September 20, 2012

The Great American Road Trip, Part 1: New York City

This summer after graduating college, I took a road trip from New York City to Austin, and back again. It was the Great American Road Trip. That is, I think that all American road trips have an element of greatness to them, and this trip was no exception. 

Part 1: June 8-10

NEW YORK CITY - To arrive into Grand Central Station and ascend from its depths into the New York City air is to arrive into a layer time and space all its own. New York City very much exists on its own dimension, and nowhere does that feel so immediate and so real as when you open the doors of Grand Central into the humming midtown air.

Now you are being cradled in your train car, snug in your seat as the city's outskirts roll by. Now you are free to the beasts of the metropolis. Now the hum of the train car. Now the endless orchestra of the city -- the charging busses along the avenues, the chatter of women and men deep into gossip, cell phones, billboards, walk signals, colors, gum, shoes.

I am late getting to the city to meet Damiano and so I never ascend from Grand Central when I arrive, I never come up for air. Instead I charge towards the downtown 6 train to get myself to the East Village where I'll meet Damiano. I have to meet him by 7. I wait at the platform, the 6 arrives, I get there by 7.

Damiano tells me we're going to a TV pilot shoot in Brooklyn. There will be free booze and free food. We grab a slice of pizza on the way - I haven't eaten in hours. It's bad pizza but in the good way, the way that reminds you that you are in New York. We board the L and head for Brooklyn.

We ascend from the L. We're disoriented, it is just getting dark and I'm hungry again. When I get hungry, I get hungry. I don't stop talking about it. I don't focus on anything else but satiating that hunger. People get annoyed.

We crawl city blocks and make our way to the pilot shoot. It is a nondescript brick warehouse with a small black door next to a quiet apartment complex. Children are playing on the sidewalk. Their mothers and grandmothers watch from plastic chairs. We approach the building.

"There better be food in there," I tell Damiano. "Nondescript buildings don't always have food. And I'm hungry - I'm still very hungry." I had skipped my mid-afternoon snack getting into the city. A single slice of pizza was was doing nothing to quiet the growls my stomach was making every few seconds. I do not skip snacks. 

"Get in here," he said and tugged me towards the door. "We have to get in by 8 or something. That's what the person said. You just ate pizza! You're fine! Stop complaining!"

Now in the calm of a Brooklyn summer night. Now in the world of the Shanghai Mermaids, a private 1920s-decorated warehouse cum event ballroom cum informal television studio. Red velvet furniture, hanging Chinese lanterns, turn of the century circus pieces, peacock feather, votives burning in every nook and cranny, a long, worn wooden bar. Now the calls of children on the street. Now lanky men in black t-shirts calling out to their production assistants, amateur camera men, lofty lighting, strange and extravagant costumes.

We were the extras, there, I guess, to enjoy a party in the background.  We never found out the name of the show but I can tell you that it contains Indian men singing opera -- loudly, and not particularly well.

"I heard there was food," I informed a woman inside who appeared to know what she was doing, "and I'd like to know where that is located."

"Outside. Up the stairs in the garden outside."

Only in New York City does a "garden outside" refer to a cement covered slab between two buildings covered half with sand and surrounded by chain link fencing. The only living thing was an inflatable plastic palm tree. That's considered real nature in Brooklyn. The food came in the form of hamburgers and hot dogs yet to be cooked. They sat in shopping bags next to a charcoal grill yet to be started. I stared longingly.

God I was hungry.

We grabbed a beer and sat on a bench in the "garden." We spoke with a woman visiting from Australia. We spoke with a woman who started a jewelery business in Brooklyn. We watched the hipsters and the minglers and the loners. There was a woman in zebra stripe leggings. We tried to get her attention, but she would not speak to us. Too cool, I guess. 

We waited for the food.

By the time the food was ready, the crowd which had congregated outside was like a pack of Jewish hyaenas about to break the fast on Yom Kippur. You'd think none of us had been fed in days. I had staked a spot at the front. When the burgers were served, I quickly and without sympathy for those less dextrous snatched one up.

I ate it too fast. It was gone so fast. Like the pizza, it was bad but so, so good. 

I was still hungry. Damn.

We went back inside, we mingled, listened to the music playing, watched the pilot taping, felt the buzz of people, the way a room slowly heats up during the night when liquor is poured.

We returned to the garden. We saw a middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette with a clip board and two cell phones.

"She must run this place," said Damiano. "Let's talk with her."

"I do run this place," she told us, texting in one hand and tending to a cigarette in the other, "and I'm getting carpel tunnel from texting. I still have a flip phone. Who the fuck still has flip phones? No one."

"Yeah that's serious 1990s status."

"I'm Juliette Campbell. Juliette as in Romeo and --. Campbell as in the soup."

We didn't need the clarification but clearly this was her line. She seemed like the type to have lines.

She was middle aged and pretty in the way that when she was younger, she was gorgeous. She had once been on Broadway, and now she ran Shanghai Mermaids. Apparently the operation consisted of an "underground, speak-easy cabaret" in which she threw huge 1920s parties every month in this old Brooklyn warehouse - complete with period costumes, music and, of course, that irresistible 1920s vibe. She rented the space out to pay the bills. Tonight was paying the bills.

We thanked Juliette Campbell, left and slid back into the soft city night. The children were gone but their mothers and grandmothers still held court outside the building in their plastic chairs. We walked back to the L. Back to the East Village.

Met strangers on the subway. Followed them to a bar.

Four hours later, to sleep.

New York City is a city of contrasts. Now you are in one dimension. Now you have entered another. Now the calm Brooklyn street. Now the dazzling circus of the Shanghai Mermaids.

No where captures this sensation of transport better than the tucked away restaurants and bars of New York City. It is a sensation I feel over and over as I make my way through the city. The escape from the city street to the interiority of a bar or restaurant.

The good ones have soft lighting and soft voices murmuring over warm food. Some serve $2 falafel, others long and expensive meals. Some serve burgers in "gardens." If you have ever eaten in the escape of a New York restaurant, you know how it can take you away. You know the warmth it can bring from the sometimes cold and inhospitable city. You know how something so simple - a room, a plate of food, and hopefully a few good people - can transport you far, far away.