#24 King of the Hill, Top of the Heap
It’s become a snooty, European cliché to look down on Americans and mock their ‘Have a nice day’ salutations. They don’t mean it, is how we console ourselves with this alien level of geniality. Rarely does anyone mention the French equivalent ‘Bonne Journée’ which most certainly isn’t meant a lot of the time, I’m talking between strangers here, and is a perfunctory conversation ender at best, or delivered almost as a snarling threat in the hands of a Parisian waiter. So do Americans mean you to have a nice day? Really? Well if they don’t, they sure as hell make you think that they do, and that’s good enough for me. They all sound like they genuinely care. I’d been in New York 36 hours before it dawned on me that, ‘Hey, how are ya?’ – everyone’s greeting of choice – was in fact a rhetorical question and not an invitation for me to either wang on about my aches and pains or even return the query.
‘Hey, how are ya?’
‘I’m fine, thank you, how are you?’
There would then be an awkward pause before the sales assistant/beggar/cop/hooker replied suspiciously with a ’What?’
I simply wasn’t prepared for how friendly New York would be. I’ve spent a great deal of my life in London and Paris, big cities aren’t supposed to be like this, they’re supposed to have ‘attitude’. But if New York has an attitude, it’s this: ‘Come on in!’ it says, ‘what’ll you have?’
I’d decided to spend most of the day exploring West Greenwich Village, the brownstone buildings in an off kilter grid system, unlike the rest of Manhattan, are seductive, naturally cinematic and have an old-school charm exactly like a village. I just wandered aimlessly, spending time in second hand record stores on Bleeker Street or secondhand bookstores, being chatted to by the owners who all seemed slightly bemused by this apparently shy Englishman, but who was wearing a brightly coloured tweed frock-coat and matching weskit. I was coerced into buying a Frank Sinatra CD, a Ray Charles DVD and biography of Billy Wilder, none of which I really wanted, and didn’t mind at all. To be honest, I felt a bit numb. I’ve rarely been anywhere where I’ve felt so at home so quickly, and it was slightly disconcerting, like a sense of déja vu. Of course, all the streets around the ‘village’ felt familiar from countless films, almost ghostly as if it wasn’t a real place at all but an actual film set. I kept expecting to bump into Woody Allen bickering with whoever, saying classic Allen lines like ‘Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love.’ Or Grace Kelly emerging from James Stewart’s apartment, or watching Sally drop Harry off at Washington Square.
I sat and had a coffee to try and gather myself a bit and it dawned on me why I felt so peaceful here. Very simply, because it was so peaceful. There was so little noise, and I realised that that was something that I’d ignored almost since I’d arrived, just how quiet New York is. There were few sirens and people didn’t seem to shout at each other much; I’d encountered a couple of arguments, both of which had ended with the same ‘Yeh? Well fuck you and your brudder!’ line but I’d just assumed that these were actors employed by the New York Tourist Board in the same way that actors wander around Hampton Court Palace saying things like ‘forsooth’ and ‘sirrah’. And though the place was chocked with traffic, even that was quiet. Again, we are kind of fed a line that the US is a gas-guzzling cloud of smog and noise, but as far as I can tell New York, in terms of electric or hybrid vehicles is well ahead of European cities. London is way noisier than New York, for instance, and Paris is way noisier than London.
My natural instinct to mistrust came to the surface therefore. This wasn’t what I was expecting, something was up, I thought. New York was trying too hard. I really mean that, that’s really what went through my head. Parts of New York, certainly in the more residential parts like Greenwich village and the Upper East Side, even had quite a lot of dog poo on the sidewalks, ‘This is like Nice in 1982,’ I thought, narrowing my eyes in suspicion, ‘they really are trying to make this adopted Frenchman feel at home.’ I felt like a character in The Truman Show, I was being played and none of this was real and that again is a symptom of the place for dreamers like me, I’d imagined myself into the fabric of the city. I was in a movie, and this was my set. Something I wasn’t going to shake off by imagining being perched next to Diane Keaton on a bench while I was overlooking Queensboro Bridge, or that evening sitting at a bar opposite Madison Square Garden while the Rangers played a hockey game only a hundred metres away. I was literally living a dream. The only non New York thing I did in my entire stay was meet up with good friends, native New Yorkers even, who are also Francophiles and who took me to the very un-New York Le Pain Quotidien for tea and croissants.
I was more pre-occupied on my last day, more focussed. I’d arranged a gig at Gotham Comedy Club for that evening and though I wasn’t nervous as such, the adrenalin started to build early in the day and it was difficult to relax. That I wasn’t nervous was something of a surprise though. I am always nervous in a club I’ve never played before, always. But New York had gotten into me, as they say, I just knew it would go well. Especially as I was fully prepared to hype up my Englishness, properly Bond this up as it were as I had done the last time I played the US at a festival in Boston. I knew it would work. In Boston I had played a big theatre gig with stars like Janeane Garofalo and Eugene Mirman, the second night I was following a Burlesque double act in a rough bar. The catcalls for the two, very attractive, Burlesque dancers hadn’t died down when I hit the stage.
‘Would you mind?’ I said, giving it the full Roger Moore smirk as I took the microphone from the mic stand, ‘I can probably take it from here, thank you.’
There was, immediately, absolute – probably stunned – silence.
The gig at Gotham was everything I expected it be. Fun, rewarding and the perfect end to my self-indulgent trip and I wandered slowly back down 8th Avenue to my hotel. And though the gig had been great, my thoughts went back to something that had happened earlier.
I’d gone for a wander around Central Park to run through my set list for the evening and at one point stood at the Park Avenue end, over-looking the ice rink, looking up at the skyscrapers who were confidently looking down on the city, like attentive parents. And then it had started to snow. Once again, New York had pulled out all the stops for this tourist and I’d just looked to the heavens, closed my eyes and smiled. I’d stayed like that for a few minutes as the flakes landed on my face. I was so happy, so content, so at home. Then I felt someone touch my arm, it was an old lady.
She looked up to the sky as well and then to me, ‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ she said, smiling and I nodded, ‘just like your coat,’ she added, chuckling to herself before wobbling off.
Oh man, what a place.
Monsieur So British is a weekly blog and carries on from my two best-selling books ‘À la Mod…’ and ‘C’est Modnifique…’, both are available here. It is also a fortnightly podcast, sometimes with extra bits thrown in and all the major podcast platforms.
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