Here in New York we’re staying in Brooklyn, just under the Williamsburg Bridge, a testament to Victorian construction; albeit the work of American Victorians. Built as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the bridge seems to be undergoing one of those Forth Bridge exercises, a rolling programme of repairs augmented by an encroaching substructure of red girders reaching out from Manhattan, across the East River, to form the additional lanes upon which traffic and the silver subway will straddle.
And I can assure you that work is going well, for the jack-hammers kick off at around about seven, spot on time to disturb our return to slumber having lain in the July heat for a couple of hours wrestling with the jetlag that always punishes me for daring to leave the old country.
This is now my sixth visit to the Windy Apple and it finally seems like home. I don’t have the feeling of being an outsider, rather just another Brit at large. I find my New Yorker argot with ease, the casual Americanisms that pepper our language, the swarf from the friction of so much mediated modern day colonial excess on tee-vee, the movies et bleeding cetera, now firmly embedded in my speech.
I clutch the familiar patterns of speech, my atrocious melding of an American English to English – English that embraces the very worst of The Simpsons, Friends and the genius of the Bill and Ted movies. Fortunately, I usually notice this within a few days and then perform a very rapid about turn, seeking to prove my very Englishness, adjusting my speech patterns, subsuming my diction to a sound not heard since Her Majesty’s Xmas day speech. Identity is a funny old thing. I should blame Sting really for glamourising the notion of being Old World other in this odd town, but if I had to think of a tune, it’d be Richard Ashcroft’s eponymous paean to New York.
That song is a frenetic call to explore a new town, the wild appeal of a twenty-four hour have-it-now town, where the funny money all looks the same and begs to be spent. A handful of bills might be a fiver, it might be a weeks earnings, either way it demands to be used, to be spent in a town that will so easily assist, in a ‘city that never sleeps’. And that’s the overwhelming identity I adopt, my crie de couer ‘consume‘, my bank balance trotting dutifully along, my late youth lubricated by the voodoo of modern economies and my own failure to check my every desire.
This is where Williamsburg really is a saving grace, its quieter charms curbing my spending. On previous occasions I’ve stayed on Manhattan, down in the once hip but now fashionable Lower East Side. Hip in the way Hoxton used to be, and fashionable in the way that Hoxton has become; which is to say not quite dreadful. The LES was ground zero to the tattooed and pierced crowd of yesteryear, but now they’ve all migrated to lower rents and a less intense lifestyle across the river. Williamsburg has it fair share of expensive boutiques, and its fair to say its day of being a cheap and cheerful alternative to the neurotic lifestyles perpetrated by living cheek by jowl with a million others on the island, has passed. Nevertheless, it retains a calm and relaxed air. The streets are wider, the architecture lower and the steady sprawl of inner city regeneration born of freak and artist infestation holds its path predominantly to perhaps fifteen blocks off of Bedford Avenue. One has only to drift a few blocks from this central thoroughfare to find (graffiti) bombed warehousing and huge Mack trucks unloading pallets. The industrial application of school learnt chemistry and the triumph of a working power station can be observed within a five-minute walk. But then again that is very much NY. The ease of passage facilitated by the simple grid of streets makes it so much simpler to discern the transition of sub-culture and ethnic group as one moves through the city. A few blocks south of Williamsburg’s latter day freak scene lies the streets of the Hassidic Jewish community.
Living in brownstone housing redolent of an eastern Europe somewhere back in the nineteenth century, these most orthodox of the Jewish faith, can be found in our very own Stamford Hill. Whereas the near suburban qualities of English housing make for incongruity and distraction here the near period perfect architecture serves to enhance the sheer weirdness of a culture not completely free of the nineteenth century. Cleaving to orthodoxy extracted from the Torah, the Hassidim forgo many of the elements of modern life and, depending upon the extent of their interpretation, much of its sartorial aesthetic.
Indeed, it is the appearance of the Hassidim that alerts one to their curious provenance. The men stick to a particularly anachronistic style of dress, huge hats, ancient dress coats and for some stockinged legs. Certainly, you’ve espied these gentlemen if not in En Sixteen, then mooching down in Hatton Garden on business. Of course, you notice the ringlets, long curls of hair on either cheek flow from shaved heads, a tonsorial affectation born of biblical interpretation:
There is a prohibition against shaving male’s sideburns higher than the level of the jawbone. This is tied in with biblical prohibitions against self-mutilation such as tattoos, all-body shaving, piercing etc, as was the custom amongst gentile warriors. The Hassidic long side-curls is this prohibition taken to its extreme
Well I guess worse has been born of such literalness and seeing the Hassidim amidst an architecture built in the century before the last one, well it ends up not as incongruous but just so very New York!
And then there is the seemingly incorrigible fertility of these folks. As a faith that doesn’t proselytise and for whom a solemn marriage convention precludes wedlock with gentiles or other Jews, the urgency to reproduce seems to have fallen upon the Hasidim. Combined with what I can only presume is a no first use contingency upon prophylaxis, families in double figures are the norm. The Rabbi we met on the plane had twelve kids, seven in tow; a Rabbi on an Air India flight performing his religious duties at the back of the plane: exquisite! But in this portion of Brooklyn, street corners are occupied by clutches of, well they’re probably called perambulators, and I swear we saw a crescent of seven arrayed outside a lingerie store, no sign of the mothers.
We stopped by a wedding wear shop to try and catch some footage for our little movie. An aura of ritual pervades the shop, the ringleted staff picking out the most delicious of frock coats for those to be wed. In Judaism, marriage is the most auspicious route towards God’s plan. No devout ascetic swearing off of the ‘pleasures of the flesh’ here. Rather a serious and committed union of two parts of the same soul procreating for the greater good; and there is active encouragement to attain union on the Sabbath. . . now here is a religion I’m beginning to respect! What with those ringlets, a slight deviation from orthodoxy in the shape of a few tattoos on my arms a couple of piercings and I’d have a fabulous little sub-culture all of my own; and one that decrees I should fornicate on the Sabbath: fantastic!
Back in the outfitters and as time passes we get talking to the oldest of the men and the subject that has been the ghost at our feast is finally broached: The Twin Towers. Their passing leaves emptiness across the water, the hubbub of Down Town, the action and activity at the heart of Wall Street is now without focus, the buildings clustered round the hem of the Towers now must carry the weight of this city’s business life. And with the passing of the Towers, some part of the glamour and majesty of the city has passed. The towers stood as so much that is New York. You have to admire the sheer bloody genius of the al Qaeda plan. A trillion dollar army couldn’t stop a handful of blokes from stealing something so special from this incredible city. New York will have to work to replace that something, to replay the triumphant and exuberant presence that the Towers bestowed upon the City.
I struggle to conceive of a similar target in London. If the Palace of Westminster were to go, well, I wouldn’t miss that pile of bricks and maybe we’d end up with something that reflected this century rather than the governing priorities of the one before the last. Buckingham Palace: take it now and all that dwell within. London is a sprawl of that which is special, its organic and time-worn structure the very charm in which we live. No one part is that vital, no part signifies London, unless of course those planes started falling from the skies onto Routemaster buses. But until that day, London is safe from that which has befallen NYC. The Towers, so much more than the shabby and claustrophobic Empire State Building, were New York. Their absence has changed irrevocably the city of my dreams.
We took the Staten Island Ferry, a free trip out from the bottom of the island and back that affords a great view of the corporate blocks all bunched up around the bottom of Manhattan: Down Town. As we returned to Manhattan, amidst the flash-pop tourists on deck the view from the bow was compromised, but a piece of helpful advice from a local got us up onto the bridge. My enthusiasm for the vista was met with a calm if perhaps weary retort from the captain, ‘it used to be a whole lot better’. And there it was, the famous New York sass, the fuck you buddy attitude seemed to have gone. It’s become a cliché from our foreign correspondent’ but people here do seem genuinely friendlier.
Still New Yorkers, still confident and, for an Englishman, remarkably free of class-consciousness – if you’re a Hispanic busboy, cleaning tables for minimum wage, I’m sure this is an observation that makes little sense – but now muted. The scar of 911 has done ‘um some good. Last September I was in San Francisco, readying to fly home. On the 11th I came down into the lobby of the grubby backpackers hotel I was staying at to be greeted by the concierge’s very apparent and fearful cry ‘America is under attack’. Now, I’m neither proud nor ashamed but my gut reaction as I descended two steps at a time reveals a great deal: ‘you fucking deserve it’.
Now, here, in NYC, meeting people who lost friends in the attack I have cause to reflect on my response: the deaths in Afghanistan and Bush’s foreign policy acting out the self-interest of a defence lobby still smarting from the post-cold war cutbacks. The talk now, in this world of ‘international terrorism’ is of RMA (revolution in military affairs) and you just know that new strategies for future war are going to benefit the military and the industrial. . . I don’t want to hark back to reminders of undergraduate conspiracy theories but it’s a complex subject. All those bits of hardware linked up by the ferocious potential of software technologies, co-joined so the whole damn thing becomes a video game in which not a single American dies: that’s a tall (and expensive) order. Objections to vast projects that empower agencies with their own bureaucratic interests and agendas become cluttered by appeals to patriotism and, more offensively, xenophobia. Under the auspices of Bush, a ruler caught in a fine mesh of compromise, his power the function of so many despicable vested interests and a father – son relationship that would keep many a Shakespearean scholar in work, the blatant way in which the interests of the extremely rich are furthered is shocking.
I wrestle with the calculations, how all that money could probably feed the world, or water it, or stop the haemorrhaging from illness or disease (AIDS 9000 a day, just for instance) or keep a cadre of billionaires in the style to which they are accustomed . . . its alarming to find myself returning to the rhetoric of my student days, but being in America throws me back into a world of naive astonishment at the sheer wrongness of it all; I am that angry young man once again. My sympathies for the dead are caught in the twister of my ideological commitments. I mourn all death, but the distance, the sanctimoniousness of the American Empire, its military, economic and cultural grip on power, these and a thousand other things make it so much easier to despise America, especially now its being ruled by and for the super rich. All these feelings befall me whilst we idle our time away, here at the heart of the Empire, the safety of hipsville New York.
So I’m reduced to ranting, to spluttering disbelief at each and every turn. Not how one would choose to holiday but we’re not in America to holiday, but rather to make a documentary / travelogue about the American Experience. Think Kerouac with a camcorder, think politics student high on Chomsky, think agit-prop in the age of reality tee-vee. We’ve got it all and we’ll keep you informed. After all, they say, travel broadens the mind. . .