Memories

New York City and Old Greenwich Connecticut 19 May 1999

[Continued from yesterday’s reminiscences about my first trip to New York City]

After a quiet Tuesday, Wednesday 19 May 1999 was busier and more memorable. We woke before 9am for the first time since the previous Saturday, and breakfasted, as usual, at the Gourmet Café. We were splitting up for the day. My travelling companions were taking a tour of Harlem and the Bronx. I planned to spend time at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and visit a film-maker for tea at the Chelsea Hotel. I was also returning to the Garment District to collect another batch of customized baseball caps.

As a Londoner I am used to travelling to three or four different parts of the city in a day, using the most appropriate means of transport for each journey (bus, underground, cab or on foot). Unlike many Americans I will generally make any journey of up to six or eight blocks on foot, unless it’s raining. The rain kept away all day so I walked for much of the afternoon, between our Midtown Hotel, the Garment District, the Cathedral and Chelsea.

I spent an hour or more at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue and found it moving and beautiful, all that a cathedral in a busy city should be. There were statues of the saints Elizabeth Seton and John Neumann. I recalled that Neumann was the first US citizen to be canonized (though he was born outside the US) and Elizabeth Seton was the first native-born US citizen to be canonized. There was also an exhibition of relics from St Therese of Lisieux (“St Therese of the Smiling Face of Jesus”). All I knew of her came from a French movie from the 1980s, which I had seen at the Cannes Film Festival. I had also met its director, Alain Cavalier, briefly at the Cork Film Festival later that year. (I am pleased that those details were still somewhere in my memory, but I have checked the IMDB page for the movie just to make sure.)

The rest of the afternoon was spent with another film director I had met at the Cork Film Festival in the 1980s, Doris Chase. We had kept in touch and met up in London a few years later when she was making a film with Joan Plowright. Her story, as I remember it, was that she had been a painter in Seattle but had put her artistic career on hold after she got married and had children in the 1940s. Her husband contracted polio and she spent the next 20 years taking care of him and the children. When the children were grown up she divorced her husband and moved to New York to resume her work as an artist and sculptor, and started making short films. She was based at the Chelsea Hotel. We had herb tea in her room. (This was the first time that I had heard the American pronunciation of herb tea, with a silent “h”.) The hotel was on my list of things to see in New York. I would have visited it even without knowing anybody there but it was good to have an informal tour and to get more of a feel for the place. Inevitably a Bob Dylan line went through my head most of the time I was there: “Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writing Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for you”. (It’s from “Sara”, on the “Desire” album.) There were plaques outside the building commemorating other writers and artists who had stayed there, Arthur Miller, Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas. It was here too that Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen died, but there was no commemoration of that.

Around 5pm I returned to the same bar that we had visited the previous Sunday morning, to meet my travelling companions and to watch some football. The travelogue that we made from our trip (which I mentioned for the first time in yesterday’s piece) tells me that this was McCormack’s. The internet tells me that it was on Third Avenue, and closed in 2012. The game was Lazio v Real Mallorca, the last ever Cup-Winner’s Cup Final. Lazio won. We could hear the American commentators for this game. We had been unable to hear the commentary the previous Sunday. I heard the phrase “He’s all over him like a cheap suit” for the first time, to describe a defender’s close attention to an opposing player. We drank more Guinness, discussed our day and one of my colleagues celebrated: Lazio are his Italian team. Earlier that year, when we had travelled to Rome, we had caught a live game at the Olympic Stadium to see a rather drab draw between Lazio and Inter (my Italian team). My two travelling companions had spent the day in Harlem and the Bronx on an organized tour as planned. They travelled by minibus with a guide and took in The Apollo and a Gospel church.

We headed back to the hotel. I was heading upstate and on to Connecticut that evening and had planned to shower and change before leaving, but we’d stayed too long at McCormack’s and I had left it too late. I travelled in the clothes I had been wearing all day. They smelt of smoke, as our clothes did in those days if you spent any time in a bar.

I had arranged to spend the night in Old Greenwich Connecticut. An old school-friend was based up there with his wife and three young children. He worked for an investment bank and commuted down to Wall Street every weekday. I had hoped to arrive not smelling like a pub, but that’s how I arrived at Old Greenwich. I didn’t drink between 1987 and 1997 and hadn’t seen these friends for a few years, so they hadn’t seen me in this state for a long time. They seemed rather surprised. Before dinner I shaved, brushed my teeth and had a shower, in the most powerful power-shower I have ever encountered. It sobered me up. I emerged transformed. My friends seemed rather relieved.

We had an enjoyable dinner, with a glass or two of wine, and I was in bed before 11pm. The house and the surrounding area were not just quiet. They were silent. I slept like a baby.

The story continues here.

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