make-believe.org

Boston or bust

It was Palm Sunday, so I went to church.

Not even dour Catholicism could stop the people of the Church of Saint Charles Borromeo from rejoicing — that very Christian word actually has some validity in the congregations of Harlem. The music, while not the southern soulful gospel of the Baptist churches, was upbeat and inspiriting, sung by a choir of young black girls and boys. People snapped their fingers to the rhythm and swung from side to side as they joined the choir. At the end of each song people applauded, which is something I find I always have to refrain from doing in Catholic mass. The sermon, on the likeness of the holy week (you know, Easter) to post-Christmas sales, was delivered by a giant of a man with a booming voice and a piercing gaze, who cracked jokes to general laughter and then turned them into stern, no-laughing-matter expositions on the woeful state of the modern soul, which expects mercy and gives none.

I gave them twenty dollars.

There was Central Park and nibbling on knishes and blintzes from Zabars, and then the sales of Soho, where fulfilling the prophecy of the pastor I scored a bargain on a raincoat. I have now navigated so much of the island that I can confidently direct tourists when they ask me. It seems like 30% of Manhattan's daily occupants are foreigners or interstaters, which is my theory on why New York is so extraordinarily narcissistic. I mean it: this city loves itself, considers little but itself, dreams of itself. You sit eavesdropping at the bar or a cafe table, and New Yorkers just talk and talk and talk about the city: its shape, its history, its politics, its best features. Every other shopfront has "NYC" (or sometimes "Brooklyn") in its business name. Those are brands too — and just because your t-shirt or cap is emblazoned with them doesn't mean you're a naive visitor. But because so many people here are, and because like me they ask a lot of stupid questions, the city — which seems to me one of the most extroverted in the world — is constantly introspecting.

I like that.

I had to get some dinner before an early rise to catch my bus to Boston (it left downtown at 7am), so I walked to John's Pizzeria on Bleecker St. The queue was twenty people deep, and I hate queues, so I kept walking, down south of Houston to the Ludlow district, to a bakery that doubles as a bar and music venue, called Cake Shop. I grabbed a croissant and headed downstairs to see if a band was playing. It was empty, and they were playing Archers of Loaf (Vee Vee, always my favourite), so I was sold. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer and tried to explain to the bartender what was so good about the Loafers. She was remarkably patient. A guy called Luke Wesley eventually wandered in and played a short set of wistful piano pop songs, then took up a stool at the bar. We talked a lot of shit about New York (versus Melbourne, versus San Francisco, versus Lima, Ohio) while he knocked back glass after brimful glass of brown liquor. I asked him what he was drinking in those giant tumblers, and he said "Scotch, with an ice cube."

I don't know if I ever saw an ice cube, but I saw at least nine of those tumblers.

I may have been, at this point, in my parochial way, cheerfully complaining about the flatness of the draft beer. The bartender (kind as well as patient) shouted me bottles of Grolsch, and other folks at the bar joined in the conversation. I yakked and jabbered and nodded and loudly agreed with a lot of assertions from a number of interlocuters through the next two bands. I hadn't hardly spoken for two days, and though I don't normally like talking, in this foreign land I am stupidly effusive. Folks kept buying me drinks. I've loved the idea of this city for years, but last night I loved its inhabitants, at least the random sample around the bar at Cake Shop. At 2am I was still there, gabbing away to the only person left in the room, the bartender again, who (gracious as well as kind and patient) hailed a cab and gave the driver directions to my hotel.

At about quarter to 3, back at the Chelsea, I may have thrown up.

Anyway, I missed my bus to Boston. That's alright. St Paddy's day was a bright blue day in New York, and following the parade of cheerleaders and men in tartan skirts up town, the sun burned away the worst of my hangover. I think I looked rather green though.

Church of Saint Charles Borromeo.

Muji, vendor of my new raincoat.

Cake Shop

John's Pizzeria

Zabar's Deli

Joseph | 18 Mar 2008

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