Cotton In America: Reflections On Social Paradigms In The Us, September 2012
By Justin Cotton, Partner, of Lovegrove Solicitors
New York had been so much fun on a stop over 2 years ago on the way back from the UK in 2010, and I was in a hurry to get back once more for a well earned 2 weeks rest from the high intensity of construction disputation.
Last time I had stayed 6 nights near Washington Square, a fairly serene part of Manhattan nestled comfortably in West Village between 5th and 6th Avenues.
Somewhat irked by the 4 hour plus delay in Los Angeles, I arrived at the hotel around 11.30 pm on Wednesday, and shortly past midnight headed out to enjoy the night life (which runs to about 4 am in NYC).
Over the next few days, not having assisted the jet lag any, I spent several afternoons exploring the environs of Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and up 5th Avenue toward the Union Square and Bryant Park region. Times spent shopping and catching up with some of my contacts in the city.
Greenwich Village is a fairly ‘laid back’ and communal type environment in so many ways, as the term ‘Village’ suggests. People are generally friendly and easy going, and it is easy to strike up conversations with strangers. It has been the home to counter culture and bohemian artists and poets historically, but now with the high rents in the area (and neighbouring Soho to the south) many of the artistic bent are now moving to such places as Brooklyn and Jersey City.
I was told by a local during the first couple of days that the New York area has had its worst summer for violent crime in several years, crime rates having reduced significantly during the tenure of Mayor Giuliani and since 9/11. Indeed, as I’ll allude to later, I did notice a more angry vibe in the city than I had noticed in 2010 and more evidence of economic distress. Particularly so in the busier ‘Mid Town’ areas near Times Square, where I was to spend several days later in my trip.
Up early on Sunday 16 September and I was off to Penn Station to catch an Amtrak train to Washington DC, a trip that bypasses New Jersey, Philadelphia, Delaware and Baltimore before arriving in DC in a little over 3 hours. After many conversations with fellow passengers at the station and on the train (who all seem to love an Australian accent), I check into a hotel only 2 blocks from the White House. After crashing for a couple of hours I head out into the sun to visit The US Treasury Building, The White House, walk on up to the Washington Memorial, and down a grassy mall to the Capitol Building.
Of course, it’s all a bit of a hike in the humidity and I resolve to jump on a double decker tour the following day. Following dinner with myself I take a wander past the White House at night. There’s a few lights on in the windows and the guy next to me mentions to his daughter that there’s probably 30 cameras trained right back at us. This is probably true – and sure enough, as I wander past a watch house some 100 yards further on, there are security guards gazing at monitors.
After walking on a few more blocks I begin to notice an eerie solitude to the streets. It’s a Sunday night, and this is as silent as walking around Brisbane on a Tuesday night. But the streets do not feel safe, partially because they are so quiet compared with New York. What few people you do see has a large proportion of Afro-American, homeless men.
Before too long I’ve asked for directions back to The White House (given my hotel is so close) and after skirting a very dark looking Lafayette Park, locate the Soffitel. I’ve now decided to take a cab ride to the bar and restaurant district known as Du Pont Circle.
A short cab ride later, from an overly talkative driver who does his best to take advantage of a generous tipper, and I’m at a large round-about. From each of the several streets running off this round-about there are 1 or perhaps 2 homeless men standing around on each corner, some asking for money. One man has the lower half of his face encased in a metal grill – possibly a gun injury.
I give some change to one of the guys and continue my exploration, not really finding a bar that takes my fancy – and it is excessively muggy. After passing the same man I originally gave change to a second time, I decide to cab back to the hotel and have a clean, sober night. Spend the rest of the evening in bed, watching baseball.
The next day is spent largely on a “hop on hop off” tour of the main buildings and monuments in DC. Everywhere from the Lincoln Memorial (a particular highlight), the Korean War Monument, to the theatre where Lincoln was shot and the still standing hospital where he was (unsuccessfully) treated. There is also a series of fine restaurants and the original FBI headquarters. If only I’d known this street was here last night.
Later that afternoon it’s back to Union Station and the train ride back to New York, where I will be staying in Hell’s Kitchen near the heart of Manhattan. I resolve to return to Washington one day and spend more time there – it is an intriguing town.
After checking into new accommodation in Hell’s Kitchen, a friend from Melbourne joins me at the bar across the road. Luckily for him he arrives outside with his luggage in the middle of a ‘show’, so gets to make quite the entrance after I interrupt the show so he can enter – via the stage situated near the front door!
The next several days are consumed by clothes shopping, sight-seeing and night life. Times Square is manic, a real cacophony of sights and sounds. The September 11 memorial at the foundations of the Towers is a quite moving, tranquil experience. Fine food is to be had at the famous Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. Based on the strength of the Australian dollar and the low cost of clothes and food, I am soon running short of spending money.
On a subway ride to Brooklyn I give more change away to a lady asking for handouts on a crowded train car. My second subway ride, the second time this is encountered. Notably no-one else is giving in response to what seems a genuine request, and my friend explains that locals are relatively jaded by these everyday entreaties.
Over in Brooklyn and it takes some time to locate a decent breakfast venue, as opposed to another unhealthy diner. Deciding to ask some firemen nearby, we are offered a cup of coffee and given directions back to the unhealthy looking diner near the subway station. Upon hearing that we’re from Australia, a reference to ‘penal colony’ is quickly made. Our reply to this is that we live in Australia but are from New Zealand. The riposte to this is: “Hey, those Maori guys are crazy!”
Following breakfast we then walk over the Brooklyn Bridge back to Lower Manhattan and take superb photos of the city, before taking an afternoon exploration of the “High Line”. This is a dis-used railway track that offers panoramic views of the “West Side” over a few miles and a look at the post-modern architecture of new apartments. Eventually this stroll concludes with the crucial beer garden in the sun, overlooking the glimmering Hudson River.
During an afternoon walk on one occasion we noted streets being blocked off in and around Mid-Town. Reason being, President Obama was due to visit the “Late Show” with David Letterman. We were told by a fairly chiselled and stern looking cop that the President would be past “in about 15 minutes”. This turned out to be around an hour of waiting with a throng of others, before eventually gaining a glimpse of the Presidential limousine amid various drive- bys of security vehicles in and around the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway. Lots of hand waving. Chris thought he caught a glimpse of Obama waving – but I was too busy trying to film the proceedings somewhat unsuccessfully.
Strangely I notice a very large “Pie Face” premises next door to the Ed Sullivan Theatre, as I’d always thought this to be an Australian company. Perhaps more entertaining, at various times several New Yorkers take great umbrage at both Broadway and various side streets being closed to traffic and pedestrians. Angrily disclaiming that they need to ‘get to work’ or ‘pick up the kids’, most seem oblivious to the fact that street closures for the President are most likely part of the package of living in a major city.
In fact on this trip I notice a lot more aggression and stress in the air than I had on my previous brief holiday in New York two years ago. Perhaps it was because I spent almost all my time two years ago in the fairly chilled and laid back environs of Greenwich Village. Or perhaps it is a sign of mounting economic distress with the strain on the US economy.
Certainly in the more hectic Mid-Town area, Chris and I comment to each other that we have never noticed so much road rage or blaring of horns. This includes honking at taxis pulling over to pick up or drop off passengers. What would one expect a taxi driver to be doing?
Also on this trip, I have noticed plenty of people wanting to capitalise on any generosity. There are the genuine cases, but there are others where if one is to open your wallet to give a few dollars, they will want $10, and once you acquiesce to a higher figure, they will want $20. In this way I managed to blow $10 on a CD proferred by a Jamaican hip-hop artist, pleading poverty and a love of Australians. Needless to say the said musical masterpiece did not make it back home, and was deposited on a restaurant couch at JFK airport.
Following a bright and early rise on Friday 21st September (following a night at the Vlada Vodka Lounge and other places), Chris and I boarded a flight to Los Angeles – arriving there shortly after lunch. Traffic (both in the air and on the ground) is chaotic due to a fly by farewell of the space shuttle, and after parting company with Chris it takes me over 2 hours in the shuttle van from LAX to West Hollywood.
Eventually I manage to ‘self check in’ at the 1930s Spanish apartment complex that was the last known home of the late Jim Morrison (complete with “Doors” memorabilia in a cute courtyard). An early evening stroll shows me that I am very close to Santa Monica Boulevard (right behind it in fact), and there is a pleasant surfeit of bars, cafes, and restaurants along the length of it in both directions.
The weather is good and before long I note that this may be an area for Russian emigres. There is at least one traditional Russian restaurant that I ponder entering, and some of the people on location are reminiscent of shoppers at the Prahran market. My body is still immersed in New York time (a few hours ahead of LA), so I have dinner with some agreeable company (myself) at “The French Quarter” before striking up conversations with some of the waiting staff and other patrons.
Once the tattooed family with Texan accents get up to leave, it soon becomes apparent that most of the diners are gay men, as are the staff. I’m introduced to one of the staff there who announces he is from an obscure sounding town near Tweed Heads – he more fits the surfie description. Anyhow, the waiter keeps pouring me more coffee in lieu of bringing me back change (so that I can find his tip), so I decide to allow him a large tip and head for home.
Two things about West Hollywood: I’ve never seen so many people walking dogs, or taking them into cafes and restaurants. In addition, I’ve never seen so many gay men holding hands. It is certainly a lot more open than Australia in this respect, even if you compare this most liberal part of the US with the most liberal parts of inner Melbourne or Sydney.
The next day burned clear, hot and very humid. My explorations began early but for an antipodean just coming out of winter, before long the humidity is too much and you are seeking a mid morning Bloody Mary in the shade. I try “the Ivy” for lunch on the off chance of seeing someone ‘famous’, but it’s too crowded and no chance of getting a table, before locating a very pleasant alternative venue for most of the rest of that day.
In the afternoon Chris, his host and I take a hike in a nearby canyon (pet dog Hannah in tow) and get some useful cardio in. There are breathtaking views of the Hollywood Hills, the famous Hollywood sign, and over the valley toward the downtown area. This city really is vast and sprawling and for a proper holiday there you would really need a car and a sense of direction. A number of guys of the ‘metrosexual’ persuasion and appearance are running up and down the trail in the heat. Good luck with that! It’s hard enough walking.
The final night I spend in the US is taken up with clubbing at my erstwhile lunch venue of earlier that day, and at a couple of other establishments. As recovery for most of the next day (Sunday) I continue socialising – firstly lunch and then general conversation at the same establishment. By around 5 pm Chris and his host have joined me. I’m advised that “Justin you are the drunkest person here, by a country mile”, and decide it is time to start imbibing water and to wind down for the long trip home.
Boarding time is 11.30 pm and after some catch up on emails at the Qantas Club, it is time to head for home after nearly 2 action packed weeks. Thanks for the memories to the US and all I’ve met on my travels, possibly not long enough – I’ll be back again in the near future.
By Justin Cotton, Partner in Construction and Head of Practitioner Advocacy
Ph 03 9600 1643
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© Lovegrove Solicitors 2012