Real NYC conversations recorded and transcribed for your reading pleasure:
I am back on Clifton Place. Rain pelts the skylights and the jets roar overhead every thirty seconds or so, as they do in most parts of London everywhere except, oddly, the Elephant and Castle.
It has been raining all day, sometimes reaching torrential levels with the rain pounding the pavement like hail and huge pools forming in the corner of the street. Walking home, the huge fortress like housing projects below Lafayette – two blocks south of Clifton Place – were wreathed in fog, so the upper stories were cut off by the cloud and barely visible from the street. On foggy days, this city really does look like Gotham.
I’ve involved with this place in one way or another for five years, ever since I helped the owner, Gavin, paint and plaster one of the upstairs rooms and install the cupboards and paint on the level I’m on now. In subsequent years, I’ve alternately house-sat and stayed here. When Gavin and his girlfriend Charlotte had all their furniture here – Gavin has exquisite taste, with fine prints and antique furniture and art he buys at auction on the walls – it was one of the finest places I’ve ever stayed.
Even now, when Gavin has cleared the place out to rent it and the only furniture is an airbed, a chair, and the two boxes I use to prop up this computer, it still lovely – if a little eerie. In the morning the light pours through the skylight, softening the brick wall with the single arch which separates the main space from the kitchen, the thick, century old beams which hold up the roof – and you wake up into the light and feel like you could be in a country house, say in Maine or Quebec’s Eastern townships or even rural England, and not in what is still basically the Brooklyn ghetto.
Back in the park. Color coming out in the trees – pink and yellow blossoms, startling red and orange fringes where the buds are coming out. Behind me some unfortunate welfare recipients are earning their two hundred a month plus food stamps or whatever it is by picking up trash and putting it into plastic bags. Big black women mostly, fed on a junk food diet, wearing bandanas, baseball caps over their heads, leather jackets and leather purses and jeans with spangles on the pockets.
Ghetto fabulous, the low-rent version. Nice enough though, apologizing for disturbing while I was writing at the table because they had to stab at the potato chip bags and other refuse some cretins threw on the grass, stopping to give directions to some lady pushing a baby carriage and trailing two small kids, pointing with their sticks and debating amongst themselves – four of them got involved at one point – about the best way to go in that way New Yorkers do.
Prospect Park has to be one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever seen. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park, Mont Royal in Montreal and some big park in Chicago. The man knew his stuff. In Prospect Park, you really feel the change in landscape – open green, bridges over rivers, small ponds where herons, ducks, and even eagles gather depending on the season. Horses traipse through the park, carrying either mounted police, or somebody who has rented one for an hour or two from one of the stables, while in the mornings you see odd things like a couple dozen kids going through a judo class underneath one of the big trees, or twelve people, black and white and obviously American, in a circle, going through the motions of Falun Dong. Olmstead thought of everything, even the heavily wooded area with the fountain in the middle where the gay men gather – I wonder if he thought of that back when he designed it? Down by the boathouse, there is a small garden where the kids can go up and look at different insects and butterflies, and in front that a little pond. In the mornings you can walk through one of the paths that wind through the wooded areas and imagine for a few moments you are in the country somewhere instead of the middle of Brooklyn.
Prospect Park, the picnic tables.
Sun, warmth – up in the high 70’s. Park full of women with baby carriages, hundreds of kids on the green playing baseball. White women, mostly white kids on the green then dozens of black schoolkids traipsing in behind their teacher from Crown Heights on the other side of the park.
Some big white woman admonishing her child somewhere in the background: “It is NOT cool to be naked in the park . . .” That nasal American voice.
Hard to believe I’ve been away for a year and a half and I really don’t know what I’ll find. This city can change so much in a few months, never mind a year and a half. Of course a part of me expects to find it just as I left it – but it’s changed, and I’ve changed as well.
So quiet here. Maybe it just seems that way after a year and a half in London, which has become an impossibly noisy city, but I don’t remember anywhere in Brooklyn being this quiet. Even on the 7th Ave, the main shopping street through this gentrified burg, the congestion is like nothing you’d seen in the equivalent – East Dulwich say – in London.
People so much more pleasant than in London. The little kindnesses in the stores – the Korean woman tying up the bag of miso soup so it won’t spill. Sense of a calmer culture, despite everything.
Trees hardly budding yet. Everything grey, even in the sunshine. Like so many times I’ve come back to New York, it takes a couple of weeks to get back into the flow of the city, for the city to come alive in me and me to come alive in the city.
I hadn’t been in JFK for years. Like the Heygate, it seems a product of the 60’s love or reinforced concrete. The arrivals ‘lounge’ is like something out of Communist Poland or Bulgaria – dingy concrete spaces, a single Dunkin’ Donuts booth, then a long concrete rampway under a parking garage to the new Airtrain which whizzes you along a circular elevated track past the different terminals of JFK and on through a desolate stretch of parking lots and factories (the anonymous Queens night spreading out beyond the window in a blur of lights and dark spaces), and onto a desolate station of the A line.
The first thing that strikes me is how much more subdued people seem here. None of that weird aggression you get in London with people yelling into their cell phones. I hardly noticed people talking into the their cell phones here – even the young black guys. That was the first pleasure in being back – the easy courtesy of Americans.
Then comes the familiar aluminum sided train with the scratched up, that hideous orange interior. Hard NY faces – a black guy with a sparse beard and one of those skullcaps fitting tightly over his head, getting off somewhere deep in Brooklyn’s ghetto heart.
And after the long haul through these familiar subway stations beneath Bedford Stuyvesant, the wait on the bridge at Smith and 9th, the Manhattan skyline spread out in the dark, the bell of the Williamsburg Bank Tower, the vast industrial spaces around the Gowanus Canal – reminding me how industrial Brooklyn, indeed all New York, remains – that until very recently this was a 20th century industrial city (unlike London, which is a 19th century industrial city).
Twelve hours after I locked the metal door behind me on Claydon House, I pulled into my friend’s apartment on 8th Ave, Park Slope. I’d never seen the street so quiet – with the neighborhood bar on the corner, the bodega with the stacks of organic potato chips and fresh produce, the big trees hanging over the street, the smell of grass and woodland from the park nearby it was like stepping out into the suburbs.
We went to the 12th street bar on the corner where a basketball game was on TV and Bon Jovi was playing on the stereo. The barmaid flirted with us and a plate of nice seafood with a good glass of Pinot Noir came to less than ten pounds. It was good to be back in New York.
This journey started just after one pm, locking the metal gate of my flat on Claydon House, looking out on the concrete gangways with the peeling paint, the view of the empty lot where the only sign of activity was a single scaffold in the middle of the pit – dragging my suitcases down to New Kent Road and into the unlovely tunnels beneath the roundabout in front of the very unlovely shopping mall, making one last plunge to the Bakerloo trains which would take me to the Picadilly Line and the ride out to Heathrow.
The jet was half-empty. Shock of hearing American accents of the plane staff, Maroon 5’s ‘Sunday Morning’ playing in the cabin, reminding me of drinking beer in a NY bar in the afternoon with the NY sunlight pouring in the window and the NY girls on the street outside . . . a few b-grade movies and a view of the great green surface of the North Atlantic through a break in the clouds, the ice sheets breaking up in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and we descended at eight pm into JFK International.
I’ve never crossed into the US from Europe before and I wasn’t sure how it would go. I wasn’t sure if I’d be printed and scanned like other European citizens or if I’d be faced with a barrage of questions about my dual nationality and why I’d moved to England. On the plane we were given a form with the most bizarre questions (Have you ever been a member of the Nazi Party?) but when I went to the stewardess and asked if I had to fill it out as a Canadian, she just laughed in that charming, easy American way, “No! Give it back!”
Right off the plane we were herded down a narrow corridor into a shabby looking room with a low ceiling and the immigration control booths lined up at the end, a couple of West Indian ladies directing people to each booth. The effect was intended to intimidate, but the atmosphere was easygoing, even a little festive, with everyone off the plane anticipating the night in New York and the immigration officers joking with the people coming in – something I’ve never seen before crossing into the US where the guards tend to be at best humourless, at worst downright menacing. I stepped up to a black guy with a French first name who was joking with the officer behind him, pointing back to the line and saying, “Check out that guy there!” before checking me in without looking at me at all.
For the first time in a year and a half, I was back in America.
More notes from St. Martin’s College . . .
Ross, the guy I work with in the mornings, has finally started selling his art. In his 50’s. I wonder how many of the bright young things who breeze past the front desk ever dream it will take until their 50’s to make it. Soon he will retire from the regular working world and move to New York with his girlfriend, who has landed a job in Manhattan and a flat in the East Village. Ross has worked on facilities at St. Martin’s for thirteen years and said a few years ago he almost gave up and resigned himself to a life without art.
It’s true that after even a few weeks, working at the school begins to play with your mind. You start to feel self-conscious about your lack of success and wonder if you should even tell anyone you’re an artist – if you should even let on that you aspire to anything artistic. You begin to question your own legitimacy as the artist you claim to be – the most dangerous position for any artist in which to find themselves – since you are essentially a hall monitor to bight young things with their whole future ahead of them. Even if you know, that for most of them, their confidence won’t survive beyond college, you still feel intimidated by that confidence and sense of purpose.
In the mornings, I make the rounds, stocking toilets. I don’t mind it in the mornings – but for a few African cleaners, I’m pretty much alone. The classrooms are in terrible shape – the whitewashed walls are scuffed and dirty, dust sits in layers on top of the lights and water stains pour out over the ceiling. The lift has a mind of it’s own, so you’re never sure which floor it will stop on, or if, indeed, it will even work.
The theatre space is in the sub-basement, along with the set design tables where students have pinned up posters of a church by Le Courboisier, paintings by Piet Mondrian. Garish set designs, and writing in Japanese script. I like to pause in the theatre space when the sets are in place – the lights hanging from the ceiling, or chairs arranged around the stage with costumes and notes on the floor. It’s like a little pause where I can remember another part of my life hanging around the fringes of these kinds of spaces, recalling the idealism with which I approached books, art, artists. With Bach or Massive Attack or Siouxse and the Banshees playing on the headphones, I can almost feel my way back into Montreal in the 80’s, New York in the early 90’s – even London when I lived in Bloomsbury.
Back in the day, Pablo – who works the evening shift because of chronic insomnia – was a DJ then a hairdresser, hanging out in the rave scene way back in 87 or 88 – the years he said later became famous as the summer of love (Funny that I missed the early rave years entirely – as far as I was concerned, rave didn’t start until the early 90’s, after I’d stopped doing drugs, and dropped out of the youth scene altogether). Pablo tells me about going out to some farmer’s field where 20,000 people would dance stoned on ‘E’, and how in those early days the police would come to shut them down and not be able to do anything because the people who organized the raves had made a deal with the farmers who owned the field. He tells me about the football hooligans who came to raves and dropped E and forgot about being hooligans – except when the police came and tried to shut everything down and they weren’t protected by some deal with a farmer and the hooligans organized the ravers and together they rushed police lines. He tells me about the E casualties who never came back (and how much of this island has left something behind? Sometimes I feel like Britain has become a society of the permanently damaged and dislocated) – a black dude who’d never done E before and dropped 1-2-3 tabs at a show and jumped onstage and peeled off his clothes until ‘he was dancing naked with his big dick flopping around – dancing like someone who’s lost his mind.’
Pablo lives on the Clapham Common Estate where he grew up. “You won’t get your flat robbed but you do get tired of people knocking on your door asking for a tenner.” I wouldn’t have placed him as a south London boy at first – with his goatee and shaved, his slightly formal accent with the rounded vowels and polite turns of phrase, he seemed unplaceable. He says he had to get rid of his accent when he was hairdressing, “the bosses didn’t like me talking down, as they put it,” but on the weekends he gets pissed up with his brother and his mates down in Clapham. “We’ll stay out ‘til eight, nine, ten in the morning, get a turntable, do some coke . . . I don’t do coke too much anymore, but me mates will.”