Thursday, February 05, 2009

Here's to the home of the brave / Here's to the life that is saved


Yesterday we went to 125th and Lexington, famous. of course, for the line in Lou's "Waiting For My Man". We walked from there westwards towards the Apollo.

In Harlem the two most famous streets, which cross in the centre of the district are the aforementioned 125th and Lenox. As a reverential nod to some of the nation’s most illustrious Black names, 125th also carries the name Martin Luther Boulevard , whilst Lenox is Malcolm X Boulevard . Other local streets are named after Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell.

But it’s the meeting of the first two which has the most resonance and it’s quite something to stand at the intersection of the two names. You really do feel humbled.

But even more so when you walk down 125th and see Obama. Not the man himself of course, but the face, the words, the images and everything else. This place is thoroughly Obama-ized and, as much as we understand how big this thing was / is, you really need to wander through a place like Harlem to feel just how much resonance and empowerment the election of a black man, and a proudly black family has to these folks and the history and momentum signified in the names attached to these few streets...some of which still draw the ire and terrify some elements of the traditional power structure. You simply don’t understand it from TV and the media, either online or written. It’s fucking huge and I simply don’t know the words to express it so I’ll leave these two images to speak instead, as they say more than I ever really could.

The first is just a very small part of a huge wall in Harlem where folks can write their hopes for the man's first 100 days..this part from one school class:

A Wall in Harlem

A dress in 125th

The other thing that’s struck me is that the old white men seem to have turned already, though, and with quite a vengeance. The DC establishment is fighting back and McCain and Cheney, and the Murdoch media are firmly on the attack. They have to be I guess, as they don’t have much else left right now, but seeing McCain mumbling on, on CNN domestic or Rush on Fox, then putting that against the tone you see and the words you her everywhere on the street, at least in NYC, either these guys still don’t quite get it or are in complete denial. Or, most likely, a mix of both.

There is, naturally, regardless of that, a small but tangible (and inevitiable) drop off in the Obama sheen, mostly because of his missteps on confirmations and some public unease on parts of the stimulus bill before Congress. You hear folks talking about these things if you let your ears wander in the diners, as I’m apt to. I’m not trying to be nosy, I just wanna know what’s being said out there on the street, or at least the very small part of it I’m in.

It fascinates.

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.