Date: Thu, 24 Oct 2002
I have to balance the worthlessness of writing a tedious connected report against my dislike of writing little snippets, so this will probably go nowhere once it's reached its middle. Anyhow--I was horribly sleep-deprived when I arrived, because I had drank a bit and hadn't slept too much the night before. There were no security hassles at Midway, though the lady behind me in the luggage scan line kept saying to her friend she wasn't at all sure about the security of this airport, oh no, but she should stop worrying, shouldn't be a worrier, and on and on ... I am mentioning this because this ceaseless paranoid snotty female voice has somehow become a fixture in my life and I have come to despise it.
So I came in all tired and stubbly, but they said I could't check in, I was three hours early. Another lesson learned about combining cheapo "floating" flights with cheapo hotels ... I checked my bags in and went for a walk in Central Park, sat down at a bench where it most reminded me of Bombay--one purpose of this trip was to have a cheap substitute for a Bombay trip--and relaxed and read a few pages of "Don Quijote".
It was a beautiful afternoon, and it had rained a bit before the flight came in, so the ground smelled wet too. Then I looked at the other people sitting around and having lunch etc--who they were--and felt even more relaxed. New York is, obviously, wonderful. It had felt oppressively towering and dense outside the park, but I know that feeling--it lasts for an hour or so and then it passes.
Then I got up and walked across, with the pretext of locating the pub I had found on somebody's "list of good pubs", so I walked and got close to the river, and found one of those diners which you intuitively know you will like, and that's how it was, and I had a rough--or simple, if you prefer the word--breakfast. By this time tiredness was catching up with me big time. I walked back, this time by street, and saw the pub and decided not to go there, it looked more like a Starbucks. I went into the Borders across the street and tried to find the book I haven't found in any obvious place in Chicago. Well, it wasn't there (said the neatly dressed and head-covered Arab girl). Could she order it for me? I was falling asleep on my feet.
When I checked in, I found it was more low-budget than I thought. It was a tiny dark dorm room. The shower and the toilet were in two different directions down the hall. There was a little window looking on to adjoining wings of the building, a bed some might find too hard, and a basin, a TV, a lamp and a phone. I thought it would be a BIT more but this was it--like I was one of those people who come to the city to try their luck. It was what I associated with living in New York. And of course, it didn't turn out bad at all ...
I tried to locate my brother in law and got nothing. I decided this was not the time, and pulled the covers and fell asleep. I'd set the alarm for 5pm, and woke up on time--and woke up unsurprised for the first time in my life while waking up the first time in a new place. If that makes sense. Maybe I have lost some more "wonder" cells ... Then I got into the shower and washed and shaved my head and sat down and watched a half-hour of TV while eating a chocolate bar I had bought from the drugstore next door. And so, I felt a lot better when I set out to find my brother in law, in person.
It was that dramatic time of the evening, of which I remember millions while growing up. It was coming down in infrequent drops and threatening to rain. All lights were on for the first hour of their nightly stint, and by the time I walked to the Ramada Inn it had gotten dark. The lobby felt warm and quiet and the lady at the counter--she was Indian--seemed like she had the answer. I mean I had a theory that the women on the 800 lines never listened, and I was right. So I called him upstairs, but he wasn't in, so I got on the train and went further south.
I can't describe how grateful I felt when it all started coming back to me. It seemed a bit cleaner, though--in general everything seems a bit more Disneyfied than what I remember from years ago. Or I have gotten more cynical. So I walked through all the highly comforting streetside stalls under bright lights etc, and tried to find this McSorley's pub (courtesy of Marie). And before I saw it--it was a hundred feet away pretty much--I saw Kiev, and my heart leaped.
Because Kiev is the first place in New York I ate at. And maybe it has changed locations, and maybe it has a new beer license, or whatever, but the plan is exactly the same. I went in--of course I went in--was helped by the owner as I stumbled on the step, and then sat down and ordered schnitzels. And then eating a hot meal, and watching it rain, and listening to some aging bullshitter still talk about proletariat and exploitation or whatever, faintly in the quietness, and having gentle Ukranian females (if you have noticed, that's the word that describes most of them) ask how everything was, and what not, and I suddenly realized this was turning out quite the happiest evening I have had recently. And so I didn't care about the waitress looking at me strange.
And that's the main reason I have changed my mind. I don't at all think now that it's all going down the drain, and I suddenly don't believe anything big is irretrievably lost. I mean, I had a couple or three unremarkable memories of Kiev in the last ten years--but now suddenly it has become an entirely meaningful place ... Anyway, after a lon time, I got out and walked to McSorley's, and since it was overflowing with people and many looked like the snotty BS type, I walked past it, deciding to go at a better time. I walked around, and by the time I had zigzagged up to Union Square almost everything fell into place, and it was great. Basically, this part of the city is what I remembered as New York, and I decided that I should use this trip to expand on it.
I got on the train at around 23rd and came home--and as an example of how excellent everyone is in New York, all the train stuff was explained to me in five minutes by a guy who works in the hotel basement. Nobody told me to fuckin figure it out, is what I mean. I stretched out a bit--still no message from brother in law. I thought I might as well end the day with a pt or two.
There are what seems like hundreds of "Irish Pubs" here; at least, if you are a low drunk, they are the most visible feature. I knew I didn't have time to separate wheat from chaff, and I am afraid of stepping in and finding ridiculous excesses of paddyism, and then having to waste two pale drinks in an uneasy place, capacity for drinking being a precious resource after all. I stuck to Fitzers, which was two steps away from the hotel. You could call it a chain pub, in that they have one in every one of the Fitzpatrick hotels, which makes them about four in the world--Chicago, New York, Dublin, and some weird Irish name which probably hosts big horsey or doggie events. But it's a subdued and reliable place, where you can without raising eyebrows slip into your true self--i.e. a taciturn old fogey at the end of the bar.
* * *
A semi-funny thing happened at the bar to end my first day.
A little cute female comes in and asks for a wine ... well, this is about the contrast between her and the bartender so I will set the stage by saying that this bartender--a barMAID frankly--is the type who jacks up the volume when a song she likes comes on, and pulls a funny face as an explanation, etc. I mean this is the kind of conversation she is having with the drunks: "Oh you know so much about me, how about bra size"--"I'll say C for **r**"--"My mother did want to call me Emma"--you get the idea. In this scenario walks in a young woman with a bony, intense, sensitive face and big eyes, and sets her black expensive purse and cell phone on the bar, and sighs, while the bartender yells while approaching her--"HI! What can I get for Y?"
"May I have a ... cabernet please?" .. thin, pained voice ...
"Sure! OH DAMN we are out of cabernet! MERLOT?"
At this point I cracked up. That robust bellowing of "MERLOT" cracked me up.
Maybe you had to be there.
Please don't think that just because it's Irish it doesn't cater to ladies. There were several ladies drinking ladylike drinks--elegant flutes holding only about 12 oz and that too of a plain ale.
"Yes please ..." says the pretty female with beautiful eyebrows and long neck--wrapped in a turtleneck of course. She makes an immense show of checking for her messages yet again, bravely wiping back a single tear, and so on and so forth, and I think man, this city does collect them doesn't it. She holds a cigarette in her fingers in an ultra-feminine way, takes a sip of the MERLOT, sniffs, etc. I got bored with this character around then, I guess because most small- scale evil does happen to be banal after all ... But behind the bar you had pretty much pure good, and ... she was basically banal too, as a type ...
There was a lesson to be drawn from that. It was that I was bat-eyed, fluthered, spaychless, or elephants, or had had quantum sufficio. The place was freezing too, so I came back up and was out like a light.
Date: Mon, 4 Nov
2002 13:49:50 -0600
My brother in law--I will call him CP from now on, in accordance with his initials, and also in accordance with an in-joke between my sister and me--CP called, and suddenly I was transported to another world. He had been late to come home, so didn't call. They had all gone to see "Oklahoma!"--front-row seats.
It was a state-sponsored trip, and I guess the state department doesn't mess around. I liked their itinerary. For instance, who the hell gets to live with a Quaker family? But he did.
So he was now at the UN headquarters and he would call me in the afternoon. Etc etc. I was relieved about Oklahoma!, that's for sure. Some ass had told CP that The Lion King was not to be missed, and was pretty much the major reason to visit New York. I felt a bit better about my chances of talking him out of it. On the other hand, the note of shopping was stressed, which stressed me out. At any rate, I put the phone down, and walked to the train, and got off at 79th.
It was a very beautiful day. Shooting a disdainful glance at Zabar's, I walked to the River's Edge hotel, for no other reason than that Dr Borkin had unwittingly endorsed the park beyond. I walked to the park to look at the river, and, well, looked at the river, and read a few more pages of Don Quijote. It is a hilarious book, by the way. Any similar thing seems pathetic and pale compared to it. And very few things seem dissimilar. This has all been said before, of course. If you wish to read a story of the free spirit and the open road--throw out whatever you have and read this book.
It was quiet, green and golden, with silent monoliths of mansions rising behind and a blue river in front. A few boats later I reluctantly got up. Couldn't take too much relaxation, I think, with all that was going on. You know, inside. Or maybe it is congenital. I felt I should walk around. "You make a great deal of sense, Sancho", maybe the voice of hunger told me. My father used to call me Sancho.
I walked to Barney Greengrass (gain, courtesy of Marie). I liked it. It is a civilized place. But I am not sure I should use the big word "civilized" for a small meaning; I only mean it is simple, a simply dressed guy can quickly get a table at 1 o'clock on a cool, brilliant afternoon, it is filled but quiet and airy, the waiter speaks simply, and the food is good. I ate eggs, whitefish and salmon. It truly as excellent.
Barney Greengrass is not a fake name; I think "Barney" runs the place. He has a face which I associate with good food, in Chicago at least. As usual, I had an added advantage--I could speak easily to the "help". Must have been from Bangladesh--he certainly didn't have a problem with someone rapaciously picking the fish clean.
When I first came to America I ended up too often in chintzy-upscale restaurants, where it seemed like they *disapproved* of eating everything on your plate. And so, if I have any food-related dimension to my memories, it is the gradual discovery of quiet places where they like people who eat. Needless to say, I haven't had to go on a separate search for food that hits the spot.
I walked across the park, along the reservoir, to the Guggenheim. By now there wasn't the slightest question of getting lost; I had gotten my autopilot. It is when you dissolve in the city. Maybe it takes two or three trips. When you do, street and park, water and land, people and benches come together.
The lines were too damn long. I just ran into the shop and bought a few small things, for friends. Museum stores are the best, right, for trinkets? And I frankly didn't feel all that interested in the Art of the Motorcycle or the evolution of Giorgio Armani's print ads. We readers of Don Quijote go to the Frick instead. I made that plan, walked around a bit and took the train back.
* * *
Reports of snipers, and panic or defiance, sounds of college girls echoing round the floor (must have been a reunion), and a little patch of light on the floor--it was all intermingled as I dozed and waited for a call.
* * *
In the evening I finally met CP. It's been two years; also, he had never seen me with a shaved head. Strange! Though maybe it's much better put this way: I had never really gotten to know him. That finally happened in New York.
My fear had no basis, of course. He laughed when the subject of The Lion King came up. Laughed, because we didn't know each other so well that he could say screw that. And when I asked how he would feel about Birdland, he agreed at once. So we walked--we walked a lot--and he had some quite interesting stories too, from India and from his trip here. I had a good time. And more importantly, I knew my sister would be pretty happy to hear this ...
Birdland had an as-you-expect kind of band; highly polished music, but basically, should I say, Ellingtonian? It was great. Once upon a time, I have read on liner notes, this place was a fount of invention, and so we went. What's "place" anyway, they have relocated. I fed him gumbo--with everything being new to him, food was not going to be a problem--and I had catfish with greens. I had a great good time. I asked him how he felt, and he said, six or seven hundred notes and a good dinner, what was there to complain. Ha ha, excellent answer... This was going to be blast. I told him all I could remember about the place from my bookish reading, as we walked to his hotel. And I dropped him off, took the train, had a couple of pts at Fitzers, and was fast asleep shortly thereafter.
* * *
Appendix 1: My much-maligned brother-in-law
Sister warning: May
attach a lot of importance to how you dress, don't be a dork.
Sister warning: Don't
let him near any consumer crap, he will shop till he drops.
A fervent appeal to sisters everywhere!
* * *
Appendix 2: The degradation of "Girls' Night Out"
Just bitching ... time was--or was there ever a time--when a jazz "lounge" would mean tough ch*ks. Like thrift stores, they are practically one of the reasons one goes--they light up your heart and leech out your bitterness just by being there. The party near us was the opposite. And the fug of perfume was dense enough to stick your fork into, and they talked ear-splittingly, above the music. I contend that that was wrong. And what is it about New York and EMPTY places? A place like Birdland, in Chicago, on a Friday night, would be overflowing. And ear-splitting talkers of mundane nonsense would be asked to take it out of earshot.
* * *
Appendix 3: The ancestor of dotcoms
So did you ever wonder how it came to be that sad smoldering dotcoms had so quickly engendered gross, overspecialized jobs? How did mere "plucky startups" bristle with managers who had never worked on the floor, for instance? Take it from a visitor who saw the insides--it derived from ... THE MEDIA. American TV stations actually have tech managers who have never held a camera. There is no dearth of people who leave at 5, or say "that's not my field", or "that's not my job". And these outfits may be sad, but they are not smoldering at all. Have you ever wondered why?
From: Tushar Samant
Nothing much happened in the morning. All I did was walk in a direction I hadn't until then--which would mean east--and finally give in and get a cup of coffee from Starbucks. The only other coffee shop which looked promising from afar turned out empty, dusty and with a for-sale sign stuck on the window. New York's fallen to Starbucks, no doubt about it. It has only prevailed over Hard Rock Cafe (which I *think* I saw), by keeping it cramped within decorous and mannerly confines. The Kinkos and the Cosi cafés are all over. It didn't escape the Magic Wipe of the 90s after all--and it's looking shiny and child- friendly. But that didn't make me panic, and that was good enough.
Everyone was talking into their cell phone, nobody was reading anything on the trains--unless you count a Cosmopolitan here and a Bridget Jones there--and the high pitch of activity which I remembered, or thought I did, had not shown up anywhere. It felt smaller, is what. Granted, this city took a bad and traumatic hit, but I think it was really the short glitzy, depersonalizing era which actually did it.
We met up at the diner next door, ate, and strode into the park. We talked about a lot of things for 20 blocks or so, and finally reached the house of the Frick Collection. We split up--no other way to do it. It feels like I spent a little more time looking at the gadgets this time. Or should I simply say clocks? Among the "objects" I only found the clocks impressive. The vases etc looked plain, or even ugly.
Maybe I only wanted a break from the descriptions of paintings which were tumbling out of the handset. I cracked up when I first switched it on--so ridiculously upper-crust a voice, so *British*, and with an unassailable lisp. I got the image of a darling of all Oxford as he lisped from hall to hallowed hall. And finished the thesis when 24, probably... I am saying I found it funny not stupid. The voice also suggested "I could be a total prick if I wanted to", and such a voice is fine. It's a great antidote to the fadedness that surrounds us.
I was so blind before. I am glad I spent all the time I wanted, staring at the Holbeins, Rembrandts and Vermeers. And the English painters. Now I begin to understand approximately what they were after, and for which you must have complete respect. And now I also see that some good can come of surrounding yourself with useless excessive beauty--at least if, at least in death, you open it up to the public. I will go again. Time passed sort of fast. Still, my feet were aching. Sitting down on the train was a relief.
Again, by the good luck that permeated the whole trip, we got to the Brooklyn Bridge at the perfect time. And now my brother in law couldn't resist it. The cam came out. And so we had the most punctuated walk ever over the bridge, stopping at every spot which gave any kind of "angle". And I took innumerable pictures--of other people, with their cameras. It was a smoother walk after the lights started coming on over the highways and the city, spread out magnificently and dizzyingly below, and that's when I finally had a brief moment of that "high pitch" of bustle that I had pretty much given up on.
If New York is to be homologized to Bombay, then of course Brooklyn is where I grew up. Well, it sounds funny to say it, that's all. So I said. We walked around, got a bit lost, laughed at the "Kennedy Fried Chicken" shack, with a "JFK" logo, agreed immediately on the point that an Indian must be behind this "branding", har har, then found a station and took the train back, to somewhere in the middle of Chinatown. It had gotten dark.
What to do but to walk around again. We walked all over the map. Going through Soho, again it felt like it had been Magic- Wiped. He felt it too, and he has not been here before. He said it felt more like a movie set--yes, that's exactly what it was, it was too much of chrome and dark glass and little black dresses. And most weirdly, Indian restaurants made quaint.
So we were talking about man and his terroir, and what not, and gradually realizing we were very hungry. I finally brought it up, and no place looked particularly right. We had already agreed we wouldn't go to the Red Cat or anything, we wanted a simple place. Finally, as it does, came a time when we were going to eat at "whatever is on the next block". Which is how we ended up at Katz's.
Or, as I like to think, hunger brought us there.
So, I still hadn't come across anything which didn't make me absolutely stupid-happy--I had forgotten about Katz's, honestly, it was not on the plan. We went in, and as is the right thing to do, sat at a waited-on table. Maybe we had a slightly different intuition about the place. But it felt completely like home turf. The cam came out again--somewhere, there is some professional coverage of being inside Katz's, ha ha ...
It was some wild dog eating. Pastrami, beef--gone, all gone. Cucumbers, pickles--disgustingly gone. Root beer, gone. No fries though--we have religious purity laws. I made the very difficult decision to drink again that night. Such a foundational plan is wasted, absolutely wasted, without the elevation that is Guinness stout.
Hoo. We somehow got our fat asses out of the chairs, and we moved around for a while again, and I tried to locate where I'd stayed the last time I was there and failed, we went past McSorley's again, we cracked up at the site of sardars playing sitars in basement restaurants, and finally somewhere far more north, we got on the train.
So, yes--I couldn't get rid of that feeling, that somehow it was far more generic now. Or far less Jewish, maybe. Or maybe I hadn't really gone into a *neighborhood*. So many people acting like they were living inside Friends, or Sex and the City. So few old brick walls to buildings, or something ... so little dust or trash. Or something. Too many Indians, too, maybe that gave it a different feeling for me.
Indians have gelled into a substantial community now--rich, poor, blue, white, vapid, zesty, conservative, liberal, everything. I wonder, will some great prose or poetry spring out of this sometime? I mean, just--words out of the city, so to say. It would mean a lot to me if this happened. Even in Chicago, where I live has in five years become quite a hive of Pakistani people (among others-- Ethiopians, Nigerians, Cambodians, Russians etc), and it's very... transplanted from the old world, to put it roughly. But it's not Jewish. I hardly know what I mean. There is a buzz, but I don't hear people really arguing about history or language or art, or even politics in any real sense, or groping towards a vision, or trying to solve something difficult. So, this happened in Jewish ghettoes? That would be a good question only if it weren't so vague. And maybe it's happening in these "ghettoes" and I am too dumb, or too blinded by pre-conceived fictions, to see it. Look, I was there to have a good time.
I should remember always to put in a non-story from the pub. This is about a couple sitting near the fireplace. Actually there is no fireplace, but it is so obviously where the "fireplace" would be. They looked so ... grim and complicated. Never knew anybody could be that way, except some of these old Swedish couples who live around here ... It is the reason I watched them.
Before leaving, the man comes to the bar for a last order. He asks for "a plain lager", and, after much hesitation, a whiskey. What whiskey, asks the girl. Woman. Jack Daniels, says the man, looking like someone who has quickly changed his mind. More precisely, like an entirely whiskey-faced drunk ass who has felt his wallet. She pours it, he peers at the thin sliver at the bottom of the glass. He asks how that came to be. It's a "shot", she says.
I get the fleeting idea of buying one more to go into the glass. Don't disturb the universe... I work in New York, daddy, is the tone of what she says. I really liked her so much. A drop of water in it, says the old man. You had to be there to appreciate the exact way she hosed down that glass--enough to make it look substantial, not so much that it lost the shimmer. Sharp as a whip. It's how I became such a drunk--by finding that there are places where drunks are understood.
Even in Chicago, where I go, at exactly the right time, a new glass magically appears. At the time when you are not sure you want another, none appears. I don't think I am even visible to her really, as someone separate, but somehow, psychically, she does it. People might drink for various reasons, but one main reason is that it gives you the experience of violently falling in love. It's short-lived, and abstract, but what more do you want.
I drew the lesson that had to be drawn from these musings, viz. I was fluthered, bat-eyed, or spaychless, or elephants, or had had quantum sufficio. The next day was going to be suburban mall day, and it was time I faced up to it.