Monthly Archives: November 2007

Veselka (My Conversation With Jeff)

My first experience of Veselka was at 5AM the morning after I moved to New York. I can see directly into the place from my bedroom window so it seemed an obvious choice, and ever since I’ve had a sort of affinity for the place. The staff are friendly, chatty and make you feel like a local regular immediately. I’m often charged a single dollar for take-out coffee instead of the usual $1.25. Although the coffee has a strange taste I haven’t found anywhere else. At first I thought it was the jet-lag, but it hasn’t prevented me going back for breakfast, or a late-night snack. One Saturday about a month ago there was a fight in front of Veselka, in which its outdoor chairs and tables were knocked over. This hurt me deeply, but fortunately no permanent damage was done.

A few nights ago I was feeling peckish and so I popped downstairs for Veselka’s signature pierogi. I sat at the counter, where another man began talking to me. He was probably in his early 60s, and reminded me a little bit of the short-lived character Mr. Heckles, Monica’s grouchy neighbour on Friends. The man began asking me questions, hesitantly at first, so as not to pry, but I was quite happy to chat for a while. He’d lived in the East Village for over forty years, had worked as an artist, poet and salesman among other things. He told me about how he dabbled in painting, meticulously describing the difficulties he had trying to reproduce light and perspective. His technical shortcomings still obviously pained him, but he seemed to have been at least halfway accepted into the art community, even adopting an alternative last name with which he signed his canvases. It seemed he’d been taken under the wing of a painter/poet, and older woman who often invited him to eat with her family. But they had a falling out and didn’t speak for years.

It was interesting to hear his tales of a New York gone by. He told me that until the late 1970s, you could have stood on the corner of St. Marks Place and seen one other person walk by. He then began a tirade discussing Iraq and God knows what else, and I began to get tired and lose interest. It was now nearly four in the morning, and realised I had hardly spoken for hours. I’d paid my check long ago, but the man hadn’t ordered anything the whole time we’d been sat there. I got up to leave and he followed me, so I pretended I lived in the opposite direction to him (it’s one thing sitting with an oddball in a well-lit diner, quite another having them follow you home). Before we parted ways he revealed himself as Jeff Shenkman. I don’t know if this is his real name, but apparently a lot of his paintings are still knocking around.

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Abraço: An Espresso Embrace

The first time I stopped at Abraço, a tiny espresso bar on East 7th Street, they were re-doing the floor so my individually-dripped coffee was offered to me free of charge as I stood in the doorway. I went back when the work was finished and got chatting to Jamie, the friendly and slightly energetic owner. Putting my experience of romance languages to use, I asked him if “abraço” means “hug” in Portuguese but he quickly cut me off: “Embrace,” he calmly revealed, obviously recognizing an enormous difference. Jamie likes to spin vinyl samba records as he makes your espresso, and was quick to reveal Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso has an apartment in the neighbourhood. Soon after Jamie and I actually ran into each other at the singer-songwriter’s concert outside the Nokia Theater near Times Square. Abraço sells Sanbitter in little bottles, but alas no Campari Soda — for that you need a liquor license. Did I mention the coffee is among the best in town?

PERFORMA 07

Through a colleague at MoMA, I’d become aware of something called PERFORMA, a performing arts foundation founded by Roselee Goldberg. I was offered the chance to volunteer for this year’s month-long biennial, PERFORMA 07, and without a real job and lots of extra time on my hands I said yes. At a meeting at the PERFORMA office I was gifted a red PERFORMA (you’ll have noticed by now that PERFORMA is always written in capitals) tote bag and assigned to assist with various projects, performances and what I guess they used to call “happenings”.

Allan Kaprow invented the term in the 1960s with his 18 Happenings in Six Parts, a redoing of which I went all the way to the Deitch Gallery in Queens to witness, though frankly I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’m sure it’s a lot more enjoyable if you’re high out of your mind (or if it’s 1966), but to a 21st century audience the whole thing felt very dated and silly.

The next day I went to Washington Square Park to help set up a giant game of mahjong — you know, that sort of Chinese version of dominoes. This piece was conceived by He Yunchang, China’s most renowned performance artist. Of course, as China’s most renowned performance artist, He insisted performing completely naked. So after we’d spent all afternoon lugging a thousand painted breeze-blocks from the Judson Memorial Church into the park, the artist appeared wrapped in a sheet, which he soon abandoned in order to play the game. I became roped into playing since we were short in numbers, but since I’m not a renowned performance artist I was allowed to remain fully clothed. After about twenty minutes a somewhat amused NYPD showed up and He Yunchang was asked to put his jeans back on.

The next day I joined a group of students (and artist Zack Rockhill) in Cooper Square to construct an open-top rectangular igloo using enormous blocks of ice. This was a challenge which was overcome by teamwork and an overwhelming desire to go get some coffee. Everyone agreed the end result was quite beautiful.

The next day I was back at MoMA to assist a backwards march through the museum lobby, as a hundred or so pensioners, children and other people with nothing better to do on a Sunday made their way from East 68th Street to Times Square. Miraculously no-one was hit by a cab, though had they been they’d have struggled to garner my sympathy.

At the Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery on Hudson Street I was asked to attend the opening party of Ulla Von Brandenburg’s La Maison, in which 8 millimetre footage of an old French chateau is projected onto a dark sheet within a maze of brightly-coloured sheets. The whole thing was so dull that one visitor mistook the messy area backstage as part of the exhibit. I was fortunately given the task of tending bar, which proved to be a highlight — if I wasn’t getting any money I was damn sure gonna get me some Grolsch.

Afterwards I squeezed into hip Lower East Side nightspot The Box for Sanford Bigger’s The Somethin’ Suite. Apparently Erykah Badu and Lou Reed were there but I missed them both. That weekend I witnessed another bizarre performance, this time at The Atrium at 590 Madison Avenue. Spider Galaxy was the work of Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, in which a grown woman dressed as a brightly-coloured bird skips and flaps around a wooden “spider’s web” stage for ten minutes before flying/running off in the direction of NikeTown. I sat through this nonsense twice before running off in the direction of NikeTown.

After all this volunteering and sitting through tiresome drivel it was about time I got my own back, and was thrilled to be given the chance to play the role of “heckler”, in Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical at the Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street. In what was my off-Broadway debut, mid-way through the performance I was required to lead a bunch of “angry” audience members on-stage to confront the dancers. It was only when I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov exiting the theatre afterwards that I became nervous.

The finale and after-party were held at the Hudson Theatre on Tuesday, although after three weeks of PERFORMA I was more than glad I had tickets across Broadway for Caetano Veloso, which I am pleased to say was the best performance I’ve seen this month.

Nighthawks At The Diner

I’d wanted to visit the Empire Diner ever since I saw John Baeder’s painting of it on the cover of the Tom Waits album, Asylum Years. Roughly twenty years later on a cold Sunday evening in November I got my chance. Though perhaps the quintessential New York diner, this 24-hour Chelsea eatery is far from your average truck-stop, but more a paean to a bygone age.

The food is refined, the Art Deco decor positively glistens, and there’s a hushed atmosphere after-hours. There’s even a pianist tinkling in a corner — he played Leon Russell’s “Song For You” as I sat at the shiny black counter, while reflected in the mirrored walls the yellow cabs silently glided up Tenth Avenue.

Espress Yourself

On a small section of Sixth Avenue, tucked away behind the rows of scaffolding between 56th and 57th Street, there is a door. Or rather, a portal. A portal leading to a world of taste, refinement, and all that is good about Western civilization. This world is called Italy. At Zibetto’s ordering coffee is a simple, one-word procedure: “caffe”. The terms “tall”, “half-caf” and “pumpkin spice caramel latte” do not register with its strict baristas (for anyone requiring such things there’s a you-know-what directly opposite). The place is dominated by a long bar, around which a hoard of attractive people shout their orders and exchange cash. At $2 for an espresso it is a slight indulgence, but well worth it simply to recall the experience of drinking from a real coffee cup, and more so for the heart-warming knowledge that there is hope in this mediocrity-embracing world, at least as far as coffee is concerned.

Weekend in South Beach

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Last weekend I flew down to Florida to visit Hillary. She is staying in a crew-house in Fort Lauderdale, until she gets a job aboard a yacht. It was my first time in Florida, and what hit me most was how wild it seemed. Cars speed along highways with a recklessness I’ve never seen outside of Italy, with little or no regard for the laws of the road or other drivers. I felt less safe than I’ve ever done in Manhattan, even after dark. Everything felt older than in New York: Hillary and I went in a laundromat across the street where nothing had appeared to have changed since the 1970s — even the magazines. We rented a Chrysler and drove down to Miami. Arriving in Downtown Miami, we eventually parking for lunch in Little Havana. After a ridiculously large portion of chicken, rice, beans and plantains, we elected to hop back in the car and cross the water to South Beach.

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South Beach’s grid system makes it feel kind of like a mini-Manhattan, but with prettier colours and better beaches. I had always wanted to see the architecture of Ocean Drive, but I had no idea there were so many perfectly maintained Art Deco buildings on every street, and not as tourist attractions, but functioning as hotels, bars and houses. The whole experience was a stunning visual, and slightly retro overload. Part Miami Vice, part The Godfather Part II, Miami is like being transported back to the 1950s and 1980s simultaneously. I expected hoards of J.Lo-esque clubbers crawling the streets, Gloria Estefan pumping from blacked-out SUVs, but instead the vibe was extremely laid back and simply exuded an effortless cool.

We stayed in a little hotel between Collins and Washington Avenues, a beautiful little pink and turquoise spot where sand gets walked into the lobby. There was a long corridor on our floor, with spinning ceiling fans and a hardwood floor. I became somewhat mesmerized by that corridor, and still dream about it sometimes. South Beach immediately ranks as one of my favourite towns ever: it’s one of those places where you can’t believe you’re there when you’re there, and you can’t believe you were ever there when you get back. Kind of like how New York used to feel…