28.11.14

THANKSGIVING & ST PATRICK’S DAY IN NEW YORK


This weekend it is Thanksgiving in America. I never knew what to do with myself at this time of the year during my stay in New York. I felt like an orphan at Christmas, always at a bit of a loss, what with everyone being away from work, taking a long weekend vacation to be with their families, but the London office, where Thanksgiving was an alien concept, was expecting me to be toiling away as normal, so I usually went into hibernation with a good book, a pile of LPs and a bag of grass, and didn’t emerge for 48 hours.
          One thing I did like about Thanksgiving was that it wasn’t commercialised, nor had it been annexed by religion. It was a bigger deal than Christmas – the Americans didn’t have Boxing Day and went back to work on December 26 – but you couldn’t buy Thanksgiving cards and presents weren’t exchanged either. Thanksgiving, of course, originated when the first white settlers in the US marked a day to thank the Native Americans for the hospitality they showed on their arrival. Fat lot of good it did them.
I remember too that there was one other day of the year when I felt the need to maintain a very low profile, St Patrick’s Day, March 17, when all those New Yorkers with a grain of Irish blood in them took to the streets to watch the 5th Avenue parade and, emboldened by drink, recite slogans hostile to the British.
I knew all about the Troubles in Northern Ireland in those days, the mid-Seventies, the sectarian divide that existed between the majority, Catholic, pro-independence-from-Britain faction championed by the IRA, and the Protestant, pro-British lot who flew the Union Flag and loved our Queen, and although in a minority tended to be wealthier and in positions of power. Of course, I had a British perspective on the troubles gleaned from the Daily Telegraph, the only English newspaper I could find in NY apart from ghastly tabloids, and like all my fellow Brits despised the IRA in much the same way that Americans today despise Al Queda. The Telegraph, which I usually read a day late, considered them murdering bastards and I saw no reason to disagree.
But it was the IRA, and not the Unionists, who’d managed to secure some support for their cause in the US, and this was evident in the St Patrick’s Day Parade, so I stayed away for fear that if I opened my mouth my accent might betray me and I’d wind up bloodied in the gutter. I was also unsettled when I attended a concert by The Chieftains at Carnegie Hall, outside of which IRA supporters with collecting boxes sought donations ‘if you love the old country’. This would have been highly illegal in the UK where anti-IRA sentiment was running high and it was actually quite shocking to me to see open support for the IRA on the streets of New York. I had half a mind to tell those who put their dollars into the buckets that the money would be spent on explosives that would more than likely kill and maim innocent Irish people. But I didn’t, of course. I was too scared.
There was an Irish bar with shamrocks on its green awning a couple of blocks east from where I lived on the upper East Side, where a small glass of draught beer could be had for a quarter and out of curiosity I went in once, just to experience the ambience. It was dingy and no one spoke. There were no women present. Everyone smoked cigarettes. All eyes were either buried in copies of the downmarket tabloid New York Daily News or fixed on a TV screen high above the counter on which baseball games were in permanent rotation, and the commentary, which was delivered in a high pitched monotone, was the only sound in the place. “It’s the Cardinals four down in the eighth. Pitcher looking to third base. Homeplate… diamond… catcher…” I knew absolutely nothing about baseball so it was complete gibberish to me. It wasn’t even necessary to speak to the barman who filled up your empty glass when you nodded at him, and since everyone left their money on the bar in small, tidy piles, all he needed to do was silently extract a quarter for every refill. I came to realise that every fourth refill was free insofar as he didn’t collect a quarter after each third beer, but it wasn’t really free because unlike in the UK it was the custom in NY to tip the barman when you left, and the size of the tip was relative to the number of times he’d refilled your glass, approximately 25% of your spending, which worked out at a quarter for every four refills, including the free one. So instead of the fourth quarter going into the till it went into the barman’s pocket.
I didn’t look like the other men in this bar. I was much thinner with longer hair and my clothes were different. The men in this bar were all much bigger than me, fatter, and wore short-sleeved polyester shirts and they looked on me suspiciously, unfriendly. I decided that even though I maintained my silence, paid my quarters for my tasteless beer and feigned interest in the baseball game, I was somehow disturbing the environment simply because I didn’t fit, so I left and never went back.
In truth, I lived in a bubble in New York. I lived in the music industry and the outside world, ordinary New York, ordinary America, didn’t really touch me. I wasn’t part of it, which is why the Irish bar was so alien to me and why I was an alien to it. I took next to no interest in anything in America other than its music industry in which I had a total, absolute, 100% engagement. I only went sightseeing when I was entertaining guests from the UK, and I regret that now. I was very narrow-minded, just closed off to anything apart from the noise made by electric guitars and drums, and the people who played them and promoted this music. I guess it was a bit of a lost opportunity but I did take one holiday, to New Orleans, which I’ll write about tomorrow. 

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