how 2009 began. part i.
In honour of the release of Emilyn Brodsky’s new album, here is a bit of a recollection of the first time I saw her/heard of her. Which was also the first time I ever went to New York. And the first time that I saw Amanda Palmer.
It’s one of those nights that isn’t easily forgotten. This is the lead-up.
On the first night that I ever spent in New York, I went to a show.
It was January – only just. Patti Smith wrapped up her Bowery Ballroom gig to see in the new year, and then, at 2am, or thereabouts, Amanda Palmer was to perform.
I’d been in Montreal all of four days, but more than a month in advance, this show had been announced, and with the reckless abandon of an eighteen year old on their first adventure, I decided that I was going to take the train from Montreal to New York City to see this gig.
It could be the only chance I get to see Amanda while I’m in North America, I reasoned. It’ll be completely worth it.
It’s ten hours on the Amtrak Adirondack line between Montreal and NYC. I was a fresh-faced wee gal, fed on police procedurals and gritty dramas. Convinced that carrying a bag through New York at night was unsafe, I decided that my best bet was to wear my tiny daypack underneath my coat. Which meant minimal items could be packed. I brought a map, my wallet and my phone, along with a Gossip Girl novel that I bought at a second-hand bookstore in Le Village.
It was probably an attempt at NYC wannabe-hipster irony. I read the whole thing before we got to Albany. I hadn’t thought to bring food, or to organise food, for that matter – apart from a Red Bull for the morning I left. I was terrified that I would miss my train. Anna gave me some sesame snaps with Polish writing on the label, which were the only thing I ate between the morning of the 31st and 8am at Penn Station the next morning.
But that’s getting ahead of myself.
It’s a tricky thing, an ultra-late gig away from home. It seemed pointless to organise a hostel room, I told myself – I would only be there for an hour or two after the concert wrapped up. I had twelve hours in New York, all of them dark, and my only place to go was the Bowery Ballroom.
Manhattan can be overwhelming to the first time observer. While the streets may be numbered in places, there are pockets where they get more creative and criss-crossed and generally turn into a bit of a mystery. I had looked into tips regarding travel around New York (given my stance on bag-wearing, it will not surprise you to know that I was terrified of catching the subway). I knew that I was supposed to state the cross-streets, not the specific address. Bowery and Delancey, Bowery and Delancey. It was my mantra, a ballpoint scrawl on my hand.
My plan was as follows: Arrive in New York. Go to Times Square, because that’s where people go for midnight at New Years, right? Loiter around, watch the ball drop, then catch a cab down to the Bowery Ballroom and wait in anticipation.
Despite my taxi-etiquette research, I hadn’t thought to look into the whole Times Square situation. So I didn’t know that people queue up from three-ish to get into the square proper. And everyone else just crowds around barricades, hoping to catch a flash of pixelated fireworks on an electronic billboard.
So I found myself walking up and down Avenue of the Americas, trying to pass the time. I got caught in one of the peering crowds more than once, but wriggled my way out of them once moderate claustrophobia started to set in. I worried that the bare ground was going to wear away the soles on my new snow boots. When 0000h EST hit, I saw fake sparkles and heard the roar of the crowd around me. As the square started to clear, I wandered into it, to get a feel for what was going on, and saw my first Broadway signpost. The ground was covered with confetti and crushed cups, and police were trying to usher people out.
Satisfied that I had survived to tell the tale, I headed back to the streets that were still open to vehicle traffic. All cabs seemed to be occupied, but finally I could see one that was waiting for a desperate patron. His window was down. ‘Bowery and Delancey?’ I asked. I shouldn’t have phrased it as a question. He shook his head, and drove off.
Slightly shocked and shaken, I stepped back. Another cab was pulled up further along the road. ‘I’m going to Bowery and Delancey.’
‘Only do numbered streets.’ He wound up his window. I bit my lip, and started to have an internal meltdown. Cabs were out of the question here, clearly. Maybe if I headed towards the venue, got myself a little closer, I would be able to successfully convince one to take me the rest of the way.
I had in my head some sort of strange inverted perception of Manhattan. Maybe it was too much Ancient History, and the whole Lower Egypt in the North, Upper Egypt in the South thing, but I had convinced myself that the higher the street numbers went, the closer I was to downtown. Remember that my map was in my backpack, which was underneath my coat.
Given this lapse in geographical ability, it’s a goddamn miracle that I started walking the right way. I popped into a dairy (a corner store, really – what a few months later I would know was locally really a bodega) and asked if they had a map. I was told no. I willed myself not to cry as I went back out into the street, and kept walking in the direction that I hoped was the right way.
A few blocks later – and a few leering interactions with celebrating New Yorkers later – I went into another shop, this time planning to buy a drink in a glass bottle. So that I could rehydrate myself (after my sesame snap diet of the day) and have a potential weapon if I felt threatened. Fortunately, I never had to use my Orangina bottle of doom.
Up to this point, I hadn’t been replying to anyone who spoke to me or wished me Happy New Year! as they passed me on the street. But this store was well-lit and there was a man behind the counter, so when another customer said ‘Happy new year!’ to me, I echoed it.
‘You heading home? We’re just going home from a party.’
‘I’m going to a gig, actually.’
‘Oh yeah? Where?’
‘The Bowery Ballroom?’
He nodded approvingly. ‘Have you got a ride outside waiting?’
I shrugged. ‘Uh, I’m walking.’
He waved a hand. ‘No way! Me and my boys’ll give you a lift! Just wait here – what was your name?’
‘Elizabeth,’ I told him, my go to alias in stressful situations.
‘I’ll just go check, man.’
He left the store and crossed the road, disappearing into the dark towards wherever his ‘boys’ were parked. I was pretty sure that this was not a situation I was game to get myself into. So I left, and saw a cab across the road. It looked as though the Hassidic Jewish man crossing the road was heading for it, so I dashed out quickly, telling myself that I was less safe than he was. ‘Bowery and Delancey?’
He nodded, though grumbled ‘but we’ll have to turn around,’ as I got in. ‘And my meter’s broken, so it’ll just have to be twenty bucks.’
That seemed like a fair sum in exchange for my getting to the gig without anything terrible happening to me. I agreed. He dropped me on The Bowery, right by Delancey, and I thanked him profusely as I handed over the required bill.
It took a moment to get my bearings, especially as a bunch of high-heeled girls tottered into the cab that I’d just vacated. But running down past one of the seedy-looking corners of the intersection was a queue. For something. And a beautiful hunch told me that that was where my people were.
‘Is this the queue for Amanda Palmer?’ I asked, shy and foreign. There was a guy and a girl at the back of the line.
I nodded, comprehension and relief.