Thursday, July 10, 2008

Horse Country

Sam Shepard's "Kicking a dead horse"
Public Theater, New York
July 8, 2008

The title of this one act one hander - starring Irish actor Stephen Rea - describes the play's central conceit. Cowboy stuck in the desert because his horse died. Just like one kicks a car tire when it goes flat - with a tide of expletives - so one, apparently, kicks the carcass of one's not-so-trusty-steed. Apparently the over-eager and out-of-practice cowpoke fed him a bag of oats at the outset - one of which killed hi. (Proof for the bacon and egg and flapjack eaters out there that Quakers can kill you).

Our hero is out of practice because he spent the last 20 years of his life as a successful dealer of 'fine American art'. Meaning that in his youth when he was a drifter and ranch hand he bought grease and smoke stained Remingtons off the walls of great plains saloons for twenty bucks a pop - then flogged them for the hundreds of thousands and millions they were worth. His internal ructions remind us that artifacts should be let lie in their natural habitat - they breathe there - as its the museification (or domestication) that kills them.

In the end this keenness of eye and cynicism towards his corporeal heritage - the place his bones were cast - has made him nauseous. He is sick of himself. And like the dudes in the "City Slickers" films has headed back to the frontier to find himself.

Too little too late. His is a Beckettian fate. Doomed to die with his horse after a brief battle with the elements and his schizoid self. The cowboy talks to his self. One half art dealer and the other half wannabe cowboy. He is two types of men: equally an anti-hero of the new and old American frontier. Remember there is a statue of a bull in front of the NYSE on Wall Street - waiting to be lassoed. (Maybe Trump has gone whackily bald from wearing a cowboy hat when he sleeps - any old timer will tell you that the wearing of a hat will do it to you).

The Beckett like structure and theme of the play - it is every bit a "Krapp's Last Tape or "Endgame" - is one explanation for the casting of an Irishman in the lead. There is also the practical purpose of this being a co-production with the Abbey Theatre, Dublin where the play will travel at the end of the New York run. Moreover, Rea and Shepard have worked together before. I suspect the casting is, however, a metaphysical faint on behalf of Shepard - to remind us that Americans have lost site of the frontier as both a romantic spectacle and the site of their nation's greatest shame. Nobody wants to consider the legend and reality of blood-in-the-soil: one of the cowboys outbursts expurgates the massacres of Indians and bison by the settlers). This is the dark heart that Clint Eastwood constantly mines in his greatest films: we are war mongers now because we were murderers ever. And it takes a 'man alone' to confront these mysteries. The man alone, romantic outsider, and seer are still embedded in the Irish imaginary - even if they are lost in America. And the promise of America, the savior of many a potato famine andf land clearing refugee, still plays large in the Irish collective unconscious. I suspect it is for these reasons that Shepard has cast a foreigner (and for that matter why he lives in the mid-West and not at the coasts) as the true American has gone AWOL.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Food for thought

On the whole food in New York is better than that in Europe and Great Britain. The reason is that Asian food (I use that term advisedly) actually tastes like Asian food: and is plentifully available.

Asian basically means "Chinese" in Europe with a smattering of Japanese.

In Europe Asian food is a pale version of itself; and blandized for the European palate. Spice is anathema in much of Euro-land - despite the legend of Marco Polo and the Portuguese/Indian spice routes.

The exception for quality is eating Indian/Pakistani/Sri Lankan food in London. Heading south to Croydon for Sri Lankan is my particular favorite.

Another reason for this is that Asian greens obviously grow here in abundance - in Europe nobody has tried to cultivate them for the sake of making a proper meal. No bok choi, choi sum, pak choi, brocoli, or watercress. (That said, the greens taste a little bitter in the US which i suspect is from chemicals).

So it has been a treat eating them in quantity.

One should also remember that great swathes of Europe do not have a coast - and those with access to the Baltic Sea (where I live) fare no better as it is fished out except in its northern reaches near Finland. So seafood is also

Three recommendations in order of goodness:

Nyonya, Malaysian
194 Grand Street in Chinatown.

Go traditional: roti chennai, fish head curries, nasi lemak, beef rendang, and young tofu with okra and egg plant.

Really a taste of Malaysian (a melting pot of Thai, malay, indian, and Indonesian - the principal flavors are coconut, tamarind, lime, tomato broth, red Assam curry).

Kum Gang San, Korean bbq
49 west 32nd street in Korea Town

Generous amounts - with pickles that keep flowing. Korean is all about the small side dishes that are happily topped up upon request. kim chi till you burst

Hangawi, vegetarian Korean
12 East 32nd Street, Korea town

This is for those of you wanting one of those "New York Magazine" and "Zagat" fixes.
It has zen interiors with low tables and cushions and 'traditional' interiors and the likes. an waiters in 'Shanghai Tang' type outfits.

The staff and chefs are Chinese, however, so authenticity is at a question mark. They are serving fusion in any case so it probably doesn't matter. Lots of morsels that are equally tasty and seem like they might be good for you.

over priced considering... but that's what you get for your magazine world endorsements and chic fellow diners.

Tomorrow I'll do Italian...

The Bronx Bombers: Where's Wally?

Whenever watching baseball via the movies we see it through the eyes of Woody Allen or Billy Crystal (the dyspeptics might prefer the p.o.v. of Harvey Keitel's "bad lieutenant"). With Billy or Woody riffing with their wingman - a day at the ballpark looks like a day spent in heaven.

They're equally blue sky in the more serious ball films - starring Kevin Costner that is - "Bull Durham", "For the Love of the Game", and "Field of Dreams". Not to mention the old boy made good films "The Natural" and "The Rookie". You see I seen em all.

Thankfully, Ken Burns and PBS painted in some historical 'color' in his eponymous "Baseball". (We also got the "Civil War" and "Jazz" where I grew up).

And I've read dozens of 'New Yorker', 'GQ', and 'Esquire' profiles over the years... Most recently on the 'world according to Manny'.

So I was trippin to be headed to Yankee Stadium to see Yankees v. red Sox on a July 4 weekend. Bleachers seat A 14, section 53 was my patch of sporting heaven.

Sadly the four guys in KK 13-17 decided that my patch of heaven belonged to them also. Their bleacher wasn't nearly capacious enough for their corpulence. The four of them oozed over the aisles so my knees were pressed against sweaty costumed backs. Two wore Reds and two Bombers strips.

Scanning the crowd they weren't the only man masses around me... so it wan't a matter of bad luck.

So I shoehorned myself in their and waited for the wags to start making ribald and nuanced witticisms to get us all in the mood. Now even I know A-Rod has been schtupping Madonna - so any number of "Yeah, sing 'Like a Prayer' and hit the ball Romeo" could've been gliding off the tongues around me. "Don't look to heaven and ask for a hit you adulterous MoFo - he ain't gonna be listenin!"

That's what happens in the movies... and that's how it goes at the cricket. In every crowd there is a wag and there are a number of ditties - we all learn, and know, and love - to help while away the slow patches and between innings.

Here's an easy one - to the tune of "Camptown Races": "Tampa takes it up the ass doo dah doo dah/Boston takes it twice as far - doo dah, doo dah, day!" (That's a classic birth of American popular culture song by the way - nuthin British about it).

But no. Instead, and nobody seems to have noticed this, there are musical cues for chanting. Four of which are culled from songs by British bands. And of the two others, by Americans, "YMCA" by the Village People is a gay disco anthem. Wags would giggle - I did as two of the tunes by Brits or should I make that gay Persian-Englishman are by Queen and Freddie Mercury. Mmmm, something rotten in the state of American masculinity?

Of course the sclerosis associated with hotdogs and soda and candy - obesity and diabetes - have probably made many of those brains go soft. So there's nobody up to noticing. Or making ribald relief.

And it's visited upon the people - deliberately. At cricket one can take a picnic hamper and a cooler into the park and eat and drink one's leftovers (cricket traditionally takes place on festival weekends to). Ain't no one guzzling fast food.At Yankee stadium even though my bagf did not contain a video camera, glass bottles, alcohol, weapons, yadda yadda yadda I couldn't take it into the ground. No chocolate or an apple for me. In fact i had to leave the stadium and check it in across the street - then blag my way back into the ballpark. Almost didn't make it. Saved by my foreigner's accent.

So at the commencement of the 8th innings when the announcer asked us to all stand and observe a minute's silence in support of "American service men and women serving overseas and making sacrifices for their country" and then join Kate Smith for the singing of "God Bless America" I was outta there in a white rage.

Where I come from national anthems and songs were done away with in the late-1960s when the world was delivered to post-colonial political consciousness. They are sung at the commencement of international sports fixtures - played between nations. (ie Japan v. Italy). Not at anything wholly domestic.

Sclerotics all. No troops invading countries overseas. No bag checks. No requirement - that is a choice to eat the apple and the chocolate - to guzzle that junk food.

Funny, the other country in the world where one gets so strenuously searched is Russia. Ironic, anybody?

The final irony of the day - while I was seething. Heading back to 161st Street Station and the 4 train, I finally saw black people.

I mean black people who weren't indentured to be at the game. They were in they stadium serving hotdogs, and cracker jacks, and dairy maid something or others, and Cokes but I couldn't see a single person in the crowd. Not amongst the cops neither. (Note to myself, must try and spot a black cop).

And so my day of livin a slice of the American Dream ended on the 4 train. My Yankees cap pushed back on my head... bought at the concession before I headed into the stadium as a momento of the afternoon that was about to unfold in proximity to heaven.

I wonder - does one get arrested for burning one's Yankees cap? Is there a memorabilia amendment? Guess I'd better google.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

German MoFo

Harlem. It's 85 degrees. Hot. a bunch of white folks are on a history tour of the neighbor-HOOD. An old timer comes down from his stoop - and when he brushes by me on the sidewalk says:

"Sprechen Deutsch Mothafucka?"

My response is a lo-talked "Hell yeah!".

I am blondish and tallish and square jawish and was wearing a black-tee and slated black sunglasses. And white - did I mention that? (That ain't no peroxide blonde).

On reflection, and after assurances from the Noo Yawkers told this to, it wasn't directed at me - personally - but at all the skinny white guys that now people his Harlem sidewalks. There's more and more of them - apparently. (Not much in evidence when wandering the ten blocks between the 4-5 train and the 2-3 train above 125th).

But the word is out that some gentrification is goin down. And it's a white folk doing it.

Funny thing is that a whole lotta stories was told by our guide about boxers - and in particular the heavyweight champions Jack Johnson and Joe Louis plus their fall guy Harry Wills (he retired his gloves courtesy of 50k from the Governor and the Boxing Commission who needed a white hope sooner than later).

If the old-timer's comment was on the money (I ain't German nor speak it) it was because it conjured the specter of Max Schmeling - the boxer who clinically defeated the Brown Bomber in a match in 1936. Though Joe Louis exacted his revenge in a defense of his belt (won in 1937) in a brutal first round drubbing in 1938.

That whupping remains part of the Harlem legend and a moment of black actualization realized in front of the eyes of New York - and the ears of the world.

Tragically, and this is what gnaws at Harlem's soul, Joe Louis spent the later part of his life in poverty and poor health. And it was Schmeling, who became a successful German business man (with Coca-Cola), paid his medical bills. Not an American authority or philanthropist.

The behavior and position of the Good German reveals the true nature of the Bad American - for whom black heroes be damned.

"Yeah, I speak German old-timer. But I don't speak BUSH. So kiss my skinny white ass."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Shtetl in Brooklyn

I am originally from the "New World" and have spent time on the West Coast of the United States which has always felt familiar. In fact many artists and graduate students choose schools out there because, regardless of the smog, the air feels the same in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco - as Sydney and Auckland. And I am sure that if I lived further south in Europe I would have maintained a sense of myself as a new worlder. As it is I am happily bereft of company in Lithuania so have become a 'Northerner' instead.

To me, and this is the legend of the American frontier and "going-west-young man", the new world has always been about possibilities and the potentiality of new modes of living: imbued with the revolutionary spirit - of liberty, equality, and fraternity. as the new world societies advance the space for democratic and egalitarian will is diminishing but one can still encounter its ghosts in the new world's colonies. (Even Hollywood is producer of an art-for-the-people).

My encounters with New York, however, pitch it back in time. She is Old beyond her years. Traversing Brooklyn last night, traveling from Williamsburg to Crown Heights I found myself cruising through a shtetl. On its fringes there was a multicultural mix of pedestrians and residents sitting on their stoops. But at its heart only people wearing Jewish costume moved. And the streets and houses became more decrepit as the signs changed from the Roman to Hebrew alphabet. This arrangement of signifiers was oppressive, to me, as it replicated the order and appearance of the European 'ghettos' I have seen, experienced, and researched in photographs and writing.

The shtetl like shabbiness felt like a deliberate denial of the possibilities that America offered her people in the late-19th and early-20th centuries; the Brave New World. This living in the past [a clinical nostalgia] evokes a poverty of imagination an unwillingness to embrace the positive empowerment of the erasure of emigration (that energized Sholem Aleichem's peripatetic Tevye): while summoning the horror of the material erasures of last century.

America - in the new world - is the land of self-invention. And to 'dwell' here is to rest inside the dream of possibility - of which New York is the capital. To deny the dream is to deny the kernel of American life (that even reactionary regime cannot harm) and to deny its historical destiny - and embody its death.

Monday, June 23, 2008


According to popular legend New York is one of the most sociable cities in the world; to talk to/meet people in ticket-lines, elevators, the subway... After a week I haven't said "boo" to anyone that I haven't been handing cash over to. Not a solitary "single service" friend. It is clear that when the weather is warm bonhomie floats on the air - it just hasn't wafted past me.

Now I know what it feels like to be Latvian, Estonian, Finnish, and Norwegian. to quote a Hugh Grant characater in a dopey but charming little film: "Men are too islands! And I'm bloody Ibiza!!"

Social contrasts abound on the street and i sense that there is a whole lotta people speaking past each other - or operating within a wider social disconnect.

With a few hundred yards of 'ground zero', in the heart of the finance district and within feet of two iconic public sculptures, I spied two carts selling "Halal Food." What is it that will let an American forgive a Muslim a religious custom for the sake of a kebab - even a custom predicated on ritualized slaughter - within a few feet of their disgrace?

In Prospect Park, on Sunday, I got lost looking for the bandshell and a concert by the African group Keita. My fault. I followed my ears rather than looking for signs - and ended up at "Drummers' Corner" and two gatherings of African and African-American drummers replete with dancing and African BBQ. The groups were separated by some 500 yards, and the roadway, and nobody was wandering between the groups. An historical tension that living-in-America had been unable to dissolve. there were no white-folk in the vicinity (apart from those zipping by in various degrees of lycra on roller blades, bikes, and showing a clean-pair-of-heels).

Meanwhile, I found the band shell and Keita with three songs to go. At this concert of one of the popular giants of griot music there were hardly any black-folks visible in the crowd. A smattering at best. (I stood outside the ticketed enclosure so may have missed seeing those people in the tight knot near the stage).

It reminds of Miles Davis' frustration - written about in the liner notes of "Tribute to Jack Johnson" (one of his 'political' albums - that he never accrued a popular black audience.

I ain't the only one who is disconnected...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Stuffed shirt: Another guide for shopping

Seeing as i am in NYC which, according to popular legend, is addicted to shopping - I'm gonna spell out my own guide. Candace Bushnell I ain't - I've got something more on my mind.

I am talking a sort of enviro-consumption or eco-consumption or whatever you might like to call it (never fear still involves the "consuming").

My guide has three basic tenets. The first and third you've heard so many times I might just make you yawn... (sorry to the apex staff who I am sure are the only souls reading this in any case).

Believe me clothes and shoes can easily last for 10 years at a stretch: 15 years if they are only worn seasonally. (I admit I get bored with myself still having stuff that I wore at university but...)
So spend a little more for quality and then treat it better (see below) - so your overall consumer footprint is smaller.
The minute you get home change into "sloppies". Only where "sloppies" in the immediate vicinity of your house - for me in life that means sabout 4 blocks in any direction from my house (you get used to the strange looks). And if you go to the office on the weekend - only where the same badass, stained, holey, torn, faded, misshappen stuff (it's comfortable by the way).

This might also cost a little more - but it is the only way of reducing carbon footprints and encouraging local economies and historically important artisanal crafts/indutries.

ie. When in the United States only buy/drink wine from the United States
Remember there is wine produced in Oregon and Washington State as well as the Nappa Valley: that have more idiomatic and perhaps European flavors.

I can recommend: "Independent Producers: sunset road vinters" Destiny Ridge 2006 Merlot (Columbia Valley, Washington State) 11.99 Union Square Wines

Only buy clothes produced in the NAFTA zone.

I tried to do this yesterday, however, (when walking back downtown from midtown) Gap, Banana Republic, Guess, Kenneth cole - and I couldn't find a single plain black shirt made in the NAFTA zone!! Something gone wrong there.

Now in Europe this is easier to do - but also more important - because there is still a chance to buttress European industries from the Asian encroachment - but in America I am going to damned well try.

I'm not interested in the US balance of trade (it's been screwed for too long to remember) but this could've been a means a decade ago to keep a more even keel.

Self-explanatory this one. Carry a spare shopping bag... and don't buy stuff that's excessively wrapped in plastic.

Now if only Ms. Bushnell had written a few themes like this into her tales-of-the-city...