Friday, August 29, 2008

Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen!

I spend a good deal of my time en route - five days a week to and from work, as well as the various expeditions in the evenings and on weekends. On days when I drag myself out of bed for yoga before work at 7:30, I'll end up on two downtown 1 trains in two hours. At least an hour every day is spent beneath the gridded earth, speeding down tunnels and finding ways to avoid physical or visual contact with my fellow passengers.

Sometimes I read, sometimes I people-watch, sometimes I zone out. And sometimes, if I'm lucky, I'm entertained by the myriad performers who treat the MTA as their stage.

They're everywhere - on the platforms, in the trains, in the passageways between the 1 and the F. And what is wonderful is that there are just so many kinds and varieties, so many ideas of how to make money, ranging from the quite talented to the truly bizarre.

There are the standard four part gospel singers, who get onto a specific car with a call "Hello Ladies and Gentlemen! We're here to sing you an inspirational song. God Bless You All!" and in they start with "Mother Mary Don't You Weep No More" or "The Gospel Train is Coming". Yesterday morning, four men got on with a call of "Good Morning!" and I thought they might get assaulted by the uncaffeinated lot, but usually they are well received and frequently quite good. They're friendly and open and sometimes even get applause.

Then there are the one-man mo-town singers, who have no money and very little hope, but would prefer to get on a subway car and sing for money rather than just beg. My brother saw the same guy every day one summer, who would get on with the same speech and then start singing/speaking "My Girl".

Of course, there are the acrobats, who get onto emptier subway cars and dance or flip their way into passing the hat. Their less courageous counterparts clear out big sections in Grand Central and Times Square to perform their high showman hip hop break dancing - these involve a lot of calls to the crowd and panning to the audience, with loud music from a boom box and four or five guys in great shape playing to the women.

Then there is the man who plays the Chinese flute/guitar instrument down on the 1 platform at Times Square. He's been there forever, playing strange songs in minor keys while I wait for my uptown train. He was recently usurped, however, by some woman with a portable karaoke machine who sings pop star diva songs into a microphone over piped in music.

Of course there are a variety of standards, like the theme from The Godfather played on the violin, which crops up everywhere in anonymous tones which echo around the station. Recently I've heard multiple renditions of "Jesu, Lord of Man's Desiring" which seems like an odd choice, but hey whatever.

And then there are the truly weird - like the guy on the 7 train who played such classics as the Pink Panther theme song and "Hava Nagilah" on a hand-held keyboard with a tube that he had to blow into in order to play. Or the guy playing classical flute with his eyes closed while the express train tried to throw him off balance. Or my friends and I singing "Let's Open Up a Restaurant in Santa Fe" while dancing through the train one drunken night.

What is kind of astonishing is that many of these people are actually musicians. Many of them have real talent, and possibly a degree from Juilliard, or at least enough to make them worth paying attention to. There were street performers in the BART station in San Francisco, but with the exception of the guy who sang "Cocaine" and really sounded like Johnny Cash, they were crazy and terrible - like the guy I saw playing the three string, out of tune violin. I say playing, but what I really mean is attacking it with his bow. Or the guy who mumbled/sang/threatened as anybody walked past. Most of the street artists here are better than the people I saw at an open mike in SF. After all, it must be incredibly difficult to get up in front of a group of angry communting strangers at all, let alone perform, that the standard, as with so many things here, is incredibly high.

I'm grateful to them - I usually don't have any money to give, but I try at least to pay attention.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Taste Of San Francisco

I've found my San Francisco coffee shop.

I actually found it awhile ago, but I wanted to wait until I was sitting in it, with my computer and a cup of coffee, to actually write about it. It just felt fitting - just like old times.

So here I am! Cup of coffee, listening to the speakers play folk music quietly, little cafe table supporting my amateur writing, little wrou
ght iron chair supporting my body. I love this place.

The first time I came here, I almost cried. During work that day, I had decided to go explore later that evening
(after all, responsibility and boundaries do not impede adventure), and so had yelped "coffee shop" and "west village" and come up with a little place called Grounded on Jane Street. So I figured, what the hell, why not.

The moment I walked in, I knew I had found my spot. True, it is 75 blocks from my apartment, and probably about 20 from my work, but Uptown beggars cannot be choosers, and I am lucky enough to have stumbled in here one hot July evening. I stood on the red concrete floor and stared in wonder at the multicolored chalk on the hanging blackboards, and the couches and people on their laptops for the free wifi and the vegan cookies and thought, oh my god I'm back in San Francisco.

I walked up to the counter and asked for coffee and then, not being able to help myself

Lil: "This place is amazing."
Guy: "Oh. Thanks!"
Lil: "It reminds me of San Francisco."
Guy: "Yeah, I guess that was kind of the vibe we were going for."
Lil: "I think I'm going to cry."
Guy: ...

I restrained myself, but just barely. I really did feel euphoric. I sat down to read on the red velvet couch and realized my search had come to an end. Sure, there would be more coffee shops, sure I would continue to explore, but now I had a coffee home base.

And here I am again. And again. My buddy the barista remembers me - that practically makes me a regular. Today I learned the other barista's name and pretty soon I'll be coming in with a "hey!" and so I have found my little piece of SF haven in New York's kickin' C
helsea neighborhood.

I think that's pretty cool.

But I Still Love You, New York

It's amazing how New York can get you down and make you crazy. It's a high maintenance city, always in your face, never leaving you any time for yourself. If San Francisco is your hippie lover, NYC is your stereotypical fishwife. Too haughty to love you, but too self obsessed to let you alone.

It is surprisingly easy, when you live in a dynamic city, to find your personality slowly shifting. I have found, in the last couple of months, myself fighting to keep my free flowing energy that I developed in the city of flowers. I am becoming aggressive, self involved, difficult. In my interactions with friends and lovers, I demand constant attention - I make noise, I invade privacy, I need constant affirmation and activity. It's distracting - I'm distracting - and even my sleep is fitful and active; invaded by light and sound, how could I sleep when there's still so much to do? Get up! Get up!

I find this frustrating. Endlessly, pointlessly frustrating. And the most horrifying part is that still the city won't let me alone. It is the only place I know where you can be surrounded by people and still find yourself hopelessly alone. There's no space to breath and yet no one to turn to. And the judgment, everywhere, from without and within, which comes along with living around people who won't take anything but the best from themselves or anyone else. It can be overwhelming and overstimulating and ultimately terrifying as you stare into the abyss of what you are and wonder "when will I ever be enough?"

Privacy is a precious commodity here. So is real contact. For every stranger I share a moment with, I thank my lucky stars. For every horn that breaks my concentration, I feel like screaming. Fucking horns. Fucking people. Leave me alone! Love me!

And so I become New York.

This little rant, me spewing my New York bile, does not, of course, take into account all the wonderful things that come along with being New York. Like a backbone, a spine. Like the ability to stand up and say "Enough with this passive aggressive bullshit, I don't deserve to be treated this way!" Like the honesty that comes with high maintenance, and the loyalty and the clarity. Like the constant reminder that I have to be the best and most important being in my own life, even when I don't live up to my own expectations, and if I have to yell my way into that spot, then so be it.

So be it. And so it bes. Every noisy second of it.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

I Eat Hipsters For Breakfast

I wish.

Living on the Upper West, I'm spared my hipster frustration. After Vassar, it is so bizarre to pass whole days, even weeks, without even setting eyes on a single pair of out-sized sun glasses, or one chunky necklace. In San Francisco, I lived in hipster-central (although secretly I believe that Mission hipsters really are much cooler than I am, and that their irony is much sharper but not as cruel as North Eastern hipsters - they are still hipsters none the less); so to find myself, after so ma
ny years, hipster-less is quite a shock and an odd relief.

(Of course, now my days are filled with obnoxious, entitled yuppies. I kind of miss the irony.)

Yesterday, however, I ventured into Williamsburg, aka hipsterdom's ground zero. It would have
been one thing if all I had done was go to see the show which was the ultimate intention - if I'd gotten off the L at Bedford and speeded my way to the space, watched the show, and then scurried back to Manhattan. But my friend Jacob and I brought food and wine and had a picnic in McCarren Park.

I'm not going to lie - Williamsburg really is interesting. It reminds me of a grittier New York version of the Mission. There are little restaurants and diners, interesting bars, and a multitud
e of thrift stores. The buildings are all short, with long staircases, and the Williamsburg natives sit in lawn chairs out on the sidewalk, chatting to their neighbors and watching the youth stroll by. It feels like a neighborhood, it feels like a place where everyone knows each other. And you don't have to dodge baby strollers everywhere you go.

I was kind of awed by it all, as I strolled down Bedford Avenue. I kept wishing my neighborhood was more of a neighborhood - that I could afford to go to my local bars (that my local bars were even appealing). I kept wishing that my neighborhood had more people like me in it, and therefore had more stuff that I might like, more of a reason to hang out up there.

I finally arrived at the park, and spread my blanket out near a baseball game to read i
n the shade. It was absolutely beautiful (it has been remarkably cool for August, and therefore the city hasn't been rotting the way it usually does - one positive of global climate change), and there were people all over the park, eating and drinking and hanging out. The grass was not manicured like in Central Park, and there were Corona bottle caps everywhere, but I didn't really mind. When Jacob arrived, we ate picnic fare (cheese, bread, olives), and drank red wine out of little yogurt containers that I'd brought (which I thought was simultaneously cool and resourceful of me). It was so chill. Everyone was just there, there were no police patrolling with huge dogs (that will be a later post, believe you me), just people hanging out. we watched a group of little boys have a pow wow in Spanish and then execute their plan for the next twenty minutes. We watched a man doing something potentially sexual to the bench near us. We watched the game. We ate and chatted. It was lovely.

And as we left to go to the show, pot smoke wafted towards us from somewhere across the field.