Sound of Summer: New York City

Originally posted at SFCritic

After the debauchery of D.C., I jumped on an Amtrak through the Chesapeake Bay of Maryland, the dense suburbia of Delaware and up through New Jersey (where my favorite Housewives live) into New York City.

I met a good friend at Penn Station, where he took me back into the Subway to his apartment on Bleeker St. in Greenwich Village, referred to as simply “The Village,” because only a tourist would have to identify which one.

After sweating around D.C. touring the national monuments; National Monument, White House, Holocaust Museum and Lincoln Memorial, descending into the New York City subways, where a humid 100 degrees becomes an oppressive 110 degree heat with the added bonus of urine, rats, and an old homeless man half-singing half-slurring along karaoke style to “Love Potion #9” with a microphone and stereo, I badly needed a shower.

We got to his apartment, which once was a mob hideout complete with “police lock,” a rigged system that creates a barrier to cops kicking in the door, and I took a shower in his kitchen.

The next couple days I explored. Times Square: tourist marketing hell. Central Park, big but kinda boring compared to Golden Gate Park. Dive bars, museums, cocktail lounges, landmarks, restaurants… Really, why is everyone so obsessed with New York City? It is dirty, pretentious, creates uniquely terrible smells and it feels like you have to play chicken with other pedestrians just to walk down the street.

Before this trip I had never been to the East Coast. As a San Francisco bartender, I met my fair share of East Coasters. They are rude, aggressive, demanding and they don’t have manners. My East Coast transplant friends refer to this behavior as “not fake,” whatever that means.

Conversely, ask any East Coaster about West Coasters and they would say we are lazy, unmotivated stoned hippies. I would say we know how to enjoy the finer things in life because we aren’t hardened by extreme weather, draconian drug laws, terrible wine and general East Coast douchebaggery.

But, what makes a city pretentious is what makes its inhabitants fall in love with it. Pretentious city-dwellers earn their elitism through the navigation of daily urban dangers and idiosyncrasies. I mean, could you be a true San Franciscan without laughing at terrified tourists who stray into the Tenderloin from Union Square, not flinching when the bush man jumps out at you, having the ability to walk down any street without stepping in dog and human fecal matter land mines, pretending not to know where Oakland is or having a thorough knowledge of all the gay nightclubs? No.

So, like a New Yorker, in a few short days I developed a healthy distaste for anything/one from New Jersey, I walked straight into people if they didn’t get out of my way first, I definitely didn’t even consider buying a Louis Vuitton knockoff bag off a dirty street corner and I walked around the block when I was going to wrong way so no one would see me turn around when I realized I was going the wrong direction on the grid.

But there is another side to New York, one not characterized by its young, hip, transplant inhabitants (just the way there is another San Francisco not characterized by its young, hip, transplant inhabitants.

We ventured down to lower Manhattan where I sat in on a story already in the process of being told. A man in his mid-fifties, City native with accent to boot, told a reverent crowd gathered around him overlooking Ground Zero about his experience on September 11, 2001.

As an FDNY Chief, his team was in the first tower when the second was struck, he received orders to evacuate and was the last one behind the rest of his team and the only one not to make it out before the rest of the building came “pan-caking” down on him. He was in the building as the towers went down, which created the equivalent of a 3.6 earthquake in the tri-state area.

“I thought I was dead, cause you know, I had no experience of what it was like to be dead, I didn’t know.” He and fourteen others were trapped on the third floor of the first building. The portion of the third floor did not collapse and was buried under rubble where they waited for two days to be discovered. All of them lived. Looking out over the half-completed memorial, there is no rubble left, just a tidy construction zone and sketched architects’ drafts of what it will look like when completed. If you didn’t know the Twin Towers were once looming overhead, you would never know, yet ten years later the day and its aftermath are just as raw in New Yorkers’ minds and ever present in the our nation’s narrative.

Later in the week, a San Francisco bartender friend and two-year resident of New York and I sake-bombed before descending into the basement of (le) Poisson Rouge on Bleeker street to see The Globes and El Ten Eleven.

First sign of a great venue: they served Fernet Branca aka The San Francisco Treat or “Bartender’s espresso.” Nowhere East of the Sierras had I seen a bottle of Fernet Branca. My heart and liver warmed at its sight.

Besides carrying Fernet, (le) Poisson Rouge was an exceptional venue. Dimly lit, yet visible. Air-conditioned but not Antarctic. Seats along the edge of the room are elevated above the crowd, which is wrapped around a mostly-protruding circular stage, opening the room for the entire audience. No place was a bad place to see the show.

Openers, The Globes, a Washington State based new-wave grunge-raised indie group, was a moodier and enthralling complement to headliner El Ten Eleven. They were on tour promoting their newest release sinter songs EP, which was produced by John Goodmanson, who has also worked with Death Cab for Cutie and Blonde Redhead. The music is nostalgically true to its Pacific Northwestern roots, with traces of moody 90s grunge rock with a cleaner more modern organization and polish.

After The Globes, headliners El Ten Eleven took the stage. I had heard of El Ten Eleven on my Pandora account awhile back and I liked it but was never particularly enamored enough with it for obsessive listening. Seeing them live drastically changed my perception of their music.

El Ten Eleven, which is comprised of Los Angeles bassist Kristian Dunn and drummer Tim Fogarty is synthetic-sounding, organically crafted lyric-less rock. They play with entertaining yet not over-the-top enthusiasm that was both engaging and fun. Plus the New York crowd moved a little bit more than the typical San Francisco one would, especially when they launched into a cover of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android.

Dunn plays in front of a rack of guitars, some of them double-necked, and rows upon rows of pedals under his mic. He effortlessly hammers along with the beat while simultaneously rotating guitars and tapping pedals to weave pulsating tunes that could probably have been created on a Mac but impressively aren’t.

They opened with the single of “Every Direction is North,” Hotcakes. Hotcakes feels like it could be the soundtrack to a video game race without even slightly bordering the tacky repetition that would entail.

I know, I know, not exactly “local music,” but what who in New York City is actually from New York City anyway?

Before I left New York I booked a boat to Ellis Island, my own great-grandfather Michaelangelo Orlando’s first stop in immigrating to the United States. (You know, along with Giovanni and Luigi and some other stereotypically named “juice-head guido” Italians I descend from.)

As we sailed past the Statue of Liberty it is hard not to take in the whole situation and remember that most of Americans, like my family, haven’t really been in the country for that long.

Once on the Island, we toured the National Immigration Museum, which much like the propaganda exhibit I saw at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., told the story of today’s political climate through early-to-mid nineteenth century historical artifacts such as racist political cartoons of the different nationalities crammed on boats funneling into the country through New York City. Not to get too political, but much like the “medicinal bourbon permits” on the walls at the distillery I toured in Frankfort, Kentucky (and knowingly passed on the Budweiser plant in St. Louis) I would say that the hypocrisies in United States history tend to repeat themselves as the nation’s underfunded schools continue to churn out generations of uneducated adults.

While waiting at Grand Central for my train to Connecticut I went down to the historic Oyster Bar and surrounded myself with some old red-wine drinking Italian men who I pretended to understand but genuinely laughed with, I think.

Then I boarded my train for the final leg of my trip: a whirlwind one week tour of New England.

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