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 naïve 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.

Welcome To The Future

It was a humid evening when I arrived in New York last Friday night. Aching and weary having spent most of the day aboard a Lufthansa jet, I was immediately awoken by the series of advertisements which greeted me at JFK Airport. As I made my way through the endless maze of corridors leading to immigration, my eyes were bombarded with the repeated image of what appeared to be a sort of executive Etch-a-Sketch, but which upon closer inspection was in fact a device they’re calling the Sony Reader. Some very clever people in Japan had figured out a way to compress multiple hardback books into one small tablet of brushed metal, allowing an author’s life’s work to be slotted into a holiday-maker’s carry-on luggage.

Upon learning of this revolutionary product for the first time, two thoughts immediately struck me. 1) If the Reader is a success – which means within a year or two we will be adding it to that cluster of gadgets we all believe we can’t leave the house without – what will it mean for the future of the printed page? Will books become obsolete? It certainly won’t help reverse the youngest generation’s already concerning preference for electronic screens over pens and paper (though could go some way to correcting posture among schoolchildren). 2) How long had I been on that plane?

I first came to New York City as a wide-eyed, highly impressionable 20 year-old. It was the sweltering summer of 1999, and I was achieving an ambition which had stood firm since childhood and throughout my teens, one which for some reason I had never imagined possible. As a boy, New York City may as well have been another planet, so remote seemed the possibility of ever visiting. The few people I met who said they had been left me in awe. Though apparently unattainable in reality, thanks to television New York was accessible daily. What I saw was a tough, gleaming city crammed with the tallest buildings and coolest people, where danger, excitement or something else entirely lurked on every street corner, and where the traffic and the music never stopped. I become all too aware of it, and the attraction was something not even my overworked imagination could fathom. It was the city for me.

Armed with a pocket fold-out map and my Pentax K1000, I spent every waking minute of that week absorbing the city like a sponge, memorizing every detail, taking in (and photographing extensively) every skyscraper, monument, museum, hot-dog stand and fire hydrant along the way. And I walked everywhere (though there’s nothing quite like the thrill of hailing your first yellow cab). I stayed in a hotel on the Upper West Side, and the greatest feeling of all was simply being on the street, strolling up and down Broadway, eating pizza by the slice, chatting with strangers and briefly living a life that could only ever be make believe. I went home with a case of NY-emblazoned merchandise and eleven rolls of exposed film, a changed man.

A lot had happened in the relatively short period which had ensued. Some would say the world had changed, but had New York? For better and for worse, it had, and it was a different kind of breathlessness which overcame me as Manhattan’s skyline rose into view from my taxi window. Reports claimed that crime had been declining since the nineties, when Giuliani began cracking down on the most minor offences, a trend which was supposedly continuing under Mayor Bloomberg. Meanwhile, the spectacular success of certain businesses had begun to monopolize retail space in Manhattan, resulting in a noticeable effect on the city’s physical appearance. There now seemed to be a Starbucks on every block, even in the traditionally less commercial neighbourhoods. In the Theater District, the vast billboards and blinking neon of Times Square had given way to Disney animation and state-of-the-art video graphics, which succeed in rendering even the Coca-Cola logo unrecognizable.

On the city’s not-so-mean streets, the NYPD’s azure blue Chevrolets, once immortalized by television cop shows, had been traded in for a fleet of nondescript white Fords. Those bouncing Taxi-era checkered cabs were long gone – now yellow minivans with electric doors drove tourists from airport to hotel. I read that all NYC taxis will be hybrid 4x4s by 2012. What next, floral cabs? (Oh, right.) Even more horrifying was that in response to its increasingly international population, every last one of New York’s iconic WALK/DON’T WALK lights had been replaced with a universal walking man/red hand. Now whether crossing Delancey Street or Abbey Road, the experience had become (almost) identical.

Practical types will say that change is inevitable, that cities must continue to evolve in order to survive and stay vital, and I’m sure many locals would have not noticed or cared about such relatively minor alterations to their city. But for reasons however superficial, I was becoming slightly disillusioned. Here I was, finally living in Manhattan, the pop-culture lover’s ultimate paradise, and not a DON’T WALK sign in sight. I began to wonder if even the humble pretzel vendor’s days were numbered. It was as if the New York I had always imagined, the city I’d inhabited in adolescent fantasies, was suddenly being transformed and taken away. I couldn’t help but feel I’d arrived too late. But it’s like when you meet people who say, “You should’ve seen this place twenty years ago.” What am I supposed to do about that now?

Still a little jet-lagged, I woke up early the next morning and crossed Second Avenue (upon orders from the walking man) to the coffee shop opposite. From the other side of the street the Chrysler Building was clearly visible several blocks in the distance, its soaring concrete and chrome piercing the cloud-filled sky like a needle. It wasn’t quite daylight, but inside the diner people were already tucking into breakfasts of eggs and bacon and pancakes. I took a seat at the counter and ordered coffee. Turning to face the window, I stared out and watched as the yellow cabs glided silently through the Saturday morning drizzle. Had I been foolish in clinging to a New York that is no more (or never was)? Maybe it doesn’t matter if NYC ’07 isn’t exactly the city I’d been exalting all these years. What I enjoy most about it hasn’t changed a bit, and what drew me to this place as a child can still be found everyday. Steam rises from manholes, water towers and fire escapes adorn every building, and people really do read The New York Times on the subway. And while there’s space enough in people’s lives for the printed page, there’ll be a place in mine for New York City.