Late May, 2010. It was my first day in New York, as an adult.
28 years before, in 1983, when I was 10, we’d driven into the flame-thrower graffiti dive-bomber madness on the Merritt Parkway from middle class Connecticut for St Patrick’s Day, and various other occasions. New York was the equivalent of a homeless / stoned man with a beard wandering around with his shirt off, in a pair of wrecked leather trousers, showing the crack of his ass. In fact, that was what I saw when we went to the Statue of Liberty: a stoned man with a beard, stumbling, ahead of us, with his shirt off, in a pair of wrecked leather trousers, showing his ass crack. That, and driving through the South Bronx, literal blocks of devastation, and homeless Vietnam veterans careering at the car at stop lights in wheelchair races, injecting their stumps with all sorts of shit, all the windows on automatic, going up, and the door locks going down. Down, baby, down. Going-DOWN. Oh. Yeah. Get it DOWN. Get to Connecticut. Get to Revolutionary Road. Love to get out and party with y’all. But, Get down.
So, when I was “back” – which was not really back at all, it was another place, it was more like arriving for the first time – I stayed in an area of Brooklyn called Bushwick, which in the ’80s was, in fact, a right kip. A travel book from my childhood reported seeing Christian and Muslim black dudes with weapons standing guard over family properties to protect them from squatters, Goths and vandals. Bushwick in 2010 was a different kettle of fish. Or, rather, “kats”. White cats. (Who, in fact, could have been transported from the nodding, bongo-playing, polo-necked late Beatnik 1950s.)
Bushwick. Mid-May. The already humidity of the coming summer, I remember from childhood in Connecticut: the sea between us and Long Island, blessed breezes in the humidity of thumb-sized mosquitoes. But in “the city”: such space, all the streets of closed and semi-open warehouses with Latino guys unloading and loading unspecified consignments for unspecified owners, of unspecified legality, the gritty sand-coloured walls and streets, everything seemed to have that colour, and that humid, beautiful, rotting-vegetation-inhalation-in-your-lungs smell; in your pores, in your taste. The smell of America. The smell of – Promise. The smell of a bizarre nourishment that was also a beautiful decadence. Like an olfactory self-portrait. To me, at least.
Everything had that empty, Boar’s Head provisioners’ industrial space, as black and red trucks with the anarchist colours pulled up, with the Boar’s Head logo, as Dominican people barbecued in the street, strutting, cutting shapes just for themselves, populating a corner of exile, barbecuing plantains, in cut-off shorts, like black Cubans in beautiful, decrepit Havana.
In all of this surreal space and industrial emptiness, a freak appears, walks out through it, in it. A man, a white adult male, bearded, 40 years old, in shorts, shitty runners and 80s tube socks, passes me skateboarding, unconcerned, like a surfer longboarding. What a dweeb. What a total cool fiend. A woman with tattooed shins comes next. They’re all coming from the subway, like a underground bizarre tribe that has escaped some futuristic bombing, and is now emerging from the Blitz (“A’right, guvnor?”), a tribe of displaced whitey Maoris. “Hey! I belong to you too, guys!” I shout, running after them, but they keep walking. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe I’m not cool enough for them?
“Fucking New York is insane,” Scott said, when I told him about this jet lagged first day, about how there was a smell of such promise in the air, even through the tattooed white people wearing black African earrings that promoted areas of aural circular empty space who were self-involved, never looking my way the three hours I sat there in the bar / cafe, eating a wonderful Mexican breakfast at 12 in the afternoon and drinking 4 slow pints of Brooklyn Lager waiting for my hostel to let me check in after an all-night flight from Buenos Aires, my eyes bugging out, as if I had metal contact lenses with sharp edges, like miniature circular saws. Not like Dublin, this, or even the chaotic love of Buenos Aires. Not like Madrid, Paris, Marseilles, Fez, not like The ‘Dam, or Prague, Brussels: in all of those places where people looked at you because you were part of the landscape.
Here, I realised later, people either didn’t see you, even though you were there, or saw you with annoyance, or saw you because you broke the code of not seeing, because you were too human and thus not cool enough.
(I thought, “do I want to be here? Have I made a mistake? I hope all NYC isn’t like this bloody Bushwick place, of nodding tattooed and bearded freaks (“of course, I have a beard, but within proportion! Mine isn’t like some white Taliban’s adornment.”) who all seem stoned, or stoned sober, like nodding, self-regarding Basilisks.”)
Bushwick. Where a man wearing powder, in a dress and a Cleopatra fringe served me my take-out morning coffee. He didn’t seem transgender; or, maybe was on that continuum. He didn’t seem transsexual, or ‘vestite. He was just there – serving coffee. In a dress. After that first great night watching Psychic Paramount, standing in front of the speakers with beautiful B. and beautiful Laura, sipping a nip of whisk from an illegal hip flask, taking a good old hit, the Paramount’s music suddenly going symphonic, no singer, just a bass guitar, drums and guitar, like an endless unwinding road of progressively extending sound, the next morning hungover, jet lagged, over stimulated and exhausted, like someone on medication going in two opposing directions, I thought: “Jesus. Great. Do your thing, lady-man, Lady Gag. All I wanted was a coffee.” It was as if New York was saying, “smell my finger. Go on. I dare you.”
P.S. Now I know, it isn’t only Bushwick. No matter the style, the vibe, midtown to Brooklyn to Soho, NYC, as Scott has said, “is extremely presentational.” From the 1000$ suit to the tattered hoodies of the hipsters, New York is saying, “hey, smell my finger. Go on. I dare you. And, by the way, listen to me as I rant on my phone at top volume as I pass you at top speed.” It’s mass neurosis. Today, eating chicken noodle soup, with shreds of real nourishing chicken at the counter of the Hollywood Diner on 16th and 6th ave, the woman sitting next to me started talking to herself. The middle-aged expert waiter from Mexico behind the counter smiled at me, and we both enjoyed a good bitch: “they’re all insane. Se les ha cruzado un cable, tio. A cable has got crossed in the brain. No, it’s not like this in Ireland. It’s not like this in Mexico.” Ah, to bitch, sitting facing good company. Funny, it’s true: the barmen, the waiters, the diner guys become part of it. Next time I’ll ask his name.
Even still, I have to admit, I fondly remember Bushwick.