Books, On the Run

Events Deemed as Contributing to the Death of One Pair of Globe Sneakers: New York City

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Crime writers Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic have begun their US tour, On The Run: Australian Crime Writers In America, and have promised a daily update of proceedings.

In this instalment JOCK SERONG walks, and writes, his way through Manhattan.

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Yellowy slanting light and wet pavements in the drizzle. Shredded low cloud that’s more or less steam on the ground, and I’m transported. It’s Dog Day Afternoon. It’s Hill Street Blues. Let’s be careful out there.  

We’re staying in a brownstone in Harlem, dimly lit and reminiscent of some lost and grander time. Our host is William, a tall African American man with an easy laugh. Outside on the street is the fulfilment of everything that Harlem appeared to be from countless cultural representations, from Sesame Street to Across 110th Street: it’s black, untouched by gentrification, a community overflowing with street life, music, NYPD cops slouching around on the doors of their squad cars, more utility belt than human.

Halloween is around the corner and there are decorations everywhere, more or less obligatory and immune to culture and religion.

Halloween is around the corner and there are decorations everywhere, more or less obligatory and immune to culture and religion. Even the classiest of the bars is decked in spray-can cobwebs and plastic tarantulas. One of the neighbouring brownstones has half a dozen real pumpkin jack-o-lanterns, and I’m desperate to use the word so here goes, on the stoop.

It’s Sunday evening: everything’s a little quieter (set against no comparison I can justifiably make), bars are busy and again, dimly lit. The whole place is half-plunged in darkness, like electricity is somehow at a premium in this, the most luminescent city on earth. Walking that first night, from 119th north to 125th, yearning to shake off the greasy after-effects of twenty hours in the air, I fell into a bar called Barbaluccci’s, a cosy place in which women along the bar argued with each other, in that open American way that gives licence to take issue with complete strangers over something or other on Netflix. Every single sentence is brought to you by the vertical pronoun, but it’s never offensive. It’s a cult of the self, but shared.

The bar has an emblem, and the emblem bodes well: a Nautilus shell, the very thing that has guided my nights writing a novel.

I love the confidence in these accents; an easy assumption of cultural hegemony, and corresponding surprise that the whole world doesn’t talk this way. To me it’s the sound of forty-nine years of television, and it’s a shock – admittedly a rather dumb one – to find that real people, and not just actors, talk this way. The same could be said of sirens: surely the incessant soundscape of emergency vehicles from Taxi Driver to New Jack City. I wonder if it all emanates from the one fecund Ur-siren, marked on a button in some editing suite somewhere.  One ring to rule them all.

The red and blue emergency lights pulse through the insides of the bar, pretty refractions along the bottles, but nobody looks up. The drinkers are possessed of a very high threshold for emergency, somehow mirroring the very low threshold for the people behind the wheel of these vehicles. Are they just a bit siren-happy, or are there genuinely more life-and-death situations here? The handful of first responders that I’ve eyeballed here (surely physics is the actual first responder…kinetics? Gravity?) don’t seem the kind to over-react. They’re bored, cool, players in their own internal dramas maybe, but not skittish.

New Yorkers never talk into their phones – they yell at them from arm’s length, making it impossible to distinguish crazy people without phones from merely graceless people with them

Early morning I walk south down Manhattan Island from Harlem along the west side of Central Park, through Times Square, onto Broadway and all the way down to the Financial District at the southern tip of the island. Do New Yorkers think about it being an island, the way I do? If you denude an island of its vegetation and replace it with a billion tonnes of concrete and a population of tax lawyers, Irish cops and hedge fund managers, is it still an island or is it now a reality indifferent to minor geographical definitions?

A hundred city blocks in a straight line south, sweat pooling under the backpack, a camera slung around my neck to capture sly instants by hovering a thumb over the shutter without ever raising it to the eye. Four hours of walking, with two stops only: Rizzoli Books, and a brief interlude getting swindled out of ten bucks by a couple of aspiring rappers with a CD on offer. I was beneath the range of their considerable deceptive abilities: the CD was free (gee, thanks) but we’d like a donation (oh, sure) and we don’t change tenners (fine, gimme the CD back) and we don’t do refunds (hey what happened? Guys? Guys?). Really, it is impossible to feel more provincial than to have your arse handed to you by a couple of cut-price Tupacs in Times Square on a Monday morning.

New York City blocks are not, contrary to what you might have heard, very long. They end abruptly at regular pedestrian crossings, where everybody involved makes their own autonomous guess at what they might do next: sometimes cars stop dead, or accelerate, or try out their indicators for the sake of seeing whether they still work. Horns! Horns are like sirens for lay-people: second and third responders. Pedestrians variously yell at their phones (New Yorkers never talk into their phones – they yell at them from arm’s length, making it impossible to distinguish crazy people without phones from merely graceless people with them), gesticulate at each other, or drag medicated Chihuahuas off the scraps of a fallen hot dog. There is no simpatico, no rhythm.  The crossings are terrifyingly random. At one of them, I made a late dash and a bike courier followed in my wake. I got through, did not look back, but heard the sickening thud and the plasticky scrape of a bike under a car. The courier was sliding on the road, and without stopping he gracefully found his feet and hopped around in pain, hissing through gritted teeth. There was no swearing, no confrontation, and in fact a small crowd gathered and picked up his bike, reattached the parcel crate and looked with concern into his eyes, tender hands at his bleeding elbow. A strange city, but soft in unexpected ways. 

There really is steam curling out of manhole covers. There really are cops in white gloves directing traffic like it’s Ghostbusters all over again. There really are pretzel stands and women in fur coats. There really is a savage brand of inequality which populates the same footpath (sidewalk, I know) with a guy scraping a three-wheeled cart along behind himself, and a frat boy in a suit blithely telling his phone that until it hits a billion we’re not moving on it. There really was a Puerto Rican guy pressure-hosing algae off the penis of a cherub on a fountain outside the Plaza Hotel.

The odyssey ended at the offices of Macmillan Publishing – more about that somewhere else – but we left there with a tip on cocktails sixty floors up and conveniently nearby. The vertical thrust of the lift was enough to make your ears pop, and just like that you were separated from the terrestrial world and part of another one. Here was a bar in the sky, among the memorialising skyscrapers of the World Trade Centre, a place of infinite promise that belonged to hey-bro suits and the people who hunt them with their eyes. We sat on our twenty-dollar Whisky Sours for ninety minutes while the Masters of the Universe eyed our prestigious corner booth with an envy that hedge money couldn’t remedy.

Another morning, and the ongoing slow death of a pair of sneakers. This time through the spectacular vault of Grand Central Station (I Sat Alone and Wept, etc.) the New York Public Library in heavy marble and gilded names engraved like the gleaming walls of a mausoleum.  The sleek art deco steel of the Chrysler Building foyer. A diner, vinyl chairs and booths and staff in a major hurry – you want ketchup? Not to put too fine a point on this, but what sort of modern metropolis takes stock in pickling cucumbers with garlic?

The vertical thrust of the lift was enough to make your ears pop, and just like that you were separated from the terrestrial world and part of another one.

Onward and southward down 7th to the Chelsea Hotel, which to my great delight retains all its brooding infamy, despite a skirt of scaffolding – it’s been under renovation for eight years. Underneath, there’s a tiny comedy club and an even smaller guitar shop. The building’s hard to photograph because it sprawls and it offers no logical lines. It is defiantly the upright brick-and-render ghost of another time, unbowed and mysterious.  Dirty brass plaques by the door commemorate the greats who worked and slept and drank and shot up there: Leonard Cohen, Brendan Behan, James Shulyer. Needless to say, Sid and Nancy don’t rate a mention.      

Loping homeward, north up 5th Avenue late at night under drizzle, the heavy drips off the awnings of the upmarket apartments trickling down my neck, thirty kilometres of rubber-necked exploration nearly at an end.

A last glance in the ground-floor window of a corner apartment block. A cop in there, addressing a gathered crowd with a microphone. It’s some sort of community education session. He’s in uniform, gun belt, one hip in contrapposto. A Halloween smiley pumpkin face hangs by a streamer next to his head as he talks, the idiotic grin of the thing, drifting back and forth in the currents of the air-conditioning. I arrange myself outside in the rain and start taking photographs and for just a second the red eye of the auto-focus alerts him and he looks out, his face a study of alertness, strangely human and earnest beside the wildly-grinning pumpkin.

For yesterday’s instalment, click here.

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