Thursday, October 04, 2007

In the City

Hopped a southbound train in Waterbury, CT. The tracks were covered with the first fallen leaves of the season, and as the train passed, it seemed to be trying to blow the leaves back up into the trees. At Grand Central, I took the subway to the East Village, making my way toward Life Cafe, heavily featured in the musical "Rent," though I found that out later. I had come here to meet Michael, whose blog I had somehow found about a year ago. Back in the 90's, he'd lived in Japan, and his writing often reflects back to that influence. More recently, Michael has been documenting the changes happening around the east village, the area where his father was born, exactly 100 years ago. This immigrant neighborhood and its low rents eventually gave rise to an artist/hipster culture which has slowly been eroding due to rising rents and rich types filling (or expediting) the void. The center cannot hold, and Michael has been photo-documenting the loss of a neighborhood's soul. Over two days I followed him as his eye and his camera led him around. As expected, he knows most of the more colorful characters.

Bolivar Arellano's studio was closing that Sunday. His final exhibition was a series of 9/11 photos taken by local photographers. Many of these were too graphic to be shown in the mainstream media. Heavy, heavy stuff. While I was looking around I heard Michael and a Canadian journalist talking about that day, and the eerie days that followed where birds and cicadas could be heard due to the absence of planes in the air. (Interestingly, this contrasts exactly with an impression of my own. On that late 2003 US trip where I was looking for the pulse of the country, I was walking up Madison to the Whitney Museum, hoping the Hoppers would shed some light on the dark side of the American dream. Suddenly a plane flew over, and everyone on the sidewalk literally stopped and looked up. Very, very odd.) Michael has an interesting post of the story of Bolivar here.

We popped into WAGA to talk with Oueni. This shop sells African art, clothes, and musical instruments. The entire time we were there, his stunningly gorgeous girlfriend danced in front of a mirror, sexily gyrating to the Afro-pop coming though the speakers.

We met Urgyen, a Tibetan who has a shop nearby. He told us a comedic incident involving a rather zealous woman friend who happens to be Soka Gakkai. Chenrezig give him strength.

We passed some time with his good friend, Jim "Mosaic Man" Power, a long-time local legend. I had a small part in his latest art piece, documented by Michael here. Jim's backstory here.

Along the way there were acrobats and waitresses, street musicians and homeless, dancers and punk bands. Plus basketball games, free microbrewed beer, late night tea at Teeny, Saturday night outer-borough punters, kids eating ice cream, know-it-all Cubans in wife-beaters, sunlit pumpkins, uptight lapdog pamperers, Physical Graffiti facades, basement Taoists, gay newlyweds, Hare Krishnas, urban bicycle cowboys, a massive owl, and a woman dining alone with Lonely Planet on her sidewalk tabletop.

Getting the picture? There are more here. Wander awhile.

Late Sunday, Michael dropped me off at the Chelsea Hotel, my digs for the evening. I stayed in room 702, and I wonder who else did. I dropped my bags and made my way down a staircase framed in art all the way. I walked uptown. Passed a cafe where the conversation at each table was in a different language. A cop jaywalked on 7th Avenue. A Latin guy repaired a window in a sports bar (the Mets dropped out of the pennant race that afternoon).

I found Times Square, absolutely overrun with people toting cameras. A Hasid stepped out of the crowd and wished me a happy Sukkot. My face must have shown surprise, so he asked me if I was Jewish. I smiled and shook my head and headed down 44th to Angus McIndoe's for a stout and a swordfish. To establish the night's Monty Python theme, I was sure to eat "more bread pudding" before crossing the street to see "Spamalot" which I'd missed two years ago. Brilliant. Then walked back out to Times Square, now done up in neon like a frenetic Shibuya. I tried to hide the fact that I was just another annoying tourist, but I too was mesmerized into blocking the sidewalk and slackjawed gawking. As I walked away, I wondered exactly when New York became a brand, with the obsequious "NYC" this and "NYC" that. Was this a post 9/11 thing, a light, Disneyesque attempt to lure tourist dollars back to a still-reeling city? Despite this logo, I found New York to be the most European of American cities (though I've never been to New Orleans), the effect being that while I was here, I began to really long for Europe.

Back at the Chelsea. I took a bath with a book and a beer. The label said something like, "We share in the rousing company of good spirits," so I raised a toast to any who might be lingering around, as the clock in the other room ticked closer to the month of Halloween.

I awoke early with a mild headache, caused perhaps by 123 years of cigarette smoke leaching from the walls. In the lobby, European bohos wrote on their laptops. These days, is it art if no one sees you do it? Once out on the streets I found myself walking the walk, directed by a map of New York as known by the Beats. It was a wonderful way to spend the first morning of October. A series of right angles led me past the former flats of late-1940s poets and painters. I saw where Kerouac worked on "On the Road," where Ginsberg fought his inevitability. I too wasn't insusceptible to the muse:

Near Ginsberg's old 15th St pad,
Two actors sit on the stoop
Rehearsing a scene

I passed Warhol's Factory, bought juice in Union Square market, looked at the photos of old ships at Chelsea Docks. I was born in this neighborhood, at St. Vincents Hospital, so I closed a 40 year circle. On the front steps, I marvelled that from this vantage point I'd first seen the outdoors.
My own journey had begun here.

On the turntable: Gomez, "In Our Gun"
On the nighttable: Ursula Hegi, "Salt Dancers"

1 comment:

Michael said...

... and a magical time was had by all.

Many thanks, Ted!