Friday, 19 April 2013

'Just a New York conversation / Rattlin' through my mind.'

Source: MJA Smith

'Just a New York conversation / Rattlin' through my mind.'

- Lou Reed, 'New York Telephone Conversation', Transformer (1975)

'Bless you.'

- Bryant Park, Saturday afternoon

'Bless you,' said the woman sat on one of the metal chairs scattered around Bryant Park, reading the Saturday papers and wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses to shield her eyes from the warm April sun. My wife had just sneezed, and the woman had looked up from her paper as we walked past, smiled and said 'bless you'. In uttering those two words, New York City, where we'd arrived a couple of hours before, seemed suddenly less oppressive, more friendly somehow.

'I should go to a museum, a gallery or something, I know; but when you live in New York, when it rains you just stay indoors and, I don't know, do the cleaning or something.'

- Rock Center Café, Saturday evening

We were sat in the Rock Center Café, watching a mix of flamboyant wannabes and hopeless amateurs skating on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, on the rink's last day until next winter. At one point the ice was cleared and a guy proposed to his fiancee; we have to assume she said yes. Everyone clapped.

After a dinner of crab cakes and seasonal vegetables, the girls went out with Mrs S to watch the skating, where a guy looking like Che Guevara was impressing and irritating the other skaters by turns with some quirky dancing. Paying the bill, I got chatting to the waiter, a big, cuddly sort of a guy with a friendly demeanour, no trace of snootiness in spite of the WASPy clientele at other tables. I explained we'd just arrived in New York from two weeks in Orlando. He told me he used to work at Disney World. I wasn't terribly surprised to hear that.

In exchange for his tip, I asked him if he could recommend anywhere in New York to take children. In response, he proudly reeled off a whole list of places and then took me over to a waitress, herself a mother to a son, who offered up some more places - the American Museum Of Natural History is the only one that springs to mind now - and the guy wrote some of them down on the back of a receipt. All of the places were already on our list of things we wanted to see or do while we were in the city, but it was the easy conversation and friendliness that made that post-dinner chat memorable.

'You wan' lox-cream cheese or lox AND cream cheese?'

- Cafe Europa, W33 Street
- Pergola, W40 Street
- Montague Street Bagels, Montague Street, Brooklyn
- Ess-A-Bagel, Third Avenue

Never ask for salmon. Well, not unless you want the server to give you a stern, uncomprehending stare and the brusque question above.

We ate bagels a few times while in New York. You have to really, and it's hard to go wrong. The best bagels we had? They were from Montague Street Bagels over in Brooklyn, eaten on a bench on the pretty esplanade overlooking Manhattan's Financial District, watching bankers, sundry execs and tourists taking helicopters from a helipad at the island's southern tip. On the night before we flew home, Daughter 2 and I cut across town to Ess-A-Bagel, a deli over on Third Avenue, whose bagels are highly recommended by locals. It turns out that they weren't a patch on Montague Street in Brooklyn, and we managed to lose Mrs S and Daughter 2 when we tried to regroup, instilling a momentary panic given that Manhattan suddenly felt very large indeed.

'Do you like poetry?'

- John's, W44 Street

We were in John's Pizzeria near Times Square, ordering a take-out pizza after a trip to a cinema on W42 Street. It was late and the kids wanted to be in bed, but we were hungry and John's was just around the corner from the hotel. This used to be the Midtown branch of the gruff Village location but is now totally separate. Mrs S and I had been to John's on Bleecker Street before the kids were born, so we had high hopes for the pizza here.

'Do you like poetry?' asked the young guy at the booth who took our takeaway order. By this time Mrs S and the girls were sat down on a banquette, waiting, and I was looking at the restaurant's business card, half-wondering why I pick these things up. The question caught me off guard and I didn't quite know if he was talking to me.

'Sure,' I responded. 'Sometimes.'

'I write poetry. I wrote a poem earlier. Could I read it to you?'

When I agreed, thinking how wonderfully odd this was, he read a short poem written on a scrap of paper, called 'Norway', which he'd been inspired to write after serving a young couple from that country about an hour before. After he'd finished, he meticulously explained what each line meant. I forget the message now, but it lead him on to tell me how committed he was to his studies and his academic endeavours. He gestured at the rest of the wait staff, telling me that they were all wannabe actors or performers, that he thought it was all fake and that few people wanted to make something of themselves through hard work and commitment. I wished him well, told him that being able to write was a gift, gave him my email address after encouraging him to seek a publisher, and left, thinking how typically New York it was to have that conversation.

'Children are people too!'

- Sixth Avenue

In a city of eight million people, seeing the same person twice is weird, let alone statistically mind-bending.

This utterance was hurled at us twice from a talkative black homeless guy on Sixth Avenue on a corner somewhere between Central Park and Radio City, in response to the four of us striding along the sidewalk. The second time he said it, toward the end of our stay, I turned back and offered him a smile. He returned my smile with a massive grin, a wink and a gentle shake of the polysterene coffee cup filled with quarters he was holding.

'It's good to still be here.'

- Other Music, E4 Street

That's what the dude behind the counter in Other Music said to me when I said how pleased I was that this East Village institution was still there. In the days before writing this section we've learned that independent record store Bleecker Bob's in Greenwich had closed its doors forever. Indie record shops in cities across the globe are shutting down as the influence of downloads and retailers like Amazon deliver a more instant response to our music-consuming needs. At least in 2012, Other Music was still there. I truly hope they'll still be there when we return to New York this year.

We'd walked into Other Music after I took Daughter 1 into the John Varvartos store on the Bowery. That trendy outlet is the site of the old CBGB venue. I wanted to take her there for several reasons, one being that she loves my CBGB t-shirt, and another being that from an early age I've been conditioning her to New York punk via Talking Heads, Blondie and others. I have some great video footage of her headbanging along to the first Ramones album, and Television's Marquee Moon was, for a while, her favourite album in her iPod. The former CBGBs was a curiously soulless place, the barest trace of the bastion of New York's music scene to be found in the exposed brickwork, no dirt or grit or energy among the racks of trendy clothes. Another reason for nipping in here was because of a well-publicised display of vintage vinyl. Considering the former venue was the revolution against bloated Seventies rock, seeing loads of LPs by godawful bands that the NY punk scene deliberately rejected was thoroughly dispiriting. As was the burly security guard breathing down our necks.

So Other Music was like a welcome relief when we walked in. I specifically wanted to buy Hurry Up, We're Dreaming by M83. Being far too untrendy to know my way round the modern musical maze of stratified sub-genres, I asked someone stacking new releases onto the shelves to point me in the right direction and she was really friendly and helpful, something you'll never get when shopping on Amazon.

'Do you need some directions?'

- Bleecker Street

We weren't especially lost, that was the thing. We'd been walking round Greenwich Village for most of the morning and had been enjoying exploring the wonky streets and haunts of Beats and other cool people from the Fifties and Sixties, looking for houses once lived in by Dustin Hoffmann and Bob Dylan, looking down the road pictured on the sleeve of Dylan's The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, drinking excellent cappuccinos in Caffe Reggio and watching people playing chess in Washington Square Park. A friendly man, with shopping bags and a beaming smile saw us meandering down Bleecker past the red canopy of the Village Vanguard, the important jazz venue that witnessed many an important gig in jazz's heyday, and he assumed we were struggling to navigate the complexity of the streets compared to the rest of Manhattan. He's clearly never been to London.

That said, it is a little confusing in the Village, and he seemed so keen, and almost proud, to help that we didn't want to say no. At that point we were on our way to the original Magnolia Bakery to buy lavish cupcakes that would later be consumed on the High Line in the shadow of the Standard hotel. He gestured down the street, gave us the directions and he then walked off, smiling and evidently pleased to have assisted some tourists trying really hard not to look like tourists. An elderly lady in Brooklyn on Montague Street had also gone out of her way to see if we needed directions while trying to find the bagel shop, whereas earlier that day when we gingerly approached two traffic cops to ask for directions on how to get onto the Brooklyn Bridge they were smilingly obliging, which was a relief of sorts. I thought they were going to arrest me for being so lost.

'It's our best selling item.'

- A Salt And Battery, Greenwich Avenue

Immediately before bumping into the helpful shopper by the Vanguard, we went for lunch at one of the most baffling places we've come across in New York - A Salt And Battery, an authentic fish and chip shop in the Village, owned and staffed by English people. Sitting in the window eating sustainable white fish and chips from little baskets while looking out onto the quiet streets, and hearing the steady stream of English and Irish accents of queuing customers, it felt like being back home perhaps, even though we don't normally go to the chippy very often.

Talking to the guy behind the counter, a warm guy that I swore was a dead ringer for Jack Whitehall, I alighted upon a poster advertising that deep-fried Cadbury Cream Eggs were back in stock. He explained that it was the most popular thing on the menu, which I was slightly aghast at. I took a photo of the poster and emailed it to a friend in Edinburgh, the message saying that I thought he'd be really proud to see Scottish cuisine making it to New York.

'Well, because you asked so politely... I love the English accent!''
'Do you like Only Fools And Horses?'

- Tony's di Napoli, W43 Street

We had decided to go back to Tony's di Napoli just off Times Square, regarded as one of the best family-run Italian restaurants in the city. We'd been there on the Saturday, and with no other plans for dinner, and it having been a massive hit with the girls (and us), we decided to go back. Previously we'd booked, but this time we were going in on spec, and having seen the hard-faced hostess brusquely managing the pre-theatre crowd a few days before, I was a little nervous. I needn't have worried, but in being a little apprehensive I enquired of the (different) hostess with a bit more pronounced politeness (remember 'please' and 'thank you' are not common currencies in NYC) as to whether we could have a table of four and despite being every bit as stern-looking as her colleague, her face suddenly lit up and she became really friendly. Perhaps I'm a little too conscious and embarrassed by my Englishness sometimes, and I clearly forget that people like to hear the accent when you're abroad, especially in the US.

The appeal of our accents seemed to prevail as we were taken to our table downstairs. After ordering drinks, including a fantastic Negroni for me, our waiter took over the table. I can't remember what he looked like now, but in my mind he reminds me of a blend of Adam Buxton and Carrie's writer boyfriend Jack Berger in Sex And The City. Asking us if we liked Only Fools And Horses in a Brooklyn accent was singularly one of the most unexpected things we heard in New York. It turned out his mother was English and so he'd been raised watching the sitcom, but even if that was an entirely logical question for him to ask, it was still pretty crazy to us. We all enjoyed our pasta and it's no surprise that we'll be going back there again in May; we won't, on the other hand, be going back to Carmine's on the Upper West Side, which we went to on our last day, and which was nowhere near as nice.

'Are you going to American Girl?'

- American Girl, Fifth Avenue

'Are you going to American Girl?' asked a former work colleague when we popped into our firm's New York office to say hello. The question was aimed at Daughter 1 and 2, who had been a bit grumpy and unruly for most of the afternoon. It was our last day, we'd been away for the best part of three weeks, and the week of walking around New York was beginning to take its toll. A few minutes before, we'd gone through the usual parental cycle of warnings that if they misbehaved we'd have to take away the thing they'd been innocently looking forward to most about New York; that thing was a trip to the American Girl store on Fifth Avenue, and we'd been talking about it for months.

So the question left us in a tricky position, since they seemed to take the enquiry as somehow meaning that, despite our warnings, the nice lady had given them permission to go. And of course we acquiesced, looked terribly inconsistent, and roughly three hours later we walked out of American Girl carrying two dolls and a couple of outfits with two very smug and satisfied young children. The dolls were promptly christened Lily and Jessica, or Mortgage #1 and Mortgage #2 as I call them. Another father in the queue and I shared our amazement at the audacious cost, but handed over our credit cards anyway. When the girls feel like it, they dress them and brush Lily and Jessica's hair lovingly. When they don't we tell them they're bad parents and that the dolls should be put up for adoption.