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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
My New York
by Philippa Tatham
New York, New York, that strange movie-set made real where just walking by feels like it should be accompanied by a Sinatra or Beegees soundtrack, became my world for a week this June, the week, incidentally, when freak heat and fork-lightning kept the temperature up in the nineties and the atmosphere akin to a swimming pool. As I was staying with old friends, we did none of the tourist stuff: no Ground Zero, no Sex and the City Bus Tour or Empire State Building, not even a show in Times Square where the crowds are too hideous to tackle for the same fare you can catch here in London. Instead I lived for a week like all other aspiring New Yorkers, based in a Brooklyn suburb and traversing the iconic bridge and its Arc de Triomphe gateway, to live it up in Manhattan.
My friend and her partner have recently moved into a small but thankfully cool Brooklyn apartment on the sort of street where the same man sits on his doorstep for hours every day reading his paper. Just around the corner, orthodox Jews balance massive fur cylinders on pates more typically covered by a skullcap or fedora. In America, even religious headgear is bigger. Ten years ago, you could not apparently dally here without fear of getting shot, but, as in London, rising house prices have pushed the middle classes onto to the areas that heretofore dropped from the edges of the young professionals' map. Now, in amongst the salami-smelling Boar's Head Delis you may find restaurants like Sushi D, described somewhat improbably by the New York Times as 'a wonderfully unpretentious neighborhood joint', and Zaytoons, a thankfully less pricey though comfortably decorated Middle-Eastern eatery where you can bring your own bottle, smoke shisha and chatter to the smiling Iraqi waitress. In Frankie's Back Room, a slummy and cheerful bar replete with tropical fish, musicians gather once a month to twang out the nasal strains of bluegrass. There is even a decent bus service from Myrtle Avenue now, although it is still quite a walk into the nearest subway, and the subway itself not particularly user friendly as it rattles forever across to Manhattan devoid of signs, place names or the computerised announcements that London Transport is so attached to.
In humidity like this the only thing to do is shop - especially as the dollar is currently half the price of the pound. Don't, as I did, go to the cheap and sticky end of Broadway. The clothes there, like the teenagers who wear them, are loud and exciting. But chic, air-conditioned SoHo (where even the street-sellers flog rings at eighty dollars each) has seats in every store for collapsing on. Unlike its London equivalent, this SoHo contains few sex shops, bar a woman-friendly niche called Babeland where couples browse the erotica and smiling all-American assistants tell you to have a nice day. Amongst Anna Sui and Calvin Klein, you will also come across Luxor Tavella, a tiny, raspy little lady with a face richly decorated in inks that drip in the heat. She told us she studied at the Royal College of Art and her shop on West Broadway, Paracelso, with its jumble of fabulously overpriced and musted wear, was the first in this area. However, even familiar labels like Urban Outfitters contain surprises here, such as Obama mugs and t-shirts grinning out from the menswear. If tired, rest at the Cold Stone Creamery on Astor Place with some of the best ice cream you will ever eat - ever.
'New Yorkers love parades' writes Sue Guiney in her novel Tangled Roots. 'Whenever they can they love to close down major traffic arteries and throw the whole city into chaos just so they have an excuse to celebrate. The Puerto Rican Day Parade was always a big one.'
And so on Puerto Rican Day, when jeeps with flags congested everything, we turned our eyes from the metropolis and onto the beach. Amazingly for a big city, there are several clean and crowded beaches just a few miles out from town. We headed to Jacob Riis, bumping in a hired car down Flatbush, a road stretching miles with shops called things like Yardy Girl huddled amongst L'Eglise de Dieu, Temples of Prayer, Churches of Jehovah and the Marine Recruitment Office. In Manhattan, every other shop is a lavishly furnished tarot reader, here, it is a chipboard church.
The expanse of beach is well worth a visit, if only to watch New Yorkers with their gangster twang solemnly tackle the waves. The white sand, discreet facilities and North Atlantic sea ripple with fantastically jutting bosoms as daytrippers still manage to strut about with that signature swagger-swing which pulls all eyes to the posterior.
In the evening, perhaps try the Lower East Side for going out. Once a bunch of warehouses, it has recently become the place to be, with bars where you cannot dance and ultra-trendy restaurants. Unless you are over a hundred and look it, take your ID everywhere, plus about a million bucks to spend on a single drink. One way or another, they'll stop you from getting at the alcohol. We found a small tea room where they sell everything from Earl Grey to Roisbos plus cookies until midnight, a quirky piece of peace in the middle of the babble.
As an alternative night out, you could simply stay in and have a barbecue. We spent a very pleasant evening in hot rain with Lloyd, an intensely beautiful vegan eco-warrior (and yes, you can barbecue for vegans), who will soon be writing his own blog on environmental policy, as well as two women (one half-Estonian, one half-Scottish - everyone in America is something else), and a boyfriend (Nigerian) who work for Freedom House. This organisation monitors freedom of the press around the world and you may catch their colour-coded map hanging up in the background in The Devil Wears Prada. Being all super-political, we naturally ended up discussing favourite childhood cartoons. A truly adult night in. A place where it is not a good idea to be in a thunderstorm is Union Square when looking for a taxi. We had just emerged from the Wholefoods Market (a dangerous place whose organic cakes, vegetables, deli counter, cheeses, ice cream and thick chocolate wink so enticingly you forget to check the price or worry about the endless queues or even about the environmentally-friendly paper bags that dissolve in wet weather), when lightning flicked between skyscrapers in the style of a Hollywood epic. Becoming swiftly drenched, every cab whizzed by already full until one, like a white charger, drew up and a voice from the back yelled 'Get In!'
The voice belonged to Larry, a laughing musician-turned-producer heading to his rent-controlled apartment on 11th who had taken pity on us, though he assured us, helping others is not what New Yorkers usually do. And, he added, we simply had to see Kung Fu Panda, which he had just watched and was hilarious. As soon as he left and we headed back to Brooklyn, our driver immediately asked my friend in the front to marry him while telling her all about his recent break-up, thus proving that New York taxi drivers do indeed model themselves on Robert De Niro.
We did not go to see the Panda, but we did see Sex and the City in a little Brooklyn cinema. And as a diehard SATC fan, my advice to you is - don't. Shoes and even a few genuinely funny moments it may have, but the thing that really drove the TV show, its uncompromising cynicism, is entirely missing from the movie. Instead, characters undergo a complete personality transplant to fit into some fairytale ending. The audience laughed when it shouldn't, and, booed loudly at any slight made to their beloved borough.
The only reasonable thing to do after was relax in a spa, and we headed to Bliss 49, one of a chain which promises aromatherapy showers and brownies in the waiting room. This one, opposite the Waldorf on Lexington, alas produced no brownies, only processed cheese and shiny red apples. Neither was the steam room especially steamy, although on the plus side every machine in the near-empty gym had its own TV, and the bikini wax was surprisingly painless. I was also led to a darkened room by Ben, a sensually-voiced very hot masseur who smothered me in oil, pulverised my body, stuck my feet in plastic bags, popped cucumbers on my eyes and then, in hushed tones left a Buddha coin on the table beside me as a thank you. On I headed to the pedicure where an enraged woman scolded me and my blistered toes and scoured away years of carefully-cultivated hard skin. My friends meanwhile dipped their pinkies in coconut milk for a thing called Pedi-Colada.
There is nothing quite like beauty treatment to make you feel ugly, especially when they write cheerful notes on the mirror such as 'Oops! Is that another wrinkle?' After watching a mother and daughter spend as much time applying eyeliner as I did showering and dressing, I realised that I am just not a spa kinda girl.
Brooklyn, idealists, restaurants, shops, beaches, bars, a taste of questionable luxury. That is my New York, accompanied by the smell of linguine and calamari in Franks on 2nd Street, melting make-up, boiling sidewalks, smiling enquiries as to where I'm from, peanut butter smoothies, endless chatter and conversation, all presided over by that great and painfully photogenic metal edifice, the Brooklyn Bridge, traversed each and every day as the sun sits heavy on the bay.
(c) Philippa Tatham 1 July 08
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