Thursday, 16 February 2017


First, We’ll Take Manhattan

Winter travel is a crapshoot, tumbling dice. Ann thought we were overdue for a trip to Montreal to visit with my mother and my sister’s family. And Ann thought it might be fun to preface a return to my hometown with a couple of days in New York City because she’d never been, I hadn’t been there for 35 years and she knew I was busting to experience the Rolling Stones Exhibitionism show, and anyway, what better way to spend an ageing Stones freak’s birthday? Inclement weather chased us along the continent’s eastern seaboard and though we fumed through flight delays and missed connections, we were never stranded by cancellations thanks to the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin.

Last Wednesday night we touched down at LaGuardia hours overdue. The rundown, shabby airport in Queens was deserted. We may’ve been on the last plane in before the weather warnings demanded a cessation of incoming air traffic. We took a black town car to the Ameritania Hotel at West 54th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Our driver was pregnant and her boyfriend had left her because she was pregnant. She said he was only 21 and not ready for the responsibilities inherent in raising a child. She’d quit smoking ‘Like that!’ snapping her fingers. She wondered why women were so upset with President Trump because she really didn’t pay attention to the news. I glanced at Ann and looked out the window, Central Park: yeah, I took a long territorial piss there once a long time ago.

When you change the backdrop you change the conversation. Around midnight Ann and I left our hotel and went next door to a pub called The 3 Monkeys. The joint was long and narrow. The walls were white subway or bathroom tile. The ceiling was stamped tin. Judging from the flags and pennants, The 3 Monkeys is a midtown haven for New York’s NFL Packers and Patriots fans. We were too tired to sleep. It was officially my 57th birthday. We discussed the digital human condition, global politics, our present and our future plans – from a new coat of paint in the laundry room to travel to somehow getting my third novel out there for readers. I am reminded of my only other trip to New York in that I can’t remember much as we both drank four pints of Old Speckled Hen English ale. I do know that Ann and I agreed that we love each other.

We awoke in a fog; the snow had fallen all through the night but we couldn’t gauge its depth peering down from our tenth floor room into a window well of leaky air conditioner rust stained white washed brick. New York is an old New World city, its streets are narrow and if they ran two-way the carnage would be horrifying. There’s a hole in every street surrounded by heavy vehicles and attended to by work crews decked out in florescent vests. We staggered out of our hotel into a honking car jam exacerbated by a cordoned off vented sewer, double stacked rows of garbage bags, driving sleet and windrows of heavy, wet snow. Chaos.

We negotiated Broadway as best we could, mindful of our footing, the foot speed of the locals, the pointy parts of their umbrellas and our eyes. We gazed upon the Disney grotesque that is Times Square and admired the marquees in the Theatre District. We passed Lindy’s deli which is Mindy’s in Damon Runyon’s delightful Jazz Age short stories of New York’s gamblers and gangsters; Arnold Rothstein the New Yorker who fixed the 1919 World Series and who is mentioned in passing in ‘The Great Gatsby’ appears as criminal genius Sky Masterson. I was most struck by the shuttered Brill Building, symbolic of an entirely different era of music. If you consider the music industry perpetually troubled, you need not think beyond the fate of the Brill. Initially, player pianos, phonographs and radio were perceived threats to a business that thrived on the sales of sheet music. Ultimately its three chord death knell was sounded by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, performers who wrote their own material. Songwriters associated with Brill such as Carole King, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon and Lou Reed (!) moved on to do other things.

We caught a Yellow cab to the West Village to go through Exhibitionism. We could’ve ridden the subway but you can’t see much underground. It was closed for the day due to weather conditions. Ann and I looked at each other and started to laugh. There was nothing else to do and where were we stranded anyway? Keeping the Hudson River to our backs we wended our way through the snow and dog shit to Eighth Avenue and flagged another Yellow cab to take us back uptown. We ate dinner at a pizzeria on Broadway called Angelo’s. A decade-old New York Times story in the window announced that one of New York’s great pizza families was back in the game. However, a food critic in a recent issue of The New Yorker sniffed that while Angelo’s was fine for tourists there were better pies to be had in the Big Apple. Fuck it; we were hungry and needed something in our stomachs for a return engagement at The 3 Monkeys. ‘Beast of Burden’ played as we enjoyed our first pint of Old Speckled Hen. ‘Cheers, baby, I love you.’

The Rolling Stones are a seminal band. Beyond the music and the live performances is another layer of cultural depth. They explored other media. In their heyday they drove fashion. Mick Jagger, a London School of Economics dropout, and drummer Charlie Watts, a commercial artist, understand the importance of branding, graphic design, promotion and advertising. All of these jigsaw pieces, stage costumes, Andy Warhol Polaroids, enlarged printer’s proofs, lyrics on hotel courtesy notepaper, assemble into a somewhat complete though obviously orchestrated picture. Keith’s used syringes were not on display.

For us Manhattan was essentially a commando raid or a heist, in and out. When we eventually exited the Exhibitionism merchandise emporium the sun was out and the sky was blue. The time was around noon on Friday, February 10th, our second and last day in the city. We had a sense of Manhattan’s grid now. We wandered from the Meat Packing District and strolled through a portion of Greenwich Village, zigging and zagging between Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Avenues. We explored the Chelsea Market for too short of a time because the frenetic crush of people made me uncomfortable. We were hungry and thirsty but the crowd just didn’t suit. Ann said, ‘We’ll know it when we find it.’ We did. We pried open a 7-Up screen door and ducked through some plastic meat freezer curtain strips into the Trailer Park Lounge and Grill on West 23rd Street; black velvet Elvis was in the building as was every other item of kitsch you’ll find in a dusty low rent antique store. The tikki bar was open. The beer was cold. The food was basic but delicious: tater tots.

Following our respite we walked on past Madison Square Garden and Penn Station back to the Ameritania, or more precisely, The 3 Monkeys. My loose calculation is that we covered some 50 to 60 New York blocks on foot with pauses to peer up at the flourishes in the stone architecture and the chuckling gargoyles: rubes. Ann noted that the blocks got smaller around Times Square. Still, all in all, not an insignificant hike on a sloppy winter’s day. We plan to do it all again for a longer time in better conditions.

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