[31 January 2011]
“If you got a lot o’ money you can make yourself merry,
You only got a nickel it’s the Staten Island ferry…”
—Bob Dylan, “Hard Times in New York Town” (1961)
With Sydney behind us, Clare and I have begun our reconnaissance mission: how do artists get their work done in other cities of the world? Where is it viable to live? It’s probably silly, then, to begin our investigation in New York. Just 30 years ago New York was still opening its arms to the tired, poor, huddled masses of creatives. But now?
Flying out of Sydney on the cusp of the southern summer, we made a four day stop-over in wintry San Francisco. We roomed at the Green Tortoise in North Beach. This four-storey hostel, built on the lower slopes of Telegraph Hill on Columbus Street, is impressively self-sufficient. You need an ATM? It’s inside the building. Likewise calling card dispenser, public phone booth, vending machines, internet terminals, laundry, sauna, kitchen. Some nights the guests muck in and help cook a big batch of burritos. The Green Tortoise also organises day trips and tours of the West Coast. It was good to be back at the hostel after a year away. Nothing had changed, not even the desk staff.
I was a two-minute walk from City Lights Books. Late one night I had a meeting with a staff member; I handed over a copy of my recent anthology Jack London’s San Francisco Stories for the store’s consideration. North Beach used to be the centre of an important artistic scene. Apart from City Lights there’s the American Zoetrope building on Kearny, the Beat Museum, and some of North America’s oldest strip clubs including the Roaring 20s and the Condor Club. You can find plenty of good cheap vegetarian grub, particularly in Chinatown to the immediate southwest. There’s a huge jazz mural above the New Sun Hong Kong, and Enrico’s restaurant on Columbus has Lavirille Aber’s painting of Duke Ellington on the wall; such things to me, are the clearest indication of a fine area for artists to visit, if not live in.
It was Clare’s first time in San Francisco. We walked down cold gusty Kearny to Market Street. If I ever have the good fortune to live in San Francisco, I’d like to live in the Mission south of Market. The Mission has a lot of wonderful graffiti art, including the walls along Clarion Alley: sleepy-eyed Ganeshas, Henri Rousseau-inspired undersea forests, Mexican death murals, psychedelic faces exploding in reds and blues and greens, political slogans like ‘Demoncracy’. The area is, or was till recently, largely working-class Hispanic. The gentrification of the last 15 years led to the formation of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC), whose aim is “to stop the displacement of working peoples from the Mission District and San Francisco.” To be accepted here I’d have to prove my non-hipster credentials, probably by not being able to afford to rent in the area.
At Adobe and Valhalla Books, Clare and I browsed fruitlessly for Donald E. Westlake paperbacks, pretty essential for the long-term traveler. Cheap signed hardcovers? Beautiful, tempting, but too heavy for the backpack. We walked west on 17th Street. I was disappointed that the wonderful Castro Theatre was showing a sing-a-long version of The Sound of Music every night we were in town. No, thanks. Last time it had been a terrific Al Pacino festival. I grumbled and bought a vegan peanut butter cookie at the Castro Cheesery. A homeless black androgyne in a red hoodie came over to ask for a piece. Clare handed over some gummy bears.
I needed to buy a small netbook computer. I’d left my Macintosh laptop back in Sydney because it was too heavy, too big, and too expensive to lose or have stolen. Near the elevated Central Freeway I found a Best Buy. I bought a Toshiba NB305. With the strong Australian dollar and purportedly cheaper US retail prices, I’d expected to find a good deal. Instead I wound up paying much the same as I would have in Sydney. Still, the netbook has allowed me to write every morning on the road.
The Kazantzakis of Amsterdam Avenue
In New York City, Clare and I checked into the International Student Center, an unbelievably cheap youth hostel on the Upper West Side. Each morning I got up early, walked over to Amsterdam Avenue, and squeezed into a blue leatherette booth at E.J.‘s Luncheonette. A young waitress with a red ponytail, a pretty and sassy actress like every other waitress in town, brought out my poppy-seed bagel and a cup to be refilled many times from her glass orb of scalding brown water. It was the cheapest way to rent a table with good light for a few hours. Across the street was the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library, a place to work in silence, but most days it did not open till 11am.
Before resuming work on Murphy and the Baker, my long novel about Depression-era Sydney, I decided to redraft the manuscript of a novella set in contemporary Greece. I’d been working on this small book for a few years. It was easy to drift off into thoughts of old friends from Athens. At the time of my last visit the crisis was clear: the youth of Greece had small hope of finding substantial work. It was hardly surprising that the population exploded in protest when the country went bankrupt.
I remembered sad and joyous moments. At Brettos in Plaka the bloody marys were pushed into our hands. A lonely American guy could not convince anyone to go with him to Mykonos. On Aegina a goat herder showed me how to drive a stick-shift. Another day I’d waded into the limpid but frigid green waters below the uninhabited Klonos Hotel with my Albanian girlfriend. But those days were past, much had changed in my life, and I was writing fiction. I let the memories jumble with my invention and tried not to distinguish too consciously between the two as I put words on the page.
Some mornings on the Upper West Side the streets were wet with early rain. Walking back to meet Clare at the hostel, I passed the corner of Columbus and 83rd where people were buying Christmas trees. The air smelled of the pine needles and icy rain. There were pretty amber lights lacing the boughs of the street trees. Kids stomped around in rainboots and dogs trotted in knitted red booties. Eventually the hard cold of December dusted then slushed up the footpaths with winter’s first snow.
Clare and I spent the afternoons and evenings exploring New York. We had a crew of old friends to take us around.
One friend, Josh Wynter, is an actor living in Brooklyn. Josh is a physical theatre graduate from the Dell’Arte International School. He currently appears in the hugely successful independent online science fiction series Pioneer One. Josh also performs at the Jekyll & Hyde, a theatre restaurant. He’s the rare actor making a living in New York.
One night we went to see Josh perform with the Big Apple Playback Theatre (BAPT) at Guild Hall on East 29th Street. BAPT is a troupe of nine plus Ann Belmont, who accompanies the performance with guitar, recorder, percussion, and slide whistle. BAPT describes itself as “an improvisational physical theatre company in which the actors reenact audience members’ life stories.” There were about 50 people in the audience. We were invited to offer our dilemmas, anxieties, and ambitions. Four or five members of the troupe improvised from this material.
Later, there were longer stories. One woman got up on stage to share the tale of her disastrous experience of buying a 200-year-old house in upstate New York. The troupe duly interpreted. Another young woman spoke of her difficult move from Northern California and the ultimate acquisition of her—gasp!—own apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. There was a round of empathetic applause from the Manhattanites in the audience. I guess it’s hard to get a place in this city.
After the BAPT performance, Clare and I went out with our New York crew. I was introduced to Tom and Cindy, a couple in their mid-40s. They’re both lawyers. Tom is balding, bespectacled, pale as a green potato. He passed a cake shop window and started singing softly, already embarrassed:
“Crème tangerine and Montelimar—a ginger sling with a pineapple heart.”
“But you’ll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle,” I said.
Tom was a serious Beatles geek.
“You know,” I said, “I’ve been looking for a worthy opponent in Beatles Trivial Pursuit for a long time.”
Tom nodded very seriously and gave me an impromptu entry exam. “What date was ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ released in the UK?”
The best I could guess was December 1963.
“Nup. November 29, 1963.”
Very late that night Clare and I shared a cab uptown with Tom and Cindy. I asked them how Manhattan had changed in the last few decades.
“We’re lifelong New Yorkers,” Cindy said as we passed the banks and insurance companies and shoe and handbag stores of Madison Avenue, then the apartment buildings of the Upper East Side. We turned down the 86th Street Transverse Road through Central Park. “With all this wealth Manhattan has lost something.”
“Poor people!” suggested Tom.
“Crime is really really low.”
“Sure,” said Tom. “They locked everyone up!”
December 8th was the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination. At lunchtime I walked down Central Park West to the Dakota Building at 72nd Street. News crews were shooting footage of the murder site. Fans were handing out photocopies of handwritten poems. Religious nuts were trying to piggyback on the anniversary (“IMAGINE….Jesus”). At Strawberry Fields in Central Park the memorial mosaic was like a Buddhist shrine heaped with roses and candles, lyric sheets, photographs of John and Yoko, and granny smith apples. Serious fans sat cross-legged around the mosaic in mournful contemplation. Everybody else was standing and singing Lennon’s Beatle songs: ‘Come Together’, ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, ‘Help’ (with perfect two-part vocals), ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I’ll Cry Instead’, the great B-side of ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’.
I stopped to listen to two pudgy and very sombre American kids, a brother and sister in their early teens. A pair of rose-tinted, round Lennon glasses sat on top of the girl’s head. The kids sang a very slow and ethereal version of ‘Because’ accompanied by a guy on arpeggiating guitar. At the same time another group nearby were singing ‘I’m Only Sleeping’. I bought a badge with the ever-relevant Lennon slogan: WAR IS OVER (if you want it), pinned it to my jacket, and crossed Central Park.
That night our New York crew invited us to a gig in a small 2nd floor apartment above a plumbing supply store at 223 West 28th Street. The venue is run by Zeb, aka Saul Zebulon Rubin, a heavy-set grey-bearded in-demand jazz guitarist with a brood of talented musicians. We paid our $10 at the door. There were free potato crisps, $2 plastic cups of cordial, and $5 plastic cups of red wine. Our new friends Tom and Cindy were in the audience. I told Tom I’d been at Strawberry Fields that day. His pale face dipped towards the floor. “I was in the city when John was shot. I was 17. I’ve never gotten over it.” That was the end of the conversation.
Zeb runs a jazz vocalist series every Wednesday night. Tonight’s performance featured Gregory Porter. Zeb led a guitar trio. Porter appeared dressed in a pin-striped blue suit, crisp white shirt, neck stocking, and big brown cap. He sang standards like ‘Cherokee’ and ‘Skylark’ as well as original tunes to a room of about 50 people. As the set wound down, somebody requested a protest song called ‘1960 What’ from Porter’s new album. The trio didn’t know this number, but within 30-seconds Porter had them vamping on one chord. “The motor city is burning!” Porter sang. “Burning down! And that ain’t right.”
Porter’s excellent debut album Water (Motéma Music) has just been nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album Album. He’s one of the best new singers I’ve heard in years.
Another night Clare and I had tickets for an 11pm set at the Village Vanguard with Cedar Walton. Walton played on some of my favourite Art Blakey LPs like Mosaic (1961) and Free For All (1964). Walton was joined by David Williams on bass and Willie Jones III on drums. I needn’t have booked tickets. There were about 30 people in the room. Baby, it was cold outside.
Walton played standards like ‘Body and Soul’ and ‘Lover Man’ and ‘Young and Foolish’, as well as a Sam Jones tune Clare loved, and a few originals. After the show I stepped over to chat to Mr. Walton. I discovered we have a mutual acquaintance, Dale Barlow, the superb Sydney saxophonist (Dale had a spot in a very late incarnation of the Jazz Messengers). Walton was surprised that young people had come to hear him. He was gruff but pleased. “I thought young people liked hip-hop.”
We didn’t keep within the boundaries of Manhattan. To get to the Louis Armstrong House Museum you take the 7 line to Corona, Queens. Armstrong lived in suburban modesty with his fourth wife, Lucille. A brick facade and adjoining garden were added to the house in the months before Louis’s death in 1971. The former garage is now the gift shop and a small exhibition centre. The Museum has preserved and restored the house as it was when the Armstrongs lived there.
Clare and I turned up late one afternoon and were able to take a private tour. Our friendly guide was named Phyllis. The small two-storey house is decorated in expensive but gaudy ‘60s style. The living room is a long rectangle. At the street-facing end there are worn sofas below a chandelier. A white upright piano sits by the entryway. At the other end of the rectangle is a big cabinet with a small television and a set of encyclopedias. There are various paintings on the walls including a portrait of Gerry Mulligan by LeRoy Neiman and several portraits of Louis. Phyllis pushed a button and we heard extracts from a few of the numerous home tapes Louis recorded with his wife and friends.
The downstairs bathroom is all mirrors and 24 carat gold fittings. The kitchen has beautifully preserved aqua-marine cabinets, a large custom-made stove and oven (personally dedicated by the manufacturer to Mr. & Mrs. Armstrong). Upstairs, the home of Louis’s mother-in-law till she died in the late ‘40s, was the Armstrongs’ silver-wallpapered bedroom, bathroom, and walk-in closet containing bottles of Louis’s colognes, a shoe horn, his leather shaving kit, and several dressing gowns.
Finally we stepped into Louis’s den. The liquor cabinet stocked the essentials. I spied a whisky tumbler painted with one of those ‘60s astrological sex position charts. Louis owned a large collection of his own records and a superb sound system with speakers facing downwards from shafts in the ceiling. There used to be hundreds of Louis’s homemade reel-to-reel tapes on the shelves, but these have been archived elsewhere. Louis liked to decorate the tape boxes with collages: newspaper clippings, photographs, and handwritten notes under layers of Scotch tape. Some of these collages have been reproduced in a book called (not too distinctly) Satchmo: The Wonderful World and Art of Louis Armstrong (Abrams, 2009).
My only remaining question: Where did Satch hide his pot?
Another afternoon I checked the New Yorker and saw there was a free reading in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
On the G Train I spied a couple across the subway car. The guy seemed about 50. He wore a thick blonde toothbrush moustache and wire-framed Bill Gates spectacles, the ‘80s kind with a thick reinforcing band above the bridge of the nose. The guy seemed on the verge of balding. He sported a clip-on tie. The girl at his side was short, thin, and pretty. Her skin was a flawless and childlike café au lait. She had high cheekbones and a black perm in the thick and glistening Diana Ross manner of about 1983. Around her neck was a long feather boa that resembled Christmas tinsel. She peered at her beau through oversized white plastic spectacles. She looked like a 14-year-old who’s raided a dress-up box.
But I realised it was all a show. He was only aping the look of a ephebophilic middle-aged English teacher, and she was only pretending to be an under aged schoolgirl pretending to be Bonnie Parker. They were both about 25. I’d just seen my first ironic moustache. We have hipsters like this in Sydney, too, but this pair were in another league.
Williamsburg. We disembarked from the subway on Bedford Street near the Salvation Army Thrift Store and walked to Pete’s Candy Store on Lorimer Street. In the back of the dark bar they’d attached a gutted train carriage. At the far end of the womb-red carriage was a small stage framed by an arc of golden-hued light bulbs. It was like being inside a ‘20s carny vardo. There wasn’t a lot of seating in the carriage, but Clare and I had the front row. First to read that evening was Danielle Evans, who lives and teaches in Washington, D.C.. She read a story from her collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Riverhead Books, 2010), the tale of a teenager and her aunt on the road.
Then came Gary Shteyngart, a born performer with a morose deadpan expression and a panoply of accents. Shteyngart read an extract from his recent novel Super Sad True Love Story (Random House, 2010) in which his protagonist Lenny Abramov brings a Korean girlfriend home to Russian immigrant parents, a Jewish myth superbly rendered in a slightly futuristic science fiction setting.
For three weeks in New York I’d been trying to catch up with my busy Canadian buddy, Johnny Ma. In Sydney in 2009 we’d worked together on the crew of a short film, Michael and Michelle, directed by Matt Dibbayawan. During his year-long residence in Australia, Johnny had directed a handful of short films including a crime drama called The Robbery. He simultaneously helped out on numerous student and low-budget projects. Now Johnny is an MFA student at Columbia University.
We finally caught up for dinner at the Chelsea Gallery Diner on 7th Avenue. Lately, Johnny had been directing a short film called Play, about a Chinese immigrant kid in Harlem. He was about to do a night’s work helping out on Deck the Halls, a short film by Wayne Brisseax. The crew were going to shoot inside the Westside Market. They would have to work around shoppers and blaring Christmas carols, which could not be silenced.
“Shooting in New York is hard,” Johnny said. “In Sydney I had an old car to move equipment around, but here I have to use the subway.”
As I expected, I don’t see New York as very viable place to live and work. According to The Real Estate Group NY’s Manhattan Rental Market Report, the mean rental price for a studio apartment (non-doorman) in Manhattan is $2,093 a month as of December 2010. In Brooklyn it’s $1,624. And getting a Green Card is difficult.
Well, that’s New York. Next stop Montreal and then Mexico. The global prowl continues…
Matthew Asprey is the author of the novellas Sonny's Guerrillas and Red Hills of Africa and the editor of Jack London: San Francisco Stories. Check out www.matthewasprey.com and Matthew's blog, Honey for the Bears.