Tales from the Bowery

August 31, 2018 at 3:10 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

‘His favourite sound was the click clack of typewriters […] He knew exactly how much words cost and what consequences they can have: how they can start but also stop the opened organ of the heart.’

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing

The above book has kept me spellbound this month. An elegant, erudite look at intimacy (or lack thereof) through the prism of artists in New York City, Laing’s reverences for the words she selects is exquisite. This is such a moving, beautiful book to read.

The first time I saw the skyline of New York was through the window of a Greyhound bus, fat full moon hanging low over the skyscrapers. All the breath was sucked out of me. I had flown from Australia to meet a pen pal I’d been writing to from an online feminist punk collective, Erica, and we explored the area I knew would forever more be my NY stomping ground, the Lower East Side.

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The Bowery, New York City, 2006

Four years later I returned, again with Erica, and smitten by the Bowery, I booked us into a hostel opposite CBGB’s that was so foul I’ve just spent a very entertaining fifteen minutes reading online reviews of its horrors. From the drunk men passed out on the floor of the lobby that we literally had to step over, to the blood stains on the sheets and walls that only reached head height, it remains the worst place I’ve ever stayed at. Even the reception cat had a broken leg and coughed up a furball of warning at my feet when I checked in. I do have a dollop of fondness for it, however, as it became the topic of my first magazine publication, a clipping I still have in a drawer somewhere.

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New York City, 2009

New York

New York City, 2012

That trip I had a backpack stuffed with diaries, linguistic textbooks and my university degree. I was moving to Brussels, having left my boyfriend, my 18-year-old cat and my whole life behind in Melbourne. It was in Brussels, living in a medieval house in the Street of the Candlesticks with blood red floorboards and my makeshift altar in the corner, that I had my first taste of the loneliness that Olivia Laing writes so hauntingly about.

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In Rue des Chandeliers, Brussels, 2006 – click here for story

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In Rue des Chandeliers, Brussels – click here for ABC audio story

I’d lived in Brussels as a teenage exchange student for a year, and fallen in love with both the city itself, and the glorious bliss of solitude and independence. When I moved there again at 33, it was to put down roots and carve out a life of Flemish freedom. Or so I thought. The news that the man I left behind had moved on with a new partner, three months after I left, broke me apart. I drank whiskey for breakfast, I lost weight; I stopped speaking. I had no-one to speak to anyway, to be honest. I practised my broken French and Flemish on the alley cats. But the words did come out of my fingers too, and I wrote my way above ground again.

‘Art was a place where one could move freely between integration and disintegration, doing the work of mending, the work of grief, preparing oneself for the dangerous, lovely business of intimacy.’

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing

Being alone in a new city has immense challenges, but for me, the rewards are undeniably rich. Many of my travels have been solo adventures, loner that I am, including uprooting my life and moving overseas twice. I love to dine alone, with a book and a wine and a full heart. Some of my happiest memories have been me, in a new city – Helsinki, Albuquerque, Hong Kong, Reykjavik – walking the streets with the knowledge that no-one in the world knew where I was at the point in time. But I know the flipside also, and finding it within the cover of Laing’s book reminds me in beautiful, painful ways.

The protagonist in my novel knows this also. Iceland is a precarious place to find your feet, and she falls between the cracks in the language, the culture and society. But lord, how I love finding the words to describe it.

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Ólafsfjörður, northern Iceland – click here for ABC audio story

My love of my hometown, Melbourne, has also been on display this month. I was delighted to be one of the writers selected for the Melbourne Writers Festival this year, with my story for the Reading Victoria project being recorded and played on an audio loop in the Star Observation Wheel. I took my Wolf on the wheel, and the joy of hearing my own voice tell of my love for my city, while we soared above it, was one I won’t forget. Being part of the celebration of Melbourne’s 10th anniversary of our UNESCO City of Literature designation is also a joy.

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On the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel with the Wolf 

I keep thinking of New York. My last trip, in 2016, was for the ridiculously exciting reason that one of my audio stories, ‘Almost Flamboyant’, had been selected as a finalist in the inaugural Sarah Awards for International Audio Fiction. I was so stunned when we won that I pinched my producer, hard, and then gave a bemused speech where I named all my taxidermy. Waking up to our photo in the New York Times the next morning is a jewel I keep taking out and polishing, and admiring the light that shines from it. New York sure looked good that trip.

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Picture from the New York Times

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Celebratory dirty martinis, New York City

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To hear our winning story of a taxidermy flamingo possessed by the spirit of Tom Waits, click here 

So that’s August for you! Next month I’m heading interstate to perform at the Write Around the Murray literary festival in Albury, New South Wales…more travel, more words, and always, always, more stories to report.

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Prettier than a goat in New York

March 3, 2012 at 8:54 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

On a street corner just east of the Bowery in New York, I was watching a workman cart an armload of pipes down the footpath. I remember watching sweat slide down his calves into his boots, thinking This is the perfect place to be right now. When he turned and saw me, he shook his head and with a snap of his chewing gum, said Sorry darlin’  – you shoulda just hollered, ‘get the hell outta my way.’ When he stepped aside to let me pass, I laughed and told him I can’t…I’m too Australian. And he swung the pipes across his shoulder blades, winked lazily, and called after me No sugar…you’re too much!

Everybody ought to have a lower East Side in their life. Irving Berlin

I adore New York, and he’s just one reason why. In this blog I’ve been writing about the literary footsteps I’ve followed across the world, so far starting in Iceland, and with a ticket to New York just paid off, I’m turning my attention to this amazing city.

I remember standing outside Bloomingdales in the wake of Sylvia Plath, who sent the heroine of ‘The Bell Jar’ there to buy patent leather shoes, belt and purse. Standing in Central Park Zoo with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ on my mind, imagining Holden Caulfield watching his sister ride the carousel with a smile.

But mostly, my trips to New York looking for ink invariably end in one place: West 23rd Street. The Chelsea Hotel.

If you’re looking for literary history, start here. I’d love to tell you I go there each trip because Dylan Thomas died in room 205, because Jack Kerouac wrote ‘On the Road’ and Arthur C. Clarke wrote ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ there. Maybe it was because Mark Twain, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur Miller all lived there, the latter saying you could get high just by standing in one of the hotel lifts and inhaling the marijuana fumes.

 

But I’m going to be completely honest. I can’t stand Burroughs or Bukowski, and the Beat writers make me scowl. No, each time I go to New York, I visit the Chelsea Hotel for one Nancy Laura Spungen.

I know I’m a linguist in my thirties with a grown up job teaching languages, but there’s still a punk heart in there somewhere. And at nineteen, it’s safe to say I was a tad Sid and Nancy obsessed. So when I first stood outside the Chelsea Hotel, it wasn’t for Dylan Thomas or Arthur Miller. No, it was with a nod to the bleached haired, septum pierced, little punk brat I used to be, who pored over footage of Nancy Spungen’s body being carried out of room 100, and Sid Vicious in handcuffs being led away, snarling at the cameras.

My reasons aren’t always noble, ok?

From Overheardinneyyork.com

Rugged man on cell: I haven’t had time to get my freaking eyebrows done since I got out of jail.

Guy on train on cell: Yeah, man, I’m not sure if I can go out tonight. (pause) I’m just saying, I have no idea what I’m on right now, but I don’t think I should mix it with alcohol.

Guy #1: Yo, brains is sexy.
Guy #2: Word up. All my bitches need GEDs.

Shoeshine man to group of young people: It ain’t natural. Our bodies, they have the hormones to digest meat. If we were like a goat–and not to insult you, miss, ’cause you’re prettier than a goat–but then that’s okay that we don’t eat meat.

Cop, taking report of stolen car: Ok, what was the color, make and model?
Hipster: It’s cranberry and…
Cop: Cranberry’s something you eat, son. Your car was red.

Literary footsteps are etched into damn near every street of New York though, and after three trips so far, I still have a lot to discover. I want to find the apartment in the East 60s where Tennessee Williams wrote my favourite play, ‘Night of the Iguana.’ I want to track down Henry Miller, go to the Museum of Natural History where Vladimir Nabokov worked with butterflies, and the hotel where Maxim Gorky was evicted for the sin of visiting with a woman who was not his wife.

 

It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only day dreamer to trace the steps of these ink spillers – Sylvia Plath herself once headed to the White Horse Tavern on Hudson because Dylan Thomas drank there.

That reminds me…I have to add that one to the list.

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