Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Frank Sinatra famously sang

Frank Sinatra famously sang of New York that it's the city that never sleeps. The other night I was reminded of those nocturnal whirrings that prove Old Blue Eyes true. Walking the streets of a quiet Chinatown, Sunday nearing midnight, I noted a well-dressed family trailing strings of gold balloons; wooden packing crates broken down and stacked, the cooling asphalt releases scents of tar, fish, dirt. Across the street from Fire Department Engine Company 9, the oldest in New York and home of the Dragon Fighters, is Wing KEI Noodle Inc. Through doors open wide to the night I could see a world in miniature all in white: walls, uniforms, lights, ceiling, flour, floors, paper hats, thin rolled noodles.

I remembered that the composer Nico Muhly lives nearby; perhaps he buys Wing KEI noodles or maybe bobbins from the sewing store or fried chicken from Popeye's on the corner (whose signs are all in English and Chinese). I do know that he is merely 26 and composes pieces for quartets, orchestras, choirs. After reading this article, I know that Muhly draws on numerous and disparate sources for inspiration: medieval cosmologies, David Bowie, Egyptian archaeology, Italian Fascist architecture, the history of the novel, Balinese gamelan music – a frenetic, omnivorous taste.

On Easter Sunday last month, my family and I had the pleasure of attending services with my friend Gabrielle at Middle Church in the East Village. In addition to a pair of choirs (one of which showed in rocking form that "gospel" is a state of mind that can leapfrog matters of heritage), the services featured a jazz quintet, a "maverick organist," and a parade of children in silly hats. The musicians and the traditional choir premiered Muhly's Christ and the Whale. The soloist sang in a spirit from beyond the church, a clarion bell. And they rolled the rock away and there was... music? Light?

After prodding from the musical director and his mother seated beside him, Muhly stood briefly to accept our applause. He waved once, bent fractionally at the waist in partial bow, and sat. Sitting directly behind him, I had the chance to be the first to shake his hand. A unique, intoxicating experience – melting the late winter blues away among human nightingales, bald dynamo choir directors, rainbows and sermons on looking for love in all the wrong places, congratulating an avant-garde composer on the occasion of the world premiere of one of his works.

Muhly is one of les enfant terribles. Which also happens to be the name of a café around the corner from Wing KEI. Ah, New York.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Rambling 'round Brooklyn

Around 3.5 million people live in Brooklyn, making it the most populous borough of New York City. Yesterday, many of us took to the streets and parks to enjoy the most Spring-like day in weeks. Everywhere were runners, walkers; bikes, skateboards, strollers; horseback riding lessons and long-line kiting; short sleeves, long sleeves, hats, scarves, shorts; soccer, baseball, cricket, football, frisbee, handball. It was the kind of day when everything seems cut from glass, even the break and especially the sky where it is occluded along the edges of rooftops, water towers, steeples. Edward Hopper light in all directions. In celebration of wheeled freedom and temperatures in the 50s, I wandered, by bici, through various quilted sections of Brooklyn.

Red Hook along the waterfront of reclaimed warehouses, container cranes silhouetted, soon-to-open Ikea, sprawling Fairway grocery, main drag Van Brunt lined with oddities and antiques, early season baseball practice next to a series of giant grain towers – from the little I watched, the winter ice has not quite melted on throwing arms and creaky gloves.

I continued on through South Slope, past historic Green-Wood Cemetery (final home to, among others, Samuel F.B. Morse and Boss Tweed), into Sunset Park and up onto the eponymous hillcrest park: Walt Whitman, in his days with The Brooklyn Eagle, may have sat just there and imagined his yawp sounding across the rooftops in Brooklyn, across the East River above the beating financial drum of colossal Metropolis, and on to the rest of the world.

After winding back through Windsor Terrace - a pocket of columned-porticos, stalwart Farrell’s, lipped on the freeway - I visited an old friend, Prospect Park. Lying in the sun, I could almost convince myself that I needed sunscreen.

A few parting lines from that sweaty-toothed madman:

What is it then between us?

What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not - distance avails not, and place avails not,
I too lived, Brooklyn of ample hills was mine...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Picking up the pen again

Today it is sunny, windy, late winter in Brooklyn and the other boroughs. A few hours ago, the Red Sox beat Oakland in Japan in Major League Baseball's first game of the season. Tulips and crocuses and the leaf buds on trees are about to call out in color. Spring is nearby but apparently lost with poor directions.

For those who have been wondering what happened to the Americano riding around small town Italy on his bici vecchia gialla, I am here, in New York City, alive and as well as one can be when not in Italy. I have been reluctant to write anything of life on this side of the Atlantic, but the twisting streets and muttering retreats of this metropolis offer more than enough material.

As for my return to bel paese... Ci vediamo.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pachyderms on Parade

The other night I saw elephants walking through the streets of Manhattan. This was not Jumanji or I am Legend or Dr. Seuss. We knew they were coming and we lined the barricades in anticipation.

We waited for what some said was too long, but I think elephants in Manhattan are worth waiting for.

Eventually, after midnight, when most of the city oscillated in slow night rhythms, the elephants emerged from the Queens Midtown Tunnel. They walked east in a line, tail to trunk, the centerpieces in a quick moving stream of people and cars and caravanning horses. Seven elephants walking down 34th Street amidst numerous attendants. Police had cleared the streets of traffic; there was not a pith helmet in sight. Camera phones and cameras just flashed; people cheered and waved; the elephants responded by drawing their trunks along the pavement and hurrying along.

And then before you could shake a stick and call it dancing, they were gone. Off to Madison Square Garden, home to the circus for a fortnight. It was, like many others, a New York spectacle exciting, brief, and full of controversy. Even just knowing that it happens - like Burning Man, like the tides in the Bay of Fundy, like the monarchs' migration, like the Staten Island Ferry - is enough to bring a bit of sunlight into any grey day. To think that I saw it on 34th Street...

(photo above from