Postcard from New York III: 'We don't have much time'

October 5, 2009

New York friends have told me that this can be a lonely city to exist in, that the alienation and isolation can at times be crushing. 
To which I must reply: Have you, New Yorker, ever lived in London? To clarify my point, I'd propose a video link-up between the Hogshead pub in Camberwell and the Bacchus Bar in Boerum Hill; the News Coffee shop near Manhattan's Union Square with an Italian sandwich shop on Gower Street, London. And then wait for the men in white lab coats to tot up the number of friendly verbal exchanges, level and duration of eye contact and, well, just general acknowledgment of other humanity.  

Because I think Londoners are pathological in their avoidance of conversation - whether it's just a friendly natter about the latest news or to initiate a little date-making chat - and the only, only way this might ever alter is in the event of a force majeure; you know, terrorism or a particularly nasty rainstorm.  New Yorkers by comparison, seem ready to talk at all times of the day and night and do not skimp on personal details. I find this for the most part a welcome relief from my former life of awkward exchanges and staring at people's toes on public transport. 

 

Busker in Time Square/Piano (NB sparsity of photos occurs when you lose the card reader for camera)







A word of warning or advice: carrying a book around almost guarantees that you will be talked to/get chatted up. Not exactly the most obvious conversation starter is Peter Brooks' 1960's manifesto on the way forward for modern theatre 'The Empty Space'  you'd think, but here in NY? It's a winner. Kind of like how you hear apocryphal tales about how your average Russian man on the street was once able to quote swathes of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky whilst in the bread queue, here in NY it seems like everyone wants to discuss Peter Brooks with me.  First, I get chatting to a guy who runs an experimental theatre company in the Bronx. Then: 'That is just about my favourite book on theatre EVER” says a girl wandering past my table in the local coffee shop.However, when therapist-dance-man's expression suddenly narrows and takes on a steely glint, and he delivers the  heart-sinking line 'excuse the forwardness of this as we don't have much time',  I brace myself for what I have suspected all along: he is a member of a cult, dispatched to loiter train cars eyeing up the potential lost and lonely. It explains it all.  The dancing with trees. His preternaturally intense focus on a foreigner like me. And above all, that  handshake. Why else? Oh crap, no, he just wants to ask me out for dinner. May he have my number? “Of course!” I find myself saying. (Years of conditioned politeness...dammit). We should have dinner sometime. “That would be LOVELY” (Put your card BACK in the wallet). Too late...too late...And yesterday on the train over the Williamsburg Bridge: “How are you finding that book?”. “Er...what? Ah yes, the book”. Conversation with fair-haired local who has a firm handshake ensues; turns out he's a therapist working with 'authentic dance' in natural settings, and heavily into the Japanese Buto movement. It's all quite sweet but as a Londoner the frequency of these spontaneous conversations takes some getting used to. My impulse is to be cagey but it takes some doing when people are so guilelessly nice. 

 

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