Monday, August 31, 2009

Fire Island's Famous Plover Lovers

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 27, 2009

UK Interlude

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Central Park Bacchants

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

East Hampton Hard Hitters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 14, 2009

Canada V: We Will Rock You, Tadoussac

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mammoths and Mammoth Poseurs

The guy in the cave-man vest shook his club in the air and a couple of hundred cooler-than-thou hipster types raised their fists in salute. Behind him, a black faux fur bikini was grinding away as if she'd got herself into the background of an MTV shoot. But it was the mammoth we were all saving our whoops for. Naturally.

PS1 is the Queen's overshoot of Manhattan's MOMA, and from the looks of some of the exhibitions it seems to function as a convenient cultural overspill site, a sort of museum mop and bucket. Apart from the eerily lovely swimming pool installation, its rooms hold a variety of hmm-that's-quite-interesting-I-suppose pieces and shrug-offable delights. But every summer Saturday PS1 brushes off the cobwebs and opens its doors to the sort of people who will pay to be seen at a dance party in a sculpture garden. People like me.

To add considerably to the fabulous factor, it is very much a sculpture garden, singular. At the minute the courtyard is graced by a hairy habitat, a where-the-wild-things-are structure of caves and misting spray, which handily separates the dancefloor from the beer stalls. Hence, I'm guessing, the inspired Bedrock-themed party, which is going on on the backyard overlooking the museum's garden. It may only be three in the afternoon, but they seem to be partying pretty hard. It's difficult to tell whether it's the caveman cocktails or the envious looks which are getting them more intoxicated. I seriously consider scaling the wall in my flip-flops.

Down below the self-fashioned VIP party, the beautiful PS1 people are getting their dance on. On the steps of the old school, a group of self-consciously hot Russians are going all out. The two girls are doing semi-ironic dance routines, while their ramped-up escort alternates between a matt black 80s waistcoat and a glistening 80s six pack. There is a lot of serious dance face, muscles clenched in quasi-painful appreciation as the DJ drops a fresh set of beats.

Inside the crowds are huddled around the loos, and the corridors echo forlornly. Guards watch to make sure no-one jumps in the ersatz pool. Surely it's only a matter of time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Courage, comrades

The google search were not encouraging. I'd typed in the name of the feminist, grass-roots organisation I was thinking about volunteering at, and instead of finding the address I found blogs accusing the organisation of being a socialist cult, and harbouring guns for a red militia. They were written by mothers who'd finally rescued their "brainwashed" daughters from the group's clutches, by concerned citizens, and by paranoid people who couldn't spell "commeee barstads". Still, I'd signed up for an orientation ("Not an initiation." I reassured myself as I headed down into the depths of Gowanus) and my curiosity was piqued. Would they really try and enlist me to the cause, and if so, how would they take my embarrassed English demurrals: "Universal worker's solidarity sounds lovely, but actually I'm really just a freelancer. Can barely be called working, really. I'll just sit this one out, if you don't mind." This Revolution will not be Quite my Cup of Tea.

Inevitably, the meeting turns out to be anti-climatic. Instead of a charismatic cult leader urging us to sign up we have a pleasant girl reading in a dirge-like monotone a lecture on the history of the organisation (media: bad; internet: bad; workers: exploited), and showing us community newsletters and fliers for bake sales that their members have produced. The bake sale seems largely apolitical and unsubversive, to my unseasoned eyes at least. It also happened almost a decade ago. I am smiling tightly and trying to see the point. Then they bring out actual cake and I find myself agreeing to help members edit their self-published projects. Already as I'm nodding and forking in the cake I sense this might be unwise.

When the pleasant girl is replaced by the charmless autocrat I'd already suffered over the phone ("So can I find out about the organisation./Come today at six./I can't come today, I'm afraid. Is there any other.../Orientations are Wednesdays and Saturdays./Great. So I can just come along to one?/ No. / So.../You can't just drop in, when you feel like it. Do you want to get involved?/Well-nervous laugh-I want to find out a bit more first...") I make my excuses and leave.

Flopping down at our regular table at Trout I can see that Chris has already told the others about my orientation.
"I hope you didn't drink any Kool Aid."
I shake my head, wipe the last tell-tale Tiramisu crumbs from my mouth, and decide they wouldn't really understand about the Schedule and the Benefits.
And so it begins...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Canada IV: The Beaver Hunt

"Is she sportif?" The walk leader asked sceptically, as I trotted off to get some trousers to put on under my Primark sun dress.
Chris replied with a Gallic shrug. "Un peu."

We set off from the hostel at a breakneck pace. The bearded old man lead us away from the path, through bushes and over fallen trees, over brooks and under thorned branches. We were Bella to his Edmund, Jane to his Tarzan, the camera man to his Challenge Anneka. Every time he paused to let us catch up I'd slap at the insects and try yet again not to ping the foliage back into anyone's face.

But already we were seeing signs of the beavers. It was like a company of midget loggers had been at work in the pristine forest. Everywhere you looked trees were felled and branches gnawed through. Sometimes a deep, triangular rift had been bitten into trunk, only for the beaver to lose interest and leave the booby-trapped tree precariously in place. And then there were the dams: whole systems of minor dams to allow the beavers easy access to the heart of the woods, then huge, Gothic structures which acted as their winter homes.

Our guide pointed up towards the canopy. He let out a rapid volley of French. "Giant beaver!" He explained. Apparently beavers can walk on the top of the ten to twenty feet of snow this region gets every winter, and use the elevation to take wood from the tops of young trees. We laugh and marvel, obediently.

But it is when we are waiting for the grand final - the money shot - that our guide drops his favourite joke. It's sun-down, and we're watching the lake for signs of the beavers themselves, when he breaks the silence. He mutters something. Everyone laughs. I look confused.
"Did you get that?"
I shake my head and smile.
"Why do beavers have flat tails?"
"Je ne sais pas."
"Because ducks give blow jobs."
I "ahh!" and nod furiously, feeling that something may have got lost in the translation, and keep scanning the horizon for beavers.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

All Points West: Half-full

Since the festival is held on a state park, drinking at All Points West is confined to the over-21 Beer Gardens, which also feature free cigarettes, queue-less toilets and seemingly the only dry grass in the site. But all the landscaping in the world couldn't disguise the cold hard facts: the organisers were forcing you to choose between beer and beats, between kicking back and rocking out, between inebriation and intoxication. Luckily we'd left our IDs at home, so the only dilemma we had was how much breast-warmed vodka to pour into our toggle-topped bottomless lemonade.

We hit the music hard. Steel Train - giving a jovially bitter little acoustic set in a random tent after being rained off their stage. Silversun Pickups. We Are Scientists - as catchy as swine flu. Elbow - MDMA-grade euphoria from the bearded Mancunian and co. Mogwai. Lykke Li [dance dance dance]. Coldplay. MGMT. [sneak back] Coldplay. Etienne de Crecy [danse danse danse].

But it was Coldplay, good old Gwennie-boffing, planet-loving, mum-approved Coldplay, who blew everyone else away. Feeling like traitors to the Brooklyn hipster cause we abandoned our Grand Plan (and a less than sparkling MGMT) for some more of the old boys' razzle dazzling. And then it happened. It was like God and Chris Martin were working together to wipe out the storms, the lines, the four hours in the ferry depot. The band disappeared from stage. We watched the screens jealously as they walked passed the tightly-packed fans at the front, heading to...
"They're coming. RUN!"
Grabbing my hand, Chris sprints across the mud. Unlike most of the flip-flopped crowd we're in sturdy hiking boots, so we splash and weave and jostle until we're there and they're there and fucking hell we're close. Coldplay are on a platform behind the soundstage, less than five feet away. They play one song after another. We scream. We sing along. We move our feet so that we don't get sucked down into the quagmire. I shout "thank you, thank you" over and over again.

Trudged back to the ferries, after even the dance tent has gone dark, a girl behind me is trying to describe it to her friends.

"It was... incredible. I think I got Chris Martin's spit on my face."

Monday, August 3, 2009

All Points West: Half-Empty

We're standing near the front of the line to get into the last day of the All Points West Festival. We were on the first boat, and it's almost an hour after the gates were supposed to open, but for the minute we're happy to be under canvas and out of the rain. Not everyone is so lucky, and already the back of the line is starting to look like a wet t-shirt competition.

One of the security guards whistles. He has a great whistle. His voice is harder to make out.
"Listen up people. We've got some really bad stuff coming in."
Security is pretty tight. I shift uncomfortably, a bottle of vodka hidden in my cleavage.
"So we're asking you to all head back to the ferry terminal..."
" need to make a lot of noise. It's not safe to stay here. Now head back to the terminal..."
Thunder and lightening punctuate his sentences, and it's a measure of how amenable the festival goers are that after some grumbling they obediently head back out into the storm and the pouring rain, and trudge the mile through the mud back to the dock. Already people have started to abandon their flip-flops, and are squelching their way barefoot amongst the crowds.

We spend four hours in the terminal building, continually being nudged around the concrete floor by police packing machine guns. Woodstock, it ain't.

People continue to flood off the ferry until there's several thousand of us in there, killing time by queuing for the toilets or the one overwhelmed snack stand. I become personally responsible for introducing the alphabet game to a new generation of New Jersey youth. No-one can think of a country beginning with O.

After a lot of false rumours we're finally allowed out the door, only to be held for another hour, like pigs in a pen, a half mile from the gates. After a day of torrential rain the sun is out, and I'm frying. The vodka has now spent five hours down my bra. While we wait, we drink the whiskey which was down Chris' pants. It's pleasantly warm. People tut jealously.

To Be Continued...