Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wash your mouth out, Village People

Maybe it was because there were so many dirty stories blueing the air that night that Chris decided that he needed to sanitise The Bitter End.

You could see his point. The story of one wife's twenty-six minute birthday treat to her husband (think TiVo, whipped cream and a seriously craned neck) was nothing compared to the profanities being spilled between the acts. This was New York's most popular story-telling night, but after some of the lasciviously-charming hostess' tales I'm sure not all the audience members were sitting entirely comfortably. After all, the bare-brick bar is only just round the corner from NYU, and the collective adolescent hormones were bucking and grinding despite the cool-shower effect of the fierce air conditioning. I sipped my coke and watched the room flirt. It's scary how quickly after graduation that students become just a punchline to you.

The jokes of the tellers were landing and missing and getting stuttered over, but it was the stories with - and I can only type it with an apologetic smirk on my face - heart that really worked. There was the girl whose deaf, scrappy father ratted her out to the prison warden after she smuggled him some birthday Juicy Fruit. There was the Jewish kid who wondered over to his neighbour's house drunk, and got mistaken for a "dangerous little Mexican" loose in his upper-middle class suburb. Best of all, there was the red-bearded, musical-obsessed guy remembering how on his sixteenth birthday the guy of his dreams told him he only thought of him, "as a little brother - one who I let give me blow jobs".

It was after Red II won that Chris gave a shout of disgust. His back pocket bloomed dark. The hand sanitiser that was meant to ward of swine flu had been busy sanitising his boxer shorts. When he reached for it, the slippery little customer fell through his hands and squirted out across the club's floor, spraying the feet of the twittering girls at the table in front of us. Quietly, he picked it up, wiped it down, and put it back in his pocket. It was nice to think that we, too, had at last shared something intimate with the good people at the Bitter End.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Oh, those Summer Nights

Today I wake up with myxomatosis eyes. I smile askance at the reflection that zombied back at me, for the redness augers that summer has finally come to Brooklyn. If anyone asks: I'm taking one for the team.

Up until this weekend there have been flirty spells of sunshine, but nothing strong enough to take the puritan chill out of the evening air. But suddenly it happens. The sun ups its game, and the air above the sidewalks begins to waver.

This weekend Central Park became a Glastonbury crowd - with the sun the headline act. There were queues to get in and queues to leave. There was, admittedly, less ostentatious drug-taking and mud-wallowing, but the jostling for elbow room was no less fierce for all that. It was competitive recreation at its animal best.

But on that first festival day of summer we're not in Central Park. We're stuck in traffic on the wrong side of the Lincoln tunnel and the sun streaming in the back window is broiling us. Then I'm sitting outside working my way through my fourth bottle of Miller(the champagne of beers)and my jacket is still bundled up in my bag, although darkness has well and truly fallen. It feels like a personal victory, and looking round,I see that I'm not the only one with a triumphant gleam in my hay-feverish eyes.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

All the nice girls love a sailor

In the Pernod-sodden pages of Kerouac's and Burroughs' And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks the guys talk about the young sailors who ride the subways with their legs splayed and their eyes wide open. This being New York, where the happy hours keep truth and fiction pleasantly indistinct, no sooner had I finished the chapter than I realised that I had a real, mouth-breathing specimen splayed out on the seat next to me. He was out of uniform, and in the mood for conversation.
"So do I get off here for Broadway Lafayette?"
"No, you need to wait til we get across to Manhattan. Couple stops."
"Gotcha. I thought that since it was Broadway Junction, maybe... I don't know. Maybe all the Broadway trains crossed here or something."
"Nah, doesn't work like that. Don't take the A-train much then?"
"Never taken the subway before."
"Where you from boy?" (I never said that it was me he was eager to talk to)
"Texas originally. But I've been in boats in this district for the past five years. Know New York like the back of my hand. Just, y'know, not the subway. Know all the harbours though."

Turns out our man is in the merchant navy, "the fifth arm of the armed forces" as he put it. The phrase was meant to be grandiose, but just made me think that the US military sounds like a fairly grotesque body politic, a lopsided god of war. It's one thing to be in a branch of the services so elite that you can't really talk about it, quite another, I imagine, to always have to explain that what you do is y'know, really just like being in the army, navy or airforce. Same, same but different.

But even after he waved goodbye at Broadway Lafayette, I couldn't stop thinking about this other New York that the sailor knows. My Gotham must be a place apart from the one this man navigates, where it's not blocks, but shipping lanes that matter, where the city limits are marked not by Bronx Zoo, but by the ports of the Catskills, and where Jersey is not a joke but a port of call like all the rest.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


The joint only opened its doors a few minutes ago but already the floor is full of couples. These are hardcore hepcats, and their moves put me to shame. Now I know my Charleston kicks from my Lindy turns, but these kids have the sort of swing that god just didn't give me. There's one red-head, long and lithe, who should be on the stage. Perhaps she's on a night off from high-kicking her way through Chorus Line. The thought doesn't make me feel any less like I were all elbows and lumber. Clutching my five buck coke I shrink into the shadows, and try to take notes.

The band strike up a slinky jazz number and the dance floor empties. Red stands her ground. So would I if I could dance like her. You wouldn't be able to drag me out of that moody spotlight for love nor money, whatever the moony lyrics say. Red's partner keeps it loose and easy, dipping her and spinning her in a lazy swing which has a tango-sensuality and a bluesy syncopation. I'm trying to enjoy the show, but it's hard when I hate them so.

Thing is, in the world of Lindy-hop, no baby can stay put in her corner for very long. I've almost worked up the courage to try a little spinning in the shadows with Chris when a hand comes out and pulls me out into the glare of the lights. Now I'm whirling past Red, trying to make my feet behave. She's still out there in the centre, passed from one eager partner to another, lighting up the dance floor. I wonder if she's this elegant, this sought after, in everything she does. I imagine waiters arguing over who gets to serve her coffee; business men laying their suit jackets down in puddles to keep her feet dry - anything to watch her trip the light fantastic down Broadway way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Dollhouse Dash

I'd scarfed down the bacon-cheeseburger and the dive-bar-stiff Jack-and-cokes and now I was pounding the pavements of Adams Morgan trying to make it back to the hotel room in time. It was the first night warm enough to sit outside and eat, and on either side of road lazy sun-addled punters glanced up at us curiously as we sprinted past them, hands clutching our sides.

Now I'm betting that Paula Radcliffe doesn't load up in Maccy D's before a big race. But what we lacked in style, skill and tactics we definitely made up for in determination. It was 8.45 Friday night. If we got back up to our fraying Pop Art room in the next fifteen minutes we'd get to watch the next installment of Josh Whedon's trash-fest on a fuck-off big screen. Having made do with Hulu and a dodgy internet connection ("Wait! It needs to buffer. Again") for the last three months, it felt like a bloody red letter day.

We stopped for nothing. Except liquor stores. Every time we passed one we desperately scoured the shelves for screw-top bargains. The minutes were ticking by. My stitch was getting worse. Chris started singing "nhah nhah nhah naaaa naa, nhah na na naaaaaa" to keep our spirits up.

With over a minute to go, and a bottle of overpriced Californian Syrah stowed in my volumunous handbag, we made it back to the hotel. I drummed on the faux snakeskin walls of the lift as it climbed teasingly slowly to the fifth floor. Finally we were back in the room.
"Turn on the main lights. I need to find the remote."
"There are no main lights."
"Sod it, I've found it. What channel again?"
"Fox. Hurry!"
"Can't be Fox. It's Prison Break."
"What'll we do?"
"You flick through the others. I'll look it up on the internet."
"Shit! It'll be starting..."

Turns out that Dollhouse was taking a break that week. Our epic dash had been in vain. Instead we spent our Friday night in Washington DC watching a film about kids watching bands in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.
"We really should see more live music."
I nodded placidly, and took another slug of the Syrah.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Monday to Sunday Best

Now I love a good renounce as much as the next girl, but since the days of compulsory boarding-school chapel I prefer not to spend my Sundays on my knees.

I'm guessing it wasn't a chore for her though. She was climbing the stairs ahead of me in that deliberate way that people do when they come to realise that they can't take their movements for granted. Usually I gently squeeze past those careful climbers, offering up a quick, silent prayer for eternal health and youthful legs as I stride past.

But even from the back she was arresting. Her suit was a soft purple, and her pillbox hat echoed the shade exactly. One hand gripped the banister, but the other held a gold bag just as tightly. The same gold was woven through her shiny high-heeled sandals and jangled from her wrists. Fashion vampires may warn us against the allure of matchy-matchy, but this was one lady who was not buying what they were selling. She was put together. She had an outfit. She was heading back from Church with her head held high and her gold bag in a death-grip.

This lady in purple and gold made me think of the frocks languishing in my own wardrobe, waiting for a Sunday Best that never comes, or squandered on some Tuesday whim. For once I don't hurry past. Instead I wait until she's swished up the final step and watch her head back to her workaday week.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Flip-cup Chronicles

It's ridiculous how pleased I am with my new-found flip-cupping skills. I should have guessed really - the only games I've ever been able to win have generally involved either international drinking rules, treble word scores or a cunning combination of the two. Imbibe = 36 points. If only I'd had a D, and I'd be wiping the beer-sloshed floor with you, my worthy opponent.

On the court it's a whole different ball-game. This week I don't get the full-face, jaw-jolting shot, but I do suffer a lot of smaller hits to my person and my dignity. The stinging slaps to my arms and stomach which are already blooming a royal purple. The soft balls I throw and they catch, when I should have been the one catching and keeping my team in the game. The dodges I shoulda woulda coulda made. I do make one catch - from a girl who throws like a girl - and for a second in my head it's glory and tinsel falling from the sky and I'm a Mighty Duck being slapped on the back by a grinning Emilo Estevez who is a Sheen in all but name. Then it's a dull thud to the thigh and the glory is over.

Not so in the bar afterwards where the beer is cold and cheap and smells like acrid lemonade. Round after round I flip that cup like a pro. I discover that my Peter Pointer has just the right combination of strength and agility to do the job quickly and without incurring the half-joking wrath of my team-mates. For once, I am not the weakest link.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fraunces Tavern

It was as if they'd given up by the time they'd gotten to the bar.

The entrance was imposing. The coat check was an elegant parlour, with two lovingly upholstered armchairs flanking the fire. The toilets had the sort of discreet piped music that made you keep an eye out for Lizzy Bennett emerging from the next-door cubicle. But the bar itself - the room where a revolution had been plotted over mugs of porter and snifters of bourbon - that was two parts mid-town sports bar, to one part Williamsburg dive. I half expected to be fallen over by an unfriendly Polak.

As my Dad and I sipped our Pinot Grigios in the table by the window we talked about what made the effect so jarring. Maybe it was the fact that one wall was covered with the old Union Flag, with the stars going round in a circle, while the other held a flat-screen showing the DOW index. I suppose we were only steps from Wall Street, and even bankers deserve their post-work pint after a hard day of gambling with other people's money. But the silent UEFA match being played out on the third wall was equally out of place. That old soak George Washington surely wouldn't have approved of this distracting incursion from the Mother Country.

For me it was the music - the kind of music that you'd expect to hear belted out from the next-door karaoke booth (your party's choices are, naturally, a little more eclectic). If we'd been drunk or driving or drunk-diving down America's vast, straight freeways it would have been perfect. We could have rolled back the roof and belted out American Pie with the best of them. In this small, candle-lit room, surrounded by mementos of a glorious past, it just didn't fit. Even the football players weren't kicking in time.

So maybe the kids don't want to listen to chamber music these days, but couldn't we at least had something a little more weighty? Don't you know, talkin bout a revolution now.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Man Walks into a Bar...

Back-lit by the twinkling fairy-lights pinned to the far wall, the expressions on the punters' faces were far from welcoming. Now I've turned up to village Brauhauses in remote regions of the Southern German hills where old women rock themselves into oblivion and each generation gives off the heady whiff of in-breeding, and I've been to joints on Chicago's South Side where I've felt so white it was like my skin was glowing toxic. All over the English and Irish countryside I've been to local pubs for local people, where the conversations halt as soon as you step in the door. But nowhere have I got quite the kind of chilly reception that we encountered in this dive on the edges of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

The men - it's all men - look up as one. There's a sudden, uncomfortable silence. We move automatically to the bar stools, as the keep chokes out a welcome. Then, as if in slow motion, one of the men lets out a yell in Polish and falls to the floor, clattering chairs in his way. For a second we hover by the chairs, uncertain of what to do. The men are all yelling at each other. As if we've wondered into a Slavic Tennessee Williams fight scene out of a Noel Coward drawing room farce we make polite English excuses and back away to the door.

Once outside the door we shake our heads.

"You don't think... he was faking being that drunk. To get rid of us? I mean, that's ridiculous, isn't it?"

The question hung in the air as we clattered down the steps to the G that would whisk us back to the reassuring surrounds of Brownstone Brooklyn.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Coke Float

It was piled obscenely high, and fizzing down the far side of the glass. Clearly designed for those who had always secretly thought that coke wasn't sweet enough, it added layers of yellow ice-cream, soft gloops of cream and a demure swirl of pink-flavoured sauce on top. There was a pint of it. I'm not sure why they didn't go the whole hog and make it Irish - it seemed uncharacteristically restrained for the guilty hands behind the diner's counter not just to add a slug of Jameson's and be done with it.

We were sitting outside in the sunshine, and I'd rolled down my knee-length socks to tan my magnolia legs. I was on tour guide duty, and as usual I'd managed to programme exactly the sort of day I wanted to have. We'd taken only semi-ironic photos in Times Square, then wandered up Broadway to Columbus Circle. Being inside the park made me breathe easier, although as always with my guide hat on, I'd found myself scanning around for possible insufficiencies. Aren't those daffodils a little small? Weren't there usually more squirrels? Is that hot dog going to give an authentic New York hot dog experience when we can't actually see the onions frying on the hot slab?

But it was the Conservatory Water that really made me catch my breath, from both sides of my Janus-face (one half looking out appreciatively as an evangelical new New Yorker, the other darting around to check she hadn't over-sold this once-in-a-lifetime experience). There were toy boats on the pond. Dozens of them. For a moment I was taken back in time before cheap long-haul flights and digital cameras; before ice-cream floats even. I saw Central Park as it must have been when it first emerged from the wasteland above 60th street, landscaped and templed to within an inch of its fresh, fake new life. I saw a boy dressed in a sailor suit, putting down his stick and hoop to watch a miniature sail boat cross a tiny lake.

Then I saw the stall. These boats were not owned by eccentric toy-spotters or bequeathed by generous uncles - they were rented by the hour. For a second the sun went in behind a cloud, and the boy with the hoop disappeared.

Later in the cafe, I thought how much he would have enjoyed a sip of my coke float. I would have had plenty to spare, after all. But now we were on Amsterdam and a Duane Reed on the corner was intruding on my Upper Westside story, so it was time to pull up my bobby-sox and continue the tour.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Animal and Daffodil Lovers, Please Look Away Now!

Now I’m not saying that my cat’s a pervert. I know that there are a ton of other animals that have an unhealthy obsession with toilets, and to be fair, in the two-roomed world our feline friends inhabit, this little white corner with its strange sounds and flushing water is the nearest thing they’re ever going to get to Disneyland. So I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised that every time I scrape back my chair Mickey (him of the Mafia toes) makes a clumsy sprint for the bathroom in the hope that I’ve decided it’s time to ride Splash Mountain again.

But just because you love Disneyland, it doesn’t mean you want to be locked in there overnight after all the rides have been switched off. It might be a great scenario for a choose-your-own-adventure book, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a whole lot of fun. That, anyway, seemed to be what the cats concluded after last night’s trial incarceration.

Last week we had a guest sleeping on the sofa, and all I was able to get out of them in the morning were some dark mutterings about being kneaded awake as dawn broke by a purring pile of neurotic felines. So with my Dad flying in tonight, we decided that it was time for our babies to get a feel for minimalist New York living.

Despite the fact that the pair have the run of the house during the day, as night drew near we became obsessed with purging the bathroom of anything that a suicidal cat could use to make a desperate cry for help. Razors were hidden away in the medicine cabinet, and anything potentially toxic was stowed out of the way. The cats didn’t really understand the new game, but let themselves be locked in with the minimum of yowling. As we retreated to the bedroom Chris and I exchanged looks of amused guilt, like those you see on the faces of the people who leave a bad play early, even if they’re sitting in the front row. And are friends with the second spear thrower from the left.

Less then ten minutes had gone by before the paranoia kicked in.
“Did you happen to close the bathroom window?”
“No, but it’s got a screen on it.”
Ominous silence.
“The ball of yarn’s in there now, isn’t it?”
“Well you don’t think they could...?”
“What? Strangle themselves?”
“You’re right, I’m being stupid.”
Guilty silence.
“I might just check they’re okay.”
Of course, the moment the door’s open, the cats slip out like butter and refuse to be coaxed back in. We are secretly grateful to give up, and hope in vain that there’s no hard feelings.

The cats, in return, have declared war on my daffodils. Words cannot describe the silent massacres that have taken place on our windowsill. I just do the whole ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’ spiel. And vow to try the bathroom test again tonight. Except this time I won’t leave them enough rope to hang themselves.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Double Denim

I knew that she was trouble the minute I saw her. She was sporting a look I was fond of myself back in the early nineties (back when I used to crimp my hair and put it up in a side pony-tail, and team my dad's aquamarine t-shirt with a leather waistcoat and fluorescent-specked leggings) and talking loudly about the fact that she hadn't ever done any walking before. The problem was that looking at double denim girl, this wasn't too hard to believe. This was New Jersey after all, home of the drive-in bank, and this girl definitely seemed built for the SUV rather than shank's precarious pony.

Now there's something about lacing myself into my hiking boots that really brings out my inner bitch. Maybe it's because wearing all that gore-tex and moulded plastic makes me feel like that I'm ready for the first reels of the disaster movie to unfurl, and that my boots have cast me as the tough, resourceful heroine, while everyone around me is just a tragic statistic waiting to happen. Or maybe it's just that they make me want to walk far and fast, without any denim-clad encumbrances. Whatever, those boots do strange and unnerving things to me.

So when I glanced across the platform at double denim girl, my mouth said Hello, but my inner hiking bitch said, There's going to be a lot of chafing on the trail today. Turns out I was being optimistic. Less than 10 minutes into the easy 8 mile clamber we'd lost her. Somehow she and a group of stragglers had missed a turning and we had to wait half an hour for the rescue party to bring them back. By this point the boots were getting restless.

By the time we were all reunited a decision had been made to split into two parties, so I got to leave the double denim faction behind and clamber over rocks to my boots' content - give or take a few enforced 'separation' comfort breaks. But even then I felt like a dog choking herself as she strained at the leash. How come we had to stop so often? Why did people needed to sit around in the sun like lizards when everyone had finished lunch? Couldn't we just go already?

Gradually I came to the unwelcome conclusion that somewhere between puffing up the Himalayas and beasting the Time Out book of Country Walks I'd turned into a hiking fascist. Why shouldn't double denim girl enjoy the countryside at her own pace? Why shouldn't we stop at the top of the mountain to shoot the breeze? What was wrong with taking it easy in the spring sunshine?

Because we're made for walking, the boots muttered, and kicked up the dirt in disgust.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Bad Decisions at Brooklyn Dining Week

On the way home I clutch his arm and lower my voice so the rest of our party can't hear.
"Never let me do that again. I'm serious."
"I did try to warn you." (He hates to say he told me so)
"Yeah I know you did. But I thought you were making some sort of ethical objection."
"Well that, and I just thought it would be boring. Which it was, wasn't it? My steak was amazing though."

I try to think up some witticism about our party skate-ing on thin ice but I've already had a couple of bourbon cocktails and while I'm cooking up some quality punnage the conversation has already moved on to methods of cooking turkey (barbecued/injected with rosemary/stuffed in a buttered paper bag) and the manifold charms of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal.

It's Brooklyn Dining Week, where for $23 you can have 3 courses at the sort of restaurants that usually charge $20 for a disappointing bit of fish and some flaccid artichokes. To be fair to the restaurant - Chestnut, on Smith Street - mine was the only bum dish. It was hard not to feel that I wasn't being deliberately punished for being the only person not to upgrade to the $30 option - where you can also choose dishes marked with a sinister little smiley face. I was unpleasantly reminded of the Watchmen logo as all around me people tucked into bloody hanks of cow or rabbit while I mumbled fish bones around.

Well, Chestnut, despite your best endeavours I still had the last laugh. As two grown men fought over slivers of Gorgonzola in the large-plated, small-portioned 'cheese platter for two' I had a ginger cookie, a coconut cookie, a chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, a chocolate fudge cookie, a butter cookie and a cookie with a heart of jam. It was a multi-dimensional cookie paradise that even second-class dining citizens were allowed to wonder through freely. Viva la revolution.