My father used to be a dry cleaner. In 1964, after selling a small store in Nassau County, Long Island, he hoped to open something new. Working with a broker, he found an excellent location in a shopping centre in an apartment complex that was going up in Brooklyn, right off Neptune Avenue, a few blocks from Coney Island. In those years Coney Island was being superseded by more daring, more modern theme parks, the beach was unclean and the perception that New York had become unsafe was amplified in the outer boroughs. The new middle-income construction, subsidised by the State of New York, promised to anchor the neighbourhood. The seven-building complex was called Trump Village.
The last set is over, and the club is almost empty. The bassist has already gone home, the drummer is walking out the door. That leaves the saxophonist and the pianist, but they decide they're not done yet. They have more ideas to exchange, more confidences to share. They begin to play again, only this time just for themselves. Do most saxophone and piano duets start out this way? Surely not, and yet the best of them could fool you, with their intimate, nocturnal ambience, their exploration of 'songs of love and regret', as the saxophonist Marion Brown and the pianist Mal Waldron called their 1986 album. On Random Dances and (A)Tonalities, the new album by the pianist Aruán Ortiz and the reedman Don Byron, the music is unapologetically cerebral, like the title.
It was snowing heavily, in New York’s first real snowstorm of the winter, and the women leading the demonstration at Columbus Circle had to cover their microphones with plastic bags to keep them from getting wet, muffling their chants. There were roughly 150 protesters standing with hunched shoulders while fat snowflakes dampened their caps. Their signs had pictures of growling pussycats and the ♀ symbol with a clenched fist in the centre. A woman with facial piercings had draped a large sheet over her shoulders: on the back, it was embroidered with the words ‘CUNT QUILT’, along with a diagram of a uterus made from pink and red underwear.
When I lived in New York there was another dimension to the annual snowstorms, and that was the weather reporting of Robert McFadden, one of the New York Times’s great journalists. Now 78, he has been writing for the paper since 1961. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 'for his highly skilled writing and reporting on deadline during the year'. Among the pieces the judges mentioned was one about a shooting rampage in Harlem and another about cockfights in the Bronx, as well as McFadden's coverage of the Unabomber case and the Oklahoma City bombing. They also cited a feature on Easter Day in Corona, Queens. It began:
On Tuesday Sam and I went to see his doctor. We took the subway but weren't sure which train. A workman told us then asked where we were from. ‘You’re so lucky,’ he said when I told him we were from London. 'In this country the individual isn’t allowed to protect himself.’ Presumably that was a reference of some kind to gun control. Perhaps he thought we didn’t have it and he did. In the doctor's waiting room, the patient before us had thought she should cancel: ‘It didn’t seem the right day to be travelling into Manhattan.’ She'd come from Brooklyn. The doctor’s phone rang while we were with him. He looked at it and left the room. He came back smiling. The call was from his son’s elementary school. Two boys from the neighbouring high school had phoned to say there was a bomb in the building. The police were summoned, the school was evacuated, the children were allowed home.
The immigrant who arrives too late in life to adapt to his new country, but too early to survive on nostalgia for the old country, has to create a third, imagined country to live in. When my grandmother got Alzheimer’s I was tempted to see it as an expression of her late-life immigration from the USSR to the USA, leaving one civilisation and never arriving at the other. (I was a teenager.) One of her daughters had cut off her past and been reborn as an American; the other returned over and over to Russia, making documentaries, unearthing graves and exploring gulags so she was all ‘memory’. But my grandmother had neither future nor past. As her illness got worse she would be found walking dazed along the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, the Russian ghetto where Brooklyn meets the ocean, a last stop on the subway from Manhattan. In the evening the boardwalk would be full of Russian immigrants with gaudy haircuts and fur-wrap finery, and as the light faded you could forget you were in America.
Yesterday morning the plaza in front of New York’s City Hall was crowded with local luminaries, shivering under blankets and bundled in winter clothes. Celebrities and politicians, elders from the city's ethnic communities, clergy and union leaders gathered to celebrate the inauguration of the new mayor, Bill de Blasio. Regular citizens were there too. That in itself was notable. De Blasio’s inauguration was the first open to the general public in recent memory.
‘I always assumed I would simply be forgotten and disappear from view,’ Saul Leiter said late in life, at a time when the colour photographs he had taken half a century earlier were hardly ever off the pages of magazines, and countless online slideshows celebrated his ‘lost’ views of mid-century New York. Leiter, who died on 26 November (a week short of his 90th birthday), spent his last decade genially playing up to his new status as rediscovered colour pioneer.
Erje Ayden died last month in New York. He was born Erce Aydıner in Istanbul in 1937. His father was a politician and, later, justice minister. Erce was sent to Robert College, a private American high school overlooking the Bosphorus. His family wanted him to be a lawyer but he dropped out and escaped to Paris, where Nato employed him as a spy (or so he claimed). He moved to New York in 1957, and worked as a bricklayer, waiter and gravedigger before writing down his experiences in a series of pulp novels.
Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate in the New York City mayoral race, is way ahead in the polls, despite his allegedly radical credentials. Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a story on his support for the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s and a trip he made to Nicaragua in 1988.
De Blasio was a relatively late arrival on the scene. I went on the first solidarity tour from the UK in 1984, by which time the trail south from the US was well established.
New York City is the greatest public works project in the USA. It is a city of tubes, grids, circuits and networks. We are organised by numbered floors and numbered streets and numbered apartments, fed and watered through great pipes and tunnels and bridges, shuttled to and fro in shifts along lines. On Monday night the magnificent machines were revealed to us, as they failed one by one.
Hurricane Sandy brought to New York much more wind than rain, and the greatest damage has been near the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island Sound, and the two rivers. We all knew which neighbourhoods faced the most immediate danger – Battery Park, Red Hook, Rockaway – but it wasn’t until late last night, safe at home, that I realised the hurricane spelled trouble for most of the city’s art galleries, clustered together in Chelsea a block from the Hudson. I went down this morning. The water has receded (mostly – 21st Street was impassible today), but there’s still no power, and the damage is total. Every celebrity architect you can name has retrofitted one of these spaces, but they weren’t made to withstand this kind of onslaught. They’re low-slung warehouses, mostly, with garage doors at their entrances. The hurricane warped many of the doors; I saw a team of dealers trying to pry open a metal gate with a crowbar.
Last week a new musical featuring W.H. Auden as a central character began previews at New York's Public Theater. Entitled February House, the musical concerns an improbable ménage that occupied a picturesque but shabby little row-house in Brooklyn Heights during the early years of the Second World War. Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it 'February House', because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. The address of the house, which was subsequently torn down to make room for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was Middagh Street, number 7.
Edward Jay Epstein’s piece on Dominque Strauss-Kahn and the Sofitel affair for the New York Review of Books was in such demand at the weekend that the website was often inaccessible with the weight of traffic. It is a clinical narrative of events on 14 May between 10.07 a.m. New York time, when Strauss-Kahn put in a call to his wife, and 4.45 p.m., when he was summoned off his flight to Europe by police at JFK. It lends support to the theory, still popular in France, that the likely challenger to Sarkozy’s presidency was set up in Manhattan by friends of the incumbent.
On my first visit to Occupy Wall Street, two weeks ago (but it might as well be years, given how rapidly the movement is growing and changing), I sat in on a meeting of the Media Committee. A paper was being passed around, and we were asked to provide email addresses, a list of our skills and the equipment we owned that could be put into service. Of the 35 or so people at the meeting, I informally counted 12 filmmakers, six or seven editors, three video artists, a couple of sound engineers and a director of commercials. The average age was around thirty, and the debate about software, platforms and compatibility was fierce. I dutifully wrote down ‘theatre director’ and listed as skills... um... good communicator? knowledgable about space? strong familiarity with the plays and essays of Brecht? I got the message: these people weren’t fooling around.
Tomorrow is the New York gay pride march, but if you weren’t here last night you missed the party. Same-sex marriage has come to the Empire State, the sixth and by far the largest to endorse full equality in what, for better or worse, is now the only gay-rights issue on the agenda in America. The state legislature in Albany – so corrupt and incompetent that the New York Times, a few elections back, told readers to abandon every single member and 'vote for an opponent, any opponent' – tried to pass a similar bill in 2009, and the unexpectedly large defeat that year meant that nobody was celebrating this time until the gavel fell. Two years ago we got no Republican votes; yesterday there were four, and the city erupted. Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council and now (following Anthony Weiner's resignation) the probable next mayor of New York, cried during a press conference and announced that she and her girlfriend are planning their wedding. These days the best gay bars in town are in the East Village or Brooklyn, but last night there was only one party worth being at: the mash outside the Stonewall Inn in the West Village,
I was watching The Colbert Report the other night when a picture of my local mosque flashed across the screen. Colbert was covering a story that the Murdoch-owned New York Post had broken a few days earlier: a man had barged into the mosque during a service, cursed at the congregants, pissed on their prayer rugs. 'No one can pray now,' someone had told the paper. 'The rugs are completely soiled. It was disgusting.' So far, so bad. But Colbert (who isn't a journalist) didn't know that the Post journalists (it had taken three of them to file the 168-word story) had got it almost entirely wrong.
Earlier this week, three of the Velvet Underground's surviving members gathered for a moderated panel discussion at the main branch of the New York Public Library. The band's fans formed a long and winding queue along the building's stairs; Andy Warhol's amanuensis, Billy Name, who looks a bit like Santa Claus now, held court at the head of the line. To passers-by, it must have looked like Christmas on 42nd Street. The occasion itself was a bit of a miracle: For one thing, the moderator was a journalist – and anyone with opposable thumbs can tell you that Lou Reed, who doesn't care for journalists, takes evident pleasure in his venomous and/or monosyllabic replies to their questions. (‘Journalists are morons, idiots,' he's said. 'You can hit them, stab them, kick them in the shins, abuse them and outrage them and they won't even notice.' Click here and here to compare Reed's style, as an interview subject, to Warhol's.)
In an interview with Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tony Blair told an audience packed with eastern seaboard celebrities how he is writing his memoirs. 'Instead of doing this as "I met such and such five world leaders on such and such a day and they said such and such,"’ he explained, 'I'm writing it more as, if you like, a personal journey.