Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Spaghetti Arms

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wanted: Reverse-Strip Gypsy Trapeze Artiste

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2009

Invasion of the Invisible Mutts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Getting Down, Ambassador-style

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

If You Go Down To The Woods Today...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Beer Table, Park Slope

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2009

Getting Down in Monkey Town

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 11, 2009

This Wine's Got Legs

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

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

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Live at the Mercury Lounge

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Cat Attack

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 4, 2009

The last days at the Double-D pool

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Soft heart, sharp claws

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

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

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