On Poetry and Culture Shock

The obligatory New York chronicle

New York, New York's a wonderful town./The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.-On the Town

This is not a journal-style blog. This is not The Life and Opinions of La Guiri. I’m not attracted to that sort of blog, and I hope this is not perceived as Welcome to La Guiri’s Private Thoughts. That was why when I went to Washington I didn’t write a chronicle, but a series of very shot anecdotes that fitted in the Culture Shock section, one at a time. New York is different. On the one hand, I don’t want to do an individual NYC chronicle for each one of those interested, and on the other hand, NYC is nor an orderly, well-behaved, one-anecdote-at-a-time place like Washington was.

So, there we go. A little chronicle of my New York holiday. An acclaration first: I live in Ithaca, New York State, five to six hours and 90$ away from New York City. New York State is nearly as big as Spain.

I like the island Manhattan, Smoke on your pipe and put that in –West Side Story

When people say New York, they mean Manhattan. Manhattan is weird because it is divided in neighbourhoods, but it is so densely populated that they are all cramped together. Walk a couple blocks and everything around you: architecture, looks of the people, shops, and the like, is changed. The most drastic change I walked by was the transformation of the poshest bit in Manhattan, the Upper East Side, into East Harlem. Look front, and people are a mix of black and Latino, the buildings are low and in red brick and the shops sell mostly junk food. Look back and the buildings are twice as tall, white, the people are white women with exquisite hairdos, and the shops sell handbags. It is like jumping channels on TV from Sex and the City to some scary movie about drugs and inner-city kids. The subway doesn’t charge you in zones, so it is wonderful to just take any train, go to the other end of town and enjoy the different landscape. In that sense, New York is a wonderfully democratic city, unlike London, where the underground is divided in zones. Since everyone everywhere always wants to go towards the centre, a zone system punishes the people who live outside, which are precisely the ones that (one would guess) have less money to spend. Can anyone tell me if I am wrong about London?

I want to wake up in that city that doesn't sleep -Frank Sinatra

So, on my first day I explored Chinatown and the Lower East Side, a hippie area in the Spanish sense of the word. In Spain, there are people, mostly young women, who are in horror of anything that looks too clean, too polished, too bourgeois, because they perceive that as politically conservative. We call that sort of people "hippies"; they are fiercely snob and they hardly ever are politically active like English-speaking hippies. Spanish hippies would adore the Lower East Side, an area of old houses that look neglected, where the shops are trendy and original. It blends with Chinatown; that part mixes the shops that sell junk to tourists with supermarkets and other food shops with weird things that you wouldn’t see in normal shops, like strange dried fish, or Asian sweeties. That area had so much to see, just walking, you cold spend days just looking at the people and the shops. Don’t go there at night; if Times Square looks like Blade Runner, Chinatown by night looks like the dodgy bits from Blade Runner. Dirty, dark and depressing.

Some people had recommended me a couple of jazz clubs, and one of them is where Woody Allen plays occasionally. That’s the one I chose; of course he wasn’t there, but the music was nice. It was the bar in a luxury hotel, the sort of place where waiters call you “Ma’am” and say “of course” instead of “sure”. I thought they’d kick me out considering my looks; there’s something special in a place that calls me Madam when I’m wearing frayed jeans and my hair in a bandanna. And the wine was delicious.

Ese sitio que le dicen Nueva York, donde inentan las cosas que después me compro yo -Pedro Guerra.

I thought I wouldn’t go to the theatre because as much as I love musicals, they are prefabricated and I might as well see them in Europe. But then I saw the choices of plays, not musicals, and I couldn’t resist. It was a tough choice between A Streetcar Named Desire with Natasha Richardson and John C Reilly (the wonderful, unforgettable policeman that falls in love with a cocaine junkie in Magnolia); The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Lange and my teenage crush Christian Slater; or Hurlyburly with my other teenage crush Ethan Hawke (who am I trying to fool? I haven’t been a teenager in a long time and my crush on Hawke is still alive and well). In the end I went to see The Glass Menagerie because I have already seen one version of Streetcar, and I was too afraid of Ethan Hawke disappointing me. The actors were great, and the play was splendid. I don’t have any intentions to let my research switch continents, but this one reconciled me with American literature. Read it if you cannot see a performance, it’s gorgeous in a faded, sad way.

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin -Leonard Cohen.

I went to see a whole bunch of museums: the Metropolitan, the Frick Collection, the Guggenheim, and the Jewish Museum. At the Metropolitan I was very conservative, going straight to see a lovely Chanel temporary exhibition and the European and modern paintings. I made a discovery about the great swindle that in Abstract Expressionism (huge paintings like his, like children’s doodles): one painting by Rothko or Jackson Pollock makes no sense. Only the cumulative effect is worth the try. So if a museum has ten or twenty pieces in this style put together in one or two rooms, the effect can be majestic, instead of making me thing that they wasted the canvas and they are making me waste my time.

The selection from gods such as Vermeer, Goya, Monet, Degas and such would make you dizzy. That’s the Stendhal syndrome: seeing too many beauty things in one go can make you think you have the flu if you have that sort of Romantic disposition. There is one room with eleven Monets that would make happiness ooze out of your pores. I went to the Frick to see the Vermeers, but the whole thing was small and manageable. They don’t let children in this one so that they can keep the security measures very lax, isn’t that weird?

The Guggenheim is… the Guggenheim. I though the permanent collection would take a lot more space, but the building outshines any painting (well, not all paintings maybe, but it has to be one very special Picasso to make you forget the building for a couple minutes). I didn’t get to see the Mapplethorpes because that area is being reformed now, shame.

The Jewish Museum doesn’t contain any major works of art. It's more a history museum. The Holocaust section is tiny and it’s an inner room so that people can choose to ignore it; that’s a good idea and it certainly goes against the racist stereotype that Jewish people play the role of victims, either because they are weak or because they want to get material gain from other people's sympathy. That section has a concentration camp uniform jacket; it doesn’t look much like a uniform, it’s an ordinary, functional jacket that looks modern, but of course you can recognise the grey and navy stripes if you have seen any film or documentary on the subject. The jacket was a donation from a former prisoner, done a few decades ago; who would’ve wanted to keep that cursed thing with them for one minute after the liberation? Maybe whoever preserved always thought of its value as proof of the genocide. The sad, strange thing about this museum is that although it is educational for non-Jews, and it doesn’t assume any knowledge of Jewish culture and history, most of the visitors I saw looked very obviously Jewish (men wearing skullcaps and that type of thing). If you would like to give me a gift some time, get me a Maurice Sendak book. I should have bought one in the museum shop but I had a sudden attack of prudence. How unlike me.

I live in New York New York, the city that never shuts up -Ani di Franco

What else? Oh, yeah, the Empire State. Yes, it is very tall and all that, but the Chrysler is a lot more beautiful! I took photographs of the Chrysler at all hours and from all perspectives. And the same about the cathedrals: St Patrick is more famous, but the inside is nothing special, while St John the Divine is lovely inside and out. St Patrick has little chapels dedicated to a few saints, and each one had a summary of that saint’s life and a suggestion of an appropriate prayer. I hated those, because they were nearly all asking for things. It was such a polytheistic attitude! “Dear Saint of the sick, heal me”. “Dear saint of desperate situations, help me”. You get the idea. It was all like that.

I didn’t get to see the Financial District or Brooklyn Bridge by night; I saw them from the Staten Island Ferry, but I guess that by night they’ll be a completely different thing. I didn’t visit anything outside Manhattan, and I missed a Museum that has a bunch of Klimt paintings because it doesn’t open on weekdays. All that, and of course watching a musical, is left for another visit.

Leaving New York never easy, I saw the life fading out. - R. E. M.

I don’t think I could live in New York; at least not in Manhattan. Someone told me about two weeks ago that he was surprised I hadn’t gone there yet because I seem so suited for the place: what he meant was that I was so hyper. New York is tough and hyperactive like me, but then, I need surroundings that calm me down. I need to be able to jump all over the place, unwind, relax and start over. It’s hard to do that in Manhattan. And it’s very, very noisy. Even in the middle of Central Park you can still hear the traffic.

Still, it has the three essentials that I need in a town. Plenty of trees, a river, and a café (a million of them) where I could become a regular. Plus a church that plays Bach for free at lunchtime on weekdays (Broadway with 10th, if you are ever around).

2 comentarios

El Guiri Feliz -

Hola guiri!

He identificado varios 'guiri blogs'. Puede ser un nuevo fenomeno.

La caminante -

Buena crónica, si señor.