If someone wise never said that a chap should think seriously before he wanders into a bar alone – and by alone, I mean, with the sole purpose of being there on his own, without anyone waiting there or due to meet him – then he or she should have. (It’s too late now. I’ve said it. And I make no claims to wisdom.) For all that Manhattan has many bars, and the bars are often inviting places with jovial gamekeepers and attractive flora and fauna, wandering into them alone is a little like a jungle escapade. If you just want to smell the flowers and skirt the boundary in search of quiet contemplation, that’s fine. Wanting to mingle and make yourself at home in a place where people are drinking is a much more fraught endeavour.
I try not to wander into too many bars on my own. Still, there are spots that feel safer than others, especially after a late night in the office when it feels like sleep will elude me for an hour or two yet. St Patrick’s Day 2014 was one such night. It was about 1 in the morning when the black car dropped me at a bar on the Upper East Side where the air was filled with the scent of cigar smoke and there were more bottles of whisky on display than there were beers on tap. I am not sure what I wanted, really. I sought some entertainment, perhaps, or conversation. I sat at the bar – it was one of those long, u-shaped things – and ordered a cocktail. There were a few people around me. Directly to my left, a couple of guys were playing chess. One, thick-set with a Bronx accent, was explaining the rudiments to his friend.
“After your Queen, the rook’s the most important piece. After the rook, it depends. Do you feel more comfortable with a piece that moves diagonally or that moves in an ‘l’ formation? Me, I like the ‘l’. You may not.”
Next to them, an older man was talking to two women with Eastern European accents wearing low cut dresses and far too much lipstick. They had put the lipstick on in a hurry, clearly, as it had smudged their teeth. He would mumble inanities in an accent that may have been from Long Island, at which the women would laugh. Every few minutes he would whisper something in a language that I assume was Russian. His female companions would giggle at this, too, albeit less comfortably. Next to the girls sat a younger, broad-shouldered chap. He didn’t say much, preferring instead to nurse a vodka. At my end of the bar, I did the same. Now that I’m older, I find that I need to be in a mood to drink. That night I wasn’t.
Eventually the older Russian gentleman turned his attention to the Chess lesson.
“You seem good. I used to be good, haven’t played for a long time.”
“I’m still learning,” the teacher said. (His student had wandered to the bathroom.) “I’m James. What’s your name?”
“Sergei,” the older gentleman said. “I’d like to play, but I don’t like losing. I hate the way I am when I lose,” he explained, more to the women at the bar than anything else. The women giggled. The one on the right facing me, a brunette, had a chipped canine. I only noticed this when she seemed to be straining particularly hard to laugh.
“None of us like losing, but if you don’t play, you can’t win either. I’d like to learn from you,” James responded. “You could teach me things.”
“Yeah, but I don’t like losing,” Sergei said again. He moved back to the women. The student returned from the bathroom. James asked him to sit away from the game, set on playing Sergei, who didn’t like losing. They tried this again a few times, Sergei getting more agitated each time. Eventually, James gave up.
“If you don’t want to play, you don’t want to play. I just want to learn from you.”
“Hey, I’ll play,” Sergei’s younger friend finally said. “I’m not great, but I’ll play. I’m Boris.” And they sat down to play, and Sergei went back to the women with the smudged lipstick and the broken teeth and the loud giggles. He bought them a couple of cosmopolitans, and they giggled even more loudly than they had before.
I don’t know if James won or Boris did. I did not feel like finishing my drink. I paid the cheque, and I left. The air wasn’t as smoky outside. It felt better there.
* * *
With the amount of time I spend reading about, occasionally analysing, and, these days, traveling to and attending weddings, I suppose it was inevitable that I would come face-to-face with the trauma and terror that comes with being a bridesmaid in early 21st century New York. I hasten to add that no-one has asked me to be a bridesmaid – my slim, decidedly male, hips would make a dress-fitting a nightmare – but I have friends who have been asked. On Thursday I went, at lunchtime, to a place that seems to stand as a metaphor for a bride’s determination that she will be the star of the show, no matter how much she might love her friends. I went to a store that displays and then makes bridesmaids’ dresses. (It also has a line on the side in hideous, off-white lace and taffeta creations that might pass for a wedding dress for when you’re in a hurry, on a budget, and not even sure that you’re really in love.)
The dresses in this temple to kitsch slump on rack after rack, in every distasteful colour imaginable. Towards the back are the browns, ranging in shades from mud to excrement. To the right stand the cyans and the faded magentas, like icing on a cake that you’re sure will give you indigestion. In a special corner that good taste seems to have forgotten, there are the mustard yellows. As far as I could tell, bridesmaids who buy their dresses from here don’t wear bras – or, at least, bras that satisfy Bette Midler’s definition of an “over the shoulder boulder-holder” – since all of these dresses are strapless. The potential for accidents seems high. The dresses don’t look especially comfortable, either. Nor are the ordered alterations always designed to flatter. I wonder if the tailors are under instructions from the brides.
I had thought that the “Bridezilla” stereotype was a myth, or an exaggeration. I was finally disabused of this notion this week. My friend told me that she was paying for this dress. At $300 (which may or may not have included the cost of the many necessary alterations, since sacks need to be tailored in order to look slightly less like sacks), the dress was not cheap. My friend had also paid for her own attendance, and one-tenth of the bride’s, at an expensive bachelorette party. Her dress was black, which seemed to hinder its utility in other scenarios. Other than at this wedding, a floor-length black dress comprising many layers of lace seems useful only for funerals. (The one redeeming aspect of a dress in vomit yellow, or Denver-the-Last-Dinosaur green, is that it might be loaned to your drag queen friends or used for bad taste parties.) I suggested that my friend might want to buy a veil to go with it, in order to be prepared for the next time she might wear this dress.
There seems to be something awfully Newtonian about the way that some straight women of some means in early 21st century New York navigate the marital minefield. The dating game seems to be a one-shot deal for the suitor: one mistake, false step, or misspoken word, and he’s out. If he takes too long to tether himself to her for the next fifty years, she goes looking elsewhere. Once he asks and she accepts, she then starts making financial and emotional demands of her dearest friends (all the while feeling as though she’s won some prize, like the bitch correspondent seeking Caity Weaver’s advice in the second question here). At the same time, our putative bride seems to make herself miserable, not eating or drinking and frenetically exercising in an attempt to be skinnier than she’s ever been or will be again.
There appear to be equal and opposite reactions for all of these things. To make up for the starvation, I suppose, there’s pregnancy and the ability to eat what you want, free of guilt, because there’s someone inside you. And to make up for the pain that she has caused her husband and friends while preparing to be a bride, I imagine, there is childbirth. (This doesn’t necessarily hold, of course. I am working on my theory. And if there is a karmic justice to all of this, I imagine that nice brides have easier childbirth experiences, elective caesareans, or surrogates.)
* * *
Most great cities have grand thoroughfares. Shanghai has the Bund, Paris the Champs-Elysées, Singapore Orchard Road, and Delhi has Janpath. London has a few – I like Piccadilly, but I also like driving up the Mall to Buckingham Palace – but I think Manhattan is unique. Everyone will talk about Broadway, because it runs across the island from northwest to southeast. (The three dimensional aspect of the Flatiron Building at the spot where Broadway meets Fifth Avenue helps.) There are others that I like just as much. Amsterdam Avenue, for its proximity to Columbia and its brunch spots, will always have a special place in my heart. Fifth Avenue, with the Empire State Building on 34th Street and decorated most nights with homeless people sleeping on park benches on the west side of the avenue and museums and monolithic mansions for millionaires to the east from the 60s to the 90s, raises its own questions and has its own charms.
There are the less well-known avenues that merit attention, too. One night this week, I left work early, reasonably certain that my email wouldn’t trouble me. Instead of taking the subway or hailing a taxi, I decided to walk, choosing Lexington Avenue with a pair of headphones in my ears. My iPhone at the moment features a mix of Mika’s latest album, Kings of Leon’s Only By The Night, the new Beyoncé album, and the soundtracks to the new Great Gatsby film and Anchorman 2. It makes for an odd sort of mix. Neil Diamond’s “Shilo” took me through the late 40s and early 50s. By the time I reached Bloomingdales, Beyoncé was telling me about how she was a Grown Woman, and my Sex was on Fire well before 65th Street. I may have been rapping along loudly when Jay Z talked about being a “new Kennedy”, just as I passed the building that Jacqueline Kennedy’s grandfather had been responsible for building eighty years earlier one block to the west of me.
People probably wondered what I was muttering about. At some level, so was I, but it did not much matter. On a pleasant evening, with the wind fondling your hair and a tune in your ear and a pair of legs that can take you places, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than here. At the right time of year – which late March clearly is – I am not sure that anywhere in the world can put a bigger Spring in your step.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. For all its tarts and tough guys and brides with great expectations and less great taste, this is a wonderful town.