Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Do you doubt the shade of vanilla? / Cos I'll play Elvis and you play Priscilla


I’ve been to New York quite a few times over the past decades, but I’d never (JFK aside), been to Queens before. I’ve even found myself in Staten Island some years back (don’t ask), but never in Queens, so when Harry suggested we meet him in a bar called Leery’s, I happily said OK. It’s easy, he said…. it’s one stop from Grand Central at Vernon-Jackson Ave on the 7 Train, and the bar is just outside the exit.

Except the station was closed. And of course they didn’t tell us until we got on the train, where a garbled bit of photocopied paper taped to a wall said ‘Changes to 7 Train’. They took us instead to 59th Street where we were transferred to Queensboro Plaza on the V Train, where, we managed to work out, we were to be transferred to a bus back to Vernon-Jackson.

The girl next to us on the bus asked us where it was going, before we got to Jackson Ave and were ejected from the bus into the ice, fortuitously right outside the bar, which was a happy ending as neither Brigid or I had fancied wandering lost around Queens in the dark.

I’ve seen Goodfellas.

A couple of Stellas and then to an Italian place which Harry swore was mob owned. The host was called Vito, so I guess it wasn’t out of the question, but as much as I waited for some guy to rush in, grab a gun taped in the john, and waste the big fat be-suited Chianti drinking guy at the next table with a busty big haired girl half his age, it didn’t happen. Damn those stereotypes.

After dinner, all Sicilian sauces and uber-tomato heavy, we were given a lift in a very big black Chevy with blacked out windows, and some guy with too much oil in his hair, across the bridge into Brooklyn and dropped outside a bar in Williamsburg. A local bar, with a chubby girl spinning post punk and indie noise rather well, and Belgian beers on tap. Down the dead end of Manhattan Ave before you get to the East River.

Harry had taken us to his place.

Like most locals the world over folks come and go all night, and everyone knows everyone. We were greeted as Harry’s much anticipated old friends. And folks wandered in and all said “Hello Harry, are these your friends? He was worried you might find it too cold.” And folks stroll in and out all night and, even if they’ve never heard of you, they lean on the bar next to you and break into conversation. And unlike the sort of barfly you might find in most Australasian cities, people are open, interested and interesting and, in a particularly NY way, intelligent. This is an intelligent city. Unlike much of the rest of this nation, people here seem to have read, and actually know there is a world beyond it’s expansive borders.

Apart from the graphic designer from Reading, the one near London, not NSW, who moved to Brooklyn 19 years back and never went back, there was John, who may well be the only Rugby fanatic in Brooklyn, so much so that he’d taken a trip to Sydney a few years back to watch the world cup.

So John and I talked Eric B & Rakim and rugby and he told me how upsetting the trip to Sydney had been, because, as an African-American, he’d been treated appallingly from the moment he’d arrived. Bars wouldn’t serve him; cabs asked to see his money before they’d move; he’d been watched like a potential shoplifter every time he went into a shop; and Australian Immigration had harassed him heavily on entry. He wasn’t going back and had a pretty dark opinion of the nation that just said ‘Sorry’. I guess it’s easy to utter two syllables.

But that aside, in a totally NY way, we were treated to the Stumblebum Brass Band, an incredible little trio that sounded like mutant merging of Richard Hell and Louis Armstrong with a Yiddish tint. Does that make sense? No, I guess not, but Josh Malone’s loud growl through a megaphone, and Jonny Ballz stand-up rattling snare were hypnotising. But, most of all, I loved they way it umped along punctuated and driven by Jesse Wildcards’ tuba which he played like a rhythm guitar. Incredible stuff.

Only in NY.

It inspired me to buy a biography of Gershwin and the great Jewish immigrant NY songwriters who were tougher muthas than most would assume, because you simply had to be.Stumblebum Brass Band

2am, back into the snow, which was falling rather more heavily than when we walked in, past the bar smokers, who, and you wonder how bloody dedicated you have to be to the addiction to stand outside in the sub zero pre-dawn hours, were puffing and shivering, and into another black windowed Chevy and across back to Manhattan.

I’ve been to Queens.


Unknown said...

Anyone crack any flight of the conchord jokes, when they heard u were NZers? ; )

Simon said...

Not really, but damn they are big news here! Myself I'm not a fan but it's a buzz to see how well they are doing.