Saturday, October 29, 2005

American Mythopoeic Fantasy

A few days ago myself and some other foreigns were officially "received" in New York. Having been oriented, twice, before coming out, and now received thrice, with one further welcome to follow, and a thanksgiving weekend with an Amish family in Pennsylvania to look forward to, I feel very special indeed.

This latest reception took place at the New York History Museum, which had mounted an exhibition on slavery. Senselessly ariving two hours early, I had little to do other than spend five dollars on the showing, an output I later discovered was unnecessary. For part of the formal proceedings was a free tour of slavery, and for a while we strolled around, looking at the images of brutalised Afro-Carribeans, and documents of punitative statutes enacted against them, glasses of wine in hand, and sliding trays of sushi and crumbling biscuits.

In the reception proper, a woman got up to tell us that if the world had more Fulbright scholars, there would be a greater chance of world peace. I scanned down the list of this year's batch of scholars, and found some interesting trends. The Czech Republic had only two scholars, each of whom appeared to have the same name, and be studying the same discipline at the same university. There was only one French scholar. I had heard rumours of an Afghani Fulbright, but no evidence on the list. Germany did well, but was outdone by Poland, not by number, but by variety. In the midst of the dull conventional procession of Columbia and NYU, political science and psychology, was a Pole, whose name I groundlessly forget, who apparently was studying something called "american mythpoeic fantasy." Where each other subject attained the nobility of capitals, only a.m.f was rendered in racy modern lowercase. I resolved to seek out the Pole.

There were only two British in attendence, myself and my friend sat beside me. My name was not printed, for some reason. It was announced that we would all stand up in turn, as our countries were announced. This made my friend wince. There are simply so many countries on the map.

By the time we got to Estonia, I was already bored. Let's stand up when they read out Sri Lanka, I suggested to my friend. He demurred. The token Frenchman stood up; did I imagine hollow laughter? How would they receive us? I began to panic. There was only one "Tom", and two of us: it would look rediculous. The Poles were asked to stand. A group of ten stood up together, and across the auditorium, a single figure, detatched, pensive, barely remembering to stand. That must be my man, bigger thoughts on his mind. Holland was announced twice in the alphabetic chain, once as "Netherlands", once, briliantly, as "The Netherlands." Up stood a fat Mexican, studying Gifted Education. This was just like bingo.

Finally, the United Kingdom's turn came, and Tom and I stood up, both representing "Tom", with an anguished posture that would anyhow have given our origin away. There was perplexed laughter, we did a short bow and sat down.

Afterwards we were encouraged to mingle for peace. Although the mingling had been conceived in a spirit of cultural diversity, when the multiple strangers approached one another shakily, there was nothing to go on save the name tag, which revealed only the stranger's country of origin. The best way to initiate conversation, I therefore found, was to culturally sterotype. An Argentian wobbly on her pins staggered up, and we talked of the Falklands War. My friend the true Tom looke monumentally bored, so I suggested we find the american mythpoeic fantasy scholar. Around we trailed, bumping into Slovaks, Finns, Spaniards, but not our elusive Poles. "Have you seen any Polish people", I asked a pretty Russian. "There are Poles over there", she replied, and I felt as if I was involved in Cold War espionage, but with added canapies, so, in a John Le Carré novel.

The Poles were huddled conspiratorially in a crooked circle, which I supposed corresponded to some national emblem of unity. I introduced myself, and after a few bits of rudimentary, necessary smalltalk, dived in. They did not know the scholar of american mythopeiac fantasy, but had heard of him somehow, and knew he was in the building. Behind my back, I could hear Tom explaining to an ethnically diverse crowd that I was a homosexual, and had a particular thing for "Polacks."

The Argentian returned, shouting, "You are so an English-!", when one of the burliest figures I have witnessed approached slowly. He was with a much shorter fellow, who looked seriously at me through his thin-framed glasses, and said, "I gather that you are interested in my friend's work." It was indeed the scholar I had been seeking, in a jovial half-meant manner, come to talk with me. He was writing a book on american mythopoeiac fantasy, he told me. I was out of my depth, and made a few awful stabs at the link between Homer and Hick Finn. It was not that sort of fantasy he was examing, he told me, but largely the "Earthsea Trilogy" by Ursuela le Guin, a book I had fortunately read when ten, and an insufferable child. The evening proceeded smoothly from that point.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

All Shall Have Projects

The truth has slowly dawned upon me, that New Yorkers all have twenty-eight or so jobs.

In addition to these twenty-eight jobs, they have nigh on a thousand "projects."

When I lived in England, I had a hard task finding one thing to truly lay my name by, and that was perfectly alright. Here, I decided to prepare myself for what I was told was "New York's work-hard, play-hard mentality", by at least cooking up one thing that I did. So at parties, I announce myself with the one task that defines my idendity - I'm a fireman, I'm a terrorist, I'm one-quarter of the Gang of Four - and find that even my best-laid, and lying, plans are insufficient. Every New Yorker trumps me in having things to do, so much so that the conversation we're holding becomes I think, surely a strain on their precious time, unless we can legitimise it by calling it a project - and my the looks of their earnest eye-contact, that's precisely what they're angling for.

Everything is a project. Hanging out is project, properly done. Brewing tea is a project, with meanings I can only guess at. Catching the subway uptown is a project. Subway downtown is a project. Croissant is project. When I had a lot of international calls to make, in the days when promises to Mother could still be kept, I would always phone from the same payphone, by Washington Park Square. There, beside my payphone was a homeless man, who never seemed to move from his station. In England he might roll in the gutter a little, or offer you drugs that on closer inspection were toasted banana skins; but in New York, this homeless man had gotten his act together. He had rigged up a table on the sidewalk, and placed upon it an upturned, transparent perspex bottle, which contained the money he had received that day. Affixed to the outside of the bottle was a scrap of paper, on which was unclearly printed "HOMELESS ASSOCIATION." As people passed, he yelled out "Feed the hungry. Because nobody should go hungry."

He was clearly a homeless man, collecting money for himself. But nonthleless, he had set up the operation, until it was a larger project.

Four days ago, I was on the subway back to Brooklyn. When I changed for my connecting train, everybody looked as if they'd just been cracking up at a very funny joke. When I'm new to a scene like that, I presume the joke was me, or will be the whoopee-cushion designed for me; but on this occassion, my selfish self-flagellation proved inaccurate, as when the train took off once more, a man started shouting, and sent the whole carriage back into hysterics.

"This one time", the shouted, "I get on the subway, right? Now, there's just this one woman there, with a bag on the seat to one side. Now I see her when I get on the train, and I see the bag sitting there easy beside me. Well now, am I imagining it, or when I get on the train does she hug that bag so tight to her as if it were the lucky love of her life? Goddamn, I want that woman to hold me the way she holds that bag! If that bag was a child, it's be all suffocated to death! Do I want your bag? Do I want your bag?! No - I WANT YOUR MONEY! Simple as that. I am not a robber - I just live on the street."

Across from me, a Puerto Rican policeman was sitting on the seat, vibrating with laughter.

"Now this other time. I get on the subway. Damn me if there isn't one guy got this cell phone, playin' around with it. Soon as he sees me, he puts the phone right in his pocket. Excuse me? Do I want to make a call? Who I got to make a call to? I don't want a phone - I WANT YOUR MONEY! I found a phone once. Must have been broke. Didn't work. Looked like 'swas about twenty years old. What could I do with a phone?

"But the worst thing is, when you gets on the train, and you ask for money, and they reach into their pocket real slow, like they gonna bring out a little something for me, and - and - nuthin' comes! What happened in there? Hey? You get cold or sumthing? You go cold on me in there?

"This one guy - he reaches into his pocket - brings out a whole dollar note - and he brings it across like in front of my eyes - and he puts it right back into the other pocket! Man, are you trying to lead me on? Hey hold on, s'my stop-"

And the man stood up. I hadn't seen him before. He waddled very gingerly to the doors. Something was wrong with his legs. He had one eye that looked sewed shut.

As the doors were sliding shut, everybody was smiling at one another. The man's voice could still me heard from the platform. "I'm going to the liquor store. The doors shut. He shouted: "Can't we all make this work a little better?"

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Consider a large patch of decrepit urban land. To a British audience, it is that place where teenage hoodlums hand out, and mug you for your purse, poor grandmother that you are; or, a deserted space upon which a new Tesco will soon be built.

In America, such a patch of decrepit urban land is potential in rough concrete. In other words, it is apt for a piece of performance art.

This cultural distinction became apparent to me, when over the weekend I went to see a piece of performance art that artistically braver people than myself tell me is "site-specific." The site in question is the McCarren Pool, a massive building whose history reads like American history in microcosm: an F.D.R New Deal project (one of eleven pools built that year, all of which every new model citizen would presumably use in the same day), the pool fell into postwar disrepair, subject to the humilation of graffiti, weeds and oxidised ironwork.

I walked around it one day, before the art came to down, and it was a truly eery experience. For it is a frighteningly empty big place: measuring, to be exact, 50,000 square feet. You have to take your hat off to a nation that conceives of a public swimming pool three times that of standard Olympic size.

The name of this artwork was Agora. The agora, as every self-respecting classicist will hastily inform you, was the civil focal point of the republican Athens, which they will also inform you was wonderfully pure. I suppose that these notions of civil participation and local memory are explicitly referenced in the choreographed piece, but it was also an opportunity for gloriously nonsensical dance routines. As a young child, my sister and I would regularly watch Top of the Pops; when the featured song became too painful or inane, we would manipulate the television so that the image of the backing dance troupe remained, but the sound was teken from another channel - dialogue from Heartbeat, or the last night of the Proms. If only we had, at the ages of 10 and 7, have realised we were cultural montage artists: we could have marketed ourselves as precocious, the avant-garde Hansen. No matter, it made our infant faces smile, and the effect was curiously similar to Agora.

Before the show began, a man reclined on a sofa in the corner of the pool, watching television. As the action unfolded around him, he slowly began to push the television screen to the opposite corner, oblivious to the high-kicking breaking out either side of him. The music modulated between the unspecific bass hum that gets mistaken for challenging music, and scraps of melody from old blues or samba records. The dancers jostled, filled paddling pools with water, swam, rode bicycles, staged pillowfights, pushed one another on skateboards tied to their backs, and, in those bursts of melody I just mentioned, danced very beautifully. The crowd must have numbered a thousand, divided between "stationary" and "floating" audience members. The latter had freedom of movement, which was designed, I suppose, to efface the division between performers and audience. I was a "floater", and had high hopes for my engagement. Yet, as a British man, I felt unsure as to how to begin to involve myself in art, and continually guilty for not doing so. Nonetheless, for a British man in particular, the whole unaccustomed effect was quite overwhelming.

The end of the performance is somehow triggered by a sign for the audience to clamber down into the pool; and clamber down each member does, some sprinting towards the center, where the numerous dancers seem mysteriously to have vanished into thin air. People mill around under the spotlights, smiling, greeting friends, scrutinizing one another in a bid to discover whether they might have just been dancing. Then, again out of nowhere, the performers appear in rank file at the rear of the pool and, en masse, perform a strangely conventional curtain-call. As you slowly file out from the venue, it is for a while very difficult to separate the reality of the outside world from the spectacle just enacted in front of your eyes. Regular people walking on the sidewalk seem as though they could possibly have some artistic merit to their movements; and if a toddler where to collide into you, or a car mow you down, you would swear it was down to some larger artistic scheme.