Feelin’ Great In ’08

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Manhattan as viewed from the departures lounge at Newark Airport, Christmas Eve, 2008.

I just got back from West Virginia, where I spent the holidays, my first ever Christmas away from home. Arriving at Pittsburgh airport I was surprised but delighted to find Hillary there to greet me. She’s made the smart decision to abandon ship, leaving her short-lived but action-packed Carribean yacht experience behind her. After a week staying with Hillary’s family in Morgantown, we arrived back in New York on New Year’s Eve. The plane flew right over Times Square before we came into land. The light really is brighter. So I guess we’ll be staying for a while. I don’t know where we’re going to live or what we’re going to do, but it’s a pleasure to be here.

Open All Nite

One of the many great reasons to live below 14th Street, the Yaffa Café on St. Mark’s Place is arguably the East Village’s quintessential post-anything after-hours venue. As the giant mural outside screams, Yaffa is “open all nite”, and the ’80s downtown vibe continues inside with its kitsch decor, quirky regulars and unexpected music. Where else can you enjoy a glass of hot chocolate at four in the morning while listening to the Sugarcubes?

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?

Connecticut

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My MoMA internship ended on Friday. Three months have flown by, and I have no idea what I am going to do next. I have a return ticket booked for Europe in January, but I’m actually hoping don’t have to use it. Anyway, I’m not the only one in that predicament, and in an attempt to celebrate our time at MoMA Sefra invited a group of the now-former interns to her home in Connecticut for the weekend.

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So after work on Friday we boarded a train at Grand Central Station on the Metro-North New Haven line and bound for Greens Farms, near Westport, CT. A giant painted mural of Jerry Garcia greets you at the front door of Sefra’s family home, giving only a glimpse as to the decorative eccentricities which await inside. If this house has not yet featured in Architectural Digest I can’t think why. The place is a beautiful example of New England artsy-liberalism befitting its quirky baby-boomer owners. The rustic kitchen gives way to a comfortable living area into which sofas and chaise-longues seem to have been dropped almost liberally. A giant clock face acts as a coffee table, while original artwork hangs on every wall. Sefra’s mother’s home office is like a little piece of South Beach with its pink-stripey floors and Venetian blinds.

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Sefra took us on a tour of the garden, from where she pointed out another house closer to the beach. This is owned by Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, who had erected a huge white marquee for the reception of his impending wedding to fashion designer Georgina Chapman. After a long evening of lounging, we went to bed (I slept on the couch), and in the morning we drove into town to buy ingredients for breakfast, which we cooked back at the house to the sound of Bob Dylan’s Modern Times. Cat made scrambled eggs, or uova alla Rossi as they soon became dubbed, while Sefra initially refused to eat my “raw” bacon, something I put down to Americans’ habit of overcooking it to the point of brittleness. After breakfast everyone went for a walk on the beach, but I stayed behind so I could wash the dishes and give Bob another listen.

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On the train back to New York, I realised I will miss MoMA, but definitely not as much as some of the people I met there. Together we formed a fast and quite unexpected bond, simply through shared experience I suppose, plus a conscious effort by most of us to get to know one another. Even Larissa said it was the first time this had happened amongst her interns, which made it feel like some kind of special achievement. I guess now all that’s left is figure out what to do with the rest of our lives…

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.

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.