V6 027 Manhattan is not an island

Volume 6 part 027 New York and beyond

Rarely venturing off Manhattan we have done brunch in Brooklyn. A day trip on the long Island Railway as far as Sayville followed by a ferry crossing to “The Hidden Forest” was our first taste of Fire Island. By the time we had scrambled through undergrowth to emerge in “Cherry Cove” there was just enough time for sharing a Pizza and a bottle of Pinot Grigio before the last ferry of the day left for the twenty-minute ride back to the mainland.  It was the end of the 2007season.

The return to Fire Island in 2008 celebrated a belated honeymoon with 5 nights at the Madison Guest house in the middle of two split weekends in New York City.

There are two Gay Villages on Fire Island.

Cherry Grove has become a Lesbian ghetto fondly named “Cherries” and tolerant of the twinks, cheap hotels and partly shabby bars. Since the late 60’s the Pines has been directed at the more mature, discriminating Male Manhattan Gays. Fine examples of 20th century domestic architecture overlook one of the most stunning shorelines in the Northern hemisphere. Restaurants are few. Narcissists abound. The Madison offered exclusive pent-house accommodation for the discerning traveller. Painted all white, embellished with brown suede and only fifty meters from the dock it has all the ingredients for the ideal Honeymoon destination.

We arrived out of Penn station to Sayville, changing at Jamaica and taking the Mid-afternoon ferry. An obliging local pointed us towards the un-sign-posted Madison hidden behind a close boarded high fennec bordering the Atlantic View boardwalk. After unpacking, we walked through the meat rack to “Cherries” for afternoon tea. We dined enjoyably at Cherries Restaurant, sheltering from a short-lived torrential, thunderstorm.

Returning in early evening daylight with Pete acting as guide through the mile or so of undergrowth that separates the Pines and “Cherries” I managed to step into a swamp. What appeared to be a puddle left over from an earlier thunderstorm was deep enough to have me up to my nuts in black slime. The branch I grabbed to prevent my decent bent under the weight causing me to sink at a leisurely pace otherwise unsupported. I cut a dashing figure to the “Armani” boys dressed to the “nines” walking along the boardwalk in the opposite direction heading for a night’s entertainment in the undergrowth. Pete walked ahead acting as a human shield, jumping aside to give me full exposure to the oncoming pedestrian traffic. The smell would have been a giveaway. While I monopolised the formerly all-white walk-in en-suite shower   Pete made use of the open air pool side facilities. We had been in the Pines less than four hours before I’d succumbed to the swamp and my “beloved” had accidentally flung an ill-fitting diamond studded Amuletti wedding ring into orbit. The decking had greedily swallowed the shiny white gold disk with no intention of ever giving up its treasure. The week went rapidly downhill from that moment. 

Hiking between the PInes and Cherry grove through the “Meatrack”

Returning in early evening daylight with Pete acting as guide through the mile or so of undergrowth that separates the Pines and “Cherries” I managed to step into a swamp. What appeared to be a puddle left over from an earlier thunderstorm was deep enough to have me up to my nuts in black slime. The branch I grabbed to prevent my decent bent under the weight causing me to sink at a leisurely pace otherwise unsupported. I cut a dashing figure to the “Armani” boys dressed to the “nines” walking along the boardwalk in the opposite direction heading for a night’s entertainment in the undergrowth. Pete walked ahead acting as a human shield, jumping aside to give me full exposure to the oncoming pedestrian traffic. The smell would have been a giveaway. While I monopolised the formerly all-white walk-in en-suite shower   Pete made use of the open air pool side facilities. We had been in the Pines less than four hours before I’d succumbed to the swamp and my “beloved” had accidentally flung an ill-fitting diamond studded Amuletti wedding ring into orbit. The decking had greedily swallowed the shiny white gold disk with no intention of ever giving up its treasure. The week went rapidly downhill from that moment. 

In those days “Jumping Jacks” did good food, offered table linen, OK wine and efficient friendly service. Located overlooking the beach at westerly end of Cherry Grove the wild deer would feed in the Dunes close enough to help themselves from your plate. The deer carried ticks infested with limes disease.  The restaurant above “Cherries” bar looked out over the sound towards Long Island thankfully serving half decent food, as it was too dark to see what you had ordered or what you were eating. A process of deduction determined from which menu or serving pot you would be likely to be charged. Contesting the bill would be a product of pure here-say!  The wine list was superfluous as whatever the choice, was served from one of two boxes kept under the counter. A red one and a white one tasted very much the same in the dark, the difference dictated by the intensity although not necessarily the colour, of the residual stain left on white linen trousers by the obliging but visually impaired, reptilian waiters. Breakfast on the quay side in the Pines was once fresh tasty table service served up by tasty fresh well-dressed college kids on summer break now replaced by  hit and miss self-service fast food doled out by slow staff with no place else to go. Eggs benedict at the “island breeze” in Cherry grove is worth the hike. The Canadian bacon is no more disappointing than that served in the rest of North America.

In recent years the Bistro in the Pines and the Top of the bay In Cherries have provided expensive antidotes to the degenerating style and service of the Islands former glory. Jumping Jacks is back in name only.

For the most part, brandy and Coke rendered Pete oblivious to the charms of Fire Island. He took to partying at both “Hi-tea and low-Tea”, frightening a large proportion of the natives in the process.

I was rarely invited. I lost a friend for dinner that year.

I was glad to be flying business class. I was glad to be going home.

We gave New York a miss in 2009. The brandy was becoming a burden.

The ferry to Cherries passes a baroque timber mansion overlooking the “sound” called the “Belvedere”. Built by a famous stage set designer, the house is now a boarding house for an exclusively gay clientele managed by a couple with tenuous links to the former owner. Individually themed rooms featured trompe d ’oil frescos on every surface including the ceiling. We took the “Pompeii” for week in September 2010. Pompeii is one of half a dozen suites that benefit from a private boardwalk extending onto the water’s edge. A king size double bed pressed against the wall allowed access from one side only severely restricting nocturnal rambling to the micro en-suite. Paintings featuring nudes served to titillate and expose inadequacies alike. A small gym, deck level pool and clothes optional roof terrace opening from a belfry on the third floor that ran reel to reel gay pawn concluded the facilities available. Self-service, “Folgers” instant coffee and Wal-Mart creamer brought over in bulk on the morning ferry constituted room service.

Taking drinks through the window at Jumping Jacks

We took Brunch at Cherries or the Island Breeze, ate dinner at a revamped Jumping Jacks managed by an English woman originating from Scarborough, or the upper deck at Cherries. The Island Breeze also received a visit on a couple of occasions. Generally the meals were fairly well prepared and presented, modestly priced and frequently fully defrosted. I took after dinner drinks, solo at the bar in Cherries or the Island Breeze. The lesbians were friendly enough, largely keeping themselves to themselves and their Yorkshire terrier derivatives which couldn’t be said for the men who were generally from the shallow-end of the gene pool and without the distraction of four legged friends. The attractive ones travelled in close, tightly knit, gangs penetrated only by the rustle of a sugar daddies open wallet.  Quiz night was a washout. The questions revolved exclusively around American popular culture automatically excluding foreign tourists or groups with less than a combined half a dozen brain cells from the winning pot.  Out of a total of eleven teams of city air-heads and summer islanders I still managed third place. The winner with a proper Yorkshire terrier who sat on the local council appeared well acquainted with the raven haired, thirty something, bar manager who purported to being retired from the NYPD. The older Lesbians fished the Atlantic for breakfast at dawn each morning. They dressed the part in combat shorts and multi-pocketed vests and considerably more capable with a twenty foot rod than the limp wristed men.

Cherry Grove – The Belevdere

The pseudo glamour of the Belvedere was not reflected by the clientele. Both were marginally decrepit and in need of some serious renovations around the edges. Scranton is a stateside Grantham for those down cycling from Des Moines, at the back of beyond and beyond redemption. Three older gentlemen and a screaming queen came from Scranton. Scranton is apparently a cheap place to retire to for blokes from the Boroughs. They took two rooms between them. The residents for each room alternated by the hour with the younger one the principle variable and much in demand and from the volume of his voice, wasn’t going to get lost that weekend. Pill popping was allegedly medicinal. His life threatening chronic illness deteriorated rapidly when called upon to undertake the most modest domestic duty. Being ordered to “fetch a Folgers” initiated an immediate relapse of his MS. I found him to be an overall classic nasty piece of work. Pete found him to be entertaining. A chunky chap of completely the wrong shape, claiming to be a Choreographer working on Broadway during the week proved to be equally odious. He would insist on sitting on an adjacent sun lounger legs akimbo, naked from the waist down except for his loosely draped towel as a way to cool down from a totally ineffectual twenty minute stint in the pool side gym. His power of seduction was literally in your face. The only thing to be admired about this rampant, mildly desperate, “has-been” was his choice in men!

A black and white couple from the New York Philharmonic, a brace of teachers from North Carolina and second hand car salesmen from Atlanta coerced  by a no-touch, blond house-boy who dressed naked after dusk indulged in a pool party into the early hours after the local bars closed around midnight. Those were barmy nights! Pete had jumped on the wagon the previous Christmas and was tucked up in bed after a heavy evening crushing and fertilising the flora in the meat rack.

how to paint a ceiling ?

We resolved to return for the sequel in 2011.

Business was good. I was now officially “retired” with the new company coming into force the day we departed for New York in late August. Pete was officially sober.

In addition to the two weeks taking Joe’s selection of inheritance memorabilia to Italy we planned to repeat the Fire Island of 2010 but with a shorter stay in the city before heading out to the Belvedere. Both the Washington Square and the fashion-district Hilton were fully booked. Wednesday evening would be spent at the Sheraton on Canal. We would be on the island for late-lunch on Thursday. There was little point in extending our stay in the city where the itinerary in previous years had come to largely revolving around extended bar-crawls. We would do the shopping on the way home.

A larger, less ornate room than the previous year’s “Pompeii” at the Belvedere overlooked an unkempt swamp, abutting a private balcony so close that the toads could land spit without breaking cover. Mosquitos swarmed. I am highly sensitive to all things that bite. The “lesbians” had taken over the local town council in Cherry Grove, banning allegedly carcinogenic insecticides, allegedly to reduce the incidence of breast cancer, yet giving scant regard for an Englishman’s irregularly high histamine levels.

Contrary to our better judgement but with no alternative rooms available, we unpacked and set out for late lunch. Heading out to the ocean and then west along the shoreline we exited the beach at the boardwalk that feeds Jumping Jacks.

Plastic table cloths had replaced the linen. The lady from Scarborough had done a runner leaving the Diner in the incapable hands of a bunch of chemically assisted juveniles super-glued to social media. The JD and coke was as thin as the anorexic waitress.  Homemade house specialities, including the Findus fish and chips originated from a rusting chest freezer rattling away next to the gent’s toilet. Choosing from the labels on the cartons rendered the whole concept of a menu redundant or at the very least, superfluous. Vanilla cheesecake was anaemic. Strawberry cheesecake was a pink version of vanilla. Neither had ever seen a cow but proved to be an equally excellent fix for loose dentures.

Clarification of the mandatory evacuation notification in advance of a rapidly approaching Hurricane, broadcast over the sports channel, was less than useless from a crew incapacitated by words of more than one syllable or outside the constraints of their auto texting. We retreated to the Belvedere and rebooked the Sheraton by internet, for the next evening as a contingency.

Craig and Julian, the proprietors of the guest house, pressed us to take the mid-day Friday ferry with baggage limited “by Law” to what we could carry. There was no rebate for missing nights due to a Hurricane! We had been on the island for less than a day. The long Island rail service into Penn station was full of evacuees fleeing the impending storm estimated to make landfall sometime Saturday evening. With the calm, we naively thought that we would simply resume where we had left off. The worst of the hurricane was a day late crossing Fire Island to the West of Cherry grove in the early hours of Sunday morning. Jersey caught more wind than New York. CNN reported trash-cans being blown over in Queens. We slept through the whole thing despite being prepared, when ordered, to move from the fourteenth floor to below the tenth at a moment’s notice. Peter couldn’t share the “Dunkirk” spirit dispensed until the beer ran out in the lobby bar. He was confined to Fox news for the better part of forty-eight hours. Marshal Law quarantined the streets of New York City. With no response from the Belvedere during Sunday we re-booked at the Sheraton.

Throughout Monday the mobile at the Belvedere went unanswered. Again we rebooked at the Sheraton, each time through the internet due to reception refusing to take bookings in case current guests reaching the end of their stay refused to check-out.

A chatty chap at the “Ice Palace” picked up the phone immediately it rang. He confirmed little damage had afflicted Cherry grove and that two Ferries would be running at midday on Tuesday. The following morning, with the promise that the “Ice Palace” would save us a room in case the Belvedere was swamped we headed for the 9.0am out of Penn station. Power lines were down East of Babylon cutting short the train journey. A sprint across the platform was rewarded with two seats in a taxi-share to the ferry dock at Sayville. $50 each for a one hour ride, plus tip, got us to the terminal in time for a packed 12.30pm crossing to Cherry Grove. We waited patiently in queues snaking around lakes of fresh water puddles under a blazing clear blue sky. The locals marshalled trolleys piled high with everything required to fully restock their homes, including all manner of cats and dogs while Pete and I nursed two small carry-on’s carrying soiled underwear and a lap-top computer.

The Belvedere dominates the shoreline overlooking the Sound from Cherry Grove. The belfry was intact. Craig and Julian were not only surprised to see us pulling on their door bell, but appeared positively irritated at our untimely intrusion. We had paid for the week and a week we were going to have. There were three days of partying to catch up on. The room was undisturbed. Not even the bed had been made. Having little to unpack, we took up immediate residence by the pool. As no other guests had arrived by Thursday we traded two days back in New York for an extra two days on the island. On Sunday morning we would leave for Manhattan and Monday evening for JFK.

This year there had been no blond cheer leading house boys, and no choreographers, no musicians and no teachers. There was a dirty old man travelling light with a single change of clothes in a supermarket carrier bag wrapped around a bottle of vodka and a real Chinese boy who would insist on constantly approaching us totally uninvited, and with his shorts around his ankles enquiring if we liked his skimpy underpants. Dropping his trousers at every opportunity that mispronunciation dictated was extremely off putting.  I can’t imagine that the Chinese ambassador to the UN would have countenanced such behaviour from such a spectacularly ill-endowed junior-clerk enjoying a few days of “cultural” exchange. True to stereotype there was no digression for a baby-Gay from a mission once set.  Irrespective of the chronic communication barrier, he took little persuasion that Pete was available. The zeal with which he pursued his prey was a joy to behold. 

Chairman Mao would have been proud!

There was little else to laugh about.

The Hurricane had left the Island a swamp leading to an explosion in the Mosquito population. Instead of draining the swimming pools, chemicals and a leaky sieve were relied upon to sanitise the water. Whatever the source of the infection I spent three of the last four days at the Belvedere basted in calamine lotion to mitigate the effects of “Folliculitis”, most commonly called “Hot Tub Folliculitis” embellished by a rash of bites of biblical proportion.  The cutesy doctor doing his two-week freebie sabbatical for the gay community in exchange for two weeks free bed and board had been worth every cent of the $50 donation. Following the diagnosis, with a second opinion from his live-in Korean boyfriend who coincidentally practiced as a dermatologist, the doctor accompanied me to the local pharmacy to assist in the selection of over-the–counter assorted pills and potions. His follow up consultation was a home visit, immediately after a daily work-out in the Belvedere pool side gym. Regrettably, the visual inspection was not supplemented with a full physical.

A beach to die for….

To avoid public embarrassment, I stayed inside a shirt when out in public. This gesture was insufficient for the Craig and Julian who took on an increased, decidedly frosty demeanour towards their former storm chasers.

Restaurant standards had fallen to the point where the prospect of starvation was not only a possibility but a possibility of choice. The food at Cherries had, on occasion been fairly digestible. Cheap and nasty food, served at exorbitant prices by an indifferent workforce, was now served in even cheaper and nastier style. The reliance on candle light failed to disguise a lamentable menu. Plastic plates and cutlery had been introduced over the year, supposedly as a “water conservancy” measure. To add injury to insult, the moth I was swatting for half an hour turned out to be a partial detachment of the retina.

It was time to go home, complete with “Flea bites” and “floaters”.

The floater stays with me, leaving an indelible reminder of 2011 and the inhospitality of uncomfortable hosts at the uncomfortable Belvedere. We had illicitly scattered the ashes of dear ma-ma over the “Belvedere” in Aachen just four months previous. The word “Belvedere “has become synonymous with all things uncomfortable.

There was no New York in 2012. We sold the house in Brincliffe in 2012 staying relatively local until the deal was sealed choosing Ibiza instead.

New York always beckoned. 2013 was a full two weeks stateside with the first 3 days in New York and the remaining time spent on Fire Island. We chose to return to the Madison in The Pines. Little had changed on the web reviews since the 2008 honeymoon. The Madison was still considered the best. We took the penthouse overlooking the pool. The house had sustained no damage in the 2012 hurricane yet the white, both inside and out were now a myriad shades of grey. The linen cupboard doors hung from their hinges as testimony to the indifference of the live-in staff. The linen cupboard said it all. For most of the day the place was deserted as long-time returning guests caught up with each at house parties or on the beach. A group of boisterous week-enders destroyed any semblance of tranquillity whilst turning the Jacuzzi into a cess pit of secretions creating a greater risk of pregnancy than through all-on unprotected penetrative sex. The DNA in that gene pool was going nowhere. Bi sexual swingers had been the last company we had expected to encounter in an exclusively men’s resort matching the dismay of coming face to face with a ginger minge at the “men-only” Finca in Ibiza the year previous. We stayed well away.

“Jumping Jacks” had regained its table cloths, “Dream breeze” (Island Breeze) had discovered cutlery and “Cherries” re-discovered plates. They had responded to a new first floor restaurant called “Top of the Bay”, located on the first floor deck overlooking the dock and favoured by the Old Money, Yachting fraternity dropping in from the Mainland on private yachts with more money than taste. The Pines had a restaurant of similar quality also located on the dock also giving priority for tables to regulars irrespective of pre-booking. Bars remained pretty shit attracting business with innocuous quiz nights aimed at punters with an intellect comparable to that which had been sluiced from our Jacuzzi at the crack of dawn each day. Unsurprisingly, the majority of questions still featured obscure American sit-coms and veteran baseball players ensuring that Europeans and Mexicans continued to have little chance of winning. Only criminally crass, fifth grader mid-west red- neck Americans stood a chance of taking away the bonus pot which unsurprisingly stood in excess of five hundred dollars for a stake of only a dollar a ticket. Judging by the competition, the pot was definitely going to make it through the season unless the ladies with the Yorkies reoccupied their former fiefdom. Franklin and Dion serenaded sixteen dollar JD and Cokes. Even in its heyday at the “Monster”, the signature drink of a pint of “long Island Iced tea” hadn’t topped ten bucks. I drank alone most evenings. Pete not only feared the booze but his tolerance to the incessant “rah-rah-rah” jabberwocky perpetually spewed out by the seriously-stupid put him in real danger of being arrested for multiple homicide or at the very least, inflicting mass grievous bodily harm.

Most afternoons we walked the mile or so along the beach from the Pines to Cherry Grove to take the reasonably priced cocktails served through the window at “Jumping Jacks” by an aging Muscle-Mary. Pete took tonic water whilst the gym-bunny hit on us in turn with his one good eye. The guy had been on the island as long as we’d been visiting although fairly aloof cocooned in a tight circle of the season’s in-crowd. It was time for him to graduate to long pants and go home. He knew it.

Lazy days on the beach gave way to lonely days around the pool cracking open the gas barbecue for grilled chicken legs the size of Turkeys accompanied by authentic French Baguettes and homemade pate. Barbecues broke the monopoly of dressing for dinner. While I snoozed to Pinot Grigio, Pete would wander the Pine Woods. Passing on the narrow board-walks, Craig and Julian of Belvedere days sustained their pretence not to recognise us.

We met Michael and Joseph, a young gay couple from the Bronx now living in Brooklyn with a King Charles spaniel. Being teachers, one of them a NYU beach-time was in plentiful supply as long as they could find somewhere to bunk. They paid their way and lived modestly. Their combined IQ was greater than the cumulative total of the seasonal visitors.  The Spaniel was a likely contender to win the jack-pot at Cherries quiz night.

Michael’s observation that I drank too much, consuming a whole bottle of red wine and a couple of G&T’s on out last night on the island was not well received. They dutifully walked us to the Ferry to wave goodbye the following day. It was the first time we didn’t go back to New York to bid the city our farewell. From the LIR we took the Sky-train from “Jamaica” straight into terminal eight and the AA business class red-eye back to Manchester.

From Hi-T to Low-T, from the self-service breakfast to the extortion on of the general store, from the queenie Bistro to the Findus frozen meat feast… – Fire Island had peaked. It was no longer the preserve of the beautiful people, or the eccentric, or happy or even the “Gay”. Fire Island has joined the Canaries, Manchester’s Canal street and New York City in abandoning the “larger than Life” in favour of simply, the ordinary.

The beach is still to die for. The echoes of a by-gone era of superfluous excess still resonate as further proof that memories surpass reality.

Had it not been for Joe and Elena and 2014, 2013 would probably also have been the last time in NY.

I had arrived in New York in 2002 and instantly understood what the boys we met in Brighton meant when they said that America was a classless society yet “America” is not New York. Neither is America San Francisco or LA and will never be Cape Cod or the Pines.

For class, read money!

New York works. If you get the buzz you get it. If you get the rawness of it’s extraordinary ugliness … you get it. If you feel the vibrant power … you get it.

If you don’t you’ll never get New York. In New York, if you can, you will… and if you will, you will win. In England the establishment allows you to go only as far as to the point where you do not pose a threat. This system pervades every strata of society from the old Etonians controlling government to the lad in Rotherham with a right to look down on a migrant worker! The English all have their place and each place endures a layer above whilst enjoying a layer below. We drive cars as external manifestation of this system and that reinforce this stratification by emblems, labels extending even to an unhealthy respect for registration number plates. Americans simply do it by size!

Sadly contemplating my escape in the town car taking us to JFK on my first visit to the Big “A” I knew that had if I had gone to New York twenty years previous I would not be going home.

I would have stayed on as yet another one of those side walk, teeming masses scrambling to make the dream come true in a city that truly never stops and where the slivers of sky glimpsed through canyons of grey concrete is literally the limit. The few who make it, clawing over the residue of the many who don’t get awfully close to that sky however short-lived or precarious their ascendancy. The few may tread on the many but while they are careful not to remove hope they will remain largely unopposed. Look into the weary eyes of a million seething commuters daily swarming the sidewalks of Manhattan on their two hour trek from the nearest affordable suburb they rarely see in day light to do a twelve hour grind for a heartless overlord in an airless arial necropolis and all that you can see is hope. You can rarely see happiness.

It is easy to suffer delusions when an experience of New York is based on a selective two weeks a year confined almost exclusively within Manhattan fuelled by a bottomless credit card, yet in New York you can be truly anonymous, you can be you or, you can be a masquerade.

Nobody really gives a shit!

In the airport concourse in September 2002 it was Cheltenham 1967 all over again. Once again, I didn’t miss the bus… I had responsibilities!

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