Category Archives: Nostalgia

Party Like It’s 1977

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On Saturday night I was invited to a roller disco on Staten Island by my friends Annie and Andy who were in town from the UK. I hadn’t ever been much of a roller-skater (I prefer ice), but what the hell — I’d never been to Staten Island. But when I arrived in Dumbo it seemed the original plan had already been ditched in favour of a 70s-themed party at the large open-plan former industrial space apartment where my friends were staying.

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Andy had gone to great efforts with his costume, even paying a special visit to American Apparel, to create a somewhat garish outfit which seemed to owe more to the 80s aerobic craze than anything else, but which he pulled off with a certain panache. So we spent the evening seeing how many different foods can be dipped into fondue while classic Brooklyn movie Saturday Night Fever was projected onto the wall. On the subway back home I wondered if people will one day host 2007-themed parties, and if so what would they involve? Somehow I can’t quite imagine it. Maybe it takes a while for a decade to define its identity, but in this post-everything age, is there anything about the present popular culture (besides reality shows and the internet) that will have any relevance thirty years from now?

Chelsea Morning

Chelsea at dawn as viewed from Sefra’s bathroom window.

On Friday night I was invited along with a few of the MoMA gang to a party held at Sefra’s Chelsea loft. I never figured out how many people actually live there, but much of the sprawling apartment acts as a studio for an artist who I met briefly, and whose strange styrofoam sculptures dominate the kitchen and hall. The apartment is accessed from the roof, which was partially bathed in light by the looming Empire State Building which rose from behind. To help withstand the bitter temperatures we rigged up lights and toasted marshmallows huddled around a small fire. Sefra also did her bit by cooking up some apple cider with Jim Beam which was definitely welcomed. By dawn the view was even more impressive, and a warm, delicate, morning glow picked out the nearby water towers and buildings as far away as the financial district. It wasn’t long before Joni inevitably popped into my head:

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.

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.

Love Saves The Day

Love Saves The Day is a second-hand store on the corner of Second Avenue and 7th Street. I walk past it every day on the way to the subway. It sells clothes and toys and all kinds of pop memorabilia — it’s essentially a paean to 1980s fashions and culture. Today I discovered it’s the same store which featured in the Madonna movie Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Some mix-up concerning a jacket and Rosanna Arquette if I recall. Probably the only half-decent film La Ciccone ever made, although it’s perhaps deservedly best remembered for this song:

“He adored New York…”

On Friday I took the 6 train up to the Upper East Side. I got off at 103rd Street, and walked from Lexington Avenue, under Park Avenue where the train goes over, and to Fifth Avenue. At 100th Street I arrived at the Museum of the City of New York, a somewhat awkwardly-titled institution which celebrates the history, culture and greatness of this city. The exhibitions ranged from jazz-age photos of skyscrapers to the history of theater to the glory days of New York baseball. It was fascinating and beautifully presented. The highlight however was a short film — narrated by actor Stanley Tucci — telling the moving story of how New York came to be and why it is like it is.

It was one of those lovely, drizzly autumn days, and so after the museum I walked down Fifth Avenue by the park. Eventually I cut inside and wandered over to Second Avenue. There are many beautiful blocks in-between, and many nice shops and restaurants in that neighbourhood. Among them is Elaine’s, once the hangout for the intellectual A-list and still catering to those celebrities who don’t go by acronyms and who are just old enough to remember a time when a BlackBerry was just a fruit. The first scene of Manhattan (1979) takes place at Elaine’s, where Woody Allen is fretting to his friends about his 17 year-old girlfriend. Later I walked down to First Avenue and under the Queensboro Bridge. I saw the spot where I watched the July 4th fireworks in 1999, and I stopped at Sutton Place to admire the view. This also featured in Manhattan, and on the movie’s iconic poster.

I like a Gershwin tune. How about you?

Greetings from Elizabeth, N.J.

Last week I took a bus from Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street to Elizabeth, New Jersey. This may seem an insignificant event to some of you. After all, many people make this or similar journeys every day. But for me it was the first time I had left New York, ventured beyond the city, and set foot on real American soil (or at least asphalt). The reason for this trip, you will be disappointed to learn, was that I needed to pick up some house essentials from IKEA, a truth which I recognize completely dispels any romantic notion of the occasion I may have had. I certainly didn’t expect my first visit to another state to be caused by the urgent need for cheap lamps and coat-hangers. Instead I had always imagined taking a bus down the Jersey shore, hanging in them dusty arcades and chasing the factory girls underneath the boardwalk. But from what I’ve heard a Swedish furniture store is as good a reason as any to visit Elizabeth, and so off I went. It was a huge thrill to take in those Manhattan views as we crossed the Turnpike, and my head suddenly became filled with Springsteen lyrics and Sopranos images.

Manhattan as viewed from New Jersey

On Friday morning I achieved a lifelong ambition as New Jersey came to New York, in the form of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. Bruce and the boys were appearing on NBC’s Today Show in Rockefeller Plaza, and I had to be there. Hillary had arrived from Italy the previous evening, but I left her in bed to make my way up to Midtown at seven in the morning. From a young age Bruce’s music has influenced my perception of and fascination for American East Coast life perhaps more than any other artist. The characters that colour his earlier albums with their romantic optimism and almost na├»ve aspirations richly evoke a world where a girl, a car — or maybe just a guitar — are all you need to go out and make it. The band’s heavy influence of ’60s soul bands, it eccentric, jazz-tinged playing, and Bruce’s mysterious allusions at passionate street crime lead me to forever associate that music with a hot and gritty New York City, despite the group’s inexorable links to New Jersey. Now suddenly here I was, feet away from these Jersey boys, the same men (almost) who posed barefoot on the back cover of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle over three decades ago.

I never expected to one day see the same guys performing outside a Dean & Deluca on daytime television, nor did I ever imagine witnessing a concert before breakfast, but it seemed both were happening right now. Through the crowd I could make out drummer Max Weinberg’s Late Night quiff, and before I knew it Bruce was on stage — the same trademark beat-up Telecaster slung over one shoulder — as the band broke into a perfect rendition of “The Promised Land.” They then performed several tracks from the new album, Magic, including ubiquitous single “Radio Nowhere” and “Livin’ In The Future”, which Bruce introduced with one of his typical rambles:

“There’s a lot of things we love about America. Cheeseburgers, transfats, motorcycles, divorce, and cheating on your spouse. But over the past six years, we’ve had to add another picture. Therapy, medication, counseling, catholicism, HIV tests, anti-depressants, sleeping in barns, and botox. These are things happening today that we never thought possible.”

Between songs Bruce cracked jokes at Today Show host Matt Lauer’s expense, gave hugs to Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, and even found time to speak his mind on the state of the nation. Springsteen is one of few people left in the entertainment world whose political opinions aren’t greeted with derision. The crowd was then treated to “Night” from Born To Run and an extremely moving “My Hometown.”

An overcast morning had now given way to bright sunshine as Bruce sang repeatedly: “This is your hometown, this is youurrrr hometown…” I’d been in New York just two weeks, but I couldn’t help think and hope and feel that there could be something prophetic in the man’s words.

Dedicated to the memory of Danny Federici, 1950-2008.