Naked woman hanging in straps – extreme life-drawing

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“Ha”, you might well ask, “you felt uncomfortable,  what about the model?”

New year, new you.  It’s the January mantra isn’t it?   This year, with us boomers defying our dodgy knees and wrinkles, the mantra was elaborated with a promise to halt mental decline by trying something new.  At our age wandering into a room and thinking “now why did I come in here?” is a little bit scary (not that it isn’t something I’ve done for, I don’t know, years…)  so I decided to fill the yawning gap left in my life by the folding of my much loved calligraphy class with something completely different.

The leaflet wasn’t particularly specific.  What was ‘extreme’ life drawing? I’d heard rumours, I’d seen the straps at a recent exhibition held in the studio. I called the teacher.

“I hear you hang your models from the ceiling?  Won’t that be a bit advanced for me?”

“It might be a bit tricky the first couple of sessions, then it’ll click in”.

Apart from an inspiring afternoon in Cricklade with their art group in November it had been 50 years since I did any life drawing. I wasn’t convinced. Wouldn’t I be running before I could toddle?

“There’ll be other beginners,” said Paul.

“Can’t I just try a session and see?”

“You’ll be fine.  Really.”

Some people have the knack of entering a room gracefully whatever the circumstances.  I’m not one of them.  With my board slung under one arm, art kit in the other hand, bundled up against the sou-westerly monsoon raging outside, I clattered my way in.  Having politely stepped back to let other students lead the way in, I found all the best places bagged.  Not that there really is a ‘best place’ when you’re life drawing, it somehow always feels like that.  It’s like choosing in a restaurant and then preferring the other person’s platefull.  My memory of classes at the Richmond Institute all those years ago was arriving late and seeming to always  get the rear view.  Hence I’m quite good at bottoms.

Layered up for January, I’d not allowed for the fact that of course the studio would be hot enough for a model to strip. Our model, in this era of health and safety, was well looked after. When I modelled at St Martin’s Art School in the 60s it was a couple of 3 bar electric fires on a stand directed at my torso.  I was so nervous a trickle of sweat would form just below my breasts and trickle down to pool in my belly button, while my feet froze.  It was very tense waiting for the pool to spill over and tickle as it made it way south.  (There may well be, in attics, pictures of a model with gritted teeth and blue feet.) I squeezed my way back through all the easels out to the loos to strip off as much as I could with decency.

When I came back in the model was sitting on the podium under the shiny blue hanging straps wearing a rather fine silk dressing  gown. I had no idea of this protocol the first time I modelled.     I’d rushed to St Martin’s from a hard day’s kicking up dust at the ballet school. “How much do you pay?” I’d asked.

“7/6 clothed or 8/9 nude.”  It was a no brainer for an impoverished student at The Brooking Tully Ballet School in Chalk Farm, living on Vesta curries and Mars Bars. I was very nervous, but I needed the money. I took a deep breath before I left the curtained off changing room in the corner of the studio, and strode out boldly, naked and ready to roll.  The teacher had a quiet word with me during the break.  I reappeared after the break wearing my black PVC Millets mac with needlecord collar, which just about covered the nether regions.  I don’t think I even owned a dressing gown.

Our model dropped her gown gracefully at a nod from Paul, climbed on top of the 3ft high podium, nimbly hooked a foot up into one of the straps, grabbed two of the other straps and settled into a pose.  I thought of orangoutangs who make a nest like this in the forest.  But this wasn’t anything like a sleeping position, it was extraordinary.  I wondered if she was also a circus performer?  With her hanging quite high above us it dawned on me that however which way she posed there would be extremely challenging foreshortening to cope with and I am no Michael Angelo.

Next door to my right was making huge bold charcoal strokes; the other side was groaning.  I started on an inhibiting piece of A3 paper with her head, so at least there was room for that. 15 minutes in, of the 40 minute pose I found that there was not enough room to include her elegantly placed foot.  This was a shame because that was the part of the pose that kind of made it.  Her toes rested very lightly on the podium anchoring her. If I chopped a theoretical foot off her leg would it fit in? Cross with myself I decided to use A1 paper next, or was it A2?  I’m that much of a novice, I wasn’t sure.

“How much longer?” asked the model. I wasn’t surprised.  Those straps looked like they cut in, even though they were about 3 inches wide. (Actually they too added another layer of complexity despite her slight frame.) I was in admiration that she could hold the pose with only the smallest stretch of a hand occasionally to release the grip. (The hand part of my drawing began to look like a bunch of bananas – a sort of time-lapse hand.)

“You’ve got 5 minutes, but come out of it now if you need to,” said Paul.

It was a relief  for me too when she took a brief break.  I asked next door if she was a professional artist.

“I’m a set designer.”

“Thought you were experienced…would I have been to any of the productions you’ve done?” When she lists the RSC among other places she’s worked I knew I was out of my league.

“Put your pictures up on the wall” said Paul “step back and take a look”.

“WHAT? You didn’t tell me we had to do that? What is this, the wall of shame? Please don’t make me do that.”

“It’s the only way to learn.  Here’s some masking tape.  No one else is going to look.”

I winced and pinned up my drawing as near to the floor and hidden by my  easel as I could get away with.

Another pose, this time so foreshortened that I mostly had arms and hands to deal with and the rest peeping behind like far off mountains, her face, the first mountain, hanging down this time.  In the longer tea break I had a sneaky look around the room.  There were some seriously good artists.  No one else had bananas.  I ate a piece of shortbread.  It didn’t help.  I had a chat with the model.  She told me about her other job – so that’s where I’d seen her before.  I recognised her as soon as she described the uniform.  And no, it wasn’t in the circus.

I suffered nightmares all the week following.  Naked ladies hanging in straps kept appearing swinging above me with their distortions, cackling and jeering.  I phoned my niece Delphine in Bristol.  She does life drawing.

“Wow Aunty Mary, it sounds fantastic.  I’d love to do that.” But the class was too far away for her to take it over for me.  I’m not usually a quitter.  Honestly I’m not.  That song ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself down…’ it was written for me, but the morning of class the following week I texted Paul, spoke to him and quit.  I felt really bad about it, then huge relief.  And then I remembered.

One of the last life drawing classes I did at the Richmond Institute I was interrupted.  It was a rather good drawing too, I still have it in the attic, with it’s significant date.  I used to stay overnight after the class with my old school friend Liz who lived nearby, we took class together.  That evening there was a knock on the door and her parents came in.  They had that look.  Some of you may know it, and if you do I’m sorry.  They had the terrible misfortune to be the bearers of bad news.  They asked me to come with them a moment.  They didn’t have to speak.  How did I already know? In the bleak corridor I learned that my beloved father had died suddenly: a heart attack, playing golf – it’s how he would have liked to go. He was only 63.  I was 17.

This week I transferred to Paul’s ‘basic drawing skills’ class.  There are a few excellent artists in this class as well but I didn’t mind.  I drew an ancient metal tea pot and an old Tibetan bell.  The drawings I did are not perfect, but I loved the process: the smell and shine of the metal pot, the weight of the bell, the feel of the squashy rubber.

There’s a blank page here I can’t wait to fill next week.

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A Vegetarian Child’s Christmas in (1950s) Gloucester

Once upon a time Christmas began in December, with just a little tease, no baubles, no blast of lights. The tiny window, number 1, hidden in the busy picture sprinkled with glitter. When we propped the calendar against the window the picture always thrilled. Around the middle of the month, when I opened number 15, the delicious smells of Christmas would waft upstairs to my bedroom.

“Come and stir” she shouted. I whizzed down the mahogany bannister and thew myself at the kitchen door. She unlocked it, brow dusted with flour, housecoat awry, cursing “bloody patients” for the phone always seemed to her to ring while she was in the middle of something – which was always. I listened to her snap “Well how long have you had the cough? Then why didn’t you call Dr Horsley earlier? This is a very busy time of the year you know, you can’t expect him to just drop everything….” Afterwards the wooden spoon clattered harder against the side of the big cream bowl.

“Make a wish, and stir again.”
“You put breadcrumbs in there? Eeuw.” But when I stirred, feeling the heavy drag of the mix against the spoon, then tasted it – it was delicious.

Next came the cake, “far too late” she fussed “I should have done it months ago.” I became adept at dodging her cat’s cradle paths from the sink in the scullery to kitchen table, and stove. I learnt the importance of the ‘heavy drop’. Spoon suspended a foot above the bowl, I let the mix plop into the bowl like a cow pat. Not enough plop? More milk would be added. A splat instead of a plop and you’d blown it but with the drop just right the cake would be evenly moist all through. What we feared most in those days was not the soggy bottom, it was the soggy middle.

Biscuits were made in industrial quantities, almond and hazelnut. The smell of singed hazelnuts meant keep well away from the kitchen, for the stove was unpredictable depending on the direction of the wind. (The birds did well out of baking days.) Mum’s hands became shiny with butter as she rolled the dough into balls. My job was to flatten them slightly as I pressed a nut or a quarter of cherry into the middle of each one. The cooked biscuits were arranged on plates on a lacy paper doily and covered in greaseproof paper to be distributed to the receptionist at the surgery, Brewer our gardener, Mrs Grindle the cleaner, the dustbin men, the postman, Zigna Laarson (in exchange for her hated peppermint creams) and Bertie Robertson the sports master at my brothers’ school, also a vegetarian. Bertie, a bachelor with no family, would join us on Christmas day.

My poor mother had scant help from any of us as the day approached. My father would be fighting off his own asthma, struggling to cope with all the afflictions caused by the seeping, soggy, town of Gloucester (Dr Foster made a wise decision). I don’t remember my brothers, all older than me, lifting a so much as a scuttle. Perhaps the lock on the kitchen door was testament to my usefulness? Never easy about her relationship with her spinster sister-in-law who came to us most Sundays, Aunty Mamie would be fetched from her flat in Longford which overlooked the advancing floods. Sitting by the fire, knees akimbo, exposing long pink silk knickers she would read.

Aunty Helen in one of her good moods

Aunty Helen, another of my father’s sisters, who lived “Up North’ would be fetched from the station to sour the cream and spread misery with her interminable pessimism. (We’d beg to exclude her every year – it never worked.) In the afternoon the two aunts would vie for the spot in front of the fireplace, hitch up the back of their tweed skirts and rub the warmth into their buttocks and then turn like spits to do the other side, skirt held out. Banished from the kitchen, they bickered the day away in this manner.

None of this helped my mother’s crescendo of stress, which peaked around midnight on christmas eve when she’d finally get round to dressing the tree. Pernickety about how it was done, she left only the lametta for me to add in the morning. Sent early to bed I’d lie awake, fizzing with excitement, hearing her scuffle about in the boxes of decorations. I turned round and round in my bed like a dog in a basket terrified Father Christmas wouldn’t come if I didn’t sleep.

The weight on my feet and the rustle of tissue paper when I moved woke me before dawn. “Not yet,” she’d hiss through the door, “wait till seven.” After a few minutes I’d rap on the bedroom wall again until she gave up, and came in to perch on the end of my bed to share my surprise and delight as I unwrapped the gifts from their screws of tissue paper. The contents were deliciously familiar each year: a clicking frog, chocolate money, paper flowers that opened in a bowl of water, a few walnuts, plastercine, maybe a small cloth bag of brass jacks and ball, a few marbles. Lastly in the toe, without fail, a cox’s apple and a tangerine. (I’d completely forget that I’d spent the weeks before christmas with my head stuck between the gas fire and the chimney in my bedroom requesting a fairly costume.)

As soon as I was allowed up I’d race downstairs to be first to find the box of homemade fudge on the front door step. Each year Bertie ran all the way from from Stonehouse to Gloucester to deliver his present before dawn and then ran home again to change.

Opening our presents took up most of the morning; they were not the extravagant toys of today. Fuzzy felt, maybe an etch-a-sketch – one year a Mason Pearson hairbrush that I did my best to get excited about. A ten shilling note from Granny, the same from Aunty Mamie. I remember the year I realised that it didn’t have to be all one way. I had a small amount of pocket money and I used it to buy a pack of Price’s candles and some wax crayons. I melted them together on the stove and made big coloured candles in pudding bowls for my four brothers, aunts and parents. My brother Ian was withering, but I thought them very nice.

Bertie would reappear around 11, ice blue eyes sparkling in his tanned climber’s face, sheep white aran sweater; I loved Bertie from when I was about 4 years old. After he arrived we were rounded up to be taken for a long walk, leaving Mum on her own to cook dinner for 10. I’d bag the front seat in Bertie’s white sports car so I could have him all to myself. Dad loaded up my brothers and we’d drive miles to the Forest of Dean, the Malverns or even as far as the Black Mountains to ‘work up an appetite’.

Finally the meal: a great feast, spread out on the sideboard in silver serving dishes. Eaten off green Beryl plates on delicate white lace mats that only came out once a year. The silver candles, gravy boats, cutlery and crystal glasses had been polished to perfection by Mrs Grindle. Dad filled our glasses with fizzy apple Shloer – for there was no alcohol allowed for Order of the Cross members. The cake, the pudding and the trifle more than made up for it however.

We never had an hors oeuvre, the meal began with nut roast, gravy, roast potatoes and parsnips, and sprouts from the garden with the slugs washed out. The gravy was flavoured with marmite, the bread sauce by floating a onion studded with cloves in the milk and adding a rare treat: white breadcrumbs. There’d be jelly made from red currants I’d helped to pick in the summer. The Christmas nut roast was made special by adding a sausage roll of stuffing made from white bread, thyme, sage and grated lemon rind laid through the middle. When the roast was cut, circles of pale green stuffing appeared like magic in the middle of each slice. Pine nut kernels, rare and terribly expensive then, were sprinkled on top with dabs of butter to roast it.

Finally, the puddings. First we had Christmas pudding (brought to the table with blue flaming brandy licking the sides), served with a sweet white sauce. My mother, with sleight of hand, sneaked a silver 3p bit wrapped in greaseproof paper into each portion. Then we had mince pies served with top of the milk and strong cheddar cheese; trifle; fruit salad; meringues and brandy snaps stuffed with cream. Funny thing is, I don’t remember any of this being turned down by any of us. We even managed to end the enormous meal by eating one of mother’s favourite Elizabeth Shaw mints. The only thing we rejected were the Meltis fruit jellies (from a grateful patient to an ungrateful family) and Zigna Laarson’s dreadful peppermint creams.

With Chris at dinner

The Curious Incident with a Man on the Floor of the Guggenheim

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Waiting for the half naked man I paced about reception in MOMA.  I went to the loo again.  Sat and flicked through the guide book.  How would I recognise him clothed?  Without the hairy chest on his Facebook profile I had nothing to go on.  Now, had I taken a closer look at his website I could have been a lot better informed.  Although I might not have been there waiting had I paid more attention and scrolled through his photos of street scenes in Madison Avenue to his David Hodgson biographical selfies, particularly the one with the tape measure.

“Mary?  David.  How are you?”  I guess he’d seen plenty of pictures of me on Facebook.  He was wearing a suit, which surprised me a little, but then it was a long time since we were allegedly at our free spirited school together.  How was I?  I smiled.

“Great, fine, so good of you to come and meet me here.”

He walked me out of the lobby and into the sunshine.”You probably remember my older brother, Bill?”

Of course, Bill.  I remembered Bill Hodgson.  I was definitely at school with him.  He was a year, or maybe two years above me.  I believe I last saw him at the 40 year school reunion.  At 16, and often kissed, my girlfriends and I paid little attention to  the younger boys.   Although come to think of it I do remember a  fling with someone who David told me is pretty big in banking in New York. Lucas Van Praag, (described in the Guardian newspaper on the 3rd March 2010 as the ‘canny, sharp-tongued and invincibly shrewd face of Goldman Sachs PR department)  was  charged with defending the bank’s public image.  I guess you’d have to be a bit teflon for that job.  He became a cult figure on Wall Street, with ‘a reputation for firing cerebral, elegantly worded nuggets of scorn at anybody who dares to attack the financial institution’.  OMG and I kissed him?  I don’t remember his tongue being particularly sharp, but he ranked quite high in the kissing stakes despite being set upon by a 16 year old cougar.   I wonder if he still keeps a toy vampire squid on his desk?  Do get in touch Lucas and let me know.

Back to David Hodgson, who turned out to be an amiable, arty, leftwingy kind of person, with a healthy dose of cynicism, much like the other  guys I’m still in touch with from school. The thing about our progressive co-ed boarding school was that we came out of it feeling we owed the world something, not that it owed us.  Which is more than I can say for most of the Eton educated cabinet in parliament.

“I thought I could walk you up to the Guggenheim, we can grab a bite on the way?  How would that suit you?”

At Starbucks he pricked his finger to check his levels as we queued, and ordered as “Voldemort” (no-one so much as raised a brow).  We chose a spot mid-pavement perched on the edge of a fountain between by lunching office workers.

“Did you get that you walk on the right of a pavement to go with the flow?” His sentence matched his perfect English public school boy accent ( Americans, read ‘private’ school) without a trace of American twang.  His sidewalk advice should be given to all tourists in New York.  From having lived near Cambridge and Oxford in the past, I know how intensely annoying gawking tourists can be. Give it long enough and feel like bashing them out of the way rudely.  I’d expected to be bashed out of the way myself by go-getting power walkers in New York, but had naturally blended with the flow and found it a breeze.  Only the stupid cell phone conversations get in the way.

After lunch we walked up Madison Avenue towards the Guggenheim.  Me taking out my embarrassing little Canon pocket camera, David his sexy, proper camera.  It turned out he’s a shit hot photographer (hence the half-naked, arty selfie) with a history of having worked with some of the top photographers in New York, like for Vogue and stuff like that.  He did wonder if Lucas might find some work for him once, but didn’t get a reply.  Was the downside of being a progressive school not benefitting from the so called ‘old-school ethic?So the downside of being such a progressive school meant there didn’t seem to be the benefit of the  ‘old-school ethic’ ?

We were struck by this window displaying mini-me children’s clothes.

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Now, honestly, what on earth do parents who buy this sort of stuff for their kids expect?  Not dirty knees, or dribbled ice-cream for sure.  Manners, I suppose.  I hope – really hope – they were just party clothes, or wedding dress?  Please, please tell me that New Yorkers don’t dress them up like this for normal life?

“Here, move over here, you won’t get reflections?” said David.  I looked at his posture, which had a slight lift of the chin, making me wonder if that’s what happens when you live in New York and don’t  lose the wonderment of the skyscrapers?  David turned out to be generous too, offering more than just lunch.

“Look, next time you come to New York you must stay with us – save you a bit of money.”  His wife sounded lovely, and his dog.  I felt foolish for worrying.  It’s always reassuring when married men mention their wives, especially when it’s not in the ‘she doesn’t understand me’ kind of way.  I was so glad that I’d trusted my curiosity and decided to meet him.  We stopped to enjoy a moving window display.  If you look closely you can see the model move, jerkily, but yes she moves.  It was so cool.

  If you click on the arrow it should play.

And in case it doesn’t here are a few more samples of the incredible windows on Madison Avenue.

At the Guggenheim David bid his goodbyes, and left me to my own devices.  I took a few pictures and went into the giant snail shell.

“I’m sorry Ma’am the permanent collection is closed today.”

“What? WHAT?  But I’ve come all the way from England to see it.”

“We have a very nice James Turrell light show and exhibition”

“Who’s he?”

“You could call him a light artist? A sculptor in light.”

“But I wanted…”

“I think you’ll really enjoy it.  We only have about five Kandinsky’s on show at the moment.  Turrell’s show has taken over the whole space.”

“And you’re charging the same price?”  It stung.  I was baffled.  How could they do this to me?  What’s a few Kandiskys when they’ve stripped out everything else.  What timing.  What a bitter, miserable, disappointment.  With bad grace I bought an $18 concessionary ticket.

“Well I guess I might as well look since I’m here.”

She called after me as I slunk off grumbling.  “Enjoy.”

And then I entered wonderland!

James Turrel light installation at the Guggeneim

James Turrel light installation at the Guggenheim

Not the Wonderland of the diseased dance hall near Boston, REAL wonderland.  Stunning, sensational wonderland.  The void in the centre of the snailing staircase so distinctive of the Guggenheim was filled with coloured light and prone people.  Some leaning on the walls staring upwards, and some lying on the floor on a large circular mat in the centre (which must have been provided after the video below was made).

http://www.guggenheim.org/turrell

Turrell had stretched fine muslin  or gauze-like material in stacking cone shapes in the space.  Looking up into the layers of gauze gave the effect of clean, egg shapes with varying tones and depths of coloured light projected onto it, fading to natural daylight  at the very top.

For a moment I contemplated joining the people propped up against the wall around the edges of the space but what I really wanted was to get on that mat, and it was packed full, radiating with people glowing in the peach coloured light.  I waited and spied my chance.  A handsome bearded man, a similar certain age to me was arguing with his wife.  He was already settled on the mat.

“I’m not getting down there, I’ll never get up again.”

He couldn’t persuade her down.  I saw the narrow gap, about six inches wide.  The minute she stepped back I dropped down and wriggled myself cuckoo-style into the space.  It was kind of intimate.  I breathed a sigh of relief, my knees and burning blisters grateful as I relaxed. The air conditioning cooled me against his warm body. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all that the permanent collection was closed.  I stared up at the ceiling.

“Oh wow!  WOW.  Oh my god.”  The colours changed softly from purple to magenta.

“I hope this is what it’s like when I die.  Do you think it’ll look like this when we die? “I turned to  look at the man.

“Oh look, it’s changing, oh I love that green, it’s like being grass, every cell turning green…oh look at the orange….”  I didn’t take LSD in the 60s and 70s, I was too scared of losing control and far too responsible a mother.  This was better wasn’t it?  A light show without the drugs and psychosis.  My companion (for now it was to all intents and purposes just me and him) chatted and marvelled away at the colours and shapes.  He seemed equally mesmerised and I believe a bit infected by my enthusiasm.  Either that or it was my accent.  English accents can do that I’ve noticed, but it can go either way. In New Mexico,  a friend of my ex-sister in law took against me misinterpreting me as a posh snob and was incredibly rude, alternatively an American girl thought a bloke from Wigan had the coolest accent.  Wigan?  (As Bill Bryson would say ‘somebody has to come from there.’)

“This is definitely going in my blog” I said “and there was me, so disappointed that the gallery was closed.”   I remembered the dome in London.  My daughter and I lay on the floor of a giant igloo installation looking at a light show projected on the ceiling.  We only came-to when a guard stood over us and said “ahem, excuse me ladies we’re closing.”  We hadn’t noticed everyone else had left.  We were asleep.

Handsome man asked about my trip, “No way.  Marblehead?  We live just up the coast from there in Rockport.”

Over an hour passed, maybe more, bathed in colour and happily whispering through an oft repeating orgasm of light.  It was a while before we noticed the sequence had started again, that we’d seen the whole show through at least once.  Before we peeled ourselves off the mat he said “I’d like to read your blog.  What’s it called?”  He took out his diary and wrote down the link.   We smiled,  shook hands and stiffly got to our feet.

“Enjoy the blog”  I said, and went in search of the Kandinsky’s.

Coming back from the loo I walked up the stairwell to look for the paintings and I saw my handsome friend.  He was with his wife.  She’d watched the whole thing from the  stairwell.  She glared at me. He tried to introduce me, but her handshake was frosty and her lips tight.

So, handsome man, are you following me out there in Rockport?  Did she forgive you when you explained? I’m sorry, I forgot to ask your name.

 

Waiting for the half naked Facebook friend in MOMA

 

 

David Hodgson

View from my room

View from my room

 

My second day in New York the sun came out.   I pulled on the little white dress and ‘Bowie flash’ earrings that I thought appropriate to meet a man profiled on Facebook half naked, who was either arty or somewhat dodgy, and says he was at school with me.

Was he though?  I didn’t recognise his torso (his eyes were hidden by his arm and boys at school weren’t that hairy).  I hadn’t admitted that when he contacted me on Facebook and said “I live in New York, shall we meet?”; it didn’t seem polite.  However his name did seem a bit familiar, and I was curious, and even though time was short I called him up and we agreed to meet at the MOMA entrance.  We’d eat somewhere else to avoid a superfluous $20 entrance fee for him.  From that I deduced he was busy the rest of the day, which might be a good thing in the circumstances.  8 flights down, and less than a hundred yards around the corner and I realised I had completely blown the dress code when the wind sliced past my shoulders and reminded me it was September. I puffed back up the 8 flights and changed, annoyed at myself for wasting precious time.

Map in hand I made my way uptown towards Macy’s.  You have to shop when you’re in New York don’t you?  Especially when you are 5ft 2ish and this is a country full of small latinos with narrow feet who have whole floors of department stores devoted to them.  Only I couldn’t shop.  It was overwhelming.  So much choice, and actually, if I thought about it, so little need, or enthusiasm.  I searched my way out of Macy’s (Mazey’s?)  and back out into the streets.

The soundtrack of New York is shouting policemen, sirens and traffic honking.  It’s mad on those streets; wonderfully mad.  And down at the bases of all the pointy, shiny buildings the people are ants, and look particularly mad.  Every other person appeared to be talking to themselves, gesticulating wildly.  Not quietly either.  They weren’t, of course, they were on ‘hands free’.

Backtracking, having overshot, I headed south.  I soon worked out that there was no point in hurrying, the traffic lights are set to average walking speed.  Speed up and you only get bossed ‘DONT WALK’ over and over again. I’ve crossed the road in Guangzhou and survived, it makes me pretty nifty, but it didn’t make a lot of difference here.  (Is this a subversive way to get people to slow down, help them to chill a little?  Or is the universe trying to tell me something)  I marvelled at the skyscrapers, the impossibility of them, the sheer brazenness, the confidence of architects that could design buildings like that.  From my small experience in a sandpit, I can’t understand how they stay up.  I loved the way remnants of a past-life New York intermingled, the deco touches, the reflections shimmering.  It wasn’t dark and claustrophobic at all.  Sky and sunshine were everywhere.  (In a good way I hoped, not like that new skyscraper in London that set light to the carpets in the building opposite and melted people’s cars.)

Getting a peep at the Empire State building I formed a plan to go up it at sunset.  I’d once made the mistake of queuing for hours to shuffle up to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, only to look at the view from the top and think ‘OK. It’s Paris.’  Now everyone flies, views from the top of tall buildings need more than just height to excite. I like to watch London as the sun sets from the giant wheel on the embankment.  It’s pure magic as the lights gradually come on over town as the wheel slowly turns.  You can even get a sneak peak of Buck Palace’s enormous gardens.

When I eventually arrived at MOMA, neck-aching,  I went straight upstairs to lust over my favourite artists: Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe.  Edward Hopper was, I think, a bit of a peeping tom.  Just look at this picture.

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Edward Hopper

 

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Edward Hopper

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Hopper again

 

 

I can empathise. There is something quite thrilling about looking into people’s homes when they are not aware.  The top deck of London buses at twilight, before people remember to close their curtains, is a particularly good for this.  (We British build hedges around our front gardens for privacy, unlike Americans, and then we make buses that can peep over. Don’t you just love that?)   Hopper’s models stare dreamily into the distance. It gives me food for their thoughts, as does his silent presence in the room painting away.

Pressure built though as I looked around the galleries.  So little time.  Two and a half days?  Was I crazy?  It wasn’t long before I was to meet the mysterious David Hodgkin and there were floors of the gallery left to explore.  I should have logged all the artists to inform you, but oh well….  However, I’ll share some of my favourites, and hope it inspires you to visit and find out who did them:

That last one reminds me of the excruciating pain I get when I suffer from iritis.  I could get a knock-off of the Mattisse dancers in a local furniture shop in Nailsworth (painted in China for the indiscriminate British shopper) but I think I’d rather gaze at the original in MOMA.  At some point I managed to let go of the enormous pressure of having such a brief time to enjoy New York.  I would come back.  Of course I would.  New York was under my skin.  They might not have adopted me (what happened to that proposal I sent to the New Yorker eh?) but I had adopted them.

I went in search of another favourite, Andrew Wyeth.  His painting “Christina’s World” is iconic.  I had mistakenly thought it was painted by Hopper for some reason.  But no, it was a painting Wyeth did of his neighbour Christina, sadly afflicted by polio and only able to crawl.  She hardly ever left her house.  And here she is, on the grass, looking back at her home, and possibly wondering how long it will take her to crawl back there.  I didn’t know this at the time, I thought it was a lovely picture of a girl in a sunny field, who had just woken up, been called from the house perhaps?  It was only when I came home to the UK I saw a documentary on Wyeth that revealed his extraordinary life controlled first by his father then his wife Betsy.  He was very close to Christina. I wonder if he felt similarly hobbled?

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Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth painted in 1948, the year I was born

 

I gazed long at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abstraction in Blue.  Fabulous sensuous, breath-holding, vaginal work. Looking at her flower paintings I swear she used to transform into a bee and wriggle into their folds and have sex with them.IMG_5552

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction in Blue

 

There was no time to linger longer.  It was time to meet David Hodgson.  I hurried down to the entrance lobby to wait, and have to admit – with some nervousness.  Who would he be?

 

 

Lost and found in New York

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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.

“Jims?”

“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.

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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.

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Taking Liberties in New York

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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.

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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.)

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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?

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Mushrooms in Manhattan

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Market in Greenwich Village

How cool is Greenwich Village really?  I’ve often fantasised mingling with the people who hang out there “Oh me, I’m a British writer, well since you ask, yes I have been, a couple actually…”  (writing for the New Yorker in my dreams; worshiping Nora).  ‘What would Nora do?’ I asked myself as I strode south from the Flatiron ?

Nora Ephron has been my hero ever since my friend Francis said “YOU HAVEN’T READ NORA EPHRON?” in much the same tone his girlfriend Suzie once said ‘You haven’t seen CITIZEN KANE?’ That’s the trouble with coming from the sticks; I lack a sophisticated education.  He gave me a copy of I’m worried about my neck.  What’s not to like about a woman who has also spent most of her life searching for the perfect bag, and who worries about her neck?  (Big bag? Small bag? Backpack?  A recent solution is to have a large bag, the mothership, and a small bag in it, but I’m not sure my osteopath would approve.) Nora wrote When Harry met Sally and You’ve Got Mail, two of my favourite films.  I was devastated when I found she’d recently died…now I won’t be able to meet her.  This trip is partly to walk in her shoes.   One hopes a bit of the genius rubs off.  I sat on Hemmingway’s bar stool in Cuba, and Dylan Thomas’s fireside arm chair in his seaside home in Laugharne when the curator was out of the room.

Greenwich Village seemed completely familiar when I got there.  A bit of a blend between the backstreets of Nailsworth, Stroud, and Soho in London – little independent shops and cafes hanging on in there against all the recessionary odds.  It didn’t feel edgy to me (but then one of my brothers recently said how weird he found the people in Stroud.  There’s  a Facebook page NUFS (Not Unusual for Stroud) that kind-of confirms his point of view.  I was charmed by the little country market in the village square – heritage tomatoes piled in rainbows, and farm fresh looking vegetables, just like our award winning Stroud Market.   “I could live here”  I thought.  (I spend a lot of time speculating how city dwellers get their vegetables, the sheer mechanics of feeding a big city with fresh and not local overwhelms me often.)

In Washington Square the pressure on the shared loo at the AirBnB caught up with me and I made the mistake of opening the doors to one of the portaloos. I tried the other one.  I can report that these were the filthiest loos ever.  Worse than Glastonbury, worse than that shower room in Madrid where someone mistook the drain hole for…more gross even than that place in the Gilli Islands where I had to agree with the graffiti in my room ‘This is the worst shit hole in the whole world‘: I heaved and banged the door shut.  All praise be to my sphincter but I wandered on faster than I would have wished, annoyed that it meant I had to miss an accomplished musician drumming on paint cans.

Before I started this trip, you may remember my hesitation about visiting New York…how would it compare to my life in a sodden valley, where the wildlife invites itself in without knocking.   As I write, horses graze in the field opposite and I can tell which way the wind is blowing by the direction of their heads.  Pigeons are getting fat on the food I’ve put out for the little birds.  It may be almost drowning at the moment but it’s a landscape I understand.  Unconsciously I found myself trying to interpret Manhattan from that perspective.  So imagine my delight, in Soho,  to see a reddish  mushroom, suspiciously like the rare and delicious beefsteak, growing on the base of a tree trunk.   Do these chichi little restaurants know they have gourmet food growing on their  doorstep? But maybe don’t take my word for it.

Numbered streets are very useful, especially to a stranger, but I come from a place where Butcher’s Lane, Plumber’s Hill, The Ladder and Cossack Square hint at history.  So I found Soho with its Spring Street and Wooster, Thompson and Prince homely.   Did I make it up that there’s a Silk Stocking District somewhere in New York?  I’d have liked to have had more time to visit it just to send postcards from there.  My priory was changing into an increasingly urgent need to find a ‘bathroom’, which fortunately coincided with hunger.  The Olive Tree Cafe in MacDougal Street fitted the bill perfectly with its dark-toned interior, arty feel, and solo table where I could sit and observe everyone without feeling like a sadass loner with a problem.

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I  highly recommend their middle eastern platter, the equal to the best that Hazel my belly-dance teacher produces.

Feeling the burn of a blister in the making, I consulted my map.  I figured that it wouldn’t take that long to walk down to Wall Street (shake a fist at the bastards there), and visit Ground Zero.  I didn’t want to go to the official visitors site and see the memorial exhibition, I just wanted to go and pay my respects on my own.  Like everyone everywhere, I remember what I was doing when the first plane hit.  Numb from the dentist in Gloucester, but wincing from the pain of the cost of replacing a crown, I put the car radio on and drove home.  As I pulled into my drive I heard the news, ran into the house, put on the TV and saw the second plane hit.

Here in the UK we are used to terror in our cities; it has been on our doorsteps for many years. There was no doubt in my mind that it was an attack even before the second plane.  The horror unfolded like a hideous disaster movie, and gripped me for days, months, years.  Look again closely at the snow globe, it has a special poignancy now.

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A shiver passed through me at Ground Zero, despite its being barricaded from the non-payers.  I saw ghost people running, covered in ash, imagined it soft yet needled with glass, around their ankles.  I could  taste it and feel it dry in my mouth.  I heard the cries of disbelief, choking, glass smashing …did I smell the acrid occur of fire?  I pictured the slow glide of the jumpers.

The streets are clean.  Where did all the ash go?  Wouldn’t it be full of remains of those poor people who didn’t make it out?  My heart felt weighted with the sorrow of it all, the angry, deluded young men, the forever-changed world.  Fear.  I gazed at the building works through the fence and up at the biggest ‘FUCK-OFF’ tower America could build, stabbing into the sky, defiant.  I didn’t want to be a gawping tourist but I needed to connect and pay my respects.  To understand how it has discombobulated New Yorkers, changed their expectations.  It was all too tragic to buy a badge and wear the tee shirt.  I craved a small quiet park where I could sit and remember.

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Wall Street? What was that to me in comparison?  A street.  A big bronze bull shining behind road work barriers.  A street of ticker-tape celebrations, or a street of cheats and messed up values?  It seemed small.  Insignificant.  I didn’t stay long.  But it was there that I met a person who could have shown me New York. If you haven’t heard of them before, I recommend the Greeters.  A kindly woman, of a certain age, dressed all in green, was advising an  Australian couple where to go next and struggling to find them a subway map.  I hovered around them when I heard the word ‘subway’.  (Be warned, download a map before you go because these are no-where to be found)

“You doing this on your own?” she asked, “well bully for you, fantastic.”

She did this once or twice a month out of the goodness of her heart.  She’d chosen who to guide that day –  that’s how it works.  If only I’d known about this option before I left!  All that angst, the fear and confusion…I could have had a local guide to help me figure it out.  Greeters operate all over the world.  I could set myself up as one in Nailsworth.  It wouldn’t take long, half and hour would get them around the main landmarks, the fountain,  the award winning bakers, the best ironmonger in the west.    Look up in Nailsworth and you’ll see a giant bronze kettle outside the opticians, here she pointed out elegant art deco statues decorating the City Hall.

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I asked her about the Statue of Liberty, which I’d failed to realise I would have had to book months previously to go inside to the top. Once again I pay the penalty of not being a ‘prepare before you go, research, kind of a person, so I am thrilled when she says “Take the Staten Island Ferry”, cheapest way to see it, its free. Get the next one back from the island, nothing to see there.”   This seemed like a very good way to finish the afternoon’s wanderings, especially as I hadn’t heard from Bernt, my nephew’s friend who I hoped would ring to arrange escorting me  for the evening.  Perhaps he had cold feet about shepherding a mystery aunt from the backwaters of an English village?  Maybe be expected me to wear a Miss Marple style card and a hat?  I bought a New York cheese cake and boarded.

New York reflections: ‘Wherever you go – there you are’ (Brazilian saying)

IMG_5482Monday morning and the red-eye rumbled out of Boston with the deliciously familiar ‘woo-woo’.  I grew up with trains at the bottom of my garden, but English trains can only toot.  Whilst my fellow, scant, passengers settled down to sleep, I got out my New York guide books to make a plan for the next three days.

Why do so many of the galleries close on a Monday?  Can’t the city that never sleeps sort this one?  Travel half way across the world to see art, two and a half days to do it in…and they close for one of them?  It seemed bizarre in the extreme, until I noticed from references in one of the books that it was years out of date.  Out of the window the coastline unfurled like a map.  Marshes, beaches, inlets, harbours, boats and herons flicked my eyes.  I wanted to read but I didn’t want to miss a single thing.  It was as if every hair on my skin had super-radar, no way could I sleep despite a night fizzing with anticipation,  sore eyes staring at the ceiling.

By the time we approached the outskirts of the city I had a plan.  Always one to make the best of a bad situation, I realised it wasn’t just art I wanted to see.  I wanted to drink in all the sights, but would content myself with a few gems.    That is what I’d do this first day, Monday.    The helpful HopStop app that had shrunk the city with walking times had inspired me: Walk/Don’tWalk ? Walk of course.  Get a flavour of Manhattan. (When I travel anywhere I am like a homing pigeon circling my space,  learning about where I’ve landed, clocking landmarks.)

I was nervous about the Airbnb.   Not just the bathroom situation; would I be able to find the apartment?  What if the host wasn’t there to let me in?  Why were there two mobile numbers for me to call?  Memories of being stuck in a receptionless, skuzzy hotel lobby in Ilfracombe, locked in the building, yet out of my room, promised key-holder absent, mobile out of range, fuelled my anxiety.

Look at the woman on the right…does she look streetwise?

Look at the woman on the right…does she look streetwise?

Penn Station is huge.  There is a main exit, but it has more exits than the badger sett in my garden.  I re-checked the map for the hundredth time.   I strode out of one with a ‘I know this city, I just happen to be trailing a suitcase because I’ve been away for the weekend’ walk . Out on the street it looked just like it did on Google Earth.  Everyone in England says New York looks familiar when you get there, it’s all the films we’ve watched.  This bit didn’t, except for the above, but it wasn’t a particularly salubrious area.  It wasn’t down at heel enough for an edgy boy movie with lots of gunfire, or smart enough for a Woody.  I would say it is a typical ‘railway station’ kind of area.  (Who would willingly live next to a train station other than a train spotter?)  Nevertheless  I was reminded of the Brazilian saying: ‘Wherever you go – there you are.’  No matter how much you get knotted up about going to a strange place, once you are there, it’s where you are.  Different climate, soil, birdsong or whatever – when you’re there you’re here.

I strode on muttering to myself, ‘9th and 23rd, 9th and 23rd.  Or was it 24th?’  I checked my map again.  I don’t like doing this in a strange place.  I might as well wear a sign saying TOURIST.  Compared to Britain where roads were built to go anywhere but straight, and are wide enough to  accommodate a  horse and cart, this should have been a breeze.  Failing to see the sun, my usual standby,  I asked a stranger,  and found I was walking north, not south.    (Memo to fellow New York explorers: take a compass, it’ll save you walking a block or two to check.)

IMG_5447In no time I found the building I was after, but not the smart apartment lobby I expected.  I called one of the numbers.  “I’ll come down and help with your case”, he said.   I soon learned the meaning of a walk-up.  I can’t say I wasn’t warned,  I’d checked out that it would be doable with a newly fixed knee. Relieved of  my small case it was still a challenge, especially behind a sprite young man, barefoot in teeshirt and boxers, who does this regularly.  Two flights for every floor, eight floors up.  I wanted the authentic New York experience: I was getting it.  It wasn’t quite what it said on the tin… The stairwell had dun coloured walls, with dark brown scuffed doors, repaired in places with metal sheets.  The carpet was threadbare and stained, but the apartment door needed a good push to open it and a kick to close it (just like home).

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“No spare keys, don’t lose them” said Adam, leading me into the corridor where I nearly tripped over a skateboard.  Monosyllabic to the point of rudeness, he led me into a sitting room (which looked smaller a lot of stuff had been photoshopped out of the ad). “Room’s not ready, won’t be ready till  2 0’clock.”  I’d not entertained that possibility, and forgotten it was only 10.30 in the morning.

” Can I leave my case somewhere safe?”

“Over there?”  he pointed to the corner of the room.

“Nowhere I can lock it away?” I asked acutely aware there are potentially 7 other guests.

“Never been a problem before, none of the rooms lock”.  I hadn’t wanted to carry my iPad around with me, but decided I probably should.

“Oh well, I’m out for the day anyway, I might be back late, can you show me where my room is?”

“Down there.”  He pointed down the corridor that ran at right angles – and sloped off to his room muttering.  “Just knock if you need anything” and that was it.

I knocked.  “Loo?  I mean, bathroom?”  “Over there.”  As he angled his shoulder out of the room  to point I saw a bed filling the room, piled chest high with stuff, and small computer table.  It had all the charms of a student flat, and he had the social skills of a 14 year old.  Far from the ‘meet the friendly locals, stay in a real home’ ‘Friends‘ kind of environment that I was expecting I found that, yes indeed, I was truly going to do New York on my own. Or possibly, not quite.  My nephew had deputed an old friend of his to spend the evening with this ageing English Aunt.  I didn’t know Bernt, but he sounded like he’d be fun, and I would at least have a native to show me the ropes on my first evening in New York.  I’d planned to go to a cocktail bar that had live jazz, I’d also heard that the Duplex Club in Greenwich Village (where  performers off Broadway go to unwind) was a wild place to spend the night.  Much as I thought I ought to give it a go, the thought of going there on my own didn’t really appeal.  My friend Tori said that it’s different in New York, strangers would talk to me – but considering my experience with the duplicitous Mr Prong in Bangkok I don’t have a very good track record.   And what about bedtime?  I’m not a three o’clock in the morning kind of person and my next two days would be packed.  10 o’clock and a hot water bottle is more like me.  I’d wait and see if Bernt called.

There was another contact.  Someone from my old school had seen my blog and said ‘hey, I live in New York City, are you going to come and see me?’  I was intrigued.  His picture on Facebook was a black and white picture of a hairyish man, naked to the waist and hiding his face with his arm in an arty kind of a way.  It didn’t give me a lot to go on.  I’d asked for a better picture, but still his face didn’t ring a bell.  I gave him a call.  I didn’t recognise the voice either, though the English public school accent fitted.  I described my tight schedule and arranged to meet the next day outside MOMA.  We’d have lunch together.

Out on the street, the sun didn’t shine, but I told myself that’s sometimes better for taking photographs.  If I understood my map correctly I could start my day with a visit to the wonderful Highline, a mile long linear park developed on a section of the former West Side Line railroad spur.  It was just around the corner. Inspired by the Parisian Promenade Plantéé it seemed to me to be the best use of an urban railroad track ever.  I wondered what it was like living next to nosy people like me getting a peek into your flat.  I bet Hopper would have loved it.  More of him later.

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I could have spent longer walking the Highline, admiring the subtle planting, but conscious that it was just one of the many things I wanted to see had to drag myself away from the breeze swishing the grasses and busy bees working the flowers.  I took a horizontal street, to make my way to the Flatiron. This impossibly svelte high rise, shaped like a Dairylee cheese wedge, is snuck into the pointy triangle between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. How it stays up is a mystery to me. No one in their right minds would design a building like this, but Daniel Burnham did, in the 1920s.  When it was finished it was the tallest building in the world and it started a trend.  I loved it.  I loved the pictures I’d seen of it.  I loved the story that when it first went up men used to hang around the outside waiting for  the winds it created to lift the girls’, skirts and show them a bit of ankle.  (My how times have changed.)

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Seeing it in the stone, unwavering, made me fall in love with it even more.IMG_5461Then I saw that the first room in the pointy bit at the base had been set up to advertise a special exhibition of Edward Hopper’s drawings at the Witney.  Two of my favourite things melded into one.  How cool was that?

The Diner by Hopper in the Flatiron

The Diner by Hopper in the Flatiron

Now I had arrived.  I was well and truly ‘here’.

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The man who invented snow: New York here I come.

People ask me what I do.  I say ‘I’m a writer’.  By which I mean I have an incredibly clean oven, the loo seat that used to slew off sideways when I sat down is now fixed, and the water butt that was banging around the garden in the recent storms is back in place, if somewhat leaky. Oh yes, when you are a writer the sourdough rises.

So, New York.  Just writing those words revives the feelings I first had when I decided to finally go.  To face my nemesis, my almost lifelong ambition.    I wanted the art.  I wanted the culture, and I wanted to make myself enter a world completely different from mine and know I could not only survive, but enjoy it.  Yet that one fact hung over me still.  The son of one of my teachers when I studied the Enneagram in California, was shot, for no reason, on the subway in New York.  I figured I could deal with rude natives (as it was rumoured here in anally politeBritain).  But what if I got lost? Wandered into the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood?   I was a mere three hour train ride from the city, ticket paid for, accommodation booked.  It wasn’t a fantasy any more, it was tomorrow’s challenge and whilst the noises were encouraging, there were some eyebrows being raised at the huge gathering of Jane’s relatives in Lexington when someone mentioned my plan.

“Wow, on your own eh?”

“Well good for you.”

“Oh you’ll be just fine” seemed to be the consensus   But then , “where did you say you were staying?”

IMG_5416Having inspected the walk-in wardrobe the size of my sitting room footprint and some. I could tell these people were not likely to pitch up in a hostel.  Certainly not since Uncle Phil (Tropeano, now 91) did a little experiment one day.  He was an agricultural engineer, trying to make a machine that would make fog (to cool vegetables) and whoopty-do came up with the first snow machine.

Phil and his brother impressed me greatly.  I want to grow old the way they  have, and at 91 and 90 I have a few years to practice.    Here’s Eddie texting his girlfriend in the old people’s home where he lives,  a picture of his cocktail.  How cool is that for a nonagenarian?  He has a plan, that worries the family slightly, to buy an RV so he can drive out to the coast in the mornings and have breakfast watching the ocean.  I can understand that, he used to be a Techie guy in Falmouth, Cape Cod.  I bet he misses the breeze.

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Uncle Eddie, texting his girlfriend

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Snowman Phil, with his brother Eddie

 Phil laughed generously at my recounting the joke the elderly Mr Holbrook used to make when asked how he was “well my dear, put it this way, at my age I don’t even buy green bananas”.  I tried to explain AirBnB to them.

“You stay in someone’s house.  People who have a spare room, let it out for a reasonable price – all done online”.  They looked impressed, especially when I said I was paying around £62 a night (faintingly cheap for New York).  However, when I said I would potentially be sharing the bathroom with 8 other people, a fact I’d only discovered the night before I left home, when all was signed, sealed and paid for, their expressions changed.  A bit like mine did when my host said “oh you won’t be the only guest, we actually have four double bedrooms for rent.”  Panicked, I’d emailed back immediately to ask the number of bathrooms, and discovered the do-not-disturbing truth.  Was this a cosy arrangement, with a pair of friendly New Yorkers  (gay men I hoped from the cleanliness of the apartment in the pictures), or was it a major business?  Still I’ve slept on everything from a mud floor in a desert bar in Morocco, to a tent with an elephant scratching it’s belly on the side.  Surely I could do an Air BnB in New York?

I was awake with the crack next morning and showering wondering if it would be my last for a day or two. Nick emerged in plenty of time to drive me into Boston for the 7 am train to New York.

The Horsley family has a  habit.  We never leave the house once.  It’s those moments when you’re half way down the path and you suddenly remember you left your phone behind.  Then your umbrella, shopping bags, or the directions to where you are going.  The worst of us can do it many times.  Ask Jane.  She’ll tell you.  Why is it that wallets get lost mainly when there is a pressing reason for them not to, like catching a plane, or taking the red-eye train to New York? We turned every corner of the house upside down.  Tipped out those areas  where things gather and conspire, lifted sofa cushions, looked in bins, in coat pockets, under and over the car seats and trunk –  we even checked the cutlery drawer.  “You’re efficient Nick, don’t you think it’ll be in your man-bag?”

“Nope, tried that”.

Sick with nerves that I’d miss my train, this went on for about half an hour…every so often me repeating my refrain.  This was my nightmare situation.  I hate arriving in a last minute dash.  Get stuck in traffic with a flight to catch?  I’d rather sleep on an airport bench.  I tend to arrive insanely early.  I set three alarms (watch, iPad and clock)  at increasing distances from my bed, and still I spend half the night awake and worrying I’ll oversleep.  (My ultimate alarm clock bought in a Bangkok supermarket the night I escaped from Mr Prong, has finally died a death.  A trumpeting cat figure that played reveille loudly, repeatedly declaiming WAKE UP, WAKE UP, until I hit the button, the eyes on the cat clicked open and it said “Goo Morning.” My my mainstay for 20 years,  I miss that clock. )

The most alarming clock

The most alarming clock

Nick found the keys.  They were in his man bag. Half an hour later he delivered a nervous wreck to the station just as boarding began. Ten minutes later we pulled out, with me reclining in the most comfortable train seat I’d ever experienced, settled on the left side, so that I could watch the coast all the way down to New York.  New York!  I was on my way.

Aside

Hunting witches in Marblehead and Salem: turkey on the lawn alas.

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I have a confession.  I have a witchy past (despite my parent’s best efforts with the Order of the Cross).  Ok, so it was only skirting around the shadows of witchcraft, playing Abigail in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, and a few spells in the chicken house with girlfriends, but boy did I relish the part. Having had my first 14 years imposed on by that repressive religion gave me a particular enthusiasm for the part.  At one point, Abigail (with a bunch of her teenage friends),  is accused of dancing with the devil in the woods, supposedly encouraged by Tituba the slave. (No ill-disguised racism there eh?)  It is a moment of high tension in the play.  For many seconds there is silence.  Then Abigail lets rip with a liver-curdling scream, pretending to be in a trance seeing birds in the rafters.  I gave it my all, slicing the silence with that  ear splitting pitch only young girls can achieve.  It was rather successful, startling the audience, and particularly my parents, and indirectly making my life take on a different course.

One of the parents in the audience was John Mortimer, the playwright.  I was in the same dorm at his daughter Sally at Frensham Heights boarding school.  She had been very helpful impersonating me sleeping soundly in my bed, only the top of her head showing, while I sneaked out to meet my boyfriend Chezzy in the woods. (We’d speed across the Hog’s Back to Guildford on his Lambretta to watch Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds at the RickyTick club.)  After the play Sally’s Dad came to congratulate me and said to my parents “she must go on the stage”.  Not ‘should’ you note.  Previously my parents put their feet down on any theatrical ambitions of mine.  “You’ll have to sleep with the directors” argued my mother.  ‘So?’ I thought.  But John Mortimer?  He was God.  He was Rumpole of the Bailey.

It was tantalizing knowing Salem was only about half an hour away from Nick and Jane’s in Marblehead.  I dropped lots of hints about going there, but Jane kept insisting there really was nothing to do there.  The witch museum was rubbish, and the only other point of interest there was the House of Seven Gables.  She could give me a lift, she works there, but what would I do with the rest of the day?  Still I couldn’t let go of the idea.

You would not believe how complicated it is to arrange public transport to Salem from Marblehead.  Wasn’t this a tourist area, even if the native’s didn’t want to bus it?  I  considered walking, but that’s not possible in America the way it is here in the UK.

I remember once suggesting to my ex that I walk from his father’s house in Woodside north to San Francisco.

“You want to WALK?  WALK to San Francisco?”

“Sure, why not?  It’s only 30 miles.”

“You can’t.  There’s no trail.  You’d have to walk on the highway.”

I was pretty unnerved by their 12 lane highways when I first

saw them and this argument figured with me.  I was always amazed that car hire firms would hand over the keys to a 13 hour jet-lagged Brit, and say ‘have a nice day mam’.   No, in America land is property.  It’s not like here where you can wander almost freely on footpaths, which are all over the place, and the owners have to put up with it.  They might plough up a few paths to deter you, but most people, should you get lost and wander on to their property, just point you back in the right direction.  It’s not like you’d get shot.

Nick and I had a walk around Redd’s pond that evening.

Redds Pond

Wilmot Redd, or ‘Mammy Redd’ as she came to be known, was, as far as I can tell, a ‘crabbit old woman’.  She had lived in a small house on the South East corner of the pond in Marblehead in the 1600s.  Her husband, Samuel Redd, was a fisherman.  She put the local women’s back up, it seems, just by being a bit cranky.  Her fate was sealed when she was accused during the Salem Witch Trials of “detestible acts called Witchcraft and Sorceries, wickedly, mallitiously and ffelloniously (sic) used, practised and exercised at the towne of Salem”.  So far, so Daily Mail.  She denied it, but was sentenced to be “hung by the neck until she is dead”.  On the 22nd September 1692 she and seven other women were hung on Gallows Hill, Salem.

Nick must have noticed my disappointment, because next day we went to Salem.  As we passed the witchcraft museum,  Nick and Jane repeated “It’s crap, you really don’t want to go there.”   But I was delighted to see this sign on the grass nearby:

Sign in Salem park

How wonderful that they are educating witches in Salem.  I wonder what the Tea Party thinks about that?

We went instead to the House of Seven Gables.  This is a pretty interesting house, I suspect.  ‘I suspect’ because we met the worst guide ever there.  Maybe it was her first day?

“Was William  Hathorn (the original owner of the house) married?”

“Good question.  Ha.  Yes, that’s a really good question.  I really don’t know.  Probably.”

Downstairs there was a table full of fascinating old things from the colonial period – probably.

“Would that be a wax candle maker?” I asked.

“Wow.  I never really noticed that before.  Good question, no-one’s ever asked that question before.”

Her other tactic, other than praising our questions, but not actually answering them, was “I’m going to answer that question in the next room”.  Needless to say, she never did.  Or she’d say “I know, it’s confusing”.  Spot on there.

We shuffled out none the wiser.  It was a nice house.  Lovely garden.  If you have time to spare in Salem I’d recommend a visit, but if I were you I’d mug up on the history before you go.  Apparently the book The House of Seven Gables written by Nathaniel Hawthorne (b. July 4th 1804), a relative of the first owner who fictionalised those times, is very informative, and groundbreaking.   Nathaniel added a ‘W’ to his name to distinguish himself from Colonel John Hathorne, another rellie.  John Hathorne was a JP who who presided over the Salem Witch Trials.  Despite being one of the first pilgrims, who had escaped religious persecution, he had a thing about Quakers.  He used to regularly beat them up, or rather, have them beaten up.  No wonder Nathaniel wanted that ‘W’.

The garden of the House of seven Gables, Salem

The garden of the House of seven Gables, Salem

The House of Seven Gables colonial mansion, built 1668, Salem

The House of Seven Gables colonial mansion, built 1668, Salem

The rest of the afternoon we spent at a pumpkin and farm with extensive apple orchards, a classic Halloween thing to do.  The apples were big and crisp and even.  Perfect for display – but flavour-wise give me a good old English Coxes Orange Pippin.

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Essex Radio Station

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The journey home was not uneventful.  First we passed Essex Radio Station, obviously a happening place with its finger on the pulse, and then, to my absolute delight, we saw a turkey strolling about, without so much as a by-your-leave, on someone’s front lawn.  It’s hard to convey the size of the thing from the picture, but I would say it might intimidate a labrador.   I hope it knows where to hide in December.

Turkey on the lawn, alas

Turkey on the lawn, alas