" NEW YORK, N.Y., THE
PLACE SO NICE, THEY HAD TO NAME IT
I'd always loved that old jazz record made by Jon Hendricks and
the George Russell Orchestra. It was an
early jazz and poetry concept album with fabulous lyrics and a punchy big band
sound. Oh, yes, New York was
definitely nice, not to mention fabulous.
I was attracted to the city instantly and at the same time repelled by
it, all the years that I lived there.
I had the sensation of being part of an experimental community made up
of every race and creed under the sun.
But at the same time that we were all working together to create a new
world, we were like ants labouring mindlessly in a vast metal anthill. In some ways, life in New York was a choice
to live under the most artificial and incredibly adverse conditions
imaginable. Probably New Yorkers have
to feel good about their city or they'd go under pretty quickly. Where else in the world outside of New
Delhi, can you find over nine million people living in such crowded and intense
conditions? Truly you've got to feel
good about New York or you just won't survive out there running through those
big city mazes. You love New York or you're dead.
I loved it and after all those years
in Spain, I was ready to enter the Great Rat Race that was life in
Manhattan. Barbara, an old Ibiza
friend, left town and let me use her little apartment on the corner of East
38th Street and Park Avenue whenever I could get into the city. Westchester offered me comfort and security
but Manhattan offered high corporate adventure, the greatest market the World
has ever known and a rich cultural soup mix.
I was fascinated by the way the different races overlapped throughout
the city, Italians into Chinese, East European into Hispanic. I even found that I got to speak Spanish
quite often too.
Soon my life started to be divided
between Larchmont and work with the others and the City where mostly I would
just walk around. I explored Manhattan
from Tribeca to 90th Street and from the Hudson to the East River. I was completely fascinated by the endless
avenues and cross streets, by the shops and the shop windows, the graffiti and
the posters, by the people in the streets and the workers in their offices. I used to catch the Amtrak train from
Larchmont into Grand Central Station and plunge straight into the towering
cityscape of sublime glass reflections.
I checked out the Chrysler Building, the Empire State, Time Square, the
porn shops and always the running people everywhere. Central Park was just up the road and I spent hours exploring
the paths and the ponds, the boathouse and the avenues running through it, all
of which were overshadowed by the great modern buildings around it. This was a city of extremes. There was great wealth and great poverty
and every nuance of existence lying in between. People were literally dying in the gutter outside buildings
worth billions of dollars. These
disparities in the human condition obsessed me and I was irresistibly drawn
back again and again to the streets of the City.
At the same time I had got back to
my batik work, for Lorna Heutchy had let me set up a studio in their garage in
Larchmont. I had made an interesting
connection with a tiny bird-like woman called Gloria Buce who ran a design
studio in Manhattan. She was always
looking for new and fresh ideas for textiles and wallpapers. She saw and liked my work and soon had me
working away in her studio on the 18th floor of a building on 39th Street. This gave me a classic view of the Empire
State Building through the window. For
awhile, I became one of her "drone" artists with my own drawing table
and would come to work at 8.30 a.m. with all the other drone workers. These were brilliantly competent artists
who could knock out two floral designs for wallpaper before lunch and three
abstracts by 5 o'clock. I managed to
come up with a couple of good floral drawings myself, which were approved by
the Boris Kroll Company and was soon "retired" to Larchmont to
realize them in batik. For some
reason, I can't remember quite why, perhaps the cloth I worked on contained
some kind of artificial fiber, my first efforts were complete disasters with
dull, dead colours. But I persevered
and my next efforts were successful.
I earned my first good money (quite illegally) as an artist in
America. There was to be life as an
artist after Ibiza.
About this time, I moved out of
Larchmont and into Barbara's apartment on Park Avenue. I continued to commute out to the suburbs
to work with Bruce and Pieter to make money for I was still pretty broke. But I was living in the center of Manhattan
finally and could spend more time with old Ibiza friends like Lanny, Michael
and Gene. I could continue to explore
the city by night and day. But
suddenly Barbara came back and needed her apartment. I couldn't afford to rent a space and didn't know where to turn
for help. I didn't want to move back to
the suburbs and all my friends were about as poor as I was and were struggling
themselves. I checked into a real
fleabag of a hotel on 21st Street. This
was the lowest point in my trip so far for at least the dreadful squat in
Victoria where I spent my last night in England, had been full of friendly Irish
faces. This hotel had cardboard walls,
a lumpy mattress, stained sheets on the bed and an over active nightlife. I could hear people running up and down the
corridor all night and once I overheard an argument and a violent fight going
on two rooms down at three in the morning.
I prayed that nobody would try and break into my room at night to kill
me and couldn't leave anything of value -not that I had much to speak of at
that point- in the room when I went out.
This depressing and slightly terrifying situation lasted for over a week
but I hung on there, too proud to call up Larchmont and ask if I could move
back there again.
In the end, I was saved by the
Ibiza Old Boy Network. It transpired
that Lanny's landlord was one Douglas Durst whose family owned most of Time
Square. I had known Douglas a little
in Ibiza. He was a very quiet guy who
had come there to spend vacations from time to time but I'd never realized that
he and his family were one of the main property owners in New York City. Anyway, he found me at Lanny's studio/loft
on 45th Street one day and told me that one of his tenants had just vanished
without paying the rent for three months.
He asked me if I'd like to stay in the apartment for free until he could
re-rent it. Of course, without even
looking at the place, I said I would.
Such opportunities don't come up every day and it was clearly a time to
jump blindly. Besides I was beginning
to fear for my life on 21st Street.
The apartment on 44th Street, just
off Time Square, was vast with lots of rooms and used to be the East/West
Restaurant and Macrobiotic Food Emporium.
In one of the rooms, the last tenants had left a big pile of prepackaged
grains and rice and dried legumes of various kinds. As a long time vegetarian, (I hadn't eaten meat or fish since I
was nineteen) I obviously wasn't going to starve. Douglas, my saviour, came up with a bed for me and I found a
little stove and a pile of folding chairs from the Restaurant in one of the
rooms. There was even a funky old
record player and a collection of old 70’s disco records to play on it. Once again I thanked those mysterious forces
that were out there somewhere looking after me and moved into Time Square. Central Manhattan was to be my home for the
next five years.
It was easy to set up a basic batik
studio and once again, I went back to work.
Michael was having a hard time in the city too and moved in with me at
the end of the month. Soon things were
bopping around the apartment. Time
Square was a very peculiar place to find oneself in. 44th Street wasn't too bad a street but I was living only half a
block from the famed electronic clock and it was a neon neighbourhood by night
and day. Huge multi-coloured
advertisements pulsed out their message continuously and the noise of traffic,
sirens and people on the street never stopped. It was still a pretty sleazy part of the City, full of hookers,
porn theaters, sex shops and peepshows.
Pimps cruised around in pink suits and pink Lincoln Continentals and
police followed them in blue suits and blue squad cars. It had its own rather seedy glamour and was
fantastically convenient for most places in Manhattan. I could easily walk up to Central Park or
down to the Village and friends lived nearby.
I felt that I was beginning to get it together in Manhattan after being
in America only a few months.