Saturday, November 27, 2004

Watching The Lights Flash

New York

After escaping the crowds of shoppers I decided to visit the fifth and last city borough, Staten Island. Most people just go there because the ferry ride is free and you get a great view of the Statue of Liberty on the way past, and I was no different. Although the statue looked great all lit up, the best view I got of it was sitting at the dock waiting to leave when you could pick it out against the last of the dark red sky away to the west. Best sight of all though was Manhattan itself on the journey back. It was a freezing cold but clear evening which had the double benefit of forcing all the tourists inside after two minutes leaving the view pretty much to just me, and it meant the whole island was easily visible. Without the World Trade Center the lower Manhattan skyline is free of familiar landmarks now. As you approach from Staten Island you can't really see the big buildings of Midtown like the Chrysler building, and it's tough to pick out the Empire State even though it's lit up in red and yellow for Thanksgiving. But the panorama of all the different lights as you gradually get closer is indescribable. Anyone who says the best sights on the planet come from the natural world is just plain wrong.

Later on I went for a walk around the West Village and the Meatpacking district. I stopped for a drink in the White Horse Tavern, the pub where Dylan Thomas finally drank himself into the grave in 1953. No sign of poets in there last night, although there was a group of guys on a stag party trying to down a yard of ale. None of them got close but then they were trying to do it with Budweiser. Bloody Americans, they'll never learn.

Friday, November 26, 2004


New York

I went out to the Bronx last night just to take a look around. Not really knowing where's a good place to go out there I took the 4 train right to the end of the line at Woodlawn, a supposedly Irish area of town. That may have been the case once but not now, there was nary a Paddy in sight. In fact there wasn't much going on at all, a combination of Thanksgiving and the freezing cold gale keeping everyone indoors, so I got the train all the way back to the East Village. Oddly enough the two pubs I visited both had Irish barmaids, genuinely Irish too, not just pseudo American-Irish. I had a couple of drinks and finished off "Wuthering Heights."

Today's the day after Thanksgiving and so it's the post-Thanksgiving sales. It's still freezing but at least it's sunny, and the city is rammed with shoppers. On 5th Avenue - a place where 'bargain' hunting is a somewhat relative term - the whole world and his trophy wife are perusing the various boutiques and peering into the windows of the top end jewellers' shops. Trying to get through the throng of people takes ages and means even I couldn't help looking in the windows too. None of the things on sale seem to have price tags attached. As the saying goes, if you have to ask the price, you really can't afford it.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

On Parade

New York

After a day getting square eyes looking at old TV shows at the Museum of Television and Radio and then watching the very funny Oscar-tipped movie 'Sideways' I decided on an early night so I could get up for this morning's Thanksgiving Day parade.

'Early start' is a relative term for me these days but I still managed to be out of bed not long after 8. It all started about 25 blocks from the hostel so by the time I walked down there and got myself in position I didn't have to wait long for the 9am start. The parade is a huge deal here, a national tradition broadcast live across the country and is therefore sponsored to high heaven. Macy's seem to pay most money as their branding was very prominent, but the first of the famous huge balloons to come past was none other than Ronald McDonald. I'm sure it's not just me who finds something slightly sinister in hordes of young children shouting 'Yay! McDonalds!' in unison, but whatever.

I realised I'm starting to get old when I failed to recognise half the cartoon characters as they went past. It was a relief when Big Bird and Kermit came along at the end, although the youngsters these days prefer Barney and Spongebob Squarepants, whose enormous bright purple and yellow balloons will probably give me nightmares for some time to come.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Borscht By The Beach

New York

Continuing my tour round the outer boroughs I got on the subway to Brooklyn yesterday. I went all the way to the end of the line at Brighton Beach to have a look at the Russian part of town. The whole neighbourhood is right on Coney Island beach and has street names like Sea Breeze and Ocean Parkway, which makes it all the more bizarre to have all the signs in Cyrillic and everyone speaking Russian. It was just like being back in Siberia, except there weren't any holes in the roads.

I went into a restaurant for lunch and walked in on a funeral. I could tell it was a funeral because there were two long tables of Russians wearing black and drinking vodka. Keeping my distance from the soon-to-be-very-drunk hordes I tackled a salad before I got my hands on a bowl of proper hot borscht. There are some great soups in the world, but borscht is the big daddy. I'd been two months without any, and so that already familiar taste of beetroot and sour cream went down a storm. Eventually getting round to a main course I was pleased to see the place had a dish called 'meat and potatoes' just as every restaurant in real Russia seems to. So I had that, then a raspberry blini from a market stall, and staggered around for a while, happy to once again be weighed down with lots of Russian stodge.

The beach is big and has a huge boardwalk running the length of the front. It was pretty chilly and I needed my coat zipped and buttoned as I ambled around on the sand. A Russian girl in her 20s in front of me also had a big overcoat on, but then she stopped by the water's edge, took off her coat, jumper and jeans to reveal a bikini. Then she ran towards the sea, dived in and started swimming about. It must have been freezing but she managed a few minutes in there before coming back to the beach. She stood there for a couple of minutes as if drip-drying herself, then put her clothes back on and just walked off. All very strange.

I went to another gig last night, English singer Holly Golightly at the Mercury Lounge on Houston St. After a solid set from the International Shades, I thoroughly enjoyed Atlanta band the Woggles, although whether that had more to do with their energetic punk performance or the attractive young lesbians passionately snogging immediately to my left throughout the set, I couldn't really say. Since she appeared on the last White Stripes record Holly Golightly's become a bit better known and the small venue was rammed at the start of her show. Her bluesy rock was very good indeed, although the late hour meant the crowd thinned out by the time she finished up at 20 to 1. A good time was had by all though, and it's a relief to see someone actually justifying their 'too cool for school' status.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Tragically Hip

New York

After a few hours mooching around the East Village I went to the Bowery Ballroom to see a couple of bands. Now, I've always thought of myself as being at least averagely trendy. I don't 'do' cool clothes or shoes but I can happily hold a conversation about Doves b-sides or the films of Wim Wenders. At all the gigs I've been to so far in America I've ususally been among the handful of scenesters loitering around at the back, affecting an air of superiority. But last night that was blown right out of the water. The crowd at the gig weren't just achingly hip, they positively reeked of it. Everywhere I went I heard people name dropping obscure West African singers or prattling on about contemporary art exhibitions. I'm fairly sure my accent was the only reason I was allowed to mingle with this set, but I did my best to stay out of the way so as not to interrupt anyone's flow.

Detroit band Blanche came on first. They dressed like characters from a Poirot novel and played intense Most places they'd be laughed off the stage for their ridiculous attire, but here they got a decent reception. The hipsters had all shown up to see The Kills though, and soon enough on they came. If The White Stripes didn't exist this boy/girl duo wouldn't have a record deal, but they do and so they do, even though their desperate desire to stay as a duo curiously means the drummer is relegated to playing from off stage somewhere.

These days a lot of bands take on all the trappings of being successful - they feature in trendy magazines, are seen at all the right parties - without actually being particularly popular with the general public. They only assume the air of success because self-appointed arbiters of cool decide they ought to be successful. The Kills are one such band, and last night the audience was full of such people. They put on a good show, even though they played up the supposedly ambiguous nature of their relationship far too much for me, but nothing could hide the fact they haven't got any good songs. It's all very emperor's new clothes.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Close To The Edge

New York

Something cool happened this afternoon. I was on 5th Avenue walking along and minding my own business when I noticed a commotion coming in my direction. A few security people were running on the pavement and I could make out an open lorry a few blocks away on its way towards me. As it got closer I thought one of the guys standing on it looked familiar, a bit like The Edge. And then a guy in shades stood up at the front and I could see two other people behind. It took a few moments for me to fully realise it but yes, that was U2 playing away right in front of me. The lorry stopped briefly which gave me enough time to snap a couple of pictures. They were doing "Vertigo" and I presume from the two camera trucks they were making the video, so if you see it on telly keep an eye out for a guy in a brown coat trying his best to look nonchalant. After about 30 seconds the truck started rolling again and they were off down the street. I suppose that's New York for you.


New York

On my previous visits here I'd never made it off Manhattan so I'm going to try to get round all the boroughs this time. Last night I started off by going to Queens and the Jackson Heights area where the Indian population is based. Getting off the subway and walking around the few blocks nearby was like being back home with lots of late-night shops selling everything and guys on the street trying to get you to go into their restaurant.

Feeling hungry I decided to sacrifice quality for quantity and went to a place (inevitably called the "Taj Mahal") with an all you can eat buffet. It was so cheap the large Kingfisher I had cost almost as much as the food. After a couple of dodgy plates (including a pisspoor goat curry) I finally hit paydirt with the tawa chicken, although like the rest of the food it was a bit bland even for my British palate. New Yorkers obviously aren't used to the spicy stuff. In fact the only really spicy thing they had were the vegetable samosas, and a few of them made the beer taste all the better.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

They Look The Same To Me

New York

I suffered during the bus journey up here due to a blasting hangover following last night's hostel pub crawl in DC. We went out in Adams-Morgan which is an area rammed with bars, clubs and iffy-looking takeaway places. A curiously British sort of setting, in fact. Females made up a big majority of the people in the group including two Asian girls, one from Holland the other from Austin. As the night wore on everything started to get a bit blurry from where I was sitting and I produced some real smooth talking. Thinking I was speaking to the American, I asked the Dutch girl about her husband in Texas, then pointed at one of her friends gyrating on the dancefloor and said "see that girl from Rotterdam, what a cocktease!" The confused expression I got in response told me I'd done the old Prince Philip/slitty eyes thing. Thankfully the poor girl's English was less than perfect, I think she's still wondering what I was talking about.

And so I've made it to the self-styled 'Capital of the World', the ever shy and retiring New York City. I'm off to hang in the 'hood and keep it real.