Report From New York - Oct. 2005...
by Art Busse
Ok, relax. Just take it easy. Sure, you'll forget some of it, but you'll remember a lot too. The thing is to just start writing, writing about New York, writing about the last three days. Hell, you had four days in Paris and that was too much to deal with, too. But everything moves faster here, so you better get going. Any image, any thought, any of it - just start writing.
There was Lou Reed in Central Park last night, one of the last summer nights of the season, at that free concert in support of the musicians of New Orleans. God, that guy was committed; in fact commitment was what he did, not music. He used the music and the lyrics to bring home the point that everything really does matter, that the crimes are going down all around us dressed up as stupid, simple myth, churning inside of us, wrestling for the right to shape the meaning of our experiences as we grapple with lost love, lost cities, lost innocence. Laurie Anderson was right there with her fiddle backing him up with music and devout attention, as if they had just stepped out of their loft and bopped on over to the park at the last minute, as if it was a normal occurrence in their New York City lives. Hip.
Then there was the old black dude from the delta with the Panama hat and the electric guitar whose first lick was so good it hurt, and made all the guitar work before him seem like just that - work. And there was the soul sister from Mississippi whose voice sounded like molasses and honey and gravel and home cooking and hot nights with light cotton clothes clinging to damp bodies and deep, deep love and even deeper hurt and it took your knees right out from under you when she sang "A time will come when a woman no longer needs a man" as if she knew she was the kind of goner that only a second coming could save. Gospel.
We walked downtown the day before from our hotel near the Park which took us through Times Square. "The Ball Drops Here!" was inscribed on one of the big building walls at 42nd Street. Here buildings were things you read or watched like movies, or television. Beautiful, perfect people fifteen stories tall demonstrating conclusively how great life was with a new watch, or this season's new TV show, or the right designer's clothes. Cell phones in particular seemed to hold the power to make happy things happen. Here was Ground Zero for the biggest crime of them all. This was the corner on which commerce kidnapped culture over and over again, second by second, day after day. We stood there enthralled by the horror and beauty of the spectacle, watching the alchemy of quality being changed into quantity, messy human essence being converted into the dry abstraction of money, every original impulse, every creative display with any purchase on our souls being appropriated, reduced, packaged, and sold back to us as commodity. I got the feeling I was seeing a future where sensors on the street could detect what moved us, what we cared about, as we walked by and with only a few seconds delay convert our desires into compelling holographic displays that we would interact with as our checking accounts were drawn down accordingly. Apocalypse.
We fled through Chelsea and took refuge in the Village. Just outside the grip of the grid, with narrow crooked streets and old trees, the pace slackened, the din died down, and in Washington Square it was just people meeting people again. It felt anachronistic and comforting, a nearly perfect combination of idealism, intellectualism, lost causes, high hopes and the late afternoon. It might as well have been home. An hour later we were seated in a West Village Bar called the Blue Mill having a drink with Shannon, Mira's friend and photographer who had made a name for herself capturing in image that thing inside of writers that animates their work. We listened as she laid it all down, the truth of the moment, the place, and the feeling we shared, a truth repeated again and again through generations here in the Village, here in this bar. Yes, it sucked out there and might get the best of us all in the end, but we had found each other that night and we were artists, God damn it, and at least we knew that about the world. So we ordered another round, the way you'd look death in the eye and laugh, and with the ghosts of Hammett and Hellman and Hemingway looking on, we drank to the courage it takes to walk down the street each day with your eyes open and your heart at risk, drank to the comrades before us, writers and painters and poets, who had reported back from the front lines of life, drank to the luck that had brought us together, drank to the love we felt for each other. Salvation.
The Blue Mill was owned by five partners, one of whom was there opening the place when we arrived. We ended up calling him Palm Springs Jim in honor of his place of origin. He was the official research historian of his place and several others nearby that were famous as watering holes for the Bohemian literati that littered Manhattan's past. We hit it off big with Palm Springs and were rewarded with a fascinating array of stories about the old days in the Village. Somewhere in the middle of the evening a million year old chocolate lab with leash draped dapperly over his shoulder staggered into the bar, sans owner, and collapsed on the cool terrazzo floor. He was obviously a regular and was treated well by the staff. Immediately upon his departure, a yellow lab of similar vintage and attire repeated the performance, with Palm Springs providing the background information this time. Next came Kerry, personal trainer to the stars, with an absent Chicagoan boy friend, a penchant for architecture and vintage bars, and stories about her famous and fit clients. That night in the Village was magic. We knew somehow that every night in the Village would be and entertained thoughts of living there. It ended only because we'd gotten no sleep the night before on the Red Eye from the Coast and had fifty blocks to slog back uptown to our hotel.
Our hotel, The Parker Meridian, at 57th and 6th Avenue, was French. You could tell because its real name was Le Parker Meridian, although I soon took to calling it Le Parker Posey. It had doormen and bellhops and counter clerks, and concierges, and a pool at the penthouse with a rooftop sundeck. It also had a motif, as all things French must. Everything was understated, elegant and elongated along the vertical axis while compressed across the horizontal. In other words everything was tall and skinny at Le Parker Posey, the complimentary note pads, the water glasses, the shampoo and conditioner containers, and as we soon found out, the whole Upper East Side seemed to subscribe to this same motif as well. It was safe to say that one couldn't be too tall and skinny for this part of town, especially if one happened to be a woman. And that was the attitude that went with the motif - things happened, without the need for striving, more for you than to you. One presented oneself to the world and the world did the rest. There was no achieving, no accomplishing. One was wealthy, one was renowned, one was beautiful, and since so little exertion was required, one was, well, bored. Boredom, in fact, was the highest attribute of the object that had come almost completely to rest. The only place to go from bored was dead, and I had the feeling that the tall and the skinny were holding their breath all across the Upper East Side in hopes of arriving at that exalted state ahead of the competition. Unfortunately, things assuming that shape had a way of slipping out of your grasp, like the water glass on the nightstand at Le Parker Posey in the middle of the night, or Ivana Trump as she sat at the bistro table on the corner of 65th and Madison while we walked by close enough to smell her hair spray. They were not meant to be held onto. They were not meant to last. In the end, it was all quite Zen.
Random House was another thing entirely. This was the real world with real people in real offices whose job it was to cull the best of the literary talent out there, put it in book form and sell it. If their books didn't sell, they were out the door. So they were sharp, these editors, art directors, and marketing specialists, with plenty of their own talent to bring to the task at hand. Random House had its own building in midtown a few blocks from our hotel. It was new and polished and had excellent security, although I wasn't sure why, since it seemed that a publishing house was an unlikely target for the terrorist threat, until it occurred to me that one of their authors was Salman Rushdie, the guy who the Ayatollah had put a contract out on world wide. Its big, bright and crisp entrance lobby was lined with glass enclosed book shelves reaching from floor to fourteen feet, containing a collection of the most significant books that Random House had published over its long history. Very impressive and a nice diversion while you awaited your security clearance. This was why we were here in New York. Mira was one of their recently discovered authors and her second novel was soon to be launched. She had had meetings and lunch the day before with her editor, and others in order to give them a feel for the woman behind the book they were putting the finishing touches on. Her editor was, to a certain extent, The Man in the New York literary editing world. He was a big fan of Mira's, as was nearly everyone she met there, leaving one to wonder if they really were or had decided long ago that no matter what you actually thought, you pretty much had to say you were a big fan when meeting one of your authors.
She brought me with her the next day and while we were waiting outside her editor's office for him to finish another meeting and show us the current artwork for the cover to her book, one of his assistants popped up and handed Mira a galley copy - an unbound version with the layout, typeset and fonts as they would appear in the book that was to hit the shelves next Spring. This was a big moment in the history of a book and the life of an author, and for that matter, an author's boyfriend. It was like a baby's head crowning during childbirth. The first glimpse of what the new offspring looked like. I'd read this book in other forms twice but I have to say that it was different this time sitting there at the heart of the publishing world, surrounded by some of the best books ever written by American writers, outside a corner office on the 18th floor with a view of the Hudson River. For the first time it was more than a collection of thoughts and images organized around a central vision, more than something Mira had created; with the layout and typesetting done it was now a BOOK and somehow bigger, better and more significant than it had been before. It was about to have a life of its own that would extend beyond the author. And then as if on cue, in came the publisher of Random House, with the latest artwork for the cover as if it was the announcement for this work's debutante's ball.
The oddest thing of all was discovering my old New York City persona was still fully intact, after having lain dormant for the past thirty years somewhere at the bottom of my psyche. No sooner had the airport shuttle door closed, than I went on the attack, striking up conversations with anybody and everybody in range, talking loud and fast, introducing people I had just met to each other, networking like a motherfucker just for the fun of it. Apparently the prime directive for survival in the big city, namely, 'Do it to them before they do it to you' which applied to everything and every situation including saying hello, had been deeply programmed in me and was triggered by the sights and sounds of New York. I practically sold the movie rights to Mira's next novel to a director/producer I had to elbow out of the way to buy us drinks at the airport bar. Mira spent the first day giving me weird looks as if to say "Who are you?" I was as surprised as she was. I'd seen this once before when I returned to my home town Chicago after a twenty year absence and three steps into the terminal at the O'Hare airport was acting like I owned the town, but I'd forgotten I had one of those for NYC. Being a combat extrovert was very liberating and along with liking New York, I liked who I became in response to it.
This could go on forever. I mean pretty much everything happened in our three days there, coming at us from all directions, almost simultaneously. But who's got time for all that? I'm in a hurry now - all the time - so I'll have my people out-perform your people and if you're still standing, I'll get back to you on that.
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