Out Now!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Dead animals stared at me from walls

Belmont Racecourse

From the day Ron and his family left to the day I’d first enter an American classroom, I never had time to think or be lonely. He’d left behind two guardian angels called Judy Freidman and Joanne Dillon.

Judy materialised, flushed and preppy in shorts, and wielding a badminton bat. She invited me to a party in Manhattan where we stood and listened to someone reputedly funny. He was leaning against a piece of furniture, drawling a monologue of loosely linked one-liners. But the real highlight of that day was sitting in a bar on 5th Avenue, looking out from behind a smoked glass window. New York traffic is slow but, as I watched, it crawled to a virtual halt behind a black guy in yellow T shirt and shorts. He was skate-boarding down the Avenue, blithely aware and supremely indifferent. Sometimes an image creates magic, ingrains itself with talismanic power; or perhaps it was just reminding me that Newport was three thousand miles away.

The day had its downside. The taxi home cost me twelve dollars. It was driven by a Turk who seemed to know even less of New York than I did – to the extent that I had to find 59 St. Bridge for him and direct him from there.

Joanne gave me a guided tour of Greenwich Village. I remember drinking in Jimmy Days, the Whitehorse, where for some obscure reason they served ‘Whitbread Bitter’, Reggios, Kenny’s Castaway – where a five piece band played, walked through Christopher Street, Washington Park, and ended the evening in a Chinese restaurant. Occasionally I thought of Ron in Newport, wondering what he thought of ‘The Three Horseshoes’.

It was hard to imagine I’d soon be working, easier to imagine what the next day might hold.

Never, for example did I expect to win 55 dollars at Belmont Park Racecourse. Had I my stakes been bigger I’d have won much, much more; suffice it to say, every horse did me proud that day. Bob, Tom, Marge, and Joanne Dillon were surprised and pleased for me. Two characters standing in front, who’d lost heavily throughout the afternoon, asked me my system. They didn’t look over impressed when I said it was done by ‘names’: Angel Cordero – loved the name, no idea who he was – and horses with equally interesting names; all dead now, do doubt, but as systems go it worked for me.

What didn’t work for me was eating fresh lobster on Long Island. Not until I saw others done up in oversized bibs was paranoia assuaged; they assumed everyone, not just me, was a messy eater. All I can remember is cracking shells with instruments that could have come out of the Tower of London, the rich taste of lobster flesh and butter, and a warm salty breeze playing around my neck and feet. The lobster was great; the surgery involved in extracting it less so.

Lobster was followed by a tour of Teddy Roosevelt’s house where a lot of dead animals stared at me from walls.

These days were coming to an end. St. Agnes beckoned.

T. Roosevelt's place

Sunday, 22 November 2009

When in a hole stop digging

The 22nd August was my first day alone. Term started on September 8th after Labour Day. On September 5th I found myself in trouble, an incident that could have gone either way. By then I was well on the way to mapping the mysteries of New York’s subway system. I’d run across rats the size of small dogs, and once fell asleep from drink and exhaustion on a train that was locking its doors for the night. I was awakened by a thunderous knocking on the windows by a crowd of concerned New Yorkers who had a greater concern for my welfare than I clearly had. Falling asleep in the subway in 1981 was not always wise.

I was on the subway most nights. In the morning there’d be news-reports of stabbings, muggings, gun crime on stations I’d blithely passed through - not always asleep. And yet I saw nothing. Statistics are fairly meaningless until one hits you.

On Saturday, September 5th I was still at the stage of making little hand-maps with written instructions on where to change and relevant platforms. I’d discovered that to reach The John Barleycorn and other Irish pubs, I took the IRT to Queensborough Plaza and change to Lexington; by now the puzzle was beginning to make sense and confidence ballooned.

That afternoon I bought my customary token at 74 St. Jackson Heights. As I made my way to the turnstile a young Jamaican appeared from the shadows, pleaded poverty in beguiling patois and suggested, quite convincingly, I thought, that two could as easily slip through the turnstile on the one token.

We’d barely made it through when an armed cop appeared from the shadows. (How many people are there in those shadows? Probably thousands.) Just over a week in New York and I was to be done for malfeasance. He ignored the Jamaican completely. In his eyes he was clearly damned – which, because I am stupid, offended my sense of fair-play. Instead the cop established my status in the USA.

Naively I began defending my partner-in-crime even as the policeman was trying to save my bacon by dumping the blame on the boy without a token. Almost too late, I realised I didn’t really want this to go any further and fell into line: I was, essentially, the innocent dupe, but then those who know me knew that all along.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Alone in New York

The creak and rumble of an elevator descending, voices growing more faint, the clatter and clang as it hit ground floor. Then silence.

I was alone in New York, sole occupant of a dimly lit and luxurious apartment. I stood there, excited and scared. Tomorrow would be the real thing; and the day after that, the day after that…

Days before we’d driven from Washington, and I’d experienced the powerful magic of the New York skyline seen for the first time. Ron pulled to a halt. Aladdin’s lamp broke the horizon: the iconic pattern in sun-baked beige and grey and black, squeezed between a pale blue sky and the darker glitter of the Hudson. I located the Twin Towers.

Then began a stately crawl, weaving from free-way to intersection; traffic lights on every junction reducing us, if not to walking pace, then at least to a well mannered jog. I drank it all in: the great green and white signs advertising exotic names like…Triborough

Communal gardens - and someone else cuts the grass.

A thousand cop shows flashed through my mind. I thought I saw Kojak strolling down Roosevelt. Then at last we reached home, Ron, Annette and Erica’s. Mine for a year. 76th Street, Jackson Heights.

Ron grumbled about the parking,but again I found myself in awe as a great Boeing 747 glided silently down, as if it too, was looking for parking. Annette saw me staring and smiled. “La Guardia’s just a mile or two away,” she said.

The apartment was on the fifth floor, accessed by an old fashioned elevator that opened directly into their main room. The elevator, we call them lifts, was a classic combination of metal and walnut paneling, and had a musty, woody smell. It smelt claustrophobic, as though I was breathing human odour collected over years.
I stared at the elevator a moment or two longer, knowing there was no escape that way for me. A good night’s sleep would have to do instead.

Ron and Annette’s bedroom made going to bed worthwhile: polished wood floors, dark blue walls and a four poster bed. Outside traffic hummed, sirens screamed. I put my head on the pillow, recollected all that had happened since hitting New York:

World Trade Centre, Rockefeller Centre, St. Patricks; I’d been to parties where I’d met Annette’s friends, and invited by one of them, Judy, to another party; met Ron’s family, and his sister gave me a mug, which I kept for many years until it was stolen. (Who’d steal a bloody mug?) I’d seen St Agnes for the first time, shared tea and Danish pastries with its Principal, Kathleen Waters, and shown round the school by Kevin Daley, professional, friendly, incandescent with energy. So far so good. Keep believing that. It works like a dream until you hit the ground.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Sitting on an old man's lap

I stared down at a mountain of ground, raw beef. It was the size of the great pyramid of Cheops, the colour of Petra. Shaven-headed priests sauntered in between colonnades of flesh, and Ron was expecting me to eat it. We were in an Ethiopian restaurant somewhere in Georgetown. A change from fried chicken at least.

The day had begun with a huge breakfast, followed by an exhaustive tour of Washington. At Arlington I was impressed by soldiers with ruthless haircuts, snapping to attention like razor-sharp robots, and at Arlington I saw a man cry over the grave of Bobby Kennedy. This was the sixteenth of August.

On the Seventeenth, the day was devoted to long and serious meetings, so serious I couldn’t remember a thing the following day. Washington, however, its white, austere buildings, sweeping green lawns, and bold blue sky, I remember very well, along with its intense and sticky heat. But in terms of statuary, one above all beats everything else. Jefferson and Lincoln looked cold and dead: Einstein on the other hand looked warm and alive. I loved the chocolate flake and ooze effect, the way his face changed from different angles, and how children sat on him and appeared at home as though on their granddad’s lap.

No time to wonder. Tomorrow New York.