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New York, I Love You (And You’re Bringing Me Up)


NOTES FROM A BUSMAN’S HOLIDAY BACK IN THE BIG APPLE

1) July 4th

So, it rained almost non-stop the whole afternoon and evening, as if to reinforce that, with this year’s Independence Day falling in the middle of the week, you shouldn’t really be taking the rest of the week off. Too late: my bag was already packed. And though the annual party in Greenpoint for which I drove down to DJ was forced indoors from the roof-with-a-view, and the number of attendees dropped accordingly, it’s hard to dampen the spirits of New Yorkers even on a wet July 4th. I seem to recall lots of high spirits, personal as well as drinkable, some splendid 7” soul singles after which my iPod Playlist took over as DJ, a decent bottle of Jean-Luc Colombo Côtes de Provence rosé 2006 I’d picked up in Boiceville for under ten bucks, and no shortage of veggie pasta and burgers. Oh, and there was the small matter of the Macy’s fireworks display, which blasted continual rockets of gunpowder into the ominously low clouds for a full thirty minutes as if daring them to do their worst. The fireworks won, judging by the number of us braving the rain, concluded with a peace offering of multi-hued smiley faces. Aciieed!

2) The Blissful Morning After
I rag on Williamsburg with the frequency of the New York Times trawling its streets for Styles stories, and usually with good reason. But praise where praise is due: the café Bliss, situated hard by the Bedford Avenue L station, serves some of the heartiest vegan fare, for the lowest prices, in all the five boroughs. Halfway through my tofu scrambles, home fries, bagel with tofu cream cheese and two cups of coffee, I found myself sweating profusely – and I knew it was a good thing. Ten minutes later, suitably nourished and replenished, I was ready to hit the streets. And again I got change from ten bucks. (Before tip.)

Old New York – yes, you can find this building in the Five Boroughs


3) Free Weeklies – with Wrong Information

Whenever I hit NYC I head straight for the newspaper bins on the street corners: a few minutes with the Voice, the Press, the Onion and the L and I feel like I know my old city again. So, when I read in the Voice a half-page blurb for a Fugs exhibition at Printed Matter, I figured it was suitable enough research for my NYC book as to merit a subway ride across town. Forty-five sweat-soaked minutes later, I walked up Tenth Avenue to find the gallery/store closed – and not just for the day, but from July 1-July 18, almost a week either side of the Voice’s stand-life. Village Voice: do your bloody homework, else you’ll be reduced to a freebie competing with the Press, the Onion and the L for tourist readers. (Whoops, you already are.) I took the somewhat wasted ride as a chance instead to check out the meatpacking district and west Chelsea. Would it surprise you to hear that there are more high-end bars, restaurants, and fashion stores than ever? No, I thought not.

4) Afro-Punk Film Festival at BAM
My English friend and former neighbor Paul e-mailed me recently to say that he’d seen Julian Temple’s Joe Strummer documentary at our old ‘hood cinema BAM Rose, complete with the filmmaker in attendance. It made me homesick. So I jumped at the chance to cool off from the heat and humidity with the last of the cinema’s week-long annual Afro-Punk Film Festival: Love Story, a (British) documentary on Arthur Lee’s lost tribe. Though it lacked for the kind of live footage that rendered the otherwise similar MC5: A True Testimonial doc so spectacular, I still learned loads I didn’t know, if only for having never really paid close attention. For example, Love’s limited success was largely due to their fear of playing outside of Los Angeles, where they were for many years the undisputed kingpins; the ‘legendary’ Forever Changes album hardly scraped the American charts; and its lead single, ‘Alone Again Or’ was, much to Arthur Lee’s chagrin, written and sung by his guitarist Bryan MacLean. (These three snippets of information are widely known by most Love fans.) After the original group disbanded due, largely, to their mutual and massive heroin addictions, MacLean became a born-again Christian – which presumably means that his death on Christmas Day, 1998, merits boldly italicized use of the word ‘ironic.’ While the film-makers had to do with archival interview footage of MacLean, they were fortunate that Arthur Lee gave generously of himself, the rather iconoclastic band-leader no doubt aware that this would be his last chance at establishing an accurate biographical legacy. He died from leukemia in 2005. Love suffered their share of ill fate.

Red Hook’s crumbling facade is now being torn down to make way for the New…


5) Tocai Fruiliano at Stonehome

Prior to visiting BAM, with thirty minutes to kill, I couldn’t resist a trip back to one of my old stomping grounds, Stonehome, the excellent wine bar on Fort Greene’s Lafayette Avenue. The $9 glass of Conte Brandolini’s 2005 Tocai Fruilano was just what the doctor ordered – deliciously cold and refreshing, with just the right doses of citrus and fruit, mineral and flint body and texture. The bartender teasingly left the bottle on the bar in front of me; it was all I could do not to take it with me.

6) Chilling on a roof deck
It would have come in handy after the movie. For when your friends have just had their second kid and can’t make it to the pub, you bring the pub to them. That’s what a buddy and I did for our pal Hub, bringing a six-pack of Californian IPA and a couple of upstate NY brewery Ommegang’s Hennepins for our Belgian beer fan. The rain had hit hard while I’d been at the movies, but abated to allow us to hang out on a Fort Greene back deck, as we listened to the world roar down Atlantic Avenue, and discussed its imminent collapse under our corrupt leadership. The revolution as always, starts at closing time…

The front of Fairway in Red Hook in what was once a thriving dockland warehouse (and then for many years a desolate dockland warehouse).

7) Red Hook’s Fair Ways
My own family used to take bikes over to Red Hook on weekends, and marvel at the potential lurking behind the ‘neighborhood’s crumbling dockland warehouses. By the time we left the city, the pioneers had moved into Pioneer Street, a little restaurant row had worked its way onto Columbia St, Le Nell had opened her brilliant liquor store on Van Brunt, and there were some surprising objections to the opening of a Fairway Supermarket in the vast old shipping warehouse at the foot of Beard Street. Fortunately, wise heads prevailed and the Fairway, now open and thriving, appears nothing short of a boon to the neighborhood. With its excellent selection of groceries, and what you can’t quite call a garden café at the rear but one that certainly has a view of the harbor like almost no other, it’s hopefully doing its bit to draw people to the neighborhood. And the loft-like apartments above the market appeal to my sense of retro-industrial contemporary chic. And though I can’t claim I saw many locals from the projects wading through the many varieties of high-end potato chips, at least they’re being employed there – which is more than I reckon you’ll see happen at Ratner’s Atlantic Yards.

The back of Fairway, now a cafe with a view of the New York harbor. Upstairs is all apartments…

I’m tempted to say that Red Hook – cut off from the rest of the city by Robert Moses’ accursed BQE, subsequently avoided for the fearful reputation of both its housing projects and its Mafia-run docking unions, its western streets deserted these last thirty-plus years of all but the occasional terraced house and the odd wooden building that looks like a holdover from whaling days – will never be truly gentrified. But the fact that the Queen Mary 2 luxury liner was docked alongside the still windowless warehouses confirms otherwise.

the Queen Mary 2 docked in Red Hook. But don’t worry, rich people: limousines ferry you to luxury behind the safety of barbed wire.

8) NYC: Safe As Cars
Back when I first moved to the Big Apple, owning a car was an absolute liability: those who suffered the process had to endure regular broken windows, even WHEN they posted a sign that said “Nothing of value in car – everything already stolen.” The more contemporary sign of the times is that New York F***ing City is so F***ing crime-free these days that I drove down with my records, some wedding clothes, a hard drive that needed repair, and various other items I couldn’t possibly carry round with me every day, and then parked my station wagon – which by necessity of its name does not have a boot/trunk but only a rather pathetic covering over the luggage area that screams “items of value hidden under here!” – all over Brooklyn’s former mean streets for four days and nights. Its nocturnal resting places included the warehouse area of Greenpoint and a dark side-street all of 20 yards from the still-toxic Gowanus Canal. New Yorkers with any experience will know that would once have been like playing Russian Roulette with your valuables. But in the new New York, it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone anymore to break into a vehicle. (It does occur to some to carjack them instead.)

9) New York is for (Wine) Lovers
New York City must now boast more boutique wine stores than anywhere else in the world. At least that’s how it feels as you walk the streets these days. The following three stores have all been open a while, but only one of them have I seen before, and each had an individual touch to merit a repeat future visit. Appellation on Tenth Avenue and 20th Street sells only organic, biodynamic and sustainably-farmed wines – which means they sell pretty much everything I already like from France, where farming traditions are so engrained that they could afford to bypass the whole chemical/pesticide revolution. (Appellation also sells La Tache, if you’ve got a spare $1200 in your acount for a single bottle of Burgundy.) Smith and Vine, on Smith Street in Cobble Hill, has a fantastic little window display which shows not only antique corkscrews but samples of rocks and stones from specific vineyards, including a ‘roulet’ from my beloved Châteauneuf du Pape (which I promise to visit in person one day). And the walls of Greene Grapes on Fulton Street in Fort Greene are decorated with 10×8” portraits of the wine-makers themselves, usually mud-covered couples looking perfectly content as they toil in the fields. The Greene Grape Wine Companyalso offers a Discover-card like cash-back system: spend $250 (over time) and get $20 back, a useful alternative to the financially disastrous (for me) incentive of a 15% discount on a full case.

One reason each of these wine stores appears so unique is because, well, they’re each unique: New York State Law prevents, for some arcane, probably pre-Prohibition reason, individual ownership of more than one liquor store. (And if you noticed that there’s two Greene Grape stores in New York, note also the disclaimer that “each Greene Grape wine store is individually owned and operated.”) So while shop owners can’t get rich by franchising, and we the consumers suffer for their necessarily high prices, we nonetheless benefit in that almost every new store is a mom-and-pop operation dedicated to winning our custom with hands-on service and these individual attentions to detail.

The new New York overlooking the South Street Seaport mingles with old New York in a beautiful mosaic.

9) The iJamming! Pub Night Out
Growing up in England, Friday nights in summer meant meeting at the pub early, promising to go somewhere later and usually, after a few pints, fulfilling this obligation by heading to another pub until closing time. We engaged in a variation on this theme Friday of July 4 weekend when a group of iJamming! pubbers and a couple of other old friends met at the Heartland Brewery, smack on the corner of South Street and Fulton, at the suitably English pub hour of 6:30pm where, to our surprise and delight, we got seats to ourselves by the front door, with a view of the Seaport’s stage, all the better to time ourselves for Fujiya & Miyagi’s subsequent free gig. Heartland’s homebrewed beers cost $6 a pint, a standard price in many an East Village bar these days. (The Indiana Pale Ale got the collective thumbs down; the Red Rooster in return got the thumbs up.) Better yet, we had to go to the bar to get them; no waitress service for us! After the gig, we almost returned to the Heartland, but a meander onto Front Street’s cobbles took us into Nelson Blue instead, where what initially looked like a hi-tech tourist trap turned out to be another fine drinking hole, and what we assumed to be a bouncer doubling as a pleasant maitre d’, striving to find a table large enough for our group. Once seated, we initially ordered up more $6 pints of beer and then, looking at the bar list, realized that the bar had been named not randomly but for a New Zealand city; indeed it boasts of itself as “the Big Apple’s first Kiwi Bar, eh?” I switched to an expensive Central Otago Pinot Noir (the Mount Difficulty Roaring Meg, with harder edges than I’d have anticipated, though I was not exactly taking notes), while others opted for Aussie brewery Cooper’s Sparkling Ale. I believe we talked in great detail about music, music and more music. As we parted ways around midnight – when the bars stay up later than you do, you don’t feel the need to get rat-face drunk – it was hard to see a downside to playing the New York City tourist….

…And that’s without allowing for the free Fujiya and Muyagi gig… More of which in the next post.

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