V6 025 A lasting love affair

Volume 6 part 025 Taste the Apple

Selling the company name and portfolio to a company of American origin hijacked travel plans for 2002. The annual February-in-the-Canaries had moved to April to ensure I was available to seal the deal whilst also salting the idea of where we would be going in September…

New York, New York!

The new owner’s parent company originated from New York. I had not wanted to sell but believed we needed to sell. Although there was little that a visit could achieve if we didn’t like what we saw the Americans deserved “the benefit of doubt”. New York had never been high on my priorities as a holiday destination. The city that never sleeps was just another place on the “bucket list” but well towards the bottom.

A week-end trip to Torquay in summer of 2002 to meet a long lost family of Pete’s relatives offered the perfect opportunity to absorb the “Rough Guide” to New York.  The “rough Guide” simplifies everything for a first time traveller with limited time and matching budget. Pete’s cousin, who had offered the invitation, emerged as a part time transvestite with a fairly good taste in Gay boutique Hotels that regrettably banned dogs following a boisterous Labrador being allowed to destroy a retractable pool cover. Stella the “JR” was all of four kilos with no interest in pools or pool covers but fell foul of the carpet-ban being forced to spend her holiday in the car after being caught in the act of being smuggled out of the room on the first morning after snacking on a pillow and a tube of toothpaste, boffing and converting a toilet role into a confetti cloud. The second night, while relegated to the car she ate a sports shoe and for the main course, part of the back seat of a Mark II Landrover. We had driven down on the Friday. Saturday was spent walking the streets seeking out bars and restaurants with beer gardens that allowed dogs. It was too warm to leave the dog in the car.

The cousin introduced us to the four most prominent gay bars in town where, for a “straight Guy”, he appeared well known and partially popular. To compliment propositioning Pete at the urinal offering his services as a “kissing cousin” he also popped pills. It was no accident that I ground a couple into the carpet with my size eleven and a half hoof before he could bend low enough to rescue them in the Sunday evening crush in some back street bar. He was fairly devastated, clawing at the worn, well compressed Axminster to rescue whatever morsel of stimulant not absorbed by the residue of the Sunday afternoon spillage. I was mildly amused but, then again had spent the day indulging on carafes of chilled Pinot Grigio delivered to my sun lounger from the hotel bar.

We met the cousin’s wife at an Italian Restaurant. Pleasant enough albeit dowdy, she appeared oblivious of the transvestite Alta-ego even though her husband had featured on the front page of a gay-pride review the previous year and shared a wardrobe. The cousin disappeared for extended periods during the meal making for very uncomfortable conversation. The rest of the family had adjourned to their phantom yacht for the week-end.

I summary, the plans for New York were hatched by the pool one sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-July reading the rough guide cover to cover fuelled by three bottles of a delightful chilled dry white wine served in blue glass carafes shaped in the style of rampant mermaids. Stella was liberated from the Land-Rover on the hour for a walk in the car park or to sun bathe on my knee sat on the front steps of the hotel reception. The Hotel grounds were out of bounds even though the baby JR’s manners surpassed those of the local gays. Peter frolicked in the pool entertaining a local audience of drag queens and fag hags. We won’t be going back.

Manchester to JFK became our favoured commute. The rough Guide” street maps gave limited indication of distance or scale. Taking a best guess, the Washington Hotel, curiously located on Washington square provided an affordable option with a relatively close proximity to Christopher Street. On the ground, the convenience the West Village was better than could have been expected.

For the record, roads East-West are Streets and those North-South are avenues. Ten blocks walking north-south takes around ten minutes roughly equivalent to walking one block east-west. Streets and avenues are essentially one-way traffic and alternate their direction in turn. Even numbers are heading north and generally East although the East-West gets a little messy North of the South end of Central Park and South of 14th Street where street names take over from street numbers. Avenues are increasingly being referred to by their Christian names such as Columbus, Avenue of the Americas, Lexington etc. etc., which is singularly unhelpful for the minor dyslexic traveller.

Simple! 

Anything west of Fifth Avenue is “West” xxx Street and anything east of Fifth Avenue is “East” xxx Street. This important piece of geography can reduce cab fare by up to fifty percent. Broadway stretches most of the North-South distance of Manhattan on a shallow diagonal across the grid iron plan whereas Fifth Avenue finishes or starts, at Central park or Washington square depending upon which way up you are and walking. The triumphal arch, known as the Washington Monument is nothing as grand as the Arc de Triumph in Paris but offers a landmark in a lively park serving a lively crowd which mostly spill out from the surrounding blocks of UNYC. A variety of Street Artists entertain the lunch time masses in the plaza around the fountain in summer sharing space with the god- squad and political extremists spouting a monotonous tirade of intertwined obsolete doctrine. The fenced play-pound for village dogs is worth a look-in for the terminally homesick. Taking seasonal shade under the trees to the West end of the park can bag you a game of chess or two with relatively rough but surprisingly capable hustlers, some of whom moonlight as drug dealers.

Washington sq 2013 but just the same every year…

American Airlines gets us in for late Lunch time just two hours on the clock after leaving Manchester on a seven hour flight. In the early days we flew cattle class graduating to premium economy by 2005 and exclusively business by 2010. An AA gold card gets us past the hoi palloy. The yellow cab is a fixed flat-rate-fare, hassle free ride into Manhattan giving half a day to get your bearings before hitting the sack in the early evening to combat the time zone differential.

New to the city and too early for check-in at three, we left the bags in reception and took a stroll into Washington Square. Typically, busker’s murdered every manner of musical instrument in the late summer sunshine by the fountains. Old black-men played chess in the shade. Dog owners let their pooches play in the secure compound reserved exclusively for pet owners after allowing their animals to lay ambush on the pavements.  Flip-flops are not a good idea in New York. Pete scored twenty-five Dollars’ worth of weed the second his feet hit the park-side side-walk in a repeat of Height-Ashbury two years previous. He was also wearing flip flops.

A Polish receptionist showed us to a pokey room on the fifth floor with a view rivalled only by the one in San Francisco. The battered air-conditioning units provided the sound effects otherwise lost by being stationed at the back of the hotel away from the constant, twenty four hours a day, traffic noise. The shower worked. There’s no denying the efficiency of an American flush. It’s safer not to hit the handle whilst still sat on the loo.  The suction will literally kick the crap out of you! Over the succeeding years we developed a cordial relationship with the miserable Pole’ on reception and the fearsome flush alike although It took five years for her to give us a smile and six to for a street view.

Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Avenues are slightly converging by the time they get as far South as Waverley. The streets start to lose their regular grid-iron pattern below Chelsea and 14th Street. Less than twenty minutes’ walk west of the hotel is Sheridan Square, home of Gay “rights”. The Stonewall Inn still presides over the square marking the very spot where the emancipation movement had its “big Bang” in ’69. Christopher Street starts just west of Sheridan linking Eighth Avenue all the way to the Hudson River and marking the traditional centre of Greenwich Village. Greenwich Village was world renowned for its liberal attitude to Gay’s. This was Gay-town, East Coast style. The most popular bars appeared in the “Rough Guide” but find one and you’ve found the lot. Each bar keeps a stock of A5 size monthly issue magazines with variously raunchy titles listing the places to be and “what’s-on-and-where” for any given day of the month.

In the early years, wherever we found ourselves we would always make it back to Christopher for the last drink. We became regulars of the “Hanger” which offered a mixed crowd of unusually heavy drinkers ranging from bears to brats, blacks, whites and Latinos of every shape and size. Tourists were both domestic and foreign. The domestics were generally red necks in exile from the Mid-West, bible-belt and beyond.

“Ty’s”, directly across the street was preferred by the more mature punter seeking refuge from the ageing go-go boys featured at the “Hanger”. For a proper chill then it was “Boots and Saddles” at a time when the men’s bar was a scream-queen free-zone. “Duplex” on the corner of eight and Waverley was more for the younger trade apparently renowned for renting at competitive rates. On the opposite corner stands the iconic “Monster” Bar. In its heyday this was the quintessential gay bar with a sing-along Noel Coward lounge at ground level furnished with baronial chairs and a grand piano. An oval bar dominated the centre of the room, imprisoning gladiatorial, bare chested barmen. Drinks were a fair price and served with astonishing efficiency worthy of the rip-off tips typical of the United States. A basement bar was home to a week-end disco that served as a letting agency for the boy’s from the “Duplex”.

In our first trip to NY we didn’t wander far from Christopher. There was no need. We met nice people doing fun things who liked the company of English queens. A boy from Brooklyn with bleached bubble-cut-curls learned how to speak “Yorkshire”. He popularised such words “twatted” throughout the neighbourhood although pronounced “Twaart’d – y’aarl” and screamed out at ten decibels above the safe volume for the human ear. We entertained a charming young man of mixed race, newly in town from Des Moines on a three-day marketing convention, taking him on a pub crawl around Greenwich Village. Normally extremely observant and receptive to the minutest detail it was not until Pete came to shake the young man’s hand good-bye did he realise that the boy only had one arm. Two further pints and a story involving something about how is birth-mother had put his arm in a mangle at the age of four saw the baby black man depart for the airport with two new lifelong friends. Needless to say, we never heard from him again and as likely to find ourselves in Des Moines as moving to Grantham.

An armless encounter never the less!

We had discovered the “Eagle” in the meat packing district. In those days you wouldn’t walk the meat packing district day or night. Resembling a tourist amplified you as a possible target. Not looking like a tourist offered no defence. The Eagle was located in a four storey warehouse and spread over all four floors with a bar at each level. By the time the smoking-ban in public places came into force, the roof of the Eagle became the fifth bar complete with ketamine fuelled clientele. After one such encounter between Pete and cute Greek boy we had met the night previous at some dive in the East Village, I spent around $70 on taxi fares dashing from one district bar to the next in the hope that Pete might find some action. The only action he managed before coming down from a stratospheric “high” was heading for the toilets at the “Phoenix” on Second Avenue. The bogs were in the basement. He cleared the terra-cotta stair-case in one step! His relaxed posture ensured that nothing was broken although see-through skinny rib string vests were out for the rest of the week. The bruises were a little too ripe to be displayed.

A Sunday lunch beer blast at the Eagle was supposedly accompanied by a barbecue. Contrary to Pete’s reconnaissance and spurious feedback, the only thing being eaten in the rear courtyard was live sausage. I retaliated, by denying to an unsolicited enquiry at the bar that Pete and I were a couple and trading him to a short, fat, Korean business man wearing a suit and tie in a leather bar. The Korean hovered close-by brandishing a chain for most of the afternoon ultimately going halves with another customer for a boy wearing only a padlocked chastity belt and allegedly formally owned by a State Senator based in Washington. The grimace on the poor boy’s face made it difficult to ascertain whether he was having fun with Pete tickling him into a hard-on trapped inside a leather pouch or if he had something vital trapped in the padlock. I couldn’t help thinking how dirty his bare feet must have been.

I got neither sausage nor beef burger that year. We settled for a pizza on Seventh Avenue in an Italian restaurant next to a Chinese internet café where woodlice had rained down onto key board from the dining mezzanine above while I was locked into a one-hour web exchange with the PFI team at the University Hospitals of Leicester.

The “Rawhide” on the corner of Seventh and twenty-eighth, wasn’t worth the walk unless you got off watching the new arrivals checking themselves out in the two-way mirror that made up the street frontage to the bar. As soon as a newcomer sat at the bar they realised they had already been the centre of attention. 

The “Hole” was as big a shit hole as the “Cock” with the exception that the shit was in the toilet and not on the floor. The “Cock” got its name, surprisingly, from the five feet high neon cockerel in the front window. We walked past it three time before asking a stranger for directions. He pointed to the “Cock” on the corner. You could scarcely miss it if, indeed it was a five feet high neon “Cockerel” you were looking for. The “cock” was renowned for its gig’s. The Scissor Sisters had started-out there and I believe there was a vague connection with Madonna although I’d lost interest in the conversation by that time, being in danger of hyperventilating through lack of oxygen.  Fortunately, there were also a number of smarter bars in the East Village, not unlike the “Phoenix”, where punters wore slacks and buttoned down collared shirts and deck shoes. These were altogether more civilised drinking holes. For the most part the Gays’ wore clothes whatever the bar. It was simply a matter of what clothes.

Over ten years and more, the bars have steadily migrated north. With a few notable exceptions, including the Eagle, bars have given way to lounges. West Village gave way to Chelsea. Chelsea, in turn gave way to Hell’s kitchen but remained just as drab for an equally drab crowd.

As with the Canaries, the characterful have gone underground. The characters have become main stream. With mainstream became “normal” and normal doesn’t pose a challenge.

Gay egalitarianism had given way to gay discrimination. Latinos had their bars, Black’s theirs and the whites shared with self-professed liberal straights, lesbians, transsexuals and hen parties. Old men still go to Ty’s, now as tired as the Monster since it temporarily lost its Bishop’s thrones and grand piano. The Boots and Saddles, once the preserve of “Real men” quaffing beer by the mugful without holding the handle now scrapes a meagre living hosting drag shows compered by nasty, screeching skinny twinks whose sole purpose in life is to intimidate and attempt to embarrass late middle aged English gentlemen.

“Splash Bar New York”, euphemistically called SBNY died before “Heaven”. The water fall, allegedly full of prancing go-go boys was as disappointing as the Greek Adonis who needed a hutch up onto his podium at the start of each of his five-minute, twice an hour body popping go-go sessions. On the singular occasion we tried to enter “Heaven” it was Lesbian night and conditional on showing ID. Presumably the Russian wrestler guarding the door thought we were transgender. She had thought twice before rejecting us outright. The uptown “Red Rooms” on 56th was so high class that we were the only customers. When a twenty-something pink-pig with blotchy pink skin in red speedos attempted a private dancer improvisation with his back side, altogether far too close to my right knee, we made a break for it.

Greenwich became so diluted as to be unrecognisable. New York fell victim of the Internet and social liberalism just like any provincial town in the UK. By 2009, Pete stopped drinking and bars became incidental. Becoming adventurous with restaurants also has its draw backs. They change or worse still, stagnate. They also go away. Memories should be simply be left as memories.

The Guide book branded the “Tavern on the Green” the most pretentious eatery in New York but if you had the cash and wanted to be seen it was the place to be. We booked for Sunday Lunch. The beer blast could wait until 2003.  A table on the terrace, partially shaded by a Rowan Tree, resplendent in red berries, offered an unrivalled vista of the large tables filled with family groups from Brooklyn and Queens taking lunch under the guardianship of grey suited security men with curious bulges, mostly in their jackets.  The food and the service was exceptional in its banality. I grabbed the seat under the Rowan, best placed for people watching while Pete received his entertainment from a pigeon shitting squarely onto my left shoulder. Had it not been for his shrieks of laughter the waiter might have been able to ignore the embarrassment of having one of its patrons being shat upon from a great height during a corn-fed chicken entrée. I had wondered why Pete didn’t make a fuss about having his back to the New York Mafia. It transpired that he had seen the tree and its tenants en-route across the terrace and quickly computed the risk of arial bombardment.

In the early days we mostly ventured into street frontage restaurants and faster food “joints” on Christopher, Seventh and Eighth. All professed Mediterranean origin which is more than can be said for most of the places in Little Italy.

September breaks invariably coincided with the “Little Italy Carnival week”. The very same “ladies who do Lunch” and who regularly did Sunday lunch at the “Tavern” spilled out of every pavement restaurant the length of Mulberry. Gangster Molls are particularly fond of English Gays. They rarely failed to make a fuss, giggling their good-byes all the way to their chauffeur driven, steroid injected, armour plated, four-wheel-drive off-roaders for the trip back to some safe enclave in the outer Boroughs or the respectable suburbia of Long Island.

At least one late lunch in Little Italy is a compulsory excursion extending to and including the trip of 2014 accompanied by Josephine and Elena on vacation from Italy. We did it twice that year which says something for the admiration of Italians towards their home cooking.

The “Joseph Lawrence” on corner of Waverly and Sheridan was an accident. The Greek across the road was no longer in existence but at five in the evening there was no queue at the JL. By 5.30 the queue of commuters wanting a seat was three times the capacity of the restaurant. Tidy “New-England” staff complemented simple but exceptionally well presented dishes served with an extensive and sensibly priced wine list. The tiny elevated kitchen on a gallery, staffed exclusively by tiny Central Americans opens into the thirty or so seater restaurant finished in scrub pine floors and tables. French style windows with sills at table level, opened out onto Sheridan square.

By our fifth visit over a period of four trips to New York the untidy waiters matched the untidy French windows in need of serious renovation. The barmy New York autumn air now had free-range around the sun split timbers inhibited only by the nesting ants and designer cobwebs left conspicuously to keep elbows clear of the split panes of glass.. The wine prices were as high as the top shelves to which lack of demand had seen them relegated. There are still queues at “tea time”. The tiny cooks in the tiny kitchen are still doing their thing but with a tiny menu.

Location and room rates make up for the limited facilities at the Washington Square Hotel. As a popular tourist destination we also found the hotel often unavailable. The “Affinia” within walking distance of Penn station offered an Ideal pit-stop for the 2008 holiday when the middle four days were to be spent on Long Island. 2008 was the honeymoon year! The Long Island Railway terminates at Penn station. The Affinia was big and drab but a good price and for its purpose, a good location albeit that they wouldn’t hold luggage for non-residents forcing me to find a depository three blocks walk away.

For the 2011 lay-over in New York we chose the Sheraton on Canal Street. A Hurricane forced us back into the City from Fire Island the day after we had arrived at the “Belvedere”. For the first time in its history Macy’s and the sub-way closed. We stocked up on provisions from the deli counter in the lobby just in case the rumours that no staff would be getting into Manhattan for the whole week-end were true. Marooned at the Sheraton for a third day, a card on reception advertised a Restaurant on the corner of “Canal and Church”. Only two blocks away it was worth chancing the walk. The “Macau” was open but empty. The staff had being doing a sleep-over but forgot to inform their regular customers. Power cuts had damaged the neon. Super service and fab food, a cross between Portuguese, Chinese and New York’s finest steaks made it an instant hit. Our return after a week on Fire Island to a heaving Friday Night crowd was greeted with priority for a corner booth, the same menu as the week before and a complimentary bottle of wine thrown in as an apology for the wait. We have still to return.

The Paris Café was a must and lunch-time favourite for over ten years. Located off Quay 19, just South of Brooklynn Bridge it boasted the best fish on the east coast. Although an accolade too-far it did serve Stella Artois by the pint. The only other place we had found “Stella” had been at the gallery bar in Grand Central Station.

Day two of the first trip to NY coincided with the anniversary weekend of the attack on the twin towers. Burly Fire fighters and Policemen from every part of the states had descended on New York to admire Pete’s “stars and stripes” converse boots. Within half an hour of discovering the Paris café, the place was crammed with burly officers in uniforms of every service, rank and denomination drowning their corporate sorrow.  What a party that was! We ordered lunch sandwiched between the bar and beefcake. The barman refused our order for two shrimp starters offering the second free if we could finish the first serving between the pair of us. That year we skipped the main course and went straight into a few jars of Stella for desert.

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