I woke early, and snuck out into dawn streets. I caught the subway down to City Hall, the downtown local, and stepped over the water. I realise that, perhaps, the Chrysler Building may not be my favourite structure in New York. (Favourite is a very flexible word for me; it changes with the weather.) The Brooklyn Bridge is, or just then, early on a Saturday morning, it was. Few people were about: some joggers. A line of cormorants flew under the bridge, skimming the water. A fleet of police cars, lights flashing, sirens stuttering, sped into the city on the car deck. (I later learned this was, I think, a ceremonial affair: it was the day a memorial to dead policemen was being dedicated.)
I walked across the water, looking back at the skyline – the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, the tenements of the Lower East Side and Alphabet City.
I walked from the East River over to the Hudson. The direct route took me past the site of the World Trade Center – Ground Zero. Last time I was here, I made a conscious decision not to visit the site, then barely a year after 11 September 2001: it seemed ghoulish – terrorist tourism. But it also seemed churlish and disrespectful to go out of my way to avoid it, so I found myself skirting the site. It was a huge building site. Some of the remnants of the twin towers were still there – pieces of the foundations, a couple of lift shafts. Nearby, on Greenwich St or West Broadway, a cross formed by the twisted joint of two steel beams was displayed – it was left standing on the site after the towers came down, and had to be moved when they started work. It has been left as a memorial.
I found the whole site very moving. It drew tears.
I went into the World Financial Center, the modern towers built on the waste soil that was excavated when they first built the WTC. These glass towers are full of angles, and I like them a lot. Inside the vast atrium – the Winter Garden – I found a Starbucks and bought a large coffee and some pastries, and I went outside to sit overlooking the Hudson whilst eating breakfast. Men jogged past with their babies in pushchairs. The towers in Jersey City, across the river, were lit up by the sun.
There was music in the Winter Garden: a school orchestra were practicing for a performance later. They seemed pretty good: I sat a listened for a while. I picked up a leaflet and realised that there was a free (as in no cost) free (as in improvised) music festival the next day – Bang on a Can; and that they had some people on I really wanted to see. I spontaneously changed my plans and decided to improvise a bit myself.
I could still hear the intermittent stuttering of police cars; but also the droning of bagpipes. I checked – it was only coffee I had drunk. I was curious; I went outside to trace the sound, expecting to see a kilted busker. I found the kilted massed pipe band of the New York Police Department. This was very surreal. There were about thirty or forty men standing around, of all races, dressed in formal kilts, waiting for something to start. I went up to one of them not playing the pipes and asked what was going on, and he told me about the NYPD pipe band. Apparently, it is the biggest bagpipe band in the world. They were marching to commemorate the dedication of a memorial to those policemen who had died whilst on duty. It was a big event – lots of politicians were going to be coming down, there was a procession of police cars and several different marching bands. I listened to the band practice – more of a warm up – but the surreal nature of the event and a less than wholesome sound didn’t let me linger.
I wandered to look at the memorial for the police, but – I guess for obvious reasons – they weren’t letting ordinary tourists near. I did however find another memorial, dedicated by Mayor Guiliani in 2002 to the dead of the Irish famine. (He must have been after votes!)
I walked back to City Hall to catch the subway, stopping to look once more at Ground Zero. I took some photographs of the beam cross. I walked around the perimeter and looked at some of the displays. There were touts selling postcards and guidebooks, like any other tourist destination. There was quite a crowd near the entrance to the site, and some people were taking a tour of the building works below. Lots of people were taking photographs of themselves against the backdrop of emptiness.
Walking back to City Hall, I noticed that the square in front of the building has been renamed “People With AIDS Plaza”. Clearly it is a time for commemorating people – but I thought they could have been a bit more imaginative and dedicated the space to someone who had died of AIDS – someone famous, or someone unknown – one of the many. Using a generic name just seemed lame.
I took the uptown local, stopping once more to gaze at the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. There was a food fair on Lexington Ave; I bought some things – some chow mein, some felafel – and grazed as I meandered between the stalls. It was very busy, but rather fun to walk down the middle of what would normally be a very busy street.
I popped into Grand Central, hoping to capture the feeling of the large main hall. (I couldn’t.) There was a wedding going on; it seemed like an odd place to get married – the steps of a railway station – but everyone looked very happy.
D&B had a dinner party that evening, with a couple of old friends of theirs who I have known for a long time – maybe twenty years or so. It was a lovely evening, catching up. The kids demanded we play a very complex board game; they kept changing the rules, which made it rather hard to play.
Sunday was lazy to start with and grew increasingly busy. We had a picnic in Central Park, the kids playing on the grass. It was a pretty upmarket picnic – some delicious deli food and lovely wine. We hid under umbrellas when it rained.
I then headed back to the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center for Bang on a Can. It was on all day – literally, running from 8pm on Saturday non-stop through to 10pm on Sunday – and I aimed to turn up to see a few specific acts. Of course they were running late.
First up I saw Dalek. Industrial-metal-hiphop, I’d say; not easy to listen to, for me – it sounded like noise, which I think was the idea, but I have never been keen on industrial music. (I once went to a gig in St Mary’s Cathedral which involved chainsaws cutting through steel; it was an interesting experience, but once experienced I was happy to consign it to memory. Test Department, I think it was.)
Next up were world musicians called Mashriq, from that area. This was interesting and lively – people were dancing.
I was taken by the next piece: a large scale percussion piece by James Tenney called Having Never Written a Note for Percussion. The band – there many, many of them – was called Red Fish Blue Fish – each had a single piece of percussion – gongs, cymbals, drums, bells; they were situated all over the atrium. The piece as described on the day came out of Tenney’s desire to have an ensemble all play a single note: it began when it began and finished when it finished, a cacophonous crescendo. It was very zen – a roar of percussion fading to a single gong. (It wasn’t however a single note – each beat they played was actually a note, it was just the same pitch note played many, many times. Still, it worked for me.)
Then was one of the bands I wanted to see – Vijay Iyer Quartet. I had seen Iyer play solo in Henry’s when it was still a jazz club, so given the opportunity to see his band, I definitely wanted to. They were playing a new suite, Tragicomic. It was good, though not easy, music. I particularly liked the bass player.
After that I had to go, so I missed Don Byron who I had hoped to see. I liked the idea of bang on a Can – it was a good festival. They are having another marathon this year, and I might just get to see it.
I got the subway up to 72nd Street and went to see my friend Michael, who let me and G stay in her apartment when I first went to New York. I visit her every time I am in the city. She used to work as an authors’ and actors’ agent, and she is full of stories of names she has worked with. She is always so hospitable. And at the age of 88, she is taking some college courses…
It was late and pouring with rain when I left; so I hopped in a cab to take me back uptown. There is something about sitting in a cab with poor, flabby suspension, bouncing around a broad avenue late at night, the rain streaming past, that just makes on think of movies. Taxi Driver, mainly…
It was still raining the next day, too. I had breakfast in the Greek diner – French toast this time, smothered in maple syrup and butter. I got the bus downtown, getting off at the Rockefeller Center: I decided it was a day for wandering around inside, out of the rain, and I wanted to explore the building.
It is like a 1930s ocean liner: lots of stairways and brass, curves and straight lines. It is beautiful. I wandered around, trying to take photographs in the low light.
I then caught the subway to Grand Central – where I did the same. I had intended to grab lunch at the famous Oyster Bar, but it was packed. So again I wandered around, particularly in the lower reaches of the building: broad, dimly lit caverns, designed to carry crowds of commuters quickly away from the station. It two was full of curves – tiled vaulting, bridges and walkways across over walkways. It is spacious and dramatic, but claustrophobic, too; and like all railway stations, it is designed to get people somewhere else. Except that they provide many reasons to linger, too – lots of restaurants – a whole foodhall in the basement.
Instead of eating lunch there, though, I caught the A train down to Greenwich Village, where the guidebook recommended the Corner Bistro for its burgers. I managed to get lost trying to find it – Greenwich Village is designed to get one lost, the neat arrangements of blocks, streets and avenues being twisted and warped. I did find it, finally, soaked by the rain. It is more a bar than a bistro; in fact, it is a bar. But it felt great. They only serve burgers, fries and beer. So that was what I had. I sat on an old wooden bench, eavesdropping on the conversations – a woman across the table was talking loudly into a jewel-encrusted mobile phone. There was a tv on over the bar playing Pal Joey with the sound down, Sinatra andRita Hayworth mouthing along to My Funny Valentine silently whilst the hifi played an eclectic mix of jazz: they were playing something avant garde. Then they played something more accessible – a sequence of Get Happy, Round Midnight (which seemed really in keeping with the surroundings), and some Louis Armstrong.
The ceiling of the Corner Bistro was wooden-panelled, making the whole place feel dark and snug – smokey despite the New York smoking ban.
It was a good burger, too.