Jottings of New York

By: | Post date: April 17, 2010 | Comments: 4 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

I’m leaving New York. I haven’t been leisurely blogging for the twenty-four hours I’ve been here; I’ve been too busy talking with my regular commenter John Cowan (6 hrs, finishing 2:30 AM—good to know I can still do that kind of thing, though jet lag helps), and my friend Genevieve (1 hr, and we had to be efficient about it—bon voyage à Angleterre!)

There have been past Jottings of New York, and I have been to New York several times before; this was a lightning visit, and I’ll just quickly note the following:

  • My dinner was around the corner from the Polish consulate, which had an improvised shrine to the dead president. That kind of improvised shrine is now common in the West, which doesn’t have the institutionalised religious channels to commemorate death that it used to. I’m assuming you won’t see that kind of improvised shrine in Greece, for example, because people until recently built actual shrines by the roadside, with icons and oil lamps.
  • The restaurant was Asia de Cuba, and I’m impressed that it impressed Genevieve. It is fusion Chinese–Cuban. The fusion is organic and not self-consciously experimental as much fusion is (Chinese people did move to Cuba). The food was certainly worth the money: the Shanghai noodles were correct, the pork honeyed and melt-in-mouth, the kind Greeks exclaim “Turkish Delight!” over. Pity I can no longer put away the quantities I could.
  • New York now, and always, strikes me with its urbanity: the dressed up young things talking over drinks or noodling with their Crackberries, jostling for drinks—this was familiar, this was how the world should be. I don’t know that I would last if I actually lived here, but the switch-on, fashion-savvy, over-caffeinated New Yorker is a plane of experience to aspire to.
  • That, and its no-prisoners, no-nonsense purposefulness, that comes of wedging a gajillion businesspeople in a couple of square km. My anecdote of choice when I used to live in California: after two years of toothy, insincerely grinned “Hey, how ya doin'” from random strangers in the street, I got to New York, where the random strangers would shove me out of the way as they went to where they had to be—and it was heaven. This time around, the contrast was the casual jaywalking, right in front of the cops, who after all have better things to do in NYC than prosecute jaywalkers. Genevieve tells me the cops get a “hey, how ya doin'” from the jaywalkers for their trouble.
    • I interrupt this transmission to thank the Qantas staff in Premium Economy for resolving my power supply issues to my laptop, and for the complimentary champers on top of it. The station to which I shall have been accustomed, indeed…

  • There is a beauty to this subjugated, engineered, piled on landscape of towers of brick and concrete. My friend Jana, whose idea of beauty is the Central Australian desert, gets antsy when she comes here. I grin. And it’s not all unrelieved gauche glass towers, like Brisbane is (or least would have been, if Joh had demolished everything he saught to). It’s Art Deco sky-piecers Midtown, lots of more squat and humane brick uptown (because, as John informed me, the soil outside Midtown can only support so much weight), and plenty of trees still, welcoming and verdant and tamed. Like in DC.
  • Coincidentally, when I got to my hotel at 2:30 AM, the History Channel was playing a show on reconstructing the pre-urban landscape of NYC. It was overwrought like all History Channel shows are—though at least this show didn’t feature Hitler, as is the channel’s default. But the reconstruction isn’t that amazing a feat: we do have a British map, and pristine woodland still left on the northern tip of the island: unlike Greece, America gets that parks matter, and keeps them inviolable. Still, I wasn’t expecting that Times Sq was originally a beaver pond.
  • And a tree-strewn Manhattan with beavers and porpoises and just the occasional Amerindian wandering down what would become Broadway: that’s not “a green paradise”. Chill out, History Channel. It was a tree-strewn island with beavers and porpoises. I’m not saying all of North America should be terraformed and levelled and piled with buildings and packed with a gajillion businesspeople per square km; but I’m glad this bit was.
  • The pile of buildings looks wondrous from New Jersey, and it was an excellent suggestion of Genevieve’s to take the ferry across to see it. A giant’s playblocks scattered into the sea.
  • The gajillion people make NYC have microcultures, just like the hills it used to have would have made it have microclimates. This time I confined myself to Midtown–Upper West Side; but Upper West Side isn’t Midtown, which isn’t Chelsea, which isn’t The Village, and you can see it. In Melbourne, none of my friends go any further south than St Kilda; so it’s rare they visit Oakleigh. (Or even, by God, South Yarra—which is as New York urbane as Melbourne gets.) I take that as cowardly parochialism. Here at least, I don’t begrudge the locals who never bother to venture north—or south—of 14th Street. Their Village is world enough; and so is the next one up.
  • Thank you btw Genevieve for translating for me “Upper West Side = Malvern”. And “they still think Asian fusion is exotic here, when we in Melbourne did that 15 years ago.” It’s good to have Rosetta Stones.
  • And thank you John for a seminar I cannot summarise or reproduce, but which was as always rollicking good fun. The comparison between the clout in their homelands of the Greek and Jewish diasporas is not one that would have occurred to me; but it gave me the opportunity to lambast Greek morning TV host & pontificator Giorgos Papadakis once again, which is a good thing.
    • (Israel cares what the Jewish diaspora thinks, because that’s where the money comes from. Greece remembers its diaspora when it’s expedient to raise it to a nationalist frenzy over a National Issue; otherwise, they ignore them, and I’ll never get over Papadakis’ patronising tone when Greek-Americans rang in over the Iraq war, indignant about the Greek take on events. I’m not saying I wouldn’t patronise them either. I’m saying that’s dissing a whole lot of your fellow Grecophones, with unearned arrogance.)

  • Oh, and I know about food servers saying “To have here or to go?”: “To go?” is starting to displace “Have here or take away?” in Australia. (Or maybe that’s just me.) But have people been saying “To go or to stay?” for a while? It was new to me, but not to Genevieve.


  • Jim Henry says:

    In north Georgia (suburban Atlanta and the rural area around it) one sees a lot of roadside shrines memorializing people who've died in automobile accidents. Often it's just a cross, sometimes with a name or initials carved or painted on, sometimes with flowers. At a crossroads a quarter mile from my house is one of the most elaborate I've ever seen, with a cross engraved with the deceased's full name, a large photo of the deceased, regularly replaced flowers, and a concrete statue of an angel.

    They're more common by the sides of county roads and state highways, but I've seen them on the outer margins of interstate highways as well.

  • Nauplion says:

    Oh, Nick, you made me tear up, missing New York. You have been seeing what I love about it. New York always reminds me that the Bible may have started in a garden, but it ends in a city.

  • John Cowan says:

    Yeah, we talked a lot about Greeks and Jews, though our Jewish friend didn't show up, alas. (It turns out he plain and simple forgot, and was greatly mortified afterwards, but Too Late.)

    From I, Asimov:

    "I haven't seen much of the world, but cannot believe that any place is more beautiful than New England and the Middle Atlantic States, especially in the fall. I find plains dull, and mountains (real mountains) stark. What I want are hills, and trees, and green vistas, and set in the midst of it all, the glorious skyscrapers of Manhattan."

    To which I can only add, Amen.

  • Hamish says:

    The pedant in me just has to note that it's "bon voyage en Angleterre", but you're tired and jetlagged so such a minor oversight is easily forgiven 🙂

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