Monday, November 30, 2009

Overheard in Central Park

A man with a thick neck, sweating profusely, shouts at a boy with long hair curling over his eyes.
"You'll never catch it like that. Look I told you. Bring it in to your body. Kick me a high one and I'll show you."
"Jesus, I said a high one."
"What was that?"
"I said I'm getting tired. Can we stop soon?"
"You're tired. You're tired."
"Mom, can I stop yet?"
"You're tired? How can you be tired? I've just worked a seventy hour week. And Saturday, as well."
"You're tired? How can you be tired? A twelve year old boy..."
"I'm not twelve, I'm ten."
"Well I'm fifty and I'm still going strong. Just goes to show, doesn't it? I'm fifty years old and I've been working all week and I've got more stamina than you."
Swoosh. Thunk. Swoosh. Thunk.
"What are you doing? It's not... I don't know... karate football. What weird-ass moves are you doing?"
"Jesus, I just told you how to do it."
Swoosh. Thunk.
"Did you see that? Now do it like I just did."

[half an hour later]
"Ok fine, we'll head back."
"But on the way we can play Golf Football."
"So go on. Take the ball. Kick it towards that tree."
"But I'm tired. You said we can stop."
"We are stopping. This isn't football. It's Golf Football. See how many kicks it'll take you then I'll beat your score."
The mother, who's sat on the bench staring out at the ducks, takes the ball from her husband's hands and thrusts it towards her son.
"You heard him. It's Golf Football."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Food Drive

"Sorry what was that?" I asked, dropping to my knees to force some more cans into her gray nylon bag.
"69... that was my first Thanksgiving." She smiled nervously, as me and the other young do-gooders fussed around with UHT milk and double-bagged turkeys.
"It's actually going to be my first Thanksgiving," I said, which was a lie that didn't really matter, since she didn't really seem to be listening.
"I worked for the government, you know. Me and my husband both did." She had the kind of subcontinent lilt I associate more with East London than with Manhattan, and her voice was low and quick, needlessly apologetic. "Such a lot of food."
"Yes, will you be able to carry it ok? Do you want to leave some and come back or..." I tailed off, not knowing for sure what would happen after our shift left at 11.
"You know I used to do this," the lady said, gesturing to the boxes of cans and pie crusts, "I used to help out in the holidays. We go to this church. But then my husband got sick, and I lost my job..."
We clucked, helplessly, looking at the floor.
"It's such a hard time for a lot of people at the minute," I managed, and she just sighed and heaved the extra plastic bags onto her shoulder.
"Have a good Thanksgiving."
"You too. Goodbye. Happy Thanksgiving!" we chorused until the lift came to take her and her non-perishables away.

The next person was an oriental woman in her sixties who flinched when the young white male helper tried to hand over her turkey. Again, her cart was soon overwhelmed by the volume of packets and cans that the schoolboys had collected for her. All the while she muttered under her breath, only letting out firm "no!"s when we tried to take things out of her bag to put the heavy stuff at the bottom, and a breathless "thankyougoodbye" when she left.

"Must be a story there," the worker said after she'd gone, and I shrugged, not really wanting to think about it.

Intellectually I know it's a great and godly thing to give all these people, 200 local families in all, a decent Thanksgiving, but when I was taking the subway back all I could think of was how these women looked when they left the church, bent double with the weight of 1 x pkt rice OR pasta, 2 x shelf-stable milk, 1 x pkt mashed potatoes (instant), 2 x can of soup (any flavour), 1 x frozen turkey (small) and of our easy breezy charity.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bus to Monhonk

Admittedly I was reading a book about Jewish boys playing baseball, but I'm figuring that with a mind so cloudy her eyesight wasn't that preternaturally sharp. After all, I myself hadn't realised what the novel was about before I got it home. It's one of those books where the back cover is used up with flowery praise instead of pedestrian clues about genre, cast or plot. In many ways these books give the same high-minded message as the unpriced sparklers at Tiffany's: if you need to ask too many questions, plebeian consumer, you don't deserve to take me home.

The woman came over just as I'd decided to abandon my Apple Snapple and Chris had shrugged off my latest suggestion that we head to the gate. There was still fifteen minutes ("seventeen minutes", Chris insisted) before our bus left for New Paltz, but since it was the last one for three hours, I was getting twitchy.

The woman who sidled over was white-haired and conservatively dressed. She had her head was tucked defensively into her neck as if expecting a blow from adversaries unknown. Her words came out in an unruly flow, as if she hadn't spoken for a while.
"I don't know if you're Jewish or not, you should watch out because they're really antisemitic around here."
She was staring at Chris, ignoring me, seemingly oblivious to the fact he still had his headphones on.
"Don't go over there." She gestured wildly to the Greyhound Desk. "They'll sell you the wrong ticket. And if you go there..." This time she pointed down an unmarked corridor. "...they'll shut you in. You'll get locked in. And you won't be able to get out."
"Ok, erm, thank you," Chris replied.
The woman nodded twice, clutched her bags to her and set off in one of the directions she hadn't warned us against.
"What she say?"
Chris repeated what the woman had said. Seems I hadn't been hallucinating, although the speed and intensity with which she'd delivered her warning had seemed so out of step with the prosaic surroundings of the grimy Port Authority cafeteria.
"God knows what that was about," he concluded.
"It's your beard. It confuses people."

After that he let me drag him along to Gate 34. I left my abandoned Apple Snapple, in case one of the waifs and strays wanted to finish it. It seemed like that sort of place.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rock n Roll Kareoke

"And singing Blondie, it's a first-time performer..."
"Ummm, actually..."
"Give it up for-"
"Actually I'm wussing out. Sorry. Next person."
The band shrug disdainfully. The host gives me an I'm-not-angry-I'm-just-disappointed look. She's still holding out the sheet of song lyrics.
"Why are you not going up?"
"Well my partner's wussing out, and I need him to start in tune..."
Chris rolls his eyes, and turns back to Big Buck Hunter. His was not the name they called out, after all. And, like his says, it'd be different if he knew the verses.

Eventually they do move on to the next person, and I go back to studying the list of song titles as if looking hard enough will reveal the meaning of life, or at least one of those Magic Eye pictures, the sort I could only ever glimpse cross-eyed. With well drinks this strong the corss-eyed thing wouldn't be a problem for long.

"Why don't you two do one together? Since you're both tempted to do one?"
Phil and I look at one other, shrug, and go back to scouring the song sheet. It's hard to choose how to pitch it: play for comedy appeal with Hit Me Baby One More Time, or go for guts and glory with some classic rock anthem that'll get even the most hardened barflys saluting us with sloshing pints of Brooklyn Lager. Or heading for the door.

In the end we stick with what we know best: Madonna, Material Girl.

Up on stage there's a guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. They tell us they'll give us the nod when we have to go in. Like novice bowlers, we also have a gutter-guard in the shape of a Hanks regular who stands at the front beating time and acting out the lyrics. His interpretation of "some boys lie and some boys cry" is to die for.

After a few stumbles, and some initial bum notes, we vogue our way through the song. About three and a half people whoop and cheer as we finish. We are rock stars. We graciously thank our support band, our parents, our third-grade music teachers, and then reluctantly leave the spotlights.

Five minutes later I have one finger running down the song list, another stuck in my ear, Mariah Carey style, as I try to sing out some Counting Crows over and above the guy on stage who's exhorting us to Put Another Dime in the Jukebox, Baby.

Then inspiration strikes. I run to sign myself up for one more taste of glory. Time After Time. I knew that all those evenings I spent age fourteen playing Mah Jong, drinking Baileys and listening to my parents' Best Love Songs Ever CDs would come in handy some time.

"You say, go slow. I fall behind. The drum beats out of time..."
My gutter-guard syncopates his air-drumming, and I flash him a grateful rock-star smile...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Strumming their All at Union Hall

"Is it just me, or are that couple rocking matching plaid?"
"Shh, they're right there."
"Whatever. It's not like they don't know what they're wearing..."
It was a beer-on-an-empty belly night, and the nudging got started when the first act was still doing her sweet southern thing. The his-n-hers hipster lumberjacks were seated in the row in front of us, and were putting on a good sideshow of nuzzling and head-leans. Chris, plectrum still warm from his sixth guitar lesson, was providing a helpful running commentary on the chord changes.
"That's G. I can do that one... and there's D. It actually looks like quite an easy song... see, now she's moving into A7..."
Up on stage, the blond kept on playing away, blissfully unaware of the backseat strummer down in the cheap seats. When she started singing a song that rhymed "clean" and "Aberdeen" ("I have to admit, I've never been to Scotland") we started a brutal round of thumb wars.

During the break between sets I visited the unisex bathrooms and managed to drench my top with scalding water from the faucet. But by the time I returned Chris had exciting news to distract me from the spreading dampness.
"Matching plaid girl... she's in the band!"
"I knew it! And don't you think she looks just like..."
We both nodded.
"Yeah, that's what I thought when I first saw her."
The bassist, as she turned out to be, was wearing a flannel dress, and not a shirt as I'd first assumed. She didn't scream rock star, but her ankle-boots certainly did. I coveted hard, and decided for the hundredth time to start a band, or at least to wear my ankle-boots more often.
When the group was announced they were presented as a blond and her backing band. The plaid-clad bassist was stood at the back, next to a guy who made drumming look like occupational therapy for the mentally challenged. But that didn't stop her beau. Throughout the entire set he balanced a camera on his knee, angled towards stage left. In his director's cut of the gig, his partner in plaid had a spotlight shining right on her. She was the stand-out star of the show.
When I reached for Chris' hand to point out this boyfriendly devotion he mistook my gesture. Pinning my small thumb down with his supersize one he whispered: "Ha. That was almost too easy."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Taking Turns

"Do you want to go first?" I grudgingly asked the little boy, already knowing the answer, and he leapt for the steering wheel with a precocious and startling avidity.
I smiled an apology at my niece, who was sitting on the bench behind, thumb in mouth, shoulders beginning to slump with exhaustion and an excess of MTA-themed fun.
The little boy stamped the pedals. And spun the wheel. And flicked all switches. Then he did all of the above over and over again while we row-rowed the boat and waited for him to get bored.
However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a child in possession of something that another child wants immediately forgets their twenty-first century attention span. There is nothing so like a dog in a manager as a big boy in driver's seat with a toddler looking longingly over his shoulder. And nothing so likely to get you in the shit than moving along other people's dog-in-the-mangerish children.
"Shall we go look at something else Martha?" I asked, loud enough for driver-boy's parents to hear.
They took the hint.
"Let's go look at the trains."
"Time to get off now."
"Come on now, you've had your turn."
"Let's see what else we can find..."
He ignored them until an adult arm firmly yanked him out of the seat.
By now Barney had joined his little sister in the back seat. He nodded unenthusiastically at the idea of Martha getting a turn, and watched as she gurgled and beep-beeped away on the fraying seat.
I turned around and driver-boy was back, sitting on the bench with Barney, elbows foremost.
"Now Barney's going next, then it's your turn," I decreed.
"I'm next," Barney agreed.
At that, driver-boy whirled his fat little hands at the boy in front of him in the queue.
"Hey stop that!"
I grab the boy's fists, and his parents come back and spirit him away, flashing me a dirty look for my troubles, as if I manhandle pint-sized yobs for shits and giggles.
"He's a naughty boy," Barney said loudly.
"Yes a very silly boy," I agreed.
"Is it my turn now?"
And a weary-looking Martha got swept off to push more buttons and twirl more knobs.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Takes Two to Tango

We were into the fourth hour of the workshop, and our third teacher definitely wasn't getting the tone right.
"Come on then. What else did you learn?"
We looked at the floor, at our aching feet, at the clock. There was still forty minutes to go.
She tutted. "Look, I know and I wasn't even in the class. I just peeked in. You did the hesitations too, didn't you?"
Collectively, we refused to be cajoled. Show us something new and easily mastered tango lady, or let us out into the sunshine.
She obliged with a move that halted the followers feet, and an arm gesture inviting us to step over our own foot.
"Remember, you're not forcing her. You're just giving her an invitation," she reminded us. I wasn't sure about the others, but it was getting to the stage in the afternoon where I couldn't be bothered to RSVP.
Unlike the other dances I've done, Argentinian Tango involves leaning in to your partner, as if the two of you are building a human house of cards. Three and a half hours of holding my body forward in four-inch heels had knackered my back, and at every pause I slumped in half, trying to stretch the ache out. There was also the question of hold to negotiate. Our first teacher, a slim, ethereal young mum in khakis had talked about the "hug pose", where your arms wrap around your partner's neck, faces close enough to kiss, as if it was an entirely natural, nonsexual posture. Maybe it is in the bordellos of Argentina, but in a strip-lit studio in Flatiron, things didn't feel that simple.
"Oh, you want to do it like that?" my partner asked, eyebrow raised, as I crossed my arms and leaned against him like a tired genie. "I guess it's safer that way."
I ignored the implication that the only thing stopping me from throwing myself at him was my training stance, and merely quipped,"Yes, no close hold please. I'm English."
I don't think he got it, but at least he didn't tread on my toes. And the clock was ticking down with each fumbled ocho.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Accomplice: A froggin'

We waited outside the herbal medicine store for our guy to come back with a translation. The message in the two fortune cookies had been in Chinese characters, and since they weren't the kanji for school, student, big, small, girl, boy, rain, snow, north, south, mountain, river or electricity I couldn't read them, and neither could any of the rest of Team Accomplice. Now that the sun had gone in it was getting cold, but Chinatown, with its neon signs and strange smells, seemed more vivid and filmic than I ever remember it being, crossing through it in the prosaic light of day on the way to the more concentrated attractions of Little Italy or the Lower East Side.

We'd volunteered our guy because he was half-Chinese, and although he came out the door shaking his head it turned out he'd come through for us.
"So the woman helped. The old guy just kept on saying it was a load of shit and asking who'd given it to me."
"So what does it say?"
"Can I have one frog, please."
"Frog? One frog?"
"Yeah, the old guy said it was a load of shit."

When we reached the address on the back of the note, it wasn't a sweet shop or a toy shop or anyplace else like we'd conjectured. Instead, it was a sort of fishmongers, overseen by burly men in mismatched t-shirts. After a bit of mumbled embarrassment I handed over the three dollars we'd been given and got a frog in return. A live frog - a supersized one at that - in a plastic bag, as if I'd won a prize at a fair and they were all out of goldfish.

"He's not real is he?"
He's definitely real. He's moving.
"It's not alive, surely?"
He's moving. Don't poke him.
"Can I take a picture."
I think we should call him Gerald.

We ended up being instructed to hand Gerald over to a construction worker, who ended up leaving him behind a dustbin. I was sad to see him go. I'd liked the weight of him, the calm way he'd sat in the bag on my outstretched palm. He'd only cost three dollars - less than a carton of organic milk - and he was the right sized pet for our apartment. The only problem I could foresee would be the fly-food.

It was only after the game was over, and we were having a drink with the actors and creator, that we found out what would happen to Gerald. Turns out for the last five years ten groups a day have been buying frogs from this same shop, and at the end of every day the construction worker returned them all, or released them by the river if the game had run late and the store had closed for the night. What's funny is that the Accomplice people had never explained to the fish and frogmongers what was going on, and they had never asked. They just sold frogs to tourists every hour, and then accepted them back at the end of the day, with an admirable absence of curiosity.

No wonder Gerald had been so blase. He'd seen it all before.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Models and Skaters (or Cake, Art and Breasts II)

Before the crush and schmooze and breasts of the gallery we were standing in the Rockefeller plaza watching the skaters. While the dating couples and the grimly clutched-together families made ragged progress round the edges of the rink, the experts laid claim to the centre. The showiest was a leggy little girl with flesh-coloured skates, who twirled and spun in elaborate patterns, breaking only to play a knowingly unfair game of tag with a precariously-balanced boy of roughly the same age, who had scant little of her skill and even less of her grace. More evenly matched were the group of teenage boys who took time out from their busy flirting and cussing schedule to carve up the ice with breakneck sprints and turns, or to play a slippery version of chicken. Their white-jeaned girlfriends wisely stayed well back from the crash zone.

Only one of the inner-circle skaters was on their own: a tall, slim man in a gray suit, dapper scarf and shaggy white hair, who, with a look of total bliss, danced across the ice for the benefit or no one or everyone or himself alone. In time with the music he skated back and forth, side-stepping and throwing his arms into the curve. Every new track seemed to delight him, and his style never altered as the beat changed from 80s disco to hiphop and back again. He, the boy-tormentor and the hockey studs whirled in elaborate, complementary patterns round each other, on and on, as in the slow lane people struggled to stay upright.

I was reminded of those two lanes later in the gallery, as we struggled to get out. For an instance the sea of people seemed to part, and a small man buoyed up by a tall teenager on each arm emerged from the foyer. I was in heels, but I still had to crick my neck to get a look at their faces, which turned out to be just as blandly lovely as you'd expect.
A man next to me nudged his companion. "Look, models!" And perhaps emboldened by the free Chablis raised his voice above the din: "Hello models!"
The companion cringed, but then, as one, the girls turned, found the man with their doe eyes and waved back.

I wondered if they were used to being hailed collectively ("Are there any models in the house?") and whether the skinny girl from the rink would grow up to look like them, and whether it's harder for a woman to excel for herself, rather than for an audience, and whether that matters anyway.

And then I vowed to learn to skate backwards without falling over before the winter's end, and to avoid the sort of art gallery openings that let outer-lane people like me in.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cake, Art and Breasts

We'd spent the previous fifteen minutes watching skaters on the Rockefeller rink, because Chris had been insistent that we didn't arrive at 9.30 on the dot. When we turned up to the gallery it was clear that the other liggers hadn't been so scrupulous. Ten minutes in, the crowds resembled were packed as tight and elbowy as Christmas Week shoppers, clutching coats, plastic cups of Chablis and each other.
"Wine!" whinnied one brunette, pulling her companion over to the table where an equally pretty girl was pouring glass that were snatched away as soon as she moved the bottle on.

We didn't know it then, but despite the high percentage of beautiful people, things were about to get ugly. The theme of the night was cakes and art, and it was definitely the former half of the formula that had got us up in Midtown East on a chilly autumn night. From the way the crowd was scrumming this way and that, noses in the air, eyes everywhere but the gallery walls, we weren't the only ones. As if part of some elaborate tease, one room showed a video of exploding treats, cream splattering across walls and faces, while in another cake-eaters with gold leaf on their mouths were projected onto a blank white wall. Menawhile, a camera on a miniature blimp recorded the crowd's reactions.

We tried to follow the river of heads and elbows towards a live performance, but ended up so tightly crushed and towered over that we barely got out with out Chablis intact. Then, amidst all this studied oddness, I hear a familiar strain...
"Oh Mickey, you're so fine, you're so fine you blow my mind."
A tall, black girl is holding a half-empty tray of cakes above her heads. When a woman tries to take one she pulls the tray away.
"Hey Mickey. Hey Mickey."
At the hand claps she stops, thrusts out a hip and lowers the tray. A red-faced ex-public school type saunters over
"Oh Mickey what a pity you don't understand.You take me by the heart when you take me by the hand."
The girl gives him a sultry look and pushes the cake into his mouth, like a bride on her wedding day. The man, smirks as best he can with his mouth full. Backs away.
"Oh Mickey what a pity you don't understand. It's guys like you Mickey..."
The girl moves on. She is wearing shorts and long socks. Her breasts are bare. There are two or three more 'Mickey girls'. All are black, with light brown skin, pretty faces and full, naked breasts. The men eating the cake and recording the girls on their iPhones are older, less attractive, white. This is an art show, but it feels like a cross between an x-rated Hooters lounge and a slave auction, except that no money (and not even a lot of cake) is changing hands in the open.

Later on, when we can't bear the crush any more and our Chablis is getting warm, we start the slow push towards the exit. Standing by the wall I see the first Mickey girl again. She's standing on her own, looking at the crowd, and she has a plain gray vest pulled on over her outfit, like she's heading to the gym. Strangely, she looks more vulnerable with her clothes on.

We leave without getting any cake.