In order to understand your place as well as your people, sometimes it’s good to get away for a few days.
Last week I spoke about my work to a group of library patrons in Southampton, N.Y. (a topic I’ll save for my next posting). To get to the tony Long Island community, my fantastic South African traveling companion Janet Heard and I took an Amtrak train, followed by a cross-sound ferry, followed by a car ride that took us on two more ferries — including through Sag Harbor, where we looked longingly, without success, for hometown studboy Alec Baldwin.
The next day, we toured New York City, by way of the Hampton Jitney bus (complementary muffins and New York Times), several subway rides, a city bus and a carriage ride through Central Park, guided by a nursing student named Mamet, a cheerful Georgian immigrant who mistakenly thought we were gay. “Sorry to disappoint you,” I said.
Not that our feet didn’t share the burden of transport. We figured we put in 60 city blocks in as many hours. On St. Patrick’s Day morning, I found myself in total heaven: standing elbow-to-elbow amid a cacophony of kilted Irishmen, Smithwicks in hand. The bar was called Molly’s Pub and Shebeen, and we chose it from the throngs of standing-room-only Irish pubs because my Capetown buddy swore that Shebeen was a South African word for an after-hours bar. Turns out it is, not unlike a Southern nipjoint, only the word is Gaelic in origin. (Where matters of drinking are concerned, I defer — always — to the Irish.)
At a trendier-than-thou restaurant on Broome Street (where our Barbie maitre d’ wore runner-laden black pantyhose under the tightest, shortest black skirt on the lower East side), we met our writer pal Ashton Applewhite, who was fresh off her six-week stint as an “interpreter” in the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim — and still high with excitement. “The only time in my life I’ll ever be in The New Yorker and The New York Times in the same week.” It’s the only time in my life I’ll ever know someone who’s been in The New Yorker and The New York Times in the same week!
After a night showing of “Fela!” — a jamming musical/dance tribute about Fela Kuti, a kind of Nigerian Bob Marley — we capped our trip off with a woefully short two-hour visit to MoMA, where South African artist William Kentridge’s haunting drawings and multimedia works chronicled Apartheid and its aftereffects. (Note to MoMA visitors about to hop on a bus: You’re not allowed to check your suitcase at the museum, but a nice lady at the museum may encourage you to pretend you’re a guest at the nearby Hilton so you can stash your bags there with the Egyptian bellman . . . who may also inquire if you are gay. [Whattup? Was it the newsboy hat?])
For a while it felt like we’d gone to New York to learn about . . . Africa. Which is fine and good. But I did have to smile when I spotted this photo in another MoMA exhibit with a dateline of Radford, Va, circa 1930s.
I asked my buddy Ralph Berrier, font of all Radford knowledge, if he’d ever seen the photo before, and he said no. But his characteristically Ralphy reply made me miss my hometown all the more: “We ain’t got no MoMA in Bigg Lik, but we got a lotta Hot Momas!”
By the way, Ralph’s book, “If Trouble Don’t Kill Me,” will be published by Crown this summer. It’s the wild, true tale of his musician-grandfather who was within a mosquito wing’s width of reaching fame and acclaim. So New Yorkers, get ready to pull out your fancy pantyhose and break out the Smithwicks: Big Lick’s coming to town.