Sunday, 13 February 2011

New York 2009

This may be the land of the free; but New York is definitely the city of the Nail Bar. Everywhere from The Village to Madison Ave has its plethora of Nail Bars! I do wonder what gives here, are they a front, if so, what for?

I could suggest that the nuns in the seminary where I am staying go and spy out the land for me; but they, to a woman, all dress and look like butch-dykes. I don't think hand care lies high in their priorities. That means they don't look out of place in the Chelsea area here, where anything clearly goes. I have breakfast each morning with the two priests staying and officiating here for a week. I asked about the nuns in men's clothes and cropped hair; all women of a certain age. The priests roll their eyes Heavenwards. The order consists of a dwindled collection of four feminist nuns; no one under 60, no new or young novitiates, despite there being plenty of young flesh in other orders. Their time is fast running out. Seemingly they refuse even to use gender specific language, so when reading aloud from The Bible, 'The Lord' becomes 'The Sovereign'........these priests, just passing through, keep the peace.

The Chelsea Hotel is just around the corner; less louche than it was, a refurb has deterred the 'artists' who once haunted it. The room where Nancy Spurgen was found dead has been divided in two,' To prevent it becoming a shrine.' is the official explanation; but perhaps the new owners more value the extra room income.

New York has been experiencing a biblical 40 days and 40 nights flood. Looking onto the flat rooftop outside my window, I could paddle up to my knees in water collected there. Those sitting under that roof don't know how near to a drowning they are, flat roofs here being as known to let you down and make you wet as they are anywhere else. There has been one bright afternoon and, at last being able to see the top of the Empire State building now cleared of mist, I queued...then queued, went through security, queued, walked briskly through the shops, YOUR LAST CHANCE TO BUY A MAP SHOWING WHAT YOU WILL BE LOOKING AT.....queued for the lift to the 80th floor and found...a queue for the lift to the 86 floor. At this point I am grinding my teeth, plenty of windows surround us, but they are all frosted, so you cannot see through them. I get chatting to some nice Japanese tourists. Here, where the flu pandemic is constantly on the news, the only people I have seen wearing face masks are the Japanese. They laugh, this man is almost six foot, his wife taller than I am. He says, well, it is the little ones that scurry about with the masks.....we larger models are above the level of the germs.

We inch our way to the lift, are whisked up the final few floors and all the waiting becomes worthwhile. Seemingly on a good day you can see 80 miles. I think my view was rather less, but stunning. Off downtown in the financial area at the southern tip of Manhattan, there are the canyons of sky scrapers. The Statue of Liberty is a miniature at this distance. The Chrysler building, the many bridges, the shipping. And the gap in the skyline where the twin towers once stood. I circulate round and round, slowly, absorbing the changing light as fluffy clouds scurry across the landscape. Popular attractions attract crowds, for good reasons.

I have been getting used to the transport system, up-town or down-town, all very logical and the buses are great here. I pop on and off and gaze out at all the legendary places. 5th Avenue, Broadway, Times Sq.

I spent almost an entire day at the Met Museum. It is like the British Museum and the V&A all rolled into one. I do enjoy wandering and chancing across wonders....oh, I did not know that was here! In Paris and wandering the Louvre, I turned a corner and there was Winged Victory, like a stone prow for a stone ship, it took my breath away. I had several such moments here. Wandering the rooms of paintings, there were three Vermeer canvases, all together, each a jewel. Stillness, serenity, light expressed like a benediction across a room, upon a young woman. Perfect.

From a distance and through a wide corridor there was Canova's Perseus with the head of Medusa. As great in its way as Michelangelo's David. The back of the statue with its diagonal drape almost has an Art Deco look to it.

One wanders acres of European art, how could there be anything left in Europe! This must be the feeling when Greeks wander the great foreign galleries, so much transported across continents. Here, entire suites of 17th and 18th century rooms have been dismantled, shipped and put together in Manhattan. Both absurd and wonderful. But the collection seems strong in all departments. Egyptian artifacts like I have never seen, oriental collections from Japan. During a break in the rain, they opened the roof-garden. My first real look at the city scape and across Central Park, a stunner. If they rented out bedrooms, I would stay there.

Bruce has been looking after me, where to eat, where to drink and concerts. Going to Carnegie Hall was striking. We went through the VIP entrance, Bruce knows everyone and we are treated as friends. Our seats could not be bettered. Along the walls towards the auditorium are framed manuscripts, letters and tributes by composers and musicians. There is a page of a Beethoven manuscript, never mind it is part of his most awful composition, 'Wellington's Victory', it is in Beethoven's own hand. A letter by Berlioz, some kind words from Bernstein, these lead to this spectacular performing space, beautifully decorated and, where I was sitting, comfortable. Our first concert, Bruckner 8th: Haitink and the Chicago band. The wall of sound built up, the sound spectacular, stunning, there cannot be a better orchestra can there? Haitink unrolled the score and I got that special Bruckner experience. It is not about music getting loud or soft; rather, sound comes at you across vast space, rolls all over you and like a rushing train off it into the distance. It is one of Bruckner's special sets of fingerprints and Haitink controls the tempest and the calm using delicate hand gestures. Although he seems infirm when using his stick to come onto the stage and has great difficulty getting onto the podium; his music making is potent.

After the second concert, we went for a late meal, as everywhere, Bruce is greeted warmly and a window table is provided, or a quiet table away from the music, whatever Bruce wants, he is instantly provided with. He has skills I need to learn, though a lot of it is being pleasant and remembering names; not sure I can learn those lessons well enough. On the sidewalk, it is usual that Bruce will encounter someone he knows. We went to a Gallery for one in a series of rather more cutting edge concerts. The weather was muggy and the place was like a Turkish steam room; but the music was exciting. Excellent musicians brought some very challenging scores to life. In one, scored for five loud instruments, only one line of music exists across the 20 minute piece. The players have written instructions on how to extemporize around the notated score.

I was introduced to many movers and shakers of the NY new music scene, including the head of composition for Yale. He was having one of his early pieces performed. Somewhat arid, he had explained it was much influenced by Brahms; he had cleverly concealed that within the spare score.

The final evening with Bruce turned into a spectacular bar crawl, starting with a bottle of bubbly at the Algonquin; famous as the haunt of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and the literary set of the 40s, it is immensely stylish in dark wood with oriental paintings above the panelling. Plush and lush. Next up was a spectacular bar overlooking the street theatre of Times Square. Think of Piccadilly Circus, six times longer, five times higher and commensurately brighter wattage. Looking down from our eighth floor eyre, the rain slashed down again and life imitated art. Other than the flying cars, Bladerunner had arrived. You could even find the same kind of unappetising street food. After that, another bar with a vantage point, again, not easily found. Cocktails were consumed; though not a Manhattan.

The rain has not really deterred me. Macy's was somewhat of a hell-hole, but had to be done. I enjoy wandering streets, craning my neck, loving the contrasts with Victorian grace jammed against huge glass slabs. Even in hues of gray, it provides constant interest. The street-life buzzes and people are helpful and friendly. On arriving, the plan was I would phone Bruce at his office from somewhere near Times Sq. This plan almost foundered as I could not find a public call box, not in a bar or hotel! Fed-up dragging my luggage, I stopped someone who had just finished a mobile call and asked if I could pay her to make a local call; she was amused and happy to do it, no is a firm's phone.

I had almost dreaded the arrival through immigration. In Bristol I was given, by UK staff, the third passport gave some kind of concern and I was held up for ages. Initially the irritated security guy ignored my questions about what was going on. He disappeared with my precious document. Eventually he said my date of birth looked wrong......wrong! I know I probably look older than my years, but I know when I was born.....hogwash there must be some other problem. We waited in silence as people around me went forward for their boarding passes. Then started the questions...what is this stamp in your passport? 'Jordan'.....'Why were you there, where did you stay, did you make contact with locals, how long were you there?' Then a supervisor came along, he was shown whatever was on the computer screen, it was moved to ensure I could not read it. Significant glances were exchanged, some notes were taken. Then I was released with a 'Sorry for the delay.' Phew...onto the check-in....but there, my hotel of destination did not appear in their system 'What is the Zip code?' 'I have no idea.' Well, impasse. I look at the hidden screen, I explain I am going to New York, not New Jersey...again phew, hotel found, I am permitted a boarding pass. I leave with the impression I will get more of the same at the NY end.

Almost first off the plane, I hear people being asked their itinerary. I walk forward, fingerprints taken, eyeball photoed, and then...'Enjoy your stay sir.' I was through and free!

I paid a visit to Ground Zero. Now a vast building site, the hoardings prevent any real views. The church close to it is now an active shrine. Lots of photos of those who evaporated, of the events and the people involved. It was very moving. A place where commercialism is kept outside of the door and instead a space is created in which to remember, contemplate and learn. A place to pause in a busy town.

Today, I think another museum calls, then tomorrow, my final day, it will be sunny. I will take that walk across Brooklyn Bridge and see the island from a distance, perhaps also float past the Statue of Liberty. Tonight it will be a Broadway play. Then, so soon, home. Next time I will pay extra so the weather is bright.

On leaving I read in a newspaper about the arrest of a woman who had the previous day killed a pedestrian by running her over. The driver had been painting her nails and her lack of proper attention to the traffic caused the accident. A strange footnote and confirmation of the deadly NY obsession with nails.

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