Saturday, 7 November 2009

New York Song - Neil Campbell

walking and staring and sweating for hours, finding the Upper East Side YMCA, paying, getting in the room, trying and failing to sleep with the windows open; humid between the skyscrapers, listening to the rattling pipes and the fat cracking radiators, the police sirens, the cries, the whispers, watching the movements of strangers behind dingy shades, ten floors up among the flower baskets, balconies and fire escapes.
In Central Park the next day, chilling out with big name directors and actors in the bright sunglasses-shaded morning, looking up at the Dakota and around at all the regal dulled splendour of faded apartment buildings. Lying back on a bench among the flowers and listening to the increase in traffic: human traffic building and building through the irregular bouncing feet of a succession of comedy joggers; marathon men and women, sweating in unison on the dust track around the glittering reservoir.
Sitting near the Imagine circle, listening as a grey bearded old man in a dirty suit played a wistful flute for the shot one caught among the rye, the black arms of trees marking the gold morning sun around Strawberry Fields.
Descending into the dark subway with the chipped white tiled walls and the wind streaming down the tunnels, then seeing the train, the people, the crowds, and the movement to and fro, here and there, and a man with no body from the waist-down, going up and down the train swinging his torso like a pendulum, a Pepsi bucket of coins carried in his mouth landing with a jingle after every swing of the arms.
Getting off the subway, climbing up to the light and across the Brooklyn Bridge out of town, looking back at the mix of faded grey and sparkling silver on the skyline. Pausing to take a photograph of two gorgeous, giggling, bronzed Hispanic girls bemused and / or amused by my accent, the graffiti-stained, rusting steel girders alongside, and Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in the distance over to my right.
Standing with the East River glistening benignly in the sunlight before me, then turning left onto the street, before walking back across the blue and white painted Manhattan Bridge, glancing back at the Brooklyn Bridge in all its ageing glory, with its tilting stone parapets and suspension wires like strands of fine hair glistening in patterns.
Peering through the plastic fencing of the Manhattan Bridge, down at fat tugs plodding through the flat expanse of blue, a flash of a mile of sunlit white alongside. Gazing down into Chinatown with its smell and its bustle and its graffiti covered back yard walls in the shadow of the city, beneath the ornate towers of the magnates of the past, hustling, bustling, toiling, oiling, boiling, broiling.
Catching a subway to Battery Park, deciding not to regret life, and then getting on the Staten Island ferry to the land of the anti-climax…waiting around for the dark, looking back over at the Manhattan skyline, seemingly immovable, distant, distinct, tiny. Watching ferries going back every half an hour, sirens ringing out and the human rush to go back: men, women and children jumping over turnstiles, clambering on board, and then making the return journey to the science fiction cityscape: the Blade Runner night time, with skyscrapers like mountains of stars. Catching the subway back and listening to an old man singing baritone and rattling an accompanying musical bag of coins, then giving him all my dimes and walking up the steps to look up at the red, white and blue peak of the Empire State, high in the star-bright night. Then the next day in Greenwich Village, sitting outside a café on the corner of McDougall and Bleaker Street gulping coffee, looking around at the white on green street signs, the yellow painted traffic lights, the poster filled lampposts and the iron wire trash bins. Getting up to look around at the clubs, The Blue Note where Bird and Bessie and Miles and ’Trane played, the Café Wha? where Hendrix and Dylan played, and the Bitter End where Springsteen played, all playing, all in my head, music swirling and swirling around with espresso logic.
Going to Ground Zero to see the old church with all the flowers outside it, in the shadow of the huge empty space where the ghosts of twin towers whispered sad falling songs to those stood there looking at nothing. A building site of sadness, mud and dust and dirt alongside the ashes of American flags, and then other American flags, with redneck, loyal, sensitive, beautiful, brutal, foolish, sublime, poetic, heartfelt and genuine messages; scrawled and printed on the fabric between the blue stripes. Then making my way out in the wake of a reverent and respectful silence, smiling at a jolly sculpture of silver stone construction workers sat together eating sandwiches.
Drifting home in the muggy evening dark, hiding on the back streets, looking in windows, shops and hushed delis, where old men and women watched tellies, and then moving on, feeling the whole world trembling beneath my feet and the pavements steaming with heat. Back to the YMCA, up to my room, the TV’s all around me bouncing their adverts through my walls, and the heat pipes still rattling and rattling and the radiators mercifully off but still banging, and the sirens ringing in the heat and the humidity. Lying stagnant between the scrapers, naked on the bed, sweating, wanting to sleep, not being able to sleep, getting up, getting the guide book, reading with eyes straining, waiting for the next day, and then the dim light slowly being turned up: the sun behind buildings, still and cool.
Shuffling down to breakfast, past the pensioners running to the pool in their plastic bathing caps, with their proud, half-naked, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty year old bodies and serving myself and watching a very, very fat man smothering dozens of pancakes in a syrup that slithered around his mouth and down his front, and seeing his example and doing the same, but in my case stocking up, fuelling up for the day, churning it up, taking it in: fruit salad, muffins, coffee, pancakes.
Seeing the Chelsea Hotel, elegant, old and beautiful, red brick and balconies black. The house of artist ghosts, with gold plated plaques on the outside dedicated to James Schuyler, Brendan Behan and Thomas Wolfe; god’s lonely man, and Dylan Thomas; who sailed out from there to die; and reading in the guide book a tenuous tale about Jack Kerouac writing like a madman. Wandering around and then taking a break, going to a tiny cinema in the West Village and watching a film called The 400 Blows; sitting in a city of movies watching a movie, funny and true, with a freeze frame at the end leaving me beautifully blue.
Striding out into the sun, wanting to run, just for fun. Sitting in the park looking up at the Empire State, going down Sixth Avenue and waiting in the queue, then getting in the lift and listening to a laid-back old guy fielding the same gags over and over, yes, up and down every day, eighty eight floors then more, okay. Then walking out of the lift and feeling as though I was making small steps onto the surface of the world for the very first time. Squinting at everything in microcosm before me, right down to the Financial District and into the water beyond and the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island again and the tiny models of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.
Circling around and around as others stood looking at plastic replicas of the building, not looking out of the window where a quarter of the world seemed to stretch around past the greenery of Central Park, round to the swamps of New Jersey; the state of gardens; like Staten Island, a moth beside a light bulb; the hot dusty light bulb of Manhattan, shining bright in the middle of it all. Then waiting until dark, until the city lights flickered on to replace the light of the sun, in intermittent jewelled dots sprinkled across the darkness.
The next day, taking in the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. Edward Hopper paintings in a Whitney room alone, Rothko in the Met, a long twisting Pollock, a Buddhist mural two hundred feet high, and Picasso and Cezanne. Drinking coffee and looking out of the window at the park, and then going to MOMA for free and seeing Lichtenstein’s big comics on the walls amid the crowds, and sitting down in a brief air-conditioned respite from heat. Then gazing at the pale, circular banded spaceship of the Guggenheim, standing alone before the park in all its mighty white.
Going to the public library guarded by lions, full of whispering mice, corridors, chandeliers and books, yes books, but with no time for books. Down into the dark underground again and getting off at Union Square and watching a busking set of black brothers in basketball vests doing somersaults and back-flips to a blazing stereo, round and round, over and over; their feet scraping the ceiling.
Back up to the light, finding the day had gone cold, scanning Time Out and seeing so many choices, so many things to do, and going off to the New School with famous poets and writers reading for free. Listening as Robert Creeley reads his poems and steals the show so much that I go off and buy his book, and he signs it for me and talks to me. Telling me that he has more time to write now and so his poems are often longer, and making me feel like I’m with one of the poets of forever, with his calm and his serenity and his profundity; the vision he encompasses in one seeing eye. Then walking out into the humid night, going back to Battery Park and sitting on a bench, peeking up at the stars and gazing across the East River to the blinking lights of Brooklyn.
Riding the rails the next day; the steel horse running on rails, and going back to Central Park and lying on a bench in the sun. Then going up to the Bronx and getting paranoid: perceiving a tinge of meanness in the air, before seeing the giant letters of Yankee stadium and Budweiser, Budweiser, Budweiser emblazoned on water tanks and rooftops and lorries in red flashes. Walking through Harlem and along Malcolm X Boulevard and Dr Martin Luther King Jnr Boulevard and seeing the Apollo, going into a soul food diner and eating black-eyed peas and potato salad, listening to two old men sitting at the counter speaking about black history and jazz. Smiling to a sweet old lady dressed in pink and the geezer at the counter with a tweed suit on and a feather in his hat, then strolling like a black panther down the street, past all the book stalls, walking back over to Marcus Garvey Park, quiet save for schoolchildren on the basketball court; hoop dreaming beneath the twisted bare trees, climbing up the steps to an incongruous bell tower and surveying Spanish Harlem, and sauntering back down into the subway for a ride; the sweet steel ride back uptown to the glamour of 42nd street, to walk around Times Square among the camera-clicking crowds, multicoloured screens and neon dreams...

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