Archive for May, 2011


Since I moved from the bus to the subway I’ve missed watching the street go by, but there is a whole new show to watch. As the subway trains are so broad – no banging your head on the curved roof by the door like the tubes – there’s nearly always room enough to watch what’s going on. And now the weather has turned, the air conditioning is soooo welcome. So most journeys I make, I get to sit down, and watch the other customers – surepticiously of course, it’s not THAT different from the tube!

On Sunday I was on the half-busy train and a couple got on. They were the most good-looking pair in that carriage, and, having glanced around to check out the opposition, didn’t they know it. She, tall, slim, brown-skinned, skin-tight black skirt and vest, high platforms, and wild black hair; he, tall, slim, carefully ripped jeans and dishevelled dress shirt, a little too small so his washboard stomach was revealed every so often. For the five stops they were on the train they did this sort of performance, which just said: ‘look at us!’ They kissed, they swung around the metal poles, they fell into each others arms as the train jerked and swayed – it was so ostensibly casual, and so actually manufactured, I couldn’t help but smile.

This morning three teenage girls were gaggled together in the centre of the carriage – one white, one Spanish-looking, one black. They must have been 14 but still had that gangly coltish look. One had braces and glasses, but as trendy as you like - no longer are these things the sign of geekdomn! She had a huge rucksag on her back, practically the same size as she was, with three tin badges pinned on – this I remember from my 14-year-old days – but one of hers said ‘I heart vampires’ – a little reminder that this is 2011!

Tonight, I took the train back up to Harlem – a slightly different preposition from the well-mannered 7 train on the green line that I’ve been travelling on up to now, up and down the East side! As the express sped along, people sitting with closed eyes, tired after a long day, three 14 year old black boys came through to our carriage. With surprising volume, one commanded: ‘Listen up people, it’s SHOW time’, while another with perfect timing countered: ‘WHAT time is it?’, to a repy from the first: ‘ It’s SHOW time’. They then proceeded to put on a show, a show of rap and break-dancing – not that easy on a speeding wobbling train – for around three minutes, before collecting tips that anyone felt like handing out. I was the only person actually watching them, as far as I could see - I guess maybe they work that train quite often! But they collected a few dollars.

Another thing that tickles me about the subway are the announcements. On the tubes, in really old stations you sometimes still get the bark “MIND THE GAP, MIND THE GAP”. On the tourist routes you get the beautifully spoken Radio Four announcer-style woman telling you the name of the next station – the only person who can pronounce Marylebone correctly - “the next station is, Marlybone”, she says in her cut glass tones, “Please, mind the gap, between the train, and the station.”

Here, there is a terribly jolly sounding man. “The NEXT station is fordee-second street Graaand Central Station”, he proclaims, sounding like he’d really like a drum roll. Then, slightly more soberly: “Ladees and genlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead” – which is nice, but really, what else could be delaying us? And then back to the jolly tone – “Staand clear of the closing dooors pleeease”. Sometimes however, he turns all school-masterly and says “Congestion is NO excuse for inappropriate behaviour – if YOU think you have been the victim of an assult please contact a member of staff” – or something like that….

 

This week New York has bid farewell to two icons. Along with the rest of America, and probably the world, the city has seen the last Oprah Winfrey show. On Wednesday, the last of her daytime chatshows, one of the most watched tv programmes in America, was broadcast. There have been round 4,560 episodes of the programme, with memorable moments like Tom Cruise jumping up and down on her sofa declaring his love for Katie Holmes, and actress Ellen Degeneres coming out.

Back home, Oprah Winfrey’s show was one of those that was broadcast on those strange ‘other’ channels you have in your cable package, or on Channel 4! Never having been a fan of chatshows, or daytime tv, I can’t say I’ve ever watched a whole episode, but there’s no denying the persona she created.

Now that chapter in her life is over, there’s a lot of discussion about what’s she’s achieved. And of course as an African-American woman, a lot of those discussions revolve around whether she advanced the role of women - and black people in America, or whether she reduced both to stereotypes and soap opera. On the Access Hollywood website the headline is “Oprah Tells Fans to Channel Sadness into Hopeful Energy” http://www.accesshollywood.com/oprah-tells-fans-to-channel-sadness-into-hopeful-energy-reveals-her-tasty-post-show-indulgences_article_48601  Whereas the New York Times is a little more intellectual in its analysis of her ‘cult’http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/28/us/28beliefs.html

Aside from Oprah, there was also a goodbye for a little piece of Upper East Side history. The Italian restaurant and bar Elaine’s, on 2nd Avenue between 88th and 89th Street, just by the busstop to work, in ‘my’ neighbourhood of Yorkville, closed its doors this week. You probably haven’t heard of it, I hadn’t, but if you take a look at the opening shots of Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan, you will see its woodpanelled walls. However, that was by no means its only claim to fame. Aparently Elaine, the motherly woman who ran it, who died last year, was confidente and protector to many a New York big name, including Woody Allen himself, who (it’s claimed) was introduced to Mia Farrow there http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2011/05/ahead-of-last-call-at-elaines-celebrity-patrons-remember-the-beloved-nyc-saloon.html Michael Caine, Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol and many others.

According to the guidebook, (and the Queen of Manhattan), the food wasn’t actually all that great, and was definitely over-priced. And if you look in the comments at the end of that Vanity Fair piece you will see a cutting analysis of Elaine’s importance. But I had a notion to go there and see this piece of New York history on my doorstep. But I wasn’t quick enough!

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110526/ap_en_ot/us_last_call_at_elaine_s

The weather has finally cheered up. But in a twist that I didn’t expect here, it’s gone from cold and windy, to scorching! I spent the day in work looking out at blue skies above the skyscrapers, actually chilly in the air-conditioning, and then popping out in the heat to get iced-coffee and lunch. So after getting home and sorting the usual stuff out, I was determined to get out and enjoy the weather.

It was about 8pm, but still warm and light, and, because the skies were finally clear, the sunset was streaking the sky with pink and purple. I had realised that as the apartment block is a stone’s throw from the East River, there must be a way of walking along it. So I put on the ipod and set off. As I diced with death crossing the three-land racetrack that runs up the side of Manhattan, FDR Drive, I realised that on the other side of it is a lovely walkway, all along the riverside. It’s paved, there are seats and even chess tables and it was busy with dog-walkers, people with kids in pushchairs and joggers, and fishermen! And of course the views were amazing.

 

But it brought home again to me the differing attitudes to road traffic here. While I’d love to sit and look at these views, or sit and read a book, as people were, having the equivalent of the M6, or the Westlink, jammed with honking revving traffic, right behind somewhat spoilt it – for me anyway!

Well – I DID make it out last night – eventually! The Queen of Manhattan and I walked up the road, in our high heels, to a French bar with live jazz. It was amazing – wicker chairs, linen napkins, a guy playing the saxaphone, and a stiff, very stiff, g and t! The M15 bus was still plying its trade up and down, the taxis were screeching past, but it felt like a little piece of Paris or Berlin on the side of Third Avenue. I was still so hyped up, I found the whole experience really soothing.

I am exhausted. I was thinking the other day, the word for New York is ‘strive’. In fact, the flat Mutley and I are moving up to in Harlem is by the famous ‘Strivers Row’ – a street of the some of the finest rowhouses in Manhattan. They were designed and built in the late 1800s by the most fashionable firms of architects and became the most desirable places to live for the aspiring black middle classes then developing in Harlem – hence the nickname Strivers Row! And I think I have been striving too hard.

So today, I listened to The Archers on the iplayer, and then got up determined to get out and do stuff, instead of washing and cleaning and worrying! So I decided to head downtown, all the way to the Financial District, and get the free ferry to Staten Island to see an art festival.http://www.statenislandcreativecommunity.org/sicc/SICC.html Art by the Ferry sounded great. The weather was bad again – grey and cold – but it wasn’t ACTUALLY raining (blimey it sounds like home) so I headed out.

As is often the way here though, the journey to one destination takes you to several others. I got off the subway at New York City Hall – which strangely isn’t as impressive as Belfast’s wedding cake of a structure. I suppose for a city this size and of this importance you imagine something really big – but anyway. I started wandering down towards the waterfront and as I strolled my attention was taken by a group wearing matching t-shirts having their photo taken by a man across the street, a policeman, complete with domed helmet – I did a double-take – he was in fact a British bobby – and so were the rest of them! I had to ask what they were doing – running a marathon for charity in Central Park it turned out. I gave them a donation, revelled briefly in their London accents and left to carry on walking downtown.

I was listening to my ipod and suddenly and, as it turned out appropriately, Thomas Tallis came on, such soaring beautiful eccesisatical music. At the same moment I looked to my right, down a street between two skyscrapers, and I saw building work, and yellow security fencing, and sky, and I realised it was Ground Zero. Of course I saw it the last time I was here, but it’s still a shock. The sheer size of the site, how close all the other buildings are to it. It’s very sobering. You think it sends a message about peace – and yet just yesterday, a bomb was thrown into a bank in Derry in Northern Ireland, although thankfully no one was hurt.

So finally I got to the harbour  and waited for the next ferry. Despite the weather and the fact it’s only early in the season, it was packed. It’s an amazing trip – and especially as it’s free! All along battery park, on th toe of Manhattan, you can buy trips to Ellis island, where the immigrants first came ashore to be processed, and Liberty Island, where New York’s iron lady stands. But you can sail past both for free on the Staten Island ferry.

To be honest though, Staten Island itself was a bit dispiriting. It’s another one of the Manhattan boroughs that doesn’t feel like an island, but it. But it also had that down-at-heel, resort-in-the-Winter atmosphere. It was a cold windy Sunday, so maybe any festival of art would be poorly attended - but let’s just say I felt a bit conspicuous! However, there was some really interesting pictorial art on offer – especially the etchings of Bill Murphy (http://aburninglight.com/) who I’m still considering contacting to buy one (when I’m definitely DEFINITELY sure I’m going to be paid for this jaunt!)

Today the world was supposed to end. So far it hasn’t – although I AM a bit fed up… According to Christian radio broadcasters, the world was going to be consumed by earthquakes, which would start in New Zealand and work across the world – making May 21 Doomsday. Groups of believers have been handing out leaflets in New York, certainly since I got here, dressed in jaunty yellow tabards so you know they’re the official predicters of Armageddon.

MY day started with water aerobics in the roof-top pool in our apartment block. It’s led by a terrifying woman. Unlike most exercise class teachers, she is large. She is also disabled, and has to use sticks to walk, so she sits on the side of the pool and barks instructions at us. And she’s very sharp – witty - so when she arrived 10 mins late, to find her class of 10 bobbing around in the pool waiting, she said “well I thought the world was ending so you guys wouldn’t be here.” It’s quite a workout, and this time we used steps – in the water. They’re weighted, but not enough that they can’t be picked up, so they do drift across the pool floor. It seemed like a recipe for disaster, but no injuries occurred.

The next part of the day involved going to Central Park with the Queen of Manhattan. It had actually stopped raining and the sun was out. So we put on ‘summer’ clothes and took books and set off. Central Park is an amazing resource. You literally can be run over by the joggers and roller skaters. Then there are the dog walkers, the kids playgrounds, and the people like us, just stretching out to get some sun. The play areas are fenced off so dogs can’t get in, and dog play areas are fenced off so kids can’t get in (and seeing as they can pee on the woodchips maybe that’s not a bad thing!) There was one innovative children’s play area which had these large metal sculptures of hippos for the kids to climb on. Helpfully, a sign on the gate said: “Warning: Metal surfaces may heat up in the sun.” Thinking about that though, that’s probably to stop parents from suing the city if a kid gets a toasting.

The resevoir in the centre of Central Park is one of the most beautiful parts – and of course the whole park is surrounded by the most prestigious addresses.

It was all delightful, but I could not settle. So I headed back to the flat to do some skyping and some writing and to attempt to find a ‘night out’….

I have been spending a lot of time with the intern at work. She is a raven-haired statuesque twenty-something of Russian/Turkmen descent. We discovered over a dinner of sushi and cocktails the other night, that her father is from Vladikavkaz, in the Caucuses, the last place I taught when I was in Russia, and her mum is from Turkmenistan, where I have also taught. This bizarre coincidence has cemented our friendship I think – she says she never meets anyone who’s even heard of Vladikavkaz, never mind been there!

She is a bit of a rover herself – has visited many countries and lived in different parts of the states. She’s also trying really hard to find work as a journalist – she’s already working with us, but not for payment. I have a bad feeling that there is going to be a generation of journalists used as slave labour by greedy media outlets. She was telling us she met up with a reporter from one of the major networks for lunch and he was telling her that young journalists have to make their own luck. Hmm.

Speaking of journalists, tomorrow I am interviewing the actor Ed Norton – on bio-diversity. Should be interesting….!

The story that is gripping New York at the moment is the arrest of the former director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on charges of sexual assault and rape. It’s alleged he attacked a chamber maid at the high-class mid-town hotel where he was staying. He then left for Paris, but was arrested on board his flight, and brought back to New York in handcuffs. He has now been charged, resigned his post yesterday, and has been banged up in what’s described as New York’s worst prison – Rikers Island.

It’s interesting to see the different attitudes to this story. The Queen of Manhattan refuses to believe it. She talks of ‘these women’ who set men up. The office team was in jovial mood – joking about Strauss-Kahn’s reputation – and say, in low voices so our French colleagues don’t hear, that this is ‘typical behaviour’ for French men. And then there is the frankly appalling way the American media can report charges of crime – endless TV pictures of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs – cameras in the court the day after he was arrested, showing him haggard and with a five o’clock shadow after a night in the cells. While colleagues tell me that some local media here have reported the name of the victim!

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/business/20fund.html

http://manhattan.ny1.com/content/top_stories/139369/former-imf-chief-strauss-kahn-to-leave-rikers-friday

Whatever the truth of the matter, I suspect it’s going to be a long time before we get to it. Meanwhile, the IMF is busy starting the long process of appointing a replacement director. I wonder if, when selected, he (or she) can be persuaded to give Ireland a better deal on the interest on bailout loan…

An advert for dog food (organic of course) has just referred to “pet parents”…and apparently you can buy “dog strollers” (pushchairs) here…

Today is Vesak, or Buddha’s birthday, an anniversary traditionally celebrated by Buddhists across the Asian world. And among the celebrations around the world were several events at the UN headquarters here in New York. So this evening saw me at the opening of an exhibition or Buddhist art in the foyer of the General Assembly building. I was there to record some sound effects, to help me put a package together. It was like all the other exhibition openings I’ve ever been to – started late, a flurry of activity as the main man – in this case, the permanent rep to Sri Lanka – arrived to cut the ribbon, and then polite applause. It reminded me of the opening of the book of photos I went to in Kabul, not long after I arrived in Afghanistan.

I drifted around, looking at the pictures – remembering the huge reclining Buddha statues at Dambulla in Sri Lanka – recording the murmer of different languages, and trying to record a piece to tape - and constantly seeing the pictures and not hearing the sound - until through the exhibition boards I saw a group of Buddhist monks. In their orange robes, and with their shiny shaved heads, they were the manifestation of the spiritualism of Buddhism – until I realised the biggest one had a mobile phone pressed to his ear, chatting away, just like everyone else does in New York, but it seemed very un-Buddhist….

 

I’ve been out on foot this weekend, wandering the length of Manhattan. The Queen of Manhattan was out with various of her ‘casanovas’, as she calls her series of male friends, all of whom have been rejected as potential ‘lovers’ – “I told him, daarling, forget it, itz not going to happen”, but all who remain on the books. So I took myself off to see the Highline (http://www.thehighline.org/).

This is an amazing example of urban regeneration. In the 1903s an elevated railway line was built up the west side of Manhattan to carry freight trains away from the streets, It stopped being used for trains in 1980, but remained an impressive steel structure. When the line was threatened with demolition in 1999, conservationists banded together to protect it.The Friends of the High Line worked with the city council to develop plans to make it into a public park. The first section opened in 2009, the second has just opened, and for free, you can wander it’s half a mile length, between 21st street in Chelsea, to around 30th street. As you are 30 feet in the air, you get great views of the city, and the Hudson river and the piers along the Manhattan banks at Chelsea. But you also get the flavour of wandering along overgrown rail tracks – in the middle of the city. Combine that with art works along the way, street sellers, and lovely seats at different points, and the whole idea is a real success.

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