Archive for the 'New York\' Category

Meetup

Monday, April 18th, 2005

My friends at Meetup have had a rocky week. Nobody likes to be told that they have to pay for something that used to be free, and I’m especially sympathetic to organizers who already feel like they’re working hard to run their Meetup Groups. It’s a tough service to charge for. Nevertheless, I’m counting on my old team to weather this. We need what Meetup provides more than we realize.

Scott, the founder, has always done a great job of starting conversations with smart people, and one of my favorite parts of working there was the chance to hear their thoughts. In an iWorld, there are few services that push people to form community groups the old-fashioned way—face-to-face. It’s so rare that it drew people like Esther Dyson, Pierre Omidyar from eBay, and Senator Bill Bradley, each of whom patiently coached our young company (and continues to). Every few months, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson, Doug Rushkoff and others would gather in the Meetup lounge—on inflated, furry chairs—and share their work on the behavior of groups, the future of community organizations, or social networking.

Robert Putnam gave the most interesting talk. He’s the Harvard sociologist who wrote Bowling Alone, a book Americans hadn’t known they wanted to read. Chart by chart, statistic by statistic, Professor Putnam patiently mapped the decades-long decline in community participation in this country, which had once been such a nation of joiners. The slice of the country that still reads books looked up from TVs and computer screens and read his headlines.

The news was that Meetups save lives.

Social capital: it’s who you know, not what you know. (But you knew that.) Your contacts determine more about your career success and your earning potential than your academic achievements. The best predictor of low crime rates in a neighborhood is not income, or education levels, or cops on the street, but the number of neighbors who know each others’ first names. If you are socially isolated, it shortens your life expectancy as much as smoking does (so the smoking groups who huddle outside Manhattan and Dublin bars probably come out even.) Every ten minutes added to your daily commute cuts your social capital by ten per cent.

But joining a group—any group—cuts your risk of dying prematurely this year in half. Half!

Year on year, since a high in the early Sixties, every form of participation in American life has declined. That means card-carrying memberships, church attendance, and volunteerism, but it also means the habit of entertaining friends at home, or going for picnics, or taking part in a sports league. Forty years ago, Americans reported that they went to five picnics a year. Now it’s two. (I went to two picnics in Prospect Park last year. After each of them I gushed about wanting to do it every week. But I didn’t.)

Professor Putnam showed a graph of the number of people who agreed with the statement “Most people are trustworthy.” By the 1990s, it looked like it was hurling itself off a cliff.

It’s both relaxing and exhilarating to sit with a great teacher or a great novel. You sense that they are taking you somewhere new, and you trust them to bring you along. The real lesson Professor Putnam brought for us was that this gloomy state wasn’t new. It had happened before, almost exactly a hundred years ago, when mass mechanization separated people from their families, sent them to cities, and caused the existing institutions to falter. In a response to modernity almost as energetic as Ulysses, Americans invented a huge number of the community associations we recognize today. The Boy Scouts. The PTA The Rotarians, Elks, Kiwanis, and Toastmasters. The Little League. All were artificial inventions, over a fifteen-year span. Today, Professor Putnam studies Meetups to find out if they might come to fall into the same category.

Here’s my own modest theory. It took us a few decades after the car and the TV ruled our lives to realize that being sedentary made us depressed and shortened our lives. The first joggers looked crazy—where are you going in such a hurry? But then Nike showed us the waffle-soled shoe. The strange notion of “health clubs“ was slowly accepted. We invented machines that resisted our muscles as well as farm tools once had. Jane Fonda helped the home video industry almost as much as pornography. These days, this entirely invented need has become a bazillion-dollar global fitness industry.

We may dread a gym session, but we know it’s good for us. So we set aside the forty minutes three times a week, and hope for the glow of reward. As artificial as a Meetup can feel—and I confess it never felt anything other than weird to me to meet a bunch of strangers in a public place—it may be part of a related wave of orchestrated engagement. We may start scheduling efficient bursts of human contact, so that we can stay mentally healthy enough to get back to the glowing screens that really call us. Our primate brains seem to need a social workout—so why not a social gym?

The World is Flat

Thursday, April 7th, 2005

When Elvis sings “I’m just a hunk, a hunk of burnin’ love,” I’m ready to sign up for U.S. citizenship right then and there. Only a country of genius could produce that kind of art. Nevertheless, America needs to get out more. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist , has recently discovered that the world is flat, that Indians are smart, and that other countries have workers and telecommunications infrastructures as sophisticated as the homeland’s. Perhaps we foreigners can even produce glib essays for a tenth of Friedman’s wages (as long as you pay us in Euros).

Eight years ago I shared H1-b visa gripes with Indian engineers in Times Square, while we worked to fix bugs with the Hyderabad colleagues who lived twelve hours in the future. The older IIT engineers, who had gone to graduate school in the US, acted as cultural brokers for the delegations that went back and forth between Hyderabad and Broadway. We could have told Friedman what was coming, if we’d been at the right cocktail parties.

Gokul, my colleague and running partner then, went on to MIT graduate school and now runs Google’s AdSense program. We’re neighbors again, in a region where fully a third of start-ups were founded by immigrants, including Google. Eight years on, at a time when USCIS has made it much harder to come here, we could now do just fine or better where we came from. The next generation of Gokuls can start their empires at home, and that’s why the US Ambassador to Ireland has had to tour the universities to beg Irish students to take up summer visas to visit the US. They’re not interested.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2005

The Hmong have a phrase, hais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things.” It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are, that no event occurs in isolation, that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point, and that the storyteller is likely to be rather longwinded.

“In New York, freedom looks like too many choices,” Bono sings. When I moved there I was shy about ordering the plainest deli sandwiches and confused by the flashing Don’t Walk signs that made people run. I had no visa, and it took a month or two to find work at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a proud literary publishing house I’d never heard of. I filled Jiffy bags with reviewer’s copies, and cut out the assessments that were sometimes granted in response. I filed the reviews in moldering folders—Kincaid, Jamaica; Nadas, Peter; O’Brien, Edna—along a corridor where Mike Hammer might have rented an office. I was paid in hardbacks, which I rarely read. It’s a rule of mine: never read anything bigger than your head.

Eight years later, I arrived for my last shift at another volunteer job on a freezing New York night. Between calls I flicked through People and US Weekly and worried about Brad and Jen. My shift partner, whom I didn’t know, read for a while too, and then slung his feet up on the desk and fell asleep. Because he was handsome, and wore yellow socks, I sneaked a look at his book to see if he was worth waking up.

It was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. At Farrar, Straus & Giroux I’d packed a carton full of review copies and sent them around the country, but I’d decided it was too worthy to bother taking home (and I lacked the enterprise to sell it). Who wanted to read an epic about a Hmong toddler’s epilepsy, and the clash between her refugee community and the doctors at a Californian county hospital? I wasn’t sure what a Hmong was, even, and in any case I was preoccupied with Princess Diana’s funeral.

Since then I’ve visited a Hmong village in Laos, a day’s walk from the nearest dirt road. At sundown, when the villagers went to the river to bathe decorously under sodden sarongs, I slipped on the muddy bank and fell in, and cried. For dinner they killed a rooster—a precious rooster—and fed me the boiled head. I eyeballed this baleful Pez dispenser and made a show of fake humility in handing it to the teenaged monk who was my guide. Pon lit up. It was the end of Buddhist lent, and for over a month he’d eaten nothing after midday, and no protein at all. He sucked the rooster’s tongue like a lover, and then crunched through to the brain. I swallowed gritty gizzards. The villagers gathered in the doorway to watch the feast in silence, though they didn’t eat. Afterwards, someone made coffee, pouring the whole packs of Nescafe and sugar I’d brought into a kettle of river water and boiling it to syrup. I sipped mine, until Pon pantomimed that there were only two plastic tumblers and no one else could drink until we finished. We unrolled mats on the earthen floor, feet pointing towards the door to keep bad spirits out. I lay awake in a coffee buzz while underneath the stilted house the men hammered a coffin for somebody dead, and got raucously drunk on laú-laú moonshine.

I was an ungracious guest, frustrated that I knew so little and hung up on details. How much money should I offer the head man? Which one was he, anyway? How would I tell them I needed to go to the toilet? Why were the children scared of me? Why wouldn’t these people build better shacks? Were the men opium junkies? Were they really this dour? Oh Jesus, was that a leech?

I didn’t know how to begin.

Nor did the people in Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book, which my new friend hand-delivered to San Francisco last month. Both Hmong immigrants and locals were baffled and helpless. The Hmong didn’t want to be on welfare in Merced, California. They wanted to be back in their villages in Laos, where ‘pig-feeding time’ marked sunset and sunrise. The local taxpayers wanted them back home, too. Kissinger’s adventures in Laos had been kept so quiet that most Americans neither knew nor cared that Hmong tribes had been recruited to fight a private war for the CIA, and had been kicked out or slaughtered when the Americans lost 1975. Their path to America was traumatic, involuntary, and took a great deal longer than the Orderly Departure planes that left them stranded as homegrown traitors. “It was a kind of hell they landed into, “ said Eugene Douglas, Reagan’s ambassador-at-large for refugee affairs. “Really, it couldn’t have been done much worse.” Both sides expected gratitude, and got resentment. The Hmong had little left but their culture, and no interest in giving it up to become American.

That’s not an immigrant approach that America is prepared for. Think of the graffiti in Rio: “Yanqui go home—and take me with you.” America defines us so thoroughly that I could arrive in New York as a full-grown adult and feel at home except at the deli counter. But the Hmong had stayed apart so successfully that they were confused by toilets, and canned food, and electricity, and money, and hospitals. American doctors were known to steal body parts, without which souls couldn’t rest. (For their part, the doctors saw their Hmong patients as ungrateful and “non-compliant”.) It would be hard to imagine the scale of their bewilderment, except I remember it first-hand, stumbling in that river and wanting desperately to go home.

Fadiman begins with a description Fish Soup, as told by a Hmong student at Merced High School:

To prepare fish soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need a hook, and in order to choose the right hook you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. Continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French with an overlay of Hmong. anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He ended with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and, finally, how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs.”

To tell Lia Lee’s story, Fadiman makes a fish soup of her own, winding through Hmong history and culture, the American War, immigration policy, western medical training, anthropology, welfare reform, a changing community, and a family. Like Tracy Kidder, or a Hmong fisherman, she watches and waits, and unfolds her tale with startling delicacy. In puzzling out a catastrophic clash of cultures, she looks for answers rather than blame. Along the way, she changed medical culture and won the National Book Award. It’s beautiful. Read it if you can.

Rehearsal

Monday, February 7th, 2005

In a store on East 9th Street I agree with the sales assistant that the bag I’ve picked up is lovely. It is. The bronze leather is soft enough to ripple, and the silk lining is hand-stitched in the workshop out back. She snatches up my two words.
“Oh! What part of Ireland are you from?”

I’d make a terrible celebrity. I don’t like being recognized, but I tell her anyway. She gasps again and waves a script. She’s studying lines for a Monday audition, and the North Dublin accent is being a right arse to her.
“I rented The Field,” she says, “And Angela’s Ashes.”
“And Darby O’Gill and the Little People?”
“They didn’t help much,” she says sadly, “They weren’t really Dublin.”
She seems nice, and I like interfering, so we start with a list of movies that she needs to see. The Commitments, which she’d forgotten. The Snapper—better, because the lead is a young woman. I Went Down. Some Colin Farrell interviews; he’s not quite right, but close enough to pass as Nortsoide for an American director. Forget The Dead; that’s a period accent, and the other side of the Liffey in any case.

She’s working on a Conor McPherson play I haven’t heard of. I was in college with Conor, though I didn’t know him. He wrote plays for DramSoc before Broadway adopted him. Noreen is impressed at this connection, though all I can think to tell her is that he was a funny-looking redhead back then, known to be talented and a grafter, and I remember him in tights. The ticket price for each of his plays doubled like lily pads, from three quid to see the The Light of Jesus at the Project Theatre in 1994, up to ninety bucks to see The Weir on Broadway a few years ago. The set design for his speechy dramas didn’t keep up, which made me bitter. For ninety bucks I expected a full-size Huey to land on the stage, at least.

“How do you pronounce N-E-A-S-A?”
“I’d say ‘Nassa’. But sometimes it’s ‘Nessa’.”
We go through the lines. I try to give her helpful rules. If it’s full-on North Dublin, then ‘book’ rhymes with ‘puke’. No tee-aitches. ‘I’ is ‘Oi’. You drop the ‘t’ at the end of a word and stick in a glottal stop if necessary. Wha’ abou’ i’? I channel our Taoiseach(Prime Minister), Bertie Ahern. Bairrrrr-tee. That’s it, there’s a constipated frown that goes with it, especially if you’re threatening. I teach her northside jokes to get her in the mood.

“What do Nortsoide girls use for protection during sex?”
She looks worried. She is scribbling notes. Book = puke.
“A bus shelter!” Shal-thur.

A trio of Japanese girls comes in, coos over the bronze bags. Noreen’s sausage dog makes a bid for East 9th Street as the door opens, and she looks terrified that I’ll escape too. So she keeps me talking as the girls quiz her. “No, sorry, that one’s not on sale, it’s new stock…please, say it again.”
Foookhh off, wudjeh?”
Faakhh off, would you?”
“No, fookhh off, wouldj yeh?”

The Japanese girls look puzzled.

Rules, rules. Her notes snake around the script. “Fight” is “Foigh’” Then we probe Neasa’s motivations. “What would she wear? I mean, she’s this North Dublin barmaid, and this guy has dumped her because she’s too low-class for his family. This is the scene where she confronts him, with their kid upstairs. So what would she wear?”

This is how I method act my own life: if I were to move to California, say, what would I wear? Truth is I’m not sure any more what Neasa would put on. These days Ireland is more slapper-glam than New York City and I’m doubtful about anything beyond fake tan. That’s a definite. Brooklyn girl jeans, I tell her finally, and a tight black top. “Like these?” she says hopefully, and points her blue 501s, which look midwestern. No, I tell her. Tighter, babe. Neasa would be hard-eyed, I tell her, especially if this confrontation means a lot to her. She would fold her arms tightly across her chest.

Noreen says that she would really like to get this job. She hasn’t worked in a while and she can’t afford dialect coaching, but she would really, really like to get this job. As I edge out the door she asks if she could maybe call me with some follow-up questions, for a few extra bucks?

New York actors break my heart. I just hope they don’t hit me up for a hundred and eighty dollars when I go to see her shine.

The Relocation Consultant

Saturday, January 29th, 2005

I needed an estimate of the cost of moving my stuff to California. Ken at Meyer’s Moving checked the schedule and said “Okay, so you’ll be seeing Igor.” He gave a little laugh; not unkind. His own parents had given him a name so plain-vanilla American that he could only be Chinese. But Igor bore his amusing name with sad dignity.

He was tall and good-looking, and wore the flashy black clothes of a mid-eighties English pop band. There was a suit jacket with some complicated zipped neckline, and long, swishing black coat. He wore those too-long, gelled sideburns that are a usually a giveaway of Irish guys abroad. He seemed as young as a cop.

When he came to the door he looked dour, but he flowered under careful applications of his name and cups of coffee. He asked shyly for a piece of toilet paper to blow his nose, which dripped in the cold. Then he stalked my bedroom with his clipboard. There wasn’t much to see. “This is it?” he said, “This is everything? There is nothing in storage, in a basement? A bicycle, maybe?” He asked if I were paying for this myself. I was cagey, not wanting a padded estimate. “Because, if you’re paying for this, you should pack yourself. Really. You don’t have too much breakable stuff, and it will save you three hundred dollars. That’s what I would do myself. Save the money.”

He asked if I’m driving out there, told me that my iPod works great as an FM receiver in the car. I told him I couldn’t drive. He said that he had driven three times in his life before he took his test, and the next day he was driving trucks. It’s super-easy, he said.

Now his card says “Relocation Consultant” and his English is as groomed and careful as his hair. He’s going to make it.

When you live in a great city, intriguing people cut your hair, move your boxes, or drive your taxi. Last month my beautiful Polish dentist and her Chinese-Filipina assistant talked about what it meant for us to be thirtyish immigrant woman in this city that saw us as we wanted to be seen, where we hung on against the tidal pull of home and family. “Don’t you think, Dervala?” demanded Agnes, née Agniewska, as she rootled around in my mouth. She had come here at 17 on a gifted student program. In return for her Barney’s shopping bags, her litigator boyfriend, and her New York lacquer, she had lost the way back to Poland. I mumbled my own story through her fingers, dribbling.

There was the Afghan taxi driver who sat for twenty minutes outside my apartment after he’d driven me home from a drunken staff party. He had fought against the Russians for two years, but by training he was an architect. He could have been the father of the National Geographic girl. His family was related to Hamid Karzai. “We’re royalty,” he said, “as if that matters.”

There was the sad-eyed, handsome Staten Island Czech who helped me move in here in May, borrowing a van from his weekday delivery job. He sucked down Pall Malls and seemed too fragile to manage my third-floor walk-up, so I helped. Eventually he smiled to show his missing back teeth, and talked about Prague. Three hundred bucks a month was all you could make there, he said. What was the point? He grew animated as we drove down Atlantic Avenue, with me navigating from the rumble seat. Then we stopped to pick up a bed for my new apartment (found, like him, and like the apartment, on Craigslist). The American who was selling the bed was confident and loud. I liked him, but it was uncomfortable to be caught between their worlds as he directed Ivan. “Hey, man, you’re not going to get it down the stairs that way. Habla espanol? No? Turn it around. Like this, see? No, no, no—watch it! Okay?” Ivan went quiet, then. We sat on my new stoop with a couple of Pilsners before his dignity returned.

There was Olu, the taxi-driver from Lagos, who railed about the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa. “Why did I come here? Well, it’s the greatest country in the world! I wanted to test myself! You are an American girl. You do not need to make these choices.”

He liked to read at stoplights. He showed me the books on his front seat; on Shambhala Buddhism and American history. I asked him what his dream was, and he was coy. “I can’t tell you that. I am afraid if I talk about the dream too much, the talking will become enough and I won’t do anything to make it come true. That is always a temptation. My brother dreamed of being an engineer and now he is and so he can talk about it. But I am still driving a taxi so I can’t say yet.” Five minutes later, as we drove through the tunnel, he blurted. “I would like to be a writer! That is my dream!”

There’s someone every day. Usually, though not always, a fellow immigrant. I listen to them for as long as they let me, or until the subway doors open, storing up their stories to occupy me in the nursing home or on the desert island. Lately I’ve taken to scribbling sketches in my morning notebook, for fear I will forget them. I don’t want to forget them. When it comes to people, I’m a pack-rat.

Goodbye, She Lied

Sunday, January 23rd, 2005

I’m moving to Kaleefornia. A company called Stone Yamashita found me, mostly through this website, and they’ve hired me as a copywriter/strategist. They do work that’s as solid, smart, and beautiful as an iPod.

“You won’t like it,” my New York friends tell me morbidly. “You can’t even drive.”

On my last business trip to San Francisco, a woman on the car rental shuttle said “Excuse me, I need to get my bag.”
    “See?” hissed my sweetest New York co-worker, seizing on this atrocity. “That’s what they’re like out here. Passive-aggressive!

My San Francisco friends tell me how much easier life is there, how people never look back. How effortlessly you can get into nature (an American phrase that always makes me think the outdoors is some new Class A drug). I tell them that when I’m evaluating cities I don’t start with how easy they are to leave, but they smile good-naturedly. I’ll learn. My friend Keith has told me for months that I have to move.
    “Every single woman we know who comes out here ends up getting married.” Is that a threat or a promise, I ask him. Ranger Tim, installed on a 5,000-acre ranch off the grid in Los Gatos, writes sorrowfully that for him, Brooklyn will always be a lost paradise.

On the flight west I stare out the window, mapping the coiling rivers below to the seat-back display on JetBlue. Is that really the Mississippi? I know so little of this country. I’ve spent a grand total of ten days in San Francisco, including a vacation eight years ago. But I have faith that I’ll come to love it. People I like very much count it as their favorite US city. I’ve already been adopted by some simpático locals, and reunited with lost pals who moved from my coast. These are the true Twin Cities.

I move on Valentine’s Day; a good day to start another urban romance.

Sterling Place

Sunday, January 23rd, 2005

Clarice, my landlady, lives downstairs with her daughter, Veronica. Veronica is twelve. Every day I forgive Veronica for caterwauling R&B tween ballads first thing in the morning, and for screaming while she gets her hair combed out. I’m not sure what she forgives me for, but we have managed to become great pals. When she’s happy she cackles like a banshee. She took Ranger Tim aside on his July visit. “Are you her boyfriend?”
    “I don’t know,” he said, “You’ll have to ask her.”
    She shook her head. “I don’t know, Tim. That sounds baaad.”

I’ve lived here since May. It’s the top floor of a beautiful, ramshackle brownstone, and the first place I’ve lived in that’s been mine alone. I love it. I love its airy rooms, its picture rails and pocket doors, its scuffed oak floors and enormous bathroom. I love the light that streams in to wake me every morning, and the view of the Williamsburg Savings Bank flipping Manhattan the bird. When friends visit I force them to admire my walk-in closets, a great prize in New York, and gloss over the fact that my galley kitchen requires snake-hipped cooks.

There’s a blizzard outside today, “from Canada”, say the newscasters with a note of blame. The north wind is spraying fine snow into banks that look pillowy enough to dive into from my third-floor window. The radiator in my bedroom isn’t working, and the old sash windows whistle with Canadian wind, so I’m bundled up in the living room, playing with my new Mac. Outside, my neighbors are smudges of New York black shovelling clean snow.

It’s a mistake to fall for a rental apartment, I’ve found. I’ve loved four: one in Dublin, one in London, and two in Brooklyn. Those are the four I’ve spent the least time in. Last week I called Clarice to tell her I’d taken a job in San Francisco, and I’m packing up once more. Yesterday she came to sit in my living room.

    “How long are you going for?” I told her it’s a permanent job. She thought for a bit. Then she said “I want you back. I’ll sublet for a year. You mightn’t like California. They’re kind of flaky out there. Not like Brooklyn people.”

I wanted to cry. “I have to think about how to tell Veronica,” she said. “She’ll be so disappointed Miss Dervala is leaving.” We called her upstairs, and Clarice cleared her throat. “Ronnie, some bad news. Miss Dervala found another opportunity, and she’s going to California. That means she won’t be living here with us any more. But she’ll be here for another few weeks, and you can visit with her and hang out in the meantime.”

    “Oh,” said my sweet Veronica, and shrugged. Whatever. “Mommy, can I try your lipstick?”

Elevator Music

Sunday, January 23rd, 2005

“If you ever get close to a human
And human behaviour
Be ready to get confused
There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic
To human behaviour
But yet so, yet so irresistible
And there’s no map
They’re terribly moody
And human behaviour
Then all of a sudden turn happy
But, oh, to get involved in the exchange
Of human emotions is ever so, ever so satisfying “
-Bjrk

I used to work in the Bertelsman Building in Times Square. It was the headquarters of the BMG record company, and P. Diddy—he was still Puffy then—had offices on the floor below us. Once he got meeting locations mixed up and ended up on our floor. Our gentle receptionist, Paulette, wouldn’t let him in.

This was shortly after he’d been hauled up for punching out a record executive, and his ‘roids were still raging. He leaned over the desk and yelled at her to find the meeting room NOW. The office manager scurried out to see what was going on. They argued briefly. Puffy threatened. Steve told him to leave immediately or he’d call security. I’d like to have seen the confrontation: our slight little hippie with center-parted hair, a handlebar mustache, and tie-dyed shirt ordering Puffy and his people to get out. It’s a mark of how nerdy we were in that software company that no one recognized him, even while his remix of Sting’s creepy stalker song was number one. Afterwards his people sent please-don’t-sue flowers.

A few days ago I stepped into the elevator at work next to a tiny woman bundled up in what looked like a black duvet, speaking to a friend in…Swedish? Not Swedish. I picked out bits from the lilting: “hurdy gurdy gurdy…Public Enemy…” The clear, girlish voice was familiar, but it took me four floors of sideways glances to work out that it was Bjork.

That morning I’d started a book that had been on my wishlist ever since my friend Max told me it was his favorite novel: Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Max has great taste in everything but women, and sure enough, this is a gem. It’s an Icelandic novel about sheep. If you deserve to read it, that won’t put you off. Iceland’s storytelling tradition is as strong as Ireland’s, and this book is reminds me Liam O’Flaherty’s Aran Islands stories. It even starts with Columcille, an 8th century Irish missionary. Battling the elements is good for art.

The introduction to my edition says that “Self-Standing Folk” would be a better translation of the title, and in Bjrk I see Laxness’s people. It takes self-standing folk to wear that swan dress to the Oscars. (It’s in the Met’s Costume Institute now.) It takes self-standing folk to have her quirky perspective on human beings. Her Debut album was the soundtrack to my college years. Tiny and scrubbed, she still looks like a college girl years after the rest of us have had guilty thoughts about Botox.

Maybe if I’d had Independent People in my pocket instead of on my desk, I would’ve told her how much her joy meant to me. But Bjrk’s been known to punch out stalkers, too, and I didn’t want to interrupt her chat. We got off the elevator and walked down Broadway side by side. I silently wished her extra warmth, along with her duvet and her stripy tights, against from the New York winter.

Jameson

Thursday, December 23rd, 2004

The B train carriage is papered with ads for Jameson whiskey. One shows a dry-stone wall sitting on what appears to be snooker-table baize.
“Maybe people just like things that come from Ireland,” runs the tagline.

I look around at my fellow passengers.

Maybe people just like things that come from Puerto Rico.
Maybe people just like things that come from Korea.
Maybe people just like things that come from the Dominican Republic.
Maybe people just like things that come from China.
Maybe people just like things that come from Belize.
Maybe people just like things that come from big drink conglomerates like Pernod-Ricard.

Or maybe, just maybe, they couldn’t give a rat’s arse.

Hardware

Sunday, December 19th, 2004
“What draws me back [to New York], again and again, is safety. Nowhere else am I safe from the question: why here?”
—Jonathan Franzen

Just before I left London seven years ago, my sister gave me a Stephen Pearce lamp as a wedding present. Rather than work out how to rewire it, I tracked down a store that sold European lightbulbs, the kind that are held in place by two small notches rather than screwed in. The lamp lacked a harp, so I balanced a shade on the bulb, singeing a small brown circle and risking fire. It has traveled with me through five apartments and spent two winters in a storage locker. Now it sits next to the sofa, its naked, emigré bulb a reproach to my slapdash ways. Yesterday I decided to fix it.

I walked down to Fifth Avenue, to the nameless hardware store next to Felix’s bike shop. Now that the rest of the country buys its tools in concrete boxes, this kind of store hardly exists outside Brooklyn, though there are several within ten blocks of me. It is dusty, higgledy-piggledy, and stacked high. The aisles are narrow canyons into which rolls of masking tape or paint brushes or garden hoses might topple at any moment. There are three possible entrances, but only one door opens. Inside, the staff was gathered around a 14-inch TV set, canted high in the corner. It’s the kind of place where you get helped, whether you like it or not.

I told them I needed lamp fixtures. The assistant who led me to the back was a dwarf on the large side. He wore a black beanie cap, a black shirt, and a studded belt that barely held up his jeans.
    “It’s Andrea Bocelli’s last night in New York,” he said. “They’re showing his concert. He won’t be back for at least two years. It’s so beautiful.”

He pointed out a few lamp things. Hardware stores make me feel foreign: even when I can name something, I’m not sure I have the right version of English. Is it a rawl plug, or a wall anchor? We worked by pointing and eliminating. Larger than that, but smaller than that other one. I came up with functional descriptions for the missing pieces:
    “I need a piece of metal that attaches to the base and supports a lampshade.”
    “A harp.”
    “That’s it!”
    “I guess you need a fother to hold it to the shade?”
    “That sounds right.”
    “How about a perlingham?”
He unlocked cabinets and fished for shiny bits and bobs. With an old grocer’s hook, he pulled down lamp sockets in smoky plastic bags.
    “That Andrea Bocelli, he’s an angel. Sad story. Sad story. You know he’s blind?”
    “Was he blind from birth?”
    “No, no! He told the story a couple of years back. When he was ten years old he wanted to play soccer. So his parents enrolled him in this soccer league, and one day when he was playing, he fell and hit his head. Whatever way he hit himself, he damaged his optic nerve, and he went blind.”
    “Poor guy.”
    “I got every album he made. My daughter loves him now, too. My son is maybe just getting into him, but he prefers rap.” He shudders. “I hate rap. Such angry crap. My nephews say it’s cool. It ain’t cool.”
    “What age is your daughter?”
    “She’s 21 years old now,” he said. “You know, I used to draw Stevie Wonder. I should draw Andrea Bocelli as well.”
    “What do you use? Pencil? Charcoal?”
    “I start with pencil, then I ink it in. Then I do calligraphy underneath. People think calligraphy is Roman, but it isn’t,” he said solemnly. “It’s an ancient Chinese art.”

We gathered my fixtures and the owner rang them up on an ancient cash register. He, too, stared mistily at the TV. “Beautiful. Nothin’ like it.”
Andrea Bocelli got ready to sing the final song. The assistant patted my arm. “This one is amazing. He cries. He always cries when he sings this one.” On the tiny screen, a pair of ice dancers made snow angels, then slowly twisted themselves upright. They swooped across the ice, as cheesy and compelling as a Jeff Koons puppy.
    “Now it’s time to say goodbye,” Bocelli sang.
    “You see that? The lump in his throat? You’re going to see a tear in a moment. My God.”
A gorgeous woman with an Afro walked in, carrying a chihuahua in a jogging suit. She wanted to fix her Christmas lights, and the third assistant sadly left the TV to help her. I stood and watched the end of Mr. Bocelli’s concert. It reminded me of the rapt way we used to watch the Eurovision Song Contest twenty years ago.

As I left, Chris Hackett came in, still fierce and handsome even with his jaw pieced back together. So these were the dusty aisles from which the Madagascar Institute got the supplies for its condiment wars, Brooklyn bull-running, and welding parties. Fear is never boring.