unloveliest borough.

On the forty minute bus ride from the port to the Greenbelt and back again there’s an endless loop of gray streets choked with pylons. The people are bigger, crazier and have dirtier clothes than any other bus riders I’ve seen in New York. The streets don’t seem to have the electric buzz that makes you feel like part of the greatest city on earth.

But even I can see that there must be compensatory pleasures. When the tour guide takes us to the ‘little itty bitty house’ I can’t help thinking how lucky those Eighteenth Century subsistence farmers were to have such a spacious home in which to weave their baskets and cook their eel pies. And again, would a world-weary Manhattan kid hyperventilate about a three-hundred year old spinning wheel, or push and shove to take a snap of a tame duck?

Sorry Staten Island: I’m just another spoiled little girl from across the water. After an hour and a half of Richmond main street I’m about ready to roll myself in Chelsea, stuff my face with cupcakes and thumb my nose at rockin’, old-timey values.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Coney Island Chronicles: The Russians have Invaded

You have to lean right up against the chain-mail fence to get a decent picture of it. Hit The Freak. The letters are hand-made and jaunty, the explanation explicit: Human Target. Five Bucks for 3 Balls. The prices go all the way you to 70 bucks. The sign makers obviously expected a proportion of their punters to be very invested in hitting that freak. But then it was painted before last year's economic downturn, when it must have seemed like there were fortunes to be made from a sprightly human target, the darkness in New Yorkers' hearts and the fact that drinking in the afternoon can put a man's arm out.

Now the back of the lot is decayed and it's back open to the elements. I like to think that the freak has made a bid for freedom. Maybe the sign-makers and outraged punters are still chasing him down Brighton Beach. Perhaps he has procured himself a fur hat and a lap dog, and disguised himself as one of the old Russian women who've taken over the boardwalk.

I've heard that in summer Coney Island is a writhing mass of people escaping the city for some fun and freak-shooting. The old time roller coasters creak back into life, and the queues outside Nathan's Famous Hotdogs (The Original and Best: Where Hotdogs Were Invented) stretch to the ocean. There's the annual Hotdog Eating Competition, and artificial beer-beaches for the less sports-minded. But in the winter the Slavic pensioners rule supreme, watching with beady eyes to make sure the courting couples and kite surfers don't get out of hand.

The further you walk from the decaying skeleton of Astroland the fewer English and Spanish words you hear. The old Russians are lined up along the wall, drinking in the wintry sun like so many fur-hatted lizards. Chris and I are eyeballed suspiciously. We wind our scarves a little tighter and frown so our wrinkles show. Perhaps they're still on the look-out for that wily freak. After all, you get a lot of balls for seventy bucks, and it's important to get your money's worth of good clean fun.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Staten Island Photo Shoot

So apparently it's not best practice to take pictures of other people's children. I can see the faces of their guardians darken, and suspect that if I were a man I would have had my SLR smashed to the ground about now. As it is, they glower and herd their little ones away from the strange lady whose extremities are turning red and blue. I shrug in an open, unperverted way and track back through the shots. Perfect. Pictures of Staten Island with people in.

By this stage in the afternoon I don't care if they're fat people, thin people, little people, or offensively ugly people. My favourite person so far has been the Staten Island Ferry man, leaping across to Manhattan and tying us firmly to the dock. The light's not perfect, and I'm probably violating security procedures by pointing my camera at him, but as soon as I've taken it I know it's going to be the final picture in the piece.

Staten Island on a winter weekday afternoon is an unnerving place. Snug Harbour, the main tourist attraction, is anything but. I've never been alone in a greenhouse before, and a morning spent proofreading Stephen King short stories is helping me see the uncanny behind every obscenely luxuriant plant. The orchids and bird-of-paradise trees seem to have responded to the lack of human interruption by blooming out into the pathways, turning the twee little indoor garden into a rain forest bursting its seams. Inside I take my gloves off and let my fingers thaw out. I take my camera out but the few shots I take look like 70s flower porn, and then the lens steams up completely. There are also no people to take pictures of; and the rules are that every picture must have a person in.

To my mind, this is the opposite of the way most men take photos. Give them a mountain or a duck or a row of beach huts and they are happy. In the past my own equation for a good photo has been party + drunken people + trial and error = Facebook gold, or at least good blackmail fodder. Now I find myself tracking down the sprawling park's other inhabitants like one of Angela Carter's huntresses. At first I hope to get them against the statues or formal gardens, on the steps of one of the dozens of museums or framed through a signed gateway. In the end I resort to snapping random pap-shots. Man on bike. Woman from a distance near a fake castle. The backs of people talking to other people or posing for a photograph taken by someone they know.

It is on the ferry where the game changes. Even out of season there's a good cast of potential subjects, but now the subterfuge is all on a smaller scale. It's the difference, I imagine, between playing in a marching band or giving an intimate recital. Standing in the freezing wind I take shot after peopleless shot to ease their suspicions, then whip the camera round as if some detail of the ferry itself has caught my attention. If they notice they frown and move away. I hear a group of German teenagers discussing how weird I am and am for once glad that I have forgotten most of my German.

But this time I've learnt my lesson. No shots of children - as if the paedophiles of this world would get their kicks from grainy shots of bundled-up Staten Island children when the internet offers up a whole depraved library of more graphic images. Still, I've no wish to lose my camera to the Hudson. Especially not round Staten Island. The pollution here would melt its insides, and all those pictures of people and things would be lost in the bleak wastes between Ellis Island and New Jersey.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

If you can't say something nice...

As someone whose last job was to be professionally nice, I'm ashamed to say that I've found myself seriously outclassed in the pleasant stakes by my fellow New Yorkers.

So general wisdom has it that people in Gotham are rude. I shudder to think of the smothering bonhomie on offer in Small Town America. The thought of all that genuine human sweetness makes my teeth ache.

In my local DVD rental store, the man behind the counter will tell anyone who'll listen that I'm from the same hallowed turf as his beloved Arsenal. No matter how many times I tell him that I'm more a Spurs fan (which is itself a small lie) he cannot stop grinning at me. I get the same treatment in the cafe on the corner (the one next to the one that Michelle Williams allegedly frequents). Despite always buying whatever is being sold off on the cheap, the owner inevitably greets me like an old friend and asks with a wink about my weekend, as if we'd spent Saturday night downing tequila shots together and scouring the streets of Brooklyn for wasted hipster talent.

But the most embarrassing instance of being unceremoniously out-niced happened yesterday when I got officially busted by my fellow co-operatives. They were so damn reasonable about it that if I were a 1940s cad I would have felt like a right heel. One thing to bear in mind, dear readers, before you unleash the less-than-lovely parts of your personality onto the interweb: you're not being paranoid if they really do have you on google-alert.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Friday nights at the Whitney

In the second blacked-out room I'm surrounded on three sides by the pulsing, the kicked cans, the whir of the Laundromat. I didn't stop to read the blurb, but to me it looks and sounds like the actor is doing some ecstatic adventuring around New York. For once I don't have to fake it. My mind is blown. Right there and then I vow: I'm always going to drink agave before looking at modern art.

The evening started in the exaggeratedly refined environs of the Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side. Named for the illustrator of the Madeline children's books, whose drawings cover all the vertical surfaces, it's a clubby, luxurious place which screams Our Place, Anniversary Drinks and Sugar Daddy. On every table was a little silver cake-stand of nuts and bite-sized cheese straws and a card advertising the man who was tinkling the ivories during cocktail hour. It seems he was Very Good. A matching pair of expensive blond mothers and daughters rushed up during the break in his set to tell him he was Wonderful and to shake the hand that shook out those glorious old show tunes.

I was more excited about the nuts and the cheese straws. When you're paying $20 for your agave-based cocktail you've got to get your kicks wherever you can. At one point the middle-aged waiter took the snack-stand away. He must have read my anguish on my face because he reassured me he was only going to fill it up for us. I wish I were less transparent.

The single cocktail proved surprisingly potent, and we lasted less than half an hour in the pay-what-you-will night at the Whitney. The colours seemed too bright. The surreal shapes too disturbing. The video installations made me feel like I was slowly creaking up a roller-coaster, my stomach screaming in preparation for the fall.

On Mondays Woody Allan and his band play at the Carlyle. Lock up your daughters.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Small world after all

I'm not about to apologise for what's to come.

So it's the afternoon after the night before and I'm on the sofa watching High School Musical 3. This peon to being true to your dreams and to sweet-as-apple-pie diversity (geeks who like body-popping/jocks who like to cook) has gotten my knickers in a twist. In terms of its attitude to getting it on across the racial boundaries, 2009's HSM3 is seriously lagging behind 1949's South Pacific. Where the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical explores its character's prejudices, Disney keeps shtum on the issue of miscegenation, instead pairing its kids up in perfect racial harmony like a supercute Noah's ark. Even the lead pairing of white boy, Latina girl (very East High Story) is following the old Hollywood game-plan of using a Hispanic women as a sort of safe intermediary, who like a good pair of jeans can go with either black (think of Will Smith's back catalogue)or white(just pick a J-Lo vehicle at random. Just don't make me sit through it.)

But what riled me up was the fate of poor Ryan Evans, Sharpei's pink-trilby wearing, dance-choreographing brother. Since the first movie in the franchise came out, Disney have been determined to keep Ryan in the closet. The official line has always been that he's got a crush on the goody-two-shoes heroine, although even a attention-deficient twelve year old can see that that her preternaturally buff amour is more his type. At the end of this movie Ryan gets given a scholarship to Julliard, but you can't help feeling it's a bribe for keeping HSM on good terms with the bible belters.

In this, the final episode, they even make him ask the impossibly smug little musician Kelsi to the prom, in a move clearly designed to make tweens think that there's yet another carefully colour-coded romance in the offing.

High School Musical 3
Good for: lingering shots of Zac Efron in a vest
Bad for: pedagogical perversity

Friday, March 6, 2009

Mice will play

Chris is away and the cats and I are going to the dogs.

Mickey is drinking from the toilet bowl and I'm substituting ice cream for the other major food groups. There's a thin dusting of animal hair on every surface and the cats have taken to stalking me around the two and a half rooms of the apartment, even balancing precariously on the side of the tub as I take a bath. Like ballet dancers they make surprisingly loud thuds as they bound around. Mickey is particularly lacking in grace. Perhaps it's all those extra paws.

I was thinking about inviting my writing group to join me and the pusses at my apartment sometime, but was dissuaded by last night's meeting. It was in Midtown, in a fancy building complete with an officious doorman and snide neighbours. Inside the apartment however, it was like a veal lorry. Hot, panicky writers were crammed onto every surface. There was twenty-six people squeezed into a space that would have comfortably held half a dozen Dollshouse dwarfs and the heat was becoming intolerable. I crouched by the door in my sticky black sweater-dress and jeans and tried to write. Because of some power outage or other it had taken me a full hour to get there, and now I was stuck on the opposite side of the room from the coke and pretzels. Quel nightmare.

After an hour of writing there was cake and compulsory introductions. While I was waiting for my turn I started looking over the bookshelves next to me. What joy! The apartment owner had the biggest collection of romantic self-help books I'd ever seen. There were titles to conjure with - 'You have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs', 'Why all the Good Ones AREN'T Taken', 'Dating, Mating - and Cheating' - and a whole college of doctors, psychologists and PhDs. All at once I lost interest in the intros game and wanted everyone to leave so I could improve myself in peace. As a serial monogamist, the dating habits of humans fascinate me every bit as much as the mating habits of egrets presumably fascinate mad old Bill Oddie. Here, I sensed, was the single New York female in her natural environment. I could almost feel myself sprouting Manolos.

Then I noticed something strange. Something worrying. Amongst the other titles there were two different paperback copies of 'The Surrendered Single'. At once I jerked my hand back away from the shelves. Taking on a passive feminine role so that a "marriage-minded man" will woo you? What the fuck would Carrie say?

As soon as I've done my spiel I sneak out the door and away from the heat and surrendered females. The cats welcome me with blank feline stares and nose pointedly at their food bowls. Maybe they're just not that into me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bad Jokes

"I'm sorry folks. I don't mean to disturb you, to hassle or dismay you. But I've lost my job, my mother died, I'm cold and I'm hungry. Trying to get some money together for a bed for the night. If you can find it in your hearts to spare something; anything. Some change... Food even..."
There's some shuffling with wallets and a lot of averted eyes. He changes tack.
"It's raining today. Real hard. I used to have an umbrella. Then Chris Brown stole it to beat up Rihanna."
For a minute this seems to work. A wired group of young girls laughed and got up to pole-dance around the subway car's pole. I could have told them from painful experience that there's really not enough space.

So some people suck in their breath and shake their heads and some people laugh. Thing is, I'm not sure how much money he got.

I understand Mr Panhandler's dilemma. There's nothing quite like a quip for making you feel like the King of the F train - but only if you pull it off. My problem is that I generally end up laughing alone. Like when I picked up the new edition of Time Out New York to see it was po-facedly blazoned with the logo "Spas issue". Even typing it now makes me snicker. When I try to explain why it was so funny - "come on people, you were in the playground in the nineties too..." - they look at me like I'm making fun of people with mental health issues.

"Who's watching the Watchman? We are!" Again, this rendered me helpless with glee, despite the fact that some Marketing impresario has almost certainly beaten me to this little gem. It's like when I had the idea for yogurts you could add fruit to and then Muller started selling their Fruit Corners. Literally, right after. Now I know how Willy Wonka must have felt about those everlasting gobstoppers.

Resolutely underwhelmed by either my "funnies" or my tales of dairy espionage, Chris offers a pun of his own which withered unappreciated. He was asked if one of his donors, Daphne Guinness, was from the Guinness family. He answered: "Yes, definitely. She came to see War-Horse and it took her a good three or four minutes to settle properly."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Battle for Boerum Hill

"...I mean it's a great place, but you have to make sure you're in there before midday."
"How come?"
"Because at lunch time all the mothers descend." He says 'mothers' the way most people say 'traffic wardens' or 'republicans'.
"And they take up space?"
"Yes, with their kids and their talking." This time 'talking' sounds synonymous with 'public defecation' or 'dealing in hedge funds'.
It's clearly a sore point, so I change the subject and he tells me about the Park Slope Co-op instead.

Now, eighteen months on, I finally see what he was getting at. On Brooklyn's quiet, leafy streets, a stealthy war is being fought. The battleground is the neighbourhood's cafes, and there is no more bitterly contested territory than the Park Slope Tea-Lounge.

The Tea-Lounge is largely responsible for me moving to New York in the first place. The National may have sorted out the flights, but it was the Tea-Lounge that was the dangling carrot, drawing us through the interminable dramas with insurance and visas.

Imagine a place full of mismatched sofas and low coffee tables, where the counter is piled high with cookies and whoopie pies, and the clatter of keyboards is soothed over by unobtrusively cool music. By day there's a coffee and tea menu the length of your average nineteenth century Russian novel, and at night there's cocktails, quiz nights and bearded Brooklyn boys strumming acoustic guitars. Basically, it's a little slice of heaven. But like the equally enchanting Kashmir, it's very beauty has meant that it's become the backdrop to a terrible conflict.

Fighting in my friend Rui's corner are an army of no-good students, lay-about freelancers and would-be journos. They set up camp with their files and lap-tops and make a no-fat Chai Latte last all afternoon. For these guys (who am I kidding? - for us guys) WiFi is like cat-nip. We catch a whiff of it and there's no moving us. In London these guys might be hanging out in their local Starbucks, but most would be at home or in the library, keeping their non-traditional working culture safely underground.

The opposing forces wouldn't look out of place lunching in Clapham or shopping in Borough Market. The Tea-Lounge is where Yummy Mummies get to play after their little darlings have worn themselves out at baby yoga. I suspect they are the management's favourite customers because they actually eat and drink, and buy things for their children to pick at and flick around.

So far, so gentrified. White people love independent coffee shops, after all. But the E-commuters hate the Mums for, y'know, wanting to have a conversation, while the Mums hate the e-commuters for sitting in every third seat as if they were determined that no social interaction will disturb the peace (which is in fact the case).

Since I'm a lover, not a fighter, I take my notebook and I go to Victory Coffee on the corner of my block, and pretend to write while keeping a sharp eye out for Michelle Williams. Someone should congratulate her on Heath's Oscar, after all.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Most Fatally Fascinating Thing in America

On first visiting New York, James Weldon Johnson wrote: My blood ran quicker, and I was just beginning to live. To some natures this stimulant of life in a great city becomes a thing as binding and necessary as opium to one addicted to the habit. It becomes the breath of life; they cannot exist outside of it; rather than be deprived of it they are content to suffer hunger, want, pain and misery; they would not exchange even a ragged and wretched condition among the great crowd for any degree of comfort away from it. (The Auto-Biography of an Ex-Colored Man)

This makes me think of: beautiful grimy studios in the Lower East Side; the old remorseless ascent of London property prices which made the idea of ever owning my own home seem faintly ridiculous; the push of people into crowded restaurants while their neighbour stands forlornly empty; the hum of Manhattan's streets and the more subtle syncopation of Brooklyn's tree-lined avenues.It makes me plot my own history from village to small town to university city to big city to foreign capital to London to New York and wonder where next I can go when I need a bigger hit of urbanity. New Delhi? Hong Kong? Beijing?

For it is the cities themselves I love, not the crush of humanity in them. In a crowd my heart starts to race and my breathing quicken; I look around for an escape, and all I can see is blank faces and pushing bodies, just as deadly and impersonal as any other animal stampede.

So what exactly is it, then, that makes up the base elements of this "breath of life" that animates this playground of steel and shops and people and toy dogs and hot-dog stalls and parks which are like the countryside but better kept and more alive? It is a calm, open sense of possibility amidst the chaos, a freedom that no endless horizon could ever offer, the chance to disappear but also to carve yourself out a small world from the sprawling, unmanageable one you've gotten lost in.

And I like all the happy hours.

Monday, March 2, 2009

White People

Unlike the other shop, where second hand paperbacks and crumpled art books were piled up like sandbags against an attack from the outside world,this one invites in the gallery-crowd with its glass and warehouse space and blown-up photos of photogenic boy soldiers. I'm flicking through a Trade Paperback, calling out to Chris every few pages. He's hmmming and trying to concentrate on the trained child killers. I can see he's thinking: This is even worse than Wednesdays when she gets the new copy of Time Out.

But the thing is it's uncanny. I'm reading this book about 'What White People Like' and its like an inventory of our weekend. White people like dinner parties, brunch, Brooklyn, farmer's markets, co-ops, films with subtitles, book shops. What starts off being funny starts to get a little worrying as I read on, turning the pages in the desperate hope of finding something that doesn't fit. No such luck.

White people like cycling ("my commute is along the canal path"), The Wire ("so authentic") and Japan ("such a bizarre place, when you get below the surface.") They're into bread-making, having gay friends and gentrification ("we like to think of it as Meel Ende, not Mile End"). They hate republicans and guns, but love irony (and, if they're white people in their mid-twenties, will almost definitely have had a conversation about whether Alanis' examples are authentically ironic).

I close the book with a frown. It sucks being a racial stereotype.

Reaching into my bag I pull out the organic, fairly-traded artisan-crafted, sugar- and dairy-free chocolate I bought at the ironically titled Brooklyn Flea Market for seven bucks ("I always like supporting local food producers"). Now, that's better.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Yesterday we moved an important step closer to becoming real New Yorkers. Now all we have to do is sign up with a shrink and stop expecting bars to kick us out at 11.20. To be honest, we really should have gone for a squash-faced Boston terrier, but as it is we've still got one animal and one person per room in our apartment. I feel like we're really getting into the tenement spirit.

Mickey Paws and Minnie moved in yesterday afternoon. Mickey has the broad-shouldered walk of a gangster, and the feet of a sideshow freak. Mother Nature obviously wore herself out making him extra toes, and didn't bother so much with the brains. He spent most of yesterday under our bed, only coming out to try to bury his bowl of cat food under our hardwood floor. Minnie seems smarter. In fact she's proofing this entry over my shoulder, mewing whenever I overuse commas, which is often.

Cat lovers are a strange people. Now that I've joined the tribe I have a very real urge to put up pictures of the cats, or at the very least convert my sentences in meme-friendly argot. I can has kitteh blog? Fail.