Friday, December 17, 2004

Gig City

My next-to-last day in Vancouver was, as usual, rain-sodden and grey, but I realised that I had yet to visit one of the most famous attractions, Granville Island. so after some last minute errands, I climbed in my friend’s 4X4 and off we went.

Granville Island is off Downtown Vancouver and contains an arts community, with workshops, and a market, and lots of trendy cafes and bistros on the water. In the summer, it is thronged with people taking advantage of the (partly cloudy, partly) sunny weather, living the outdoor life, and is well worth going to. It was the location of the first microbrewery in Canada and so it seemed right to have some lunch and Granville Island ale at a bistro by a roaring fire and watch the boats bob up and down on the docks outside.

When you’ve been travelling, you do begin to notice lots of parallels and correspondences between similar places. Such as Granville Island in Vancouver and Darling Harbour in Sydney. Blink and you could (except for the weather, the currency, and the accent) be in either one, I feel…and it’s not just in the area of trendified waterfronts that one notices similarities

Afterward, I went to the University of British Columbia (UBC) Museum of Anthropology, which has a spectacular location overlooking the sea. It’s principally known for its collection of the art of West Coast Canadian Natives. And what a collection. The building is several stories high, I guess to accommodate the towering totem poles, magnificent structures festooned with multiple faces and figures. These appear to me to be very similar to some of the artifacts of the Maori art that I looked at in Auckland and elsewhere in New Zealand, especially the decorative poles erected at the entrance to Maori settlements. They do not, however, look at all like the aboriginal art that I’ve seen in Australia.

I stay there for the afternoon, then take a long bus ride back into town to get ready to go out in the evening. I’ve decided to go to The Cellar, a jazz place in West Broadway, run by jazz saxophonist Cory Weeds, who tonight is featuring Bill Weeds, who I guess is a relation, on guitar with a quartet. It’s a group of players that I haven’t heard before, and they’re excellent. The whole night winds up about 11-ish, perfect for me to catch one of the last buses down West Broadway and back to my hotel, the Sylvia, to pack and get ready to leave the next morning.

Which dawns blueskied and beautiful and clear, the best day of the week so far, and the day of my departure. Figures. My flight doesn’t leave until 14:15 that afternoon, so I do some last minute shoppng and checking e-mails in the morning, then leave plenty early for the flight to New York, which requires a 2 hour check-in.

Without realising it, this is a good decision, because when I get to the desk to check in at Vancouver, I’m not on the flight!!! I have been on this flight since the end of June, when I booked my ticket, and my name incredibly appears nowhere on the flight manifest. This despite reconfirming the flight 3 days before (which, of course, all the airlines say that you don’t have to do) with United…but this is a code-share with Air Canada, so it appears that the United and Air Canada computers are not connected in any way whatsoever. Still, I should be listed on the flight, reconfirmation or not…none of this fazes the check-in clerk, who says that while it’s unusual, it’s hardly completely unknown. In this age of the War on Terrorism, is it really allowable to have a ticket for a flight on which you are not listed??? I guess so. In addition, her machine refuses to read my new Canadian machine-readable passport, and I begin to worry…

Bizarrely, in Canada, flying to the U.S. involves immediately going through U.S. Customs, who operate from Canadian soil, and even have a massive “Welcome to the United States” sign above their heads. You haul your bags through from check-in and are then cross-questioned by a strange Customs officer. This breed seem to aim for a combination of the breezy, friendly, menacing, and unpredictable, which sounds as if it might be deliberate. He is interested in what I am doing and where I have been, and asks what I do for a living. “I’m unemployed,” I say, which then seems to cause all sorts of problems. “So, whaddya gonna do, panhandle on the streets of New York???” I explain, patiently, about being losing my job, and being given a redundancy payment in compensation. He puzzles over the word ‘redundant’, then breaks out into a broad grin. Damn, I think, what the hell is he going to do next??? Instead, he shakes my hand, “wow, I really admire you, you’re doing exactly what I wanna do. I have 17 months to go, and I just wanna finish this job, then do some travelling. Y’know what? You wanna do it before you get older. You don’t wanna leave it too late – you never know what might happen. That’s fantastic!”

He’s quite mad. I then chat for a few minutes with My New Friend about where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. He seems immensely impressed, and keeps saying about how much he admires me and envies me. It seems that I’ve passed some kind of test, as he says bon voyage and wishes me good luck and godspeed!!!

Unfortunately, I don’t have him with me for protection when I get to the bag drop. I am selected for a 10 minute random check, which entails a rigorous search through my bags by two firm but friendly ladies who swab my bag for drugs, semtex, etc. On to the conveyor belt with the bags – with no small amount of relief – and go to the lounge to relax before the flight.

The only good thing about all of this is that with the formalities tackled before you leave Canada, the flight is essentially now treated as a domestic flight, so my arrival at JFK is completely free of any bureaucracy. After a 40 minute cab ride, I’m at my friends’ place in Manhattan.

I am staying with an old friend of mine from the UK who has worked in New York City for a long time now, and whose latest home I have yet to visit. I think it’s on reclaimed land around Battery Park, land excavated from Manhattan when the World Trade Center was built, but it turns out to be a later development north of there, on River Terrace at the end of Chambers Street, still part of Battery Park City. He has magnificent panoramic views of midtown Manhattan and the Hudson River to the north and west, and downtown Manhattan to the east, only missing out on the southwest and South (which is New Jersey, Staten Island, and the World Trade Center building site, so not a great loss at this time). You can see some of the pictures from this view by clicking here.

This stopover is something different for me on this trip, a destination that I know fairly well. All others on this trip I have never visited before, with the brief exceptions of Hong Kong and Vancouver; whereas I have probably been to New York about 14 or 15 times – first in 1969, last in April 2001, just before the dreadful terrorist attacks in September. It never loses its capacity to amaze, fascinate, and enthrall. Partly this is down to an endless ability to reinvent and reinvigorate itself.

The result is that unlike elsewhere, where travellers commonly recommend places to eat or drink to those who follow in their footsteps, in the case of New York this will likely be ineffective, as things will have completely changed by the time someone else visits. In 3 years, I have noticed a lot of changes, but perhaps I am noticing changes this time by comparison with earlier visits – a bar here, a tea shop there, and wasn’t there a nice restaurant where we ate a couple of times in the, er, mid-90s, I guess??? Of course, the terrorist incident at the World Trade Center site was the biggest change of all – and, while it’s left a mark on the city and those in and around it, it’s also been absorbed by the city. I don’t visit the site myself, which is now a building site with very little to see.

Instead, I spend Sunday and Monday mooching around the Upper West Side, Chelsea, 5th Avenue, midtown, Greenwich Village, with no fixed agenda, and then decide to focus my activity by purchasing a new guide and finding out about what’s new to see and do. I manage to squeeze in my first shopping visit of the week, for some secondhand jazz CDs in the Village, and in the evening my mate and I hit some strange place next to CBGBs in the Bowery to listen to George Colligan’s Mad Science. It turns out to be his organ trio which, given his increasing reputation as a jazz pianist, is very ordinary.

On Monday, I visit one of the iconic Christmas places in New York City at Christmas, Rockefeller Center, nicknamed Rock Center by the locals, where every year a tall, imposing Christmas tree is erected above the skating rink in the centre of the complex, in Rockefeller Plaza. I go back on Tuesday and have a Rock Center tour, which I have never done before, and look at the 1930s artwork that was inspired by the theme “the progress of mankind”, much of it art deco in style. It’s a great tour and highly recommended if you want to get a flavour for the city after the Wall Street crash, when Rock Center and the even more famous Empire State Building expressed the unflagging optimism that was the antidote to the Depression years.

The rest of the week so far has mainly consisted of visiting things I’ve not visited before, meeting people, and going to jazz gigs. The one exception has been the New York Public Library, one of my favourite buildings in New York for its magnificence, the breadth of its activities, and the frequent and excellent exhibitions that it features. I also visited the Museum of Modern Art, which only re-opened last month after a much-needed facelift. The main difference that I noticed is that the architects have let more light from the city into the homes of all those wonderful artworks, and have with their large plates of glass made the city as much a part of the Modern Art as the many Picassos and Matisses on the walls. Given that my Rock Center tour guide had pointed out the juxtaposition of so many different architectures in a small space of 5th Avenue – Art Deco to Gothic to International styles – this seemed highly appropriate.

I manage to meet a former flatmate of mine and his friend for Sunday brunch at the Empire Diner on 10th Avenue – they happen to be in the city from Florida for the weekend – and also hook up with a couple that I met when in Delhi to hear about their trip, which brings a nice symmetry to my own to be thinking about India again. And, of course, I indulge in jazz, for which New York City is probably the world capital. If I wanted to, I could easily be out every night at two or three different gigs a night, such is the amount and quality of music on offer. It’s gig city!!! However, this way lies madness and an exceedingly sore head, and I’m already having enough trouble coping with the 12 time zones that I’ve just flown through in 3 weeks, so I restrict myself (!) to being at gigs 5 nights, 3 big bands (Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Mingus Big Band, Jason Lindner Big Band), and two small groups (Colligan and Peter Bernstein’s Quartet, with Brad Mehldau on piano and Bill Stewart on drums). I take some hard decisions – and after the Lindner gig, which was just excellent, I wander outside other clubs such as Sweet Rhythm and the Village Vanguard and muse about whether I should indulge in another set.

The other jazz-related thing that I do is visit the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, newly opened last year. I take the 7 out to Corona Park/103rd Street in Queens and emerge from the subway. It looks as if I have been transported to a new planet where people speak only Spanish!!! There is hardly an English word in sight. I stop at a lunch counter for a Western sandwich and a coffee, not really sure if my Spanish is up to the Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican cuisines on offer.

The house is a modest brick one in a street of modest clapboard homes about 15 minutes from the subway along some icy pavements – and my warm weather wardrobe will not survive another few degrees drop in temperature. Apparently when Louis bricked up the house, he offered to do it for his neighbours at the same time!!! The house is just as Louis and Lucille left it, and as the sole visitor I am taken around on a personal tour by Shirley and Monique, who are very informative and friendly, and we talk about Satchmo and his significance and importance. It’s a wonderful tour and delightfully off the beaten track of Manhattan.

My return looms on the weekend horizon. I return on Saturday at 19:00, meaning leaving Manhattan probably about 15:00 for the airport, and as the date and time approach I have mixed feelings about the end of my trip. However, there is no time to convey these feelings this week – nor to reflect back on the last 5 months – so if you have read this far, please check back next Friday for my final despatch where I will reflect back on things – a kind of coda to the music of my travels…


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Will miss your blogs. Can't wait
for your next symphony of travel.
Au revoir

December 17, 2004 9:03 PM  

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