It’s my first time in New York and I feel like I’m in a film. Or should I say movie? The landlord of the place I’m staying in says to me:
“Got any habits? Give me a call! D’ya smoke weed?”
“Sometimes, but I’m trying to keep a bit of a lid on it.”
“Want any women?”
“Er, look, I know where you are. I’ll give you a call if I need to.” More to get him off my back than anything else.
I reckon Alan Ginsberg would call the place I’m staying in a “cold-water flat.” It’s actually blissfully warm, but the central heating lets off steam loudly.
All the time.
I get used to it, though
The plan while I’m here is to do a few shows and take the political pulse of the nation. At least, as far as I can, bearing in mind I’m only here for a week and I’m only staying in the one city. America is choosing its presidential candidates, and the UK press is all: “Clinton! Obama! McCain!” The former two are slugging it out to be the Democratic party candidate, and McCain is Republican front runner.
I suppose I want to see what’s going on for myself.
I’m also spending some time with Dan Donnelly aka Sonovagun, with whom I toured round Ireland last summer.
The first show I do is sparsely-populated but riotous. I’ve just come off the plane and I’m jet lagged. A man sits near the front almost out cold with drink, and while I’m playing I overhear the two girls next to him describe how they want to take him home and have sex with him.
“Hey mate!” I say to the man as I finish a song. “You’re well in there, those girls want to take you home and fuck you!” He starts coming round a bit.
During the next song, the girls start kissing each other. “Hey, you two!” I say to them when I finish, “That’s the first time anyone has copped off with anyone else during one of my songs! Congratulations!”
They seem very happy at that, stop snogging and start listening to me.
Welcome to NYC.
A few days later I’m in Bluestockings, a radical bookstore just off East Houston. I get talking to two middle-aged women who are discussing the election.
Eva is white, an immigrant from Eastern Europe and a naturalised American. She’s undecided who to vote for, and although she supports the troops in Iraq, she wants them to come home.
None of us are sure that a different government would do that.
Diane, African-American, a health advisor at the local college, is behind Hilary Clinton, because she wants to stop the outsourcing of US jobs to China and India. Her son is in the marines, and she supports the troops, but she too wants them back.
“They all signed up because they wanted to go,” she tells me.
I’m surprised because this is a radical bookstore, with lots of anarchist publications in. It turns out Diane comes here because she is a writer, and Eva is here because her son is giving a reading.
The three of us sit and listen to Eva’s son as he reads the assembled audience a short story about how he was arrested for picking up a prostitute after splitting up with his girlfriend.
Eva looks very proud.
Lach, progenitor of the legendary anti-folk movement, hosts a night at the Sidewalk Cafe. It’s folk, Jim but not as we know it. I get up and do a number. Even though it’s about 2am on a weekday, there are still a few people about.
“This number contains a dogging scene,” I explain to the assembled punters, “but I’ll let you know before hand so if anyone gets offended they can block their ears.”
I finish my song, complete with parental guidance warning, and sit down. A guy comes up to me afterwards and says:
“Hey buddy, what does ‘dogging’ mean?”
“You know,” he says,”people round here won’t understand that term. We call it sexual exhibitionism.”
I make a mental note to explain any UK slang in my lyrics to US audiences in the future. I then go into a full scale mental panic thinking that my songs will double in length as I explain all the different terms whilst performing them.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I say.
I did the same song the previous evening and everybody got the joke. But maybe that was because the audience were mainly from the west coast.
Confused, I wonder off into the night pondering the strange inconsistencies of communication on different sides of the pond.
I find myself falling around at a bar after a gig some days later. The guy behind the bar, Seamus, (white, an Irish immigrant), tells me that if Barack Obama gets elected, someone will take him out within the first year of his presidency.
“I’m telling you for sure, if he goes down South, some of those bastards will shoot him, just like King or JFK! Look what happened the last time people started talking about change!”
Dave, (African-American, a musician), explains. “Most people in America are stupid. For example, I’d say 75% of black folks will vote for Obama just because he’s black. Personally, I think he’d make a good peacetime president. But this isn’t peacetime. People will probably get behind McCain. He’s an ex-Prisoner of War, and he’s also more what American people are used to during wartime. We’re not ready for a big kind of change yet.”
Miguel, a Mexican immigrant, works in the kitchens. He can’t vote. “A lot of Mexicans do the jobs Americans wouldn’t touch, because the money and the conditions are so bad. And at the same time they tell us they don’t want us in their country.”
The next afternoon I’m talking to Wendy Brawler, the woman who started the Green Map system. According to their website:
Green Map System energizes a diverse global movement of local mapmaking teams charting their community’s natural, cultural and green living resources with our award-winning universal icons and adaptable multi-lingual resources.
A friend of mine has been involved with setting up the system in South Wales, hence the contact.
“Everyone seems to be very excited about the elections here,” I say.
Wendy sighs, exasperated. “A lot of them more interested in personalities than substance,” she tells me. She points me to an exhibition happening in the Lower East Side. “I think you’d be really interested in this,” she says.
I look at the address. “It’s right next to where I’m staying!”
And it’s there I meet Marlis Momber.
She’s originally from Germany and she came to live in the Lower East Side in the sixties. She started to photograph the area and its inhabitants during the 70s. It’s Spanish-speaking inhabitants referred to the place as “Loisaida” – a Spanglish version of its original English name, but also, (according to poet Bimbo Rivas, who coined it), an ideology of community empowerment.
At that time, Loisaida had a bad reputation as a ghetto. Slum landlords firebombed their properties after ridding them of their occupants, and hoped to sell them on to developers who were hell bent on turning the area into a habitat for rich stockbrokers from Wall Street.
At one point, the area was filled with derelict buildings and wasteland.
“It was just like Berlin after the war,” says Momber.
Yet in other ways, the community went through a renaissance. They fought back with self-help organisations – and poetry. A fierce spirit of resistance took root, and turned back the tide of gentrification. Neglected wastelands were transformed into community gardens, (which funnily enough I had been photographing just before I encountered the exhibition). Squats were turned into housing co-operatives, other kinds of social housing were created and credit unions were set up.
The area has a rich history of Latinx immigration, mainly form Puerto Rico. The became reflected in its cafes, music, poetry, murals and street festivals.
Marlis’ work documents this process over 30 years.
Eventually Avenue C – which includes the squatted building where her exhibition is taking place – was renamed Loisaida Avenue. A photograph of the official re-naming ceremony featuring local residents and Ed Koch, the Mayor of New York at the time, has a prominent place.
Koch more recently saw the photo at one of Momber’s exhibitions and signed it. As well as his signature, he inscribed the words: “Hooray! You won!”
I’m blown away. Right under my nose is the kind of radical culture I’m used to dealing with. Marlis asks me to come and play at the exhibition tomorrow night.
The crowd that assembles the next evening is mixed, both ethnically and age-wise. Spanish and English are spoken amongst young and old, black and white. Marlis is buzzing as the New York Times is writing about her exhibition.
There are films shown. Sandra Rivas, daughter of deceased local activist and pioneer of the Nuyorican scene Bimbo Rivas, has edited down hours of footage of significant events in the community’s history and shows a partially finished version of her documentary. Poetry is read out and some amazing food is served.
A guy gets up and does some songs in Spanish with some percussionists and a flute player. He has to go but I get up and play, and the four of us jam out some Latin versions of my songs.
The vibe is incredibly relaxed and welcoming. It’s a community reconnecting with its own history.
Eventually the jam turns into an incredible Cuban-style percussion-fest. I’m a bit lost but one of the musicians, Emilio, helps me out by showing me some rudiments. The whole place rocks out to the music.
By the end of the evening I’m exhausted but content, and wonder off to my flat nearby with the hissing thermostat.
Of course I have to visit the Empire State building, and Times Square, and see the garish arrogance of capitalism in full effect.
I wonder down to Ground Zero, where not so long ago a bunch of pissed off Muslims brought their grievances home in bloody, spectacular style to the Heart of the Beast, as it were.
It’s now a building site.
Every TV in every bar is blaring out the latest news of the Presidential nominations. Political change, as always, is in the air.
But, like skinning a cat, there’s always more than one way to go about it.
This is one of a photo of one of Marlis’ photos.
Many thanks to Dan, Tanya and Shane.