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The Streets OF New York


(aka Hot Time, Summer in the City)

Wednesday morning, the Dumbo General Store: Purveyor of art supplies, newspapers, coffees and teas, breakfast, lunch, wine, beer and free wi-fi.
The kind of place that can’t fail in such a place as this, Dumbo,
Where every last warehouse has been, is in the process of being, or most certainly will be converted into a luxury apartment
A place where the ceaseless din of the Manhattan and Brookyn bridges – especially the subway trains constantly clack- clack- clack-ing over the former – is somehow, sometimes, drowned out by the equal din of cranes, concrete and construction crews
I plant myself and my laptop down and take meetings all morning.
By 2pm and my third coffee, I’m talking like a drunk.
Time then for lunch,
In Manhatttan
One subway stop and a different environment away
My friend tells me we’re going Cuban
I look appalled, expecting trapped heat and the stench of fried meat.
He says I have to trust him.
I say, Who do you think you are? Mike Skinner?

So much building is going up in Brooklyn – and not all of it is Unionized. (Hence the rat on Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street.)

But he’s right
The food at Café Habana is incredible
And so are the women
Let’s not beat about the bush here
This inexpensive but upscale Cuban café on Elizabeth and Prince Streets, in the heart of Manhattan’s newest and most chic neighborhood, NoLiTa, knows exactly how to attract attention
The waitresses are all out of a fashion shoot
Which enforces the cliché;
That it’s hard to make an easy living in New York City, even if you’ve got the looks
But oh yes, the food:
“The Mexican-style grilled corn, a gooey mixture of fresh corn topped with chili powder, melted cheese and lime, is a crowd-pleasing, albeit messy, delight that comes with a cup of individually wrapped toothpicks” writes NewYorkMetro
I couldn’t put it better myself
Except I didn’t notice the toothpicks
And spend the rest of day trying to pick corn out of my teeth
The rice and beans with spinach was equally delicious
And the side plate of plantains were as good as any American diner’s home fries
Plus, the prices pre-date NoLiTa
Which must explain why Cafe Habana is always packed
To the point that some people find the wait for a table tiresome
Though we must have timed it right
Because we not only were immediately seated
Not only soon sated, by food and beauty
But even made a friend
How do the Swiss speak such perfect English?
(And is it true they couldn’t score in a brothel?)

Another hot and humid day
And for reasons I can’t explain
I haven’t brought shorts to NYC
And I’ve left my England baseball cap at the apartment where I’m staying
Oh, and I shaved my head again yesterday
I feel my scalp melting in the afternoon sun
Sweat dripping down my back
My shirt clinging to my chest like it’s just been in the wash
I meet a good South London friend
At a street stand in the heart of the East Village
We sit in the summer’s afternoon heat
At First and First
Him sipping on a freshly made juice
Me on an iced tea unseasonably ruined by honey
Honies sitting next to us
Chatting on their cell phones
Watching the cab drivers switch their shifts
And the streets thronging with people going about their business
Which in non nine-to-five, tourist-friendly, trust-fund NYC, often means no business at all

History lessons on the Brooklyn Bridge

Hitting Mars Bar for a cold one
Two 50-something blue-collar brothers come in from their day shift, put money in the jukebox
I recognize the riff to Killer’s opening track ‘Under My Wheels’
And share my story of how my first three albums were all by Alice Cooper
And how I bought them all before I was ten years old
Killer included
They play ‘Dead Babies’ just for me
And ask me, as if I know all about Seventies American rock, who were the two guitarists on ‘Hotel California’
Joe Walsh, I say, instinctively
And…
And…
And…
Turns out they don’t know either
But by the wonders of wi-fi
(And the fact I have my laptop on me)
I find the answer:
Don Felder
(Whatever happened to…?)
The brothers put ‘Hotel California’ on the jukebox
And we debate whether the song was all about cocaine
Or merely the overall decadence of the Los Angeles rock scene
And I am reminded of what I find most annoying about The Streets’ new album:
that singing about fame and addiction is as big a cliché as any in the book

Bblessing on Orchard Street
In the space formerly occupied by Breakbeat Science
The record store has moved to the back, behind a secret door,
And the front is now upscale clothing
$250 for a pair of jeans, $250 for a shirt
Who do they think I am? Mike Skinner?
But this shift in priorities echoes the shift all over the Lower East Side, which is now all
Extravagant food, drink, clothing, and accoutrements for those with money to burn
And the desire to burn it

I burn mine instead at Stonehome
In Fort Greene
The upscale wine bar that opened three years ago or more
Of which I’ve written several times in the past
And though it often seemed quiet when I stopped in before
As if beyond the buppie lifestyle
This latest hot summer evening,
It’s booming with locals
Spending money on bottles
That barely come cheaper than $30 each
(and that price, I notice, is for a Côtes du Rhône that costs only $10 retail)
I recall how my South London friend had earlier today observed
that New York drinking is becoming like British drinking:
an all-consuming sport

I meet a couple of fellow dads from the old ‘hood
One is proud of being English,
The other is so proud of his country he shows up in its World Cup shirt
Unfortunately, it’s German
Somehow, it ends up with red wine on it
Out of my glass
Which I assure him (and you) was an accident
(I love England’s football rivalry with Germany, but I don’t have that much against modern Germany)
Never try swirling your wine glass while telling a story
Sat at the bar inbetween two friends
Not unless you’re a juggler
And even then, you need balls

Growing up in the world – and they ought to be glad!

A friend of my English friend shows with a gift that chokes me up:
The Graduation Yearbook from Campbell’s former Brooklyn elementary school
My son would have been in that book if we’d stayed in the City
Which means, of course, that all his former class mates are in there
His school rotates classes every school year,
Which means at one point or another
He was in a class with almost every one of the 100+ kids
Some were good friends, a few were enemies
And others were both
I flick through the book for a half hour, recalling kids by face, and by names
That reflect multi-ethnic, New York parenting on the cusp of the Millennium:
Tucker, Zara, Duan, Tristan, Malick, Cory, Javette, Nia, Sparkle, Chaela, Chioma, Zoyner, Jawharr, Elder, Mylyn, Jose, Jorge, Husssein, Naytavia, Ijlal, Celso, Shomari,Destiny, Ahmed, Ali, Tyasia,
And yes, a smattering of Michaels, Justins and Brittneys
And I wonder what will become of all these kids
And while I regret that Campbell will likely never run into them again
I remember from my own experience, how few of my primary school friends I stayed in contact with once we ourselves moved on
Those were a happy few years
For me at primary school
And for Campbell I hope, at his Brooklyn Elementary
But time moves on, we grow up, we move away and we grow apart
It’s the way of the world

The view from the Brooklyn Bridge: though it’s been missing the Twin Towers these last five years, it’s still one of the great public urban views.

This is the wi-fi world that I’ve learned about:
staying at a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn should make me hard to find
But people track me down by cell phone, e-mail and Skype
When all I want to do is go for a run before it gets too damn hot once more
I fail on that score
And find myself crossing the Brooklyn Bridge
In the piercing mid-morning sun
At least this time I wear my England hat
And try and take it easy
Because I’m already tired from a couple of nights back in New York
And I want to preserve enough energy
To see Salif Keita play at Metrotech in downtown Brooklyn
The opening salvo in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual free lunchtime series
The only other time I took advantage of this was for Wilson Pickett
Who was phenomenal
And who has sadly passed on
We should see living legends while they’re still alive

Salif Keita and band: the ngoni in the background

I am not the world’s greatest African music expert
But I am a consummate music fan
And I do know the name of an icon when I hear it
Salif Keita is among the greats
And the fact that we can see him for free here in downtown Brooklyn
Is not so much testament to his lack of status in the USA
(He is headlining The Apollo the very next night)
But to the reputation and importance of free New York City summertime shows

All the seats are gone come the noon- day start
And as when I came to watch Wilson Pickett
The early birds are mostly late in life
They are surrounded by younger people of all persuasions
African, Afro-Caribbean and Caucasian,
One white guy wearing a Mali football shirt, as topical a fashion statement as one could hope to make today

Salif himself seems subdued, almost weary
Certainly wary of people filming his show on their digital cameras
(A hard thing to stop in the digital age at a free show, but stop it the parks police do)
I know that African music concerts can take hours to build up
And Keita only has an hour to both build up and back down
So he keeps it calm and languid
The rhythms purposefully restrained
Given the time of day
And the temperature
And the audience
Which stays seated throughout
As much out of respect for the person behind
As out of any disrespect to the groove
I get a kick out of the ngoni instrument,
A tortoiseshell guitar, which is tended tenderly today
Though the following night at the Apollo, at a show that lasts a full two and a half hours
Resplendent with rhythm, dominated by dancing
Preceded by Senegalese drummers
(According to my South London friend whose review you can read here)
Its owner attacks it like he’s Jimi Hendrix
And Salif is “determined to party”
Today, at this lunchtime warm-up, I get my greatest kick out of watching a woman
Who clearly knows and loves Salif Keita’s music
and rubs her pregnant stomach to the beat throughout
Trusting to infuse her offspring
With his rhythm

The audience at Metrotech, and the lady happily rubbing her pregnant belly

Free music outdoors in the summertime: one of New York City’s great gifts to its populace:
If I stick about another day I could see Brooklyn’s own TV On The Radio in Brooklyn’s own Prospect Park
Though I’ve seen enough shows from the Celebrate Brooklyn series in years gone by
That I was okay with the decision to move away
I also like the idea of watching Germany-Argentina with my German dad friend at Loki, the 5th Ave (Park Slope) bar owned by that former Argentinean team mate of mine
(The same place I watched England beat Argentina at four years ago
Where I saw a grown man cry
And still prove himself man enough to buy the English victors a drink)

Instead, it’s time to drive home and watch the games alone
Via Chambers Street Wines, still the best store in Manhattan
Where I pick up supplies of whites and roses to aid through the summer
They’ll taste even better out of the city’s oppressive heat
I just hope my village is not among those currently underwater

While New York City wilts, upstate New York floats: fortunately this is not our town.

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