I love New York, but it was good to get back to the peace and verdure of the Lot after all that urban brouhaha. Ten days in another place is a long time at this time of year. When we left for Toulouse airport early on a Wednesday morning, everything was light green and succulent. Nature still unfolding. When we got back on a Sunday afternoon – just before a vicious hailstorm – the landscape had been coloured a thick dark all-encompassing green.
Not that nature hasn't established a foothold in Manhattan. My old friend has a little garden that he tends at the back of his subterranean apartment, where he lives with his books and his enviable vinyl collection. Surrounded as it is by the towering walls of the sheltering apartment blocks, it's a haven of peace and comparative quiet, visited by the local birdlife. You can sit out back and listen to the chatter of friendly neighbourhood bright red cardinals and almost blank out the constant background hubbub.
Open the building's front door and climb the steps up to the street, however, and the noise hits you like a barrage of video games in an amusement arcade. Traffic, sirens, drilling, the constant stream of passers-by. Maybe I was particularly sensitive to it this time, because it was seven years on from my last visit and I am that much older now and my ears were still reeling from the subliminal roar of jet engines. The auditory repercussions of air travel distorted every sound and magnified its impact. Assault and battery.
We were not built to fly. As usual, I spent the days prior to travel believing that I was going to die – and then, as soon as I got to the airport, I realised that I was just being idiotic. We flew across the Massif Central to Nice and, on such a cloudless day, I looked down on the extraordinary rumpled scenery without a hint of vertigo. Despite each visible fold in the landscape, it was impossible to orientate oneself. Where were the gorges of the Tarn, where were the Millau suspension bridge and the A75 motorway?
Overseen by the Maritime Alps, Nice is the most beautiful of airports (if that doesn't sound like a contradiction in terms). You describe a big sweeping circle above the Med as you swoop down on a runway built on reclaimed land between the esplanade and the sea. A uniformed official of Air France was waiting for us on the tarmac and we felt like visiting royalty. He saw us onto the bus, then guided us to the departure lounge for the trans-Atlantic leg of our trip. We whispered urgently as we were emptying our pockets at Security for the second time that morning, Should we tip him? Maybe we should... But the loot-carrying Good Wife had nothing smaller than a 50-euro note and I'm sorry, no matter how good the service is... So we shook his hand and thanked him warmly and hoped that he would put the oversight down to the ignorance of foreigners. Both of us boarded our plane weighed down by guilt. I even thought of writing to Air France with a card and a smaller banknote, but reckoned that the pourboire would be pocketed by whoever opened the letter. Later, The Kid, who is wise beyond her years, sent her mum a text admonishing her for our folly. Oh for goodness' sake. You don't do luxury very often. Just sit back and enjoy the ride...
So it was we came to Immigration at JFK. As usual, the uniformed officials were smiling, polite and welcoming. Not. Surly, rude and thoroughly off-putting, rather. You can stuff your precious United States down your outsized 'pants'. However, having come this far, I was keen to pass the test. Would they, wouldn't they let me in? They did. What a relief. I could start signing petitions again to protest against this or that latest callous absurdity of the Trump administration. I'd be long gone before the CIA could flag me up as an undesirable pinko bleeding-heart.
Seven years on and my God! the cost of New York living seems to have risen as high as the Trumpland skyscrapers that blight the contemporary skyline. It's partly to do with the disproportionate exchange rate, but nevertheless... My friend reckons you have to earn upwards of a hundred grand these days if you want to enjoy some of what New York has to offer. Every trip to a museum costs a limb. Thank God for the Met, an endless source of cultural bounty, where you can pay what you wish rather than the suggested price of $25. After imbibing your full, you can slip away into Central Park – the most beautiful municipal park in Christendom, particularly in the spring when the cherry trees are laden with blossom – and all for just a few bucks.
One thing we've always promised ourselves to do is to go and see some good jazz in Noo Yoyk. But throw in the compulsory drinks and you're talking a small fortune these days. Desperate prices demand desperate measures. I wrote to Eddie Palmieri II, whose dad I had arranged to interview on the second Thursday, to ask if he would put me on the guest list for the Monday night concert at the hyper-trendy new Subrosa club downtown in the now gentrified Meat Packing district (where I'm sure on reflection that some of Scorsese's nightmarishly comic After Hours must have been filmed). We've always taught our girl that there's no harm in asking. The worst that can happen is that someone says no. Nevertheless, being a big old hypocritical Hector, I'm always reticent about asking for favours. Silly boy. The three of us waltzed in like dignitaries past the young woman on the door. Had my request not been granted, with the $20 cover charge per person for drinks, the evening would have cost a cool two hundred bucks. It's hard to put a price on a living legend and it was a damn fine concert, but not that fine.
By then, Debs was back in triumph and able to relax after her weekend conference in New Jersey, where she addressed the multitudes on her work with essential oils. Her absence gave us boys a little male downtime during which we were able to swap music, share a smoked salmon bagel and watch three entire matches of English football. My friend is a contrarian. He chose Stoke City when most kids of our age would have chosen Liverpool or Man U. As we watched Stoke fail again to net a single goal, he reminded me that the team has never won a trophy in over a hundred years of existence. His weekly dose of frustration sure puts Arsenal's current travails into stark perspective.
Another dear friend came down by train on Monday from Newport, Rhode Island. We met him and a younger sidekick at Grand Central. After a couple of splendid exhibitions in the Met separated by a bite to eat in the basement cafeteria, we hired a skiff for a lazy hour on Central Park's boating lake, which affords the best possible views of the Central Park West skyline. Since James once rowed for England Schools and since he still plays football ever week (like a latter day Stanley Matthews, once of Stoke), we were happy to let him row, row, row the boat gently 'cross the pond. Later, we passed through Strawberry Fields where the customary crowd was gathered to listen reverentially to a busker sing yet another version of 'Imagine'.
Imagine all the people that a National Jazz Museum in Harlem should be attracting. Arguably it's the most important music form of the 20th century; along with the blues it's the root of almost everything that has come since. Imagine our disappointment in finding that it amounted to a single room staffed by an uninformed mealy-mouthed Ivy League type with attitude and no social graces. We were the only punters there. Sure, there was Duke Ellington's white piano and Cootie Williams' pristine trumpet, but where were all the grainy photos of all the giants of the genre that I had imagined guiding my wife around? That's Wardell Gray. The Thin Man. He was found dead from a bullet wound and dumped in the Californian desert. This is Fats Navarro. Fat Girl. Another great trumpeter who died in his early 20s. Not a bit of it. I looked through a pile of old records dumped unceremoniously on a shelf like thrift-store rejects... and we shuffled out. None of us brave enough to speak the truth to the man at the door. As my friend so wisely observed, If ever a place needed a big fat donation...
I'd never been to Harlem before. When first I visited New York almost 40 years ago, I wouldn't have dreamt of crossing 110th Street. Even that far north was pushing it. The inexorable rise of rents, which is shoving more and more shops, restaurants and small businesses into extinction, and the march of gentrification have rendered Harlem respectable now. The sun was shining and it looked a little like a north London suburb in places. The tourists were queuing up at Sylvia's famous soul food restaurant. Only the junkie nodding on a stoop and the drug-crazed bare-chested man brandishing a belt and the bombed-out woman dancing sinuously at her reflection in a shop window and the man crossing the main road under the elevated railway, furiously venting his anger at police harassment, suggested a disquieting world. I felt out of my depth and impatient to get back to the comfortable midtown norm.
We walked as far as the Apollo ballroom, where Eddie Palmieri's wife, he told me, would wander down from her family home in the upper West Side and pop in to see the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. As with the jazz museum, there was nothing much to see inside. In the foyer, we stood with a desultory bunch of tourists and gawped at a counter of disposable souvenirs, trying to imagine what the place must have been like when Chick Webb, Lionel Hampton, James Brown et al were playing to a packed house of steaming dancers.
On the way back to the subway station, my friend was collared by a street vendor who tried to persuade him to 'buy a book for a brother'. One thing he doesn't need is more books. As it is, he seems to have digested a collection as complete as the NY Public Library's. Our excursions were a constant source of education. Off the beaten tourist track, there is so much to see and learn about. One afternoon, for example, we discovered a beautiful Art Deco church on 5th Avenue – with no spire. It was built on land donated by the Carnegie family, whose home now houses the splendid Cooper Hewitt Institute (of decorative arts), on condition that it was built stunted lest a spire cast a shadow across Mrs. Carnegie's beloved garden.
Another time, we trooped up towards Morningside Heights for lunch at a dimly lit Ethiopian restaurant. At one point, we walked under a span of scaffolding. My friend explained that landlords now erect these 'temporary' 'sidewalk sheds' whenever there's any potential maintenance work to be done and thus the slightest possibility of some chunk of masonry beaning a pedestrian on the sconce (thereby incurring some astronomical legal settlement). The city fathers ordained that all wooden panels should be painted a particular shade of bottle green. This being the US, some enterprising individual bought up thousands of gallons of the requisite shade of paint – and made a killing.
You can kill someone with a cricket ball. Fortunately, my friend and I didn't even come close when we gave the bat and ball an airing in Central Park late on the final afternoon. Not the team game, you understand. Just the equivalent of a friendly knock-up. It was the first time in maybe 30 years that either of us had picked up such implements and it underlined just how difficult it is to bowl a length or hit the ball with a straight bat. We both got lost in Geoff Boycott's corridor of uncertainty. It wasn't helped by having to re-tune our cricketing antennae in front of casual spectators. They probably didn't even know what kind of game we were attempting to play. Are they mad? No, just horribly nostalgic.
New York, New York. So good, they named it twice. With twice the amount of skyscrapers than its nearest municipal rival (apparently Toronto), New York is emblematic of our whole 20th century industrial and cultural heritage. To Allen Ginsberg in 'Howl', it also stood for Moloch, the ancient Canaanite idol into whose fiery belly sacrificial victims were thrown. Yes, indeed, it's an endlessly ambivalent and fascinating place. After 10 days of clamping my hands to my ears whenever yet another police car or ambulance blared its way through the traffic, I was glad to be sitting on an Airbus 380 bound for Paris, watching Genius, a meditative film about the now forgotten literary giant of the '30s, Thomas Wolfe, and his relationship with his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
Only a week later, the French electorate voted for an investment banker as its new president. We'll see how that goes. At least it seems like a breathing space for dispossessed expatriates. Four more relatively undisturbed years, or is it five, of signing anti-Trump petitions in the comfort of my own home.