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?

 

 

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.