Lost and found in New York


You can’t help enacting a cliché when you hail a cab in New York, except no one barged me out of the way rudely.  Maybe I looked as desperate as I felt?

 Making myself understood was another thing.

“Gene’s, please, 73 West 11th Street, between 5th and 6th?”  Even saying the address seemed impossibly exotic, unlike  73 Cats Brain Quarry, Bunting Hill, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the kind of thing you get around here.


“No, Gene’s?”  I added the American inflection, in  case that helped – I’ve often wondered? Is that a sign of insecurity?  Even Obama does it?

“Ah, Djinns”  (I made that one up.)

“Yes, yes, Jinn’s, I know Jinns.”  We got there in the end.

It was a pleasant surprise to find the cab didn’t cost me a month’s pension.  In fact we arrived so quickly I realised I could have walked.  Finding a seat in the corner of the bar, with a good view of the door I breathed again and smeared on a  bit of lippy; the best I could do to smarten myself up. I didn’t risk ordering a drink, the night was yet young.  Instead I employed that mainstay of single travellers and got out a book and planned the next day – the day of the the BIG ART FEST.  I’d only been anticipating cruising the New York art galleries for about 20 or 30 years. It would be a knickerbocker glory of art: MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, piled in layers and the big blob of cream on the top the Witney, where I hoped to find one of my favourite American artists, Edward Hopper. My friend Janet said not to bother with Central Park (“It’s just a park”) but I hoped to combine it with walking to and from galleries.

Was Bernt caught up in traffic?  I scrutinised  everyone who came in.  These people didn’t look like they’d risk buying green bananas.  I only had a vague idea of what Bernt looked like, from a slightly blurred image in Nick and Jane’s wedding photos, but I did know he was a few years older than Nick, so he must be mid-late 50s.  It was a bit like internet dating but without the risk, or the deceptively youthful picture.   As he was probably expecting a Miss Marple lookalike I thought it was probably up to me to make the connection although Nick might have shared that he calls me ‘Cool Aunty’.

Gene’s was born in 1919 and didn’t look as if it, or it’s clientele, had changed much over the years. That seemed to be part of it’s charm.  I was definitely in the world of elastic waisted trousers (or in this case pants) but it was exactly what I wanted – ‘old’ New York, authentic Italian, and considering I had not had time to slip into a trendy little dress and posh up a bit – somewhere I could feel completely relaxed.


When Bernt arrived it could be no one else.  I’d been told how charming he was.  Full of apologies for the traffic, he was immediately recognised by the maitre d’ who led us to a well placed table decorated with a single red rose.  The waiters buzzed around us and brought an hors d’oeuvre of fresh vegetables to dip. Bernt entertained me with tales of New York through a delicious meal of my favourite – Aubergine Parmegano – or, as someone called it in one of the reviews: ‘Eggplant Parm’.  While we’re on the topic of reviewers what was that whining diner on about saying the place smelt of ammonia, the chicken was bland, his wife’s mussels were chewy, the oreganato (?) mushy and the bread fishy.  Some people are just too fussy.  I say that not because I found it all delightful, but because nearly all the other reviewers gave the place top marks.  My guess is he didn’t find it ‘on trend’ enough and had been eating far too many smears of food on a plate drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar and garnished with pea tendrils. (I know they are tasty, but does anyone else find them scratchy to eat?)

The stories kept on coming, and Bernt, like everyone who lives in New York, had his sad tales to tell of 9/11, yet what I picked up most was an old worldly charm, a dash being cut, and an unmistakable air of the 1920s or 40s. Bernt’s crinkle cut hair and choice of tie could place him easily in that era.  I asked what kind of music he liked and was completely unsurprised to find he loved Swing.  OK, now I’m going to get weird…I pick up a sense of people’s past lives.  I got a strong impression one day off my friend Rosi, who makes me look tall (I’m 5ft 2½ on a good day) and who has tiny feet with exceptionally high arches, that cause her a great deal of pain.  On some level I knew that they had once-upon-a-lifetime been bound.   If only I’d had more time, I’d have loved to go Lindy Hopping with Bernt in New York.   Sometimes you meet a new person and it’s just easy.  Relaxed and humorous.  We laughed out way through the meal until the bottle was empty and a working man needed to get home.

The trouble with being someone who doesn’t drink much, is that when you share a bottle of wine over a meal, it’s much.  Not that I was embarrassing, or incapable of walking without a wobble, (though it’s a good thing I didn’t wear those heels) I just had to be a bit careful not to trip over a walking stick or two on the way to the door.  Luckily Bernt offered to drive me back to the apartment.

” I think it’s round this corner.  Oh, sorry, I thought it was.  Maybe the next block?  Oh dear, I’m sure it was this one – it was definitely red brick.”  Very helpful when most of New York, that isn’t high rise, is red brick.  “There.  There it is!”

Bernt looked relieved at this point, I said my goodnights, effusive thank you’s (he wouldn’t let me pay for a thing) and noted the slight freeze that said ‘for gods sake don’t kiss me’.   Once I’d worked out how to get the key into the lock and trailed up 8 flights, and managed the door into the apartment, I found someone was still up.  There was Tom,  whose wholesome, genial picture led me to book the room, sitting in his boxers drinking beer and watching South Park on the TV.  He barely looked up, though he did say ‘Hi’ between mouthfuls of cereal.  I grabbed my suitcase from the corner of the room, bumped down the dark corridor to find the door at the end.  The room seemed much smaller than it looked on the website.  There was a bed and a small table by it with a lamp. No chair, but a wardrobe of sorts where I could hang my clothes.  I slithered into the silky brown sheets, turned the pillow cover inside-out to avoid the pilling, and noticed the picture on the wall by the bed – the Flatiron.  It felt like a good omen.  I fell quickly asleep to the sound of city noises instead of owls and foxes.


Taking Liberties in New York


Staten Island Ferry Port

Can it really be so hard to find a slice of genuine New York cheesecake in New York?

Buoyed by the prospect of a free sail-by of the Statue of Liberty, I headed south again, down to the Staten Island Ferry.  I couldn’t help congratulating myself that despite rubbish forward planning I’d already seen a fair proportion of my ‘musts’ on the tourist trail: the Flatiron, Greenwich Village, Ground Zero and Wall Street.  Curiously, I hadn’t seen a single power dressed businesswoman striding out in trainers (or what we call ‘daps’ around here).  Perhaps New York women are over that fashion, or did I read it’s coming around again with trainers that cost near on £200 a pop?

Acutely aware that my possible ‘date’ for the evening, Bernt, hadn’t called , I hunted around the cafes in the ferry terminal. ‘Why would he call?’ I kept reminding myself.  He doesn’t know me from Eve, I’m just ‘another nifty aunt from nowhere’ (my eldest brother Michael’s expression when introduced, aged about 7, to yet another of my mother’s friends.  That was how it was in the 50s. He probably felt we had enough natural aunts already, what with Grumpy Helen, Posh Helen, Mamie, Peggy, Eileen, Margot, Margaret and Mildred.  So what if he didn’t call?  I could always seize my courage and make my way to the Duplex Bar.

I guess a ferry terminal is not the best place to source a genuine New York cheesecake.  It’s not often I eat half a cake.  I’m more a have-my-cake-and-eat-it person, and worry about the pounds tomorrow.  Be warned, don’t waste your money on what looks like very nice cheesecake there.  If anyone can recommend where to buy the genuine article I would be so grateful.  Better still, since it might take me a while to return, I’d appreciate a recipe. I want to match my memories of the cheesecake I used to buy when I was flat sharing in the Cromwell Road in London in the 1960s.  It was the lightest, slightly lemony, most crumbly taste of heaven, not a hint of the cloying stodge I chucked with a heavy clunk,in the terminal bin.

The ferry was packed to the gunnels, except that instead of guns the side decks were crammed with tourists.  Being short and, yes, nifty, I’m pretty adept at worming my way to the front of crowds.   I soon had a good position, if a bit hemmed in by hugely enthusiastic Chinese neighbours, taking selfies and shuffling around like penguins to each get a shot with a New York backdrop. Security had been tolerably lax getting on the ferry, but I was amused to see that we were accompanied by outriders in true western style, but in a speedboat, complete with machine gunner at the fore.  It occurred to me that if there was some kind of trouble  it could be a pretty confusing and messy outcome, but that’s life post 9/11.



At Staten Island we all disembarked and re-queued for the return ferry.  Coming back we passed closer to Lady Liberty, who was looking spectacular in the glowering storm light, which only enhanced the green of her copper. This may seem incredibly naive to Americans, but I didn’t realise she was so big.  So big that if you are feeling energetic, and if you’ve sensibly booked in advance, not only can you climb up 354 steps inside her to her hat (which it is a kind of viewing platform) you can even climb into her newly renovated 24 carat gold plated torch handle.  She is the inspiration of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor.  Frustrated by the lack of liberty at home he thought ‘Damn it,’ (or something like that, ‘Zut Alors’ maybe?) ‘I’ll make a statue called Liberty and give it to the Americans, they appreciate what liberty is all about, and who knows, perhaps we’ll get it here one day.’  At the time it was the largest metal statue ever constructed.  Her big toe alone could sleep a large man and a close friend.  The words on the base say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (Certain elements of the US Government might like to remember that.)


Lady Liberty, with spooky plane flying past her

And just as I’m taking pictures and marvelling at Liberty, and being squished by Chinese, my phone goes off, with the sound of a nightingale.  They like that.

“Oh! Bernt!  Pardon?  What did you say…I’m on the ferry.  No, the FERRY.  You can?  Tonight?  That’s fantastic, so kind of you.  Six?  Oh dear, I may have a bit of a struggle…. Where did you say? What was that?  Where?”  The sun comes out and picks out a building reflecting my renewed hope for the evening.

IMG_5514I bought with me a little strapless polka dot number, á la Sex in the City style in case such an occasion should occur, and some little strappy heels.  But there I was on the ferry, miles from the apartment, dishevelled, blistered and a bit stinky from a day walking around the city.  I really wanted to go back to the AirBnB to take a chance on the overly-shared bathroom being free so I could tart myself up for the night.  If Bernt was going to have this nifty aunty foisted on him, I did at least want to scrub up and not embarrass him…I’d heard he was a pretty stylish fellow.  I panicked.   It was already 4.30 and I hadn’t yet faced the subway, but it was clear to me that I was going to have to.

I had wondered when Francis told me the subway was “complicated” and there wasn’t much point in explaining it, why?  I soon found out.  I’m an intelligent woman, much travelled, and fairly savvy in foreign parts.  I could not work it out.  I wasted a precious 15 minutes trying to get a ticket for starters, until I found the one native who wasn’t in a hurry who gave me a bit of a hand. (Bless you, I hope you read blogs about New York.)   But once I got underground  I was completely stumped.  I’d like to tell our moron mayor of London, who is considering getting rid of all the staff booths on the London Underground, to please go to the New York subway, without any minders, and find his way from Staten Island ferry port to Chelsea.  He won’t find maps, they don’t seem to exist.  Ha, we’ll see if you change your mind then, Boris.  I went up, then down, and across, getting more and more panicked and flustered like a proper old lady.  It was hot, and dark, and garaffitied and scuzzy and totally confusing and I kept remembering my Enneagram teacher’s son who was shot for no reason on the subway.  I yearned for a nice simple map like our underground map.  I was near to tears, wondering if that was how my life would end up, bumping around the subway, lost, hot, tired and hungry, till dementia set in.   Then an angel appeared, on two sticks, thin,  greasy grey hair, limping painfully, a sheen of sweat on her brow.  “You lost honey?”  I could have kissed her.  She limped her way to the platform across from the one where she was catching a train, and showed me which train to take.  Only when I’m on it did I realise it actually wasn’t.  Not really her fault, she did her best.    I took another another: that wasn’t right either.

By five thirty I was totally fraught, and realised the only way out was up.  Above ground I established which way was north and started walking, intermittently taking calls from Bernt, and catching only the odd word because the traffic and the sound of people talking on their mobiles was too loud. He was trying to telling me the name of the restaurant.  Finally, in a side street I found a spot quiet enough to catch it: Gene’s.  All hope of freshening up for the evening lost, I swallowed my pride and hailed a taxi.  Would I make it in time?