Monday, October 26, 2009

New York, New York

We observe family birthdays like composing a compressed symphony. There always has to be a theme – transition and captivating finale. How we arrived at this practice is still a bit of a mystery. Christmas encroaches then vanishes without much fanfare. Weddings are somewhere on the perimeter. October is big birthday month. Both Kristine and son Jesse rule the later part of the Libra cosmos.

Kristine was approaching sixty a number that can play havoc with the mind. For good measure she started reminding me at fifty-seven that sixty was only three steps ahead. It became a cause for impromptu comedy. I actually believed one morning I’d wake up and there would be an IV machine next to my lounge chair with a note – drip on!

I thought about what could be done to make this occasion memorable while keeping in mind failure could bring a medieval flogging. Rather than decide for myself I engaged my dear partner who without consternation blurted out – “I want to celebrate my birthday in New York - my home, my favorite place.”

How could one argue with that? It had been nearly twenty-nine years since I last set foot there. When I left they were still scribbling gang messages all over subway cars and robbing pedestrians.

I mentioned to Jesse about momma’s wish. Now, the next event came as a unexpected surprise.

Moments after our exchange two tickets aboard Porter Airlines arrive in the ‘in box’. That in itself was cause for celebration. Moment’s later accomodation at the Waldorf Astoria for three nights appears. At first I thought this was one of those Nigerian chain letters – you give me ten thousand dollars and I give you ten million bottle caps. As the supreme gesture began to enliven the room - tears of joy flowed like a endless crystal stream under a sunlit morning sky. The moment was grand.

Kristine made the plans – outlined our schedule. I fully trust this about her. Lincoln Center for Herman Leonard Exhibition, MOMA, Blue Note with Roberta Gambarini and Roy Hargrove – Central Park – and shopping. As soon as she mentioned shopping I understood this to be my chance for a nostalgic run through the Soho district – my home for two years in the late sixties.

If you haven’t flown Porter Airlines then you are missing one of the joys of flying away from Toronto. The small passenger plane is a delight. Unlike Air Canada there’s food awarded that tastes like someone actually prepared it with government regulations in mind.

We arrived at Newark International with little fanfare. The day was the same shade of dim gray as our surroundings. I scan the airport thinking of ways to make this a touch more appealing – like a bit of color. How about Chinese lanterns or gangland graffiti?

We decide to catch a train into Penn Station and cab it from there. A taxi ride is over $75 - train $15. That’s a better deal than a taxi ride from Davenport and Spadina to Queen’s Park in Toronto. One is a mere mile or so the other a small continent away.

The ride through New Jersey was everything I dreamt it to be. I thought I saw Tony Soprano whacking a guy near an excavation site. I just waved hoping New York wasn’t as drab and uneventful.

As soon as the train pulled into to Penn Station I could sense the energy level rise above nuclear. The jaunt through Penn terminal out onto 34th street was exhilarating. Everything was beating at an allegro tempo. I could sense my pulse rise in anticipation.

The drive to the Waldorf was a battle for road space and visual treats. A cab ride in Manhattan is more a drill than casual outing. Traffic flows without mishap largely due to the aggressive interplay between cabs. An open space is for the taking. You either capture or sit idle.

The Waldorf Astoria.

Luxury around our house is a movie, a measured amount of calm and two dogs near comatose.

As we enter the sumptuous surroundings the smell of steaming roast beef comes soaring by the nostrils. The aroma was almost too hard to resist until we were notified the brunch in the lobby could be purchased for a mere $100 a person. At that moment I began looking for the Tootsy Roll dispenser.

The Waldorf is all history and wealth. There’s a sweet fragrance throughout - a pleasant odor one can’t fully identify. In my mind it must be a combination of flowers, antiquated wood and carpet. I kept in mind Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Winston Churchill, the Kennedys, Haile Selassie and even the frightful Henry Kissinger had all stayed there.

All thoughts of the Best Western quickly vanished once our room key unhinged the door. The change of scenery certainly put us in the right frame of mind. Kristine found nirvana in the girlie room off the bathroom. I had no business there other than ‘right of passage’.

My youthful days in New York were never quite this luxurious. I lived in a two room renovated flat in the lower east side. At the time it was a delight compared to my neighbors. I would sit on the fire escape and watch the Latino couple directly across scream and slap each other around. The fights were a daily occurrence. I once called the cops after hearing the young woman plead for her life. Later the police told me the woman chided them in a profane laced dress down to butt out.

The New York in front of me showed no signs of its diminished past. The streets are cleaner than Toronto – in fact I felt as safe as I did forty years ago when I first set foot on Canadian soil.

Where did my old nemesis go? The insane guy who erected a life position top of a trash can between my apartment building and subway stop.

Everyday I’d make the journey to either a gig or rehearsal or movie and this horrific guttural sound would emanate from his perch. ‘Hey shithead, I’m going to kill you. You just wait and see.” I kept thinking about wait and see. When was this? Was there a specific date or time of day or night? After a few months of intimidation I learned of my tormentor’s posturing in a nearby bar.

The old men who watched this act instill fear in passerbies knew the man was mentally challenged but never let on. For them it was comic relief. “Hey boy, you scared of that fellow – he won’t do you any harm – that’s just him. He’s a retard,” says one of the ancient specimens glued to a pint. Then the room howled in unison. I wondered what happened to the menacing guy – did he now have season tickets for the Knicks?

The time spent at Lincoln Center honoring jazz photographer and icon Herman Leonard was definitely a high point. The faces in the many photographs are the prime faces of jazz. The splendor of the images attest to the remarkable skill Leonard achieved with a camera and a couple lights which he attributes to time spent with portrait master Yosef Karsh.

The event was not only a triumph for Leonard whose career didn’t receive much traction until he turned 69. At 90 the man is an eloquent speaker and as robust and fluid as any man thirty years younger.

The grand portraits reveal much of each jazz artist. They aren’t snaps on the fly. They are carefully considered images that bring something from the inner regions of the soul forward as well as a true understanding of light – much like the celebrated painters of old. Light illuminates!

From a social stance this was the place to be if you were a jazz photographer. John Abbott who has photographed over 250 CD covers was in attendance as well as Chuck Stewart - whose work appears in Leonard Feather’s Jazz Encyclopedia, Esquire Jazz Book, Downbeat, The New York Times, Life, Paris-Match, Carol Freidman – who in the 1990s was chief photographer and art director of Blue Note Records, sports photographer Neil Leifer famed for his captivating images of sports legends Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and derby winner Secretariat among others.

The night for Kristine was an explosive mix of social and artistic splendor. Birthdays aren’t generally this culturally enriching.

Now, for the New York trapped in memory.

I have long anticipated seeing my old neighborhoods - retracing a few of the endless walks that seem to linger until exhaustion. I could still envision the train rides from downtown to uptown across to Brooklyn - cold searing winds sweeping through each open subway door -the smell of urine – the fearsome thugs who stalked the unsuspecting.

Well, the moment I slipped on board at 51st Street heading to Bleecker Street I realized the city in decay was buried and a polished jewel has emerged in its place.

The riders were no different than the latte set at Starbucks in my neighborhood. Laptops were at full face and clothes creased to perfection. Nowhere to be found were the rambling inscriptions of urban warfare that once defaced every neutral space.

As I began my stroll along Bleecker I saw the change – I mean big change. The tenements that once housed impoverished immigrants were now commandeered by glistening youthful faces. My first impression? A person could get deported in the Soho district for being under thirty. These were gorgeous young people – handsome men and attractive women co-existing in a world of their own design. The longer the steps the more streets pass with much the same in common. Cafes, trendy shops , exquisite building makeovers – all part of a more vibrant youthful New York.

My walk down Bleecker sealed the past for me. The Bitter End was still in play. I stood for a moment and thought about the steamy air thick evening I lounged in front of the door sneaking a view and listen to a dreamy looking Joni Mitchell sing in that angelic voice. Joan Baez did this for me years prior but Joni was something refreshing and alluring. There were the nights Neil Diamond packed them in – the comics – the folk singers – the soul thumping Electric Flag – the jam sessions. I then I set my sights on the Café Wha – my first gig in the city.

I’d been thrown to the curb by the band I had arrived with as they quietly exited back to California. New York scared them shitless! I remember standing under an awning with a cool rain lighting the neon streets and the four of us thinking – what’s next? Under the same protective skin was a guy who played drums with a band called Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys. He was affable and gracious enough to direct us to the Café Wha in search of employment. This we did the following day.

We copped an afternoon audition and just as fast the band vanished. No word, no warning. I’m left stranded with my portable organ and truck full of jazz sides and clothes. Those items remained for a week or so at some guy’s residence courtesy a local street hustler.

I was now homeless with no compass.

I slept in a telephone both. I slept beneath the Four Winds Café now the Blue Note. I hung next door with Jesse the wino from Louisville, Kentucky who’d arrive each summer drunk and serve life according to Jesse’s limited rules then return home for rehab. Jesse loved the women and hated the tourist.

The basketball court at 3rdStreet and Avenue of the Americas still casts a spell over the area. The greats from Harlem and players from NY University and lesser known would test each other in combat late afternoons. Early on – guys like me would take a few blows from the domain managers and play a few hours of three on three.

One early morning while I was rising from my overnight sleep nightmare I was awoken with a takedown a few doors from the Café Wha. A gentleman began a quick sprint down McDougall with a few cameras in chase when suddenly police emerge from all sides and wrestle to the ground. The guy then begins screaming for them to get the hell off. Suddenly, a crew of ten or fifteen men catch up and yell at the cops – “that’s James Coburn – James Coburn you just threw to the ground. We’re making a movie here.” The police retreat and Coburn coolly brushes down his garment and offers a hand. They were doing just that – filming outside the Café Wha in a VW hippie bus and down the street- The film – The President’s Analyst.

As I was reminiscing a young woman approaches with a clipboard. “Would you sign my petition and donate to a worthy cause,” she begs. I hear her out. “Do you believe in equal rights for gays and do you believe in same sex marriage?” I tell her I’m from Toronto and we’re doing quite fine in those areas. Then she reminds me of the persecution going on in America against gays. I tell her to keep up the battle and that she will eventually prevail. Then I remind myself outside of this cultural oasis lies Rush Limbaugh’s America.

The rest of my walk does nothing to rekindle the aromas and edginess of my past. Everything smells lovely even the fuel. Where’s the two inch thick pizza cooking through an open window, the grimy dude with the oily cloth wiping car windows, the broken glass, the badly painted hooker, where’s Travis Bickle?

I never expected to relive the past in high definition so I’ll let history remain stowed away in grainy black and white. As for Kristine, she likes her New York just the way it is – inviting, exciting and youthful and above all – an hour’s flight away! Happy birthday babe!

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