Boots (Aftermath) / The Modern Smile

Half-dreaming of her, you go shopping for boots, because that’s apparently what one does to prepare for winter in autumn. But, here’s the kicker: like a lunatic, you do it during rush hour. Assassinated on Broadway, found out by the crowds, you get excreted, spat out, and sweat your way to a cobbled street in SoHo that is old Europe, and seems to give room to breathe. Outside a bookshop, in a slow-pacing, half-dreamy cigarette, you catch the first line of an autumn stillness that is other places, your old loves of Northern Iberia (she, and she, among friends with the Basque mullet and radical wiles, wide brown eyes smiling at you over zingy cider, firewater and coffee), linked to here through leaf mulch and the smell of apples in the chill, wood-smoke air that, for a second, smells like the Picos de Europa, or the Pyrenees.

Coming into the bookshop, the buzzer goes off: “do you have a library book in there, sir? You need to watch for that.”

Begin to sweat. Go to the coffee counter for a decaf —“ice coffee?” (they never get the accent here) — “no. Normal drip coffee.”

“We can make you a decaf Americano for 2.75$?”

No. Cede. Sigh: “Ok.”

Coffee, drip. Expensive tip. Sit.

“Excuse me, sir? We have an event tonight. We just want to let our patrons know they’re welcome to stay but we need to start moving chairs in 20 minutes.”

Look at your watch. Ah. There’s time.

Someone different comes back 10 minutes later, and says exactly the same thing: “Excuse me, sir? We have an event tonight. We just want to let our patrons know they’re welcome to stay but we need to start moving chairs in 20 minutes.”

In this life that passes for modern, you cede in a hundred different little ways. You just: cede, (or go insane). Down to the poetry section for some peace. (Because, apart from the woman with the long red hair behind the counter checking her emails, there’s nobody there, apart from you and a hundred thin, sleeping volumes.) Fondling Pessoa’s identities, you’re still thinking about how they smiled at you without seeing you, even as they looked you right in the eye: the smile a polite weapon ticking as they tell you the rules; not quite telling you that there are new rules. Conveying, as they tell you, that you are mad for not understanding the rules, these days, the new unspoken rules.

You remember what the old, bearded poet said during an afternoon salon of cans of Danish beer in his house in Dublin one winter day (you shivered to yourself at the time when you heard him say it, but half-understand him now). “Sometimes the paranoia is justified,” he grimaced.

Oh, and one last thing: once the buzzer from Porlock went off, you lost the poem.

SoHo (Babies in Manhattan, and the Perfect Sandwich)

26th August 2010

Went south from Washington Square, and found myself in a semi-pedestrianised cobblestoned heaven / hell of chi-chi restaurants. (Ah, so this is SoHo…) One was all terrace, with lunch time fashion types sunning themselves; that is, if potential eyes could constitute a sun. But there were almost no rubber-neckers, because all potential witnesses were themselves studiously checking their digital communicative equipment, checking their make up, or talking to a friend who was doing the very same.

The café I’d been looking for, Olive’s, recommended in the NFT for its amazing sandwiches, had a queue going out the door. (How much of their lunch break did people spend queuing for the perfect sandwich? It reminded me of something a young Hispanic architect had told me at 6 a.m. while tailgating at Bryan and Laura’s truck under a raised section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, after their gig at Union Pool in Williamsburg. He said that when you were making good money, when you’d worked so hard to get to where you had, finally, arrived, you thought nothing of queuing for half an hour at the restaurant that served the best ramen, Kobé steak, the latest sushi, “because you deserved it.” Though it sounded a tad like the L’Oréal worldview, I knew what he meant.) Nearby, office girls sat on window ledges with their legs crossed, drinking plastic cups of iced coffee, checking their text messages so as to appear occupied, and not be seen vulnerably eating alone on such strange perches three feet off the ground. Sporty women, slim, forty-ish, went by with baby strollers like designer tanks. The sight of babies in Manhattan had a touch of the alien about it: of a customised humanity, cyborgised – not by technology, but by money: the feeding tubes of sheer liquidity it took to raise children in this environment.

Women passed behind mirrored shades, in black mini-skirts and polished black leather boots; bangles and necklaces jangled on their perfect, barely-moving breasts. They had severe Cleopatra fringes, like designer biker chicks without bikes, as if they’d just come back from shopping for an identity. Guys in check shorts, thick-rimmed prescription glasses, and de rigeur pork pie-esque hats stood around talking, like nerds who’d suddenly discovered they were hip. A blond, tanned, muscular dude in a white vest and jeans walked past the restaurant. He was handsome enough to be a Calvin Klein model (and probably was) but no one noticed him. No one was looking at, or watching, any one else.

I went to look for a café somewhere else. Who knows, maybe in a year’s time I’ll be queuing for the perfect sandwich, but not yet.