Sunny and cool today on Long Island as we crawl painfully to the promise of Spring as February draws to a close. I am waiting with a few others on the long Island Railroad platform for a train into New York City. I am going to see another eclectic indie band tonight at the Highline Ballroom called Rasputina. They are a cello based band. That’s right… See Eee Ell Ell Oh! Melora Craeger has created a trio of classically trained musicians, a drummer and two cellists who play original music and rock covers. They are steeped in history as they are dressed in bawdy period costume from the 1800’s, and much of the songwriting is rooted in history which Melora relishes in presenting in unique ways. The new cd is out but I haven’t heard it yet, I will be buying it at the show I’m sure. This is the seventh cd for the band which has been around for twenty years and has seen a few lineup changes and solo projects from various members.
But throughout it all the music has remained the same. Classical – but not stuffy and pompous, folksy – but not annoyingly so, at times hard-edged but never heavy. One could say they are a happy marriage of The Dresden Dolls and a chamber music quartet. So as the express rain heads into NY I write with chilled fingers and listen to students talking about school life and current events. They talk in that modern post valley-girl twang that seems so attractive to young people these days. Several people are sleeping in this mostly quiet car and I find myself envious of them, but tired as I am after a busy day – I never sleep on the train. I just don’t trust the world well enough for that, it’s my suspicious Taurean nature.
Speaking of such things as the world, it seems to me that we are hurtling toward destruction at an alarming rate these days. I try to stay apolitical in my writing but it’s hard not to side with any people interested in free speech and personal liberty, as long as they are not blowing up buildings to get their point across. I am scared for the future of the planet, in my darkest thoughts I imagine how much some people want to use nuclear weapons against us and other U.S. allies, and what it could do to the face of the globe. What surprises me is how easily the same people could find their own lands adversely affected from such actions and yet are going on with the planning and other activities like it won’t go down that way. They seem to me like children playing with matches who haven’t been burned yet. We can only hope that cooler heads will prevail, but right now it feels like too many Darth Vaders are cutting the hand off too few Luke Skywalkers. The next few weeks will be very interesting.
I am considering the merits of a long walkabout as opposed to the subway. I need the fresh air and exercise but I also want to make some time after getting a later train. The Highline Ballroom is on W 16th St at 9th Ave which is eighteen blocks away and two avenues over as the crow flies or in this case pigeon flies and I don’t want to rush through dinner to get to the show on time. I guess I’ll just play it by ear when I get off. I am also thinking about tonight’s meal, I had a late breakfast so this will be an early supper, and I’m undecided about the choice. It will either be French or Vietnamese, and damn if I can’t find both within a few blocks of here! I just need to get a pen to write more, the two I have are both low on ink. My ears pop as we begin to descend and people begin to pack up and prepare to disembark. No nerves this time after a long absence, I’m ready for New York like a man is ready for a woman…it takes a lot out of you but oh so worth it.
I come up in Penn Station and am immediately greeted by color and movement, people on the move. Walking briskly the commuters go about their business, you see little scenes – a dad and his little boy sit on the floor sharing snacks-couples walk close oblivious to the world around them – a homeless man searches in the garbage can. Cold blasts of wind rise up from the tracks below each stairwell as you pass carrying the faint smell of machinery replaced quickly by cooking food. Grilled meats, pizza, strong coffee, bread. A quartet of musicians plays pop songs on classical instruments at one end of the station while a rhythm and blues band plays at the other end. I grab a pen at a kiosk and go up to 8th Avenue and quickly find a pub called the Irish Times for a quick beer and a loo.
The pub is a nice but typical place with wood tables and bar, well-lit for lunch and playing sports on the tv’s and mix radio, I settle for a Spaten instead of a Harp, huh some Irish pub – at least the bartender was Irish. So I rush to the loo and wash up and go back to my spot where I’m listening to a German man talk with his American handler about business and wax philosophic about the economy, I imagine he’s here for a meeting as he is asking the American about what to do nearby at night. I don’t have time to put my two nosey cents in and besides the guys getting paid to be a fixer for the man anyway so I finish my brew and go outside. Walking down 9th Ave I note again how relatively quiet it is compared to others like 7th or 8th, and that’s not for lack of businesses here, there is a whole bunch of pizza places, vegan eateries of all kinds and sizes – from nice restaurants to a guy in a kitchen the size of a closet boasting the fastest vegan food in town, you get your food in 30 seconds or less or it’s free! Just kidding. I quickly make the walk downtown, it’s nice here and the weather is fine. Soon I’m standing outside Co Ba only to find it’s closed, the waiter comes as I enter and tells me to come back at 5:30 for dinner but I need a loo again and I ask if I can and reluctantly he lets me in after I promise to be back for dinner.
So with 45 minutes to kill I walk down to the Highline and go in to the box office to get my ticket but they are not giving them out till 6:00 pm! I mean come on, can I get a break here or what? The only consolation is the Chelsea Market is a block away so I walk down to check it out. The studios above the market is where Emeril Lagasse’s show Emeril Live was filmed for many years and the market was featured a bunch of times. I walk in and am greeted with a welcome sight, there is a Anthropologie store here! Let me explain, Anthropologie is a womans clothing store, at least 60% of it is clothing for women and girls which means that there is plenty of eye candy for a man here to see. But the rest is an interesting eclectic mix of housewares and decorative items that you will not find anywhere else, as well as books and a fantastic selection of music playing . Which I would buy on CD if I could, I have heard songs that I wanted while in the store but no one knew the band. The buyers go all over the world and bring back pieces of furniture too that are used for display but are also for sale! There are dressers and marble-topped kitchen cabinets with drawers and they are beat up and look as if they were purchased at an estate sale in Provence, Tuscany or Barcelona! Did I mention the beautiful girls? This store is twice the size of the one near my house which is becoming all clothing gradually so I am absorbed as they have two floors. I walk out into the market and see a wonderful array of bread on racks at Amy’s Breads, a huge bakery with glass walls so you can see the operation, opposite that is a butcher shop I won’t even walk into, the smell alone would have me blacking out from the pleasure. The selection of charcuterie is jaw-dropping! I have never seen so many types of bacon and the terrines, pate’s and rillettes make me want to get a baguette and a bottle of wine and make a picnic lunch on the floor. I don’t even bother to go in the wine and cheese shop…I would have to be carried out on a stretcher. Besides I’m hungry and it is time to eat dinner, I will be back and make a proper expedition here again, armed with a cooler bag or perhaps a mule team to take it all back home!
I come back to Co Ba and the young waiter waves me in as I stand outside looking in and sits me properly, after I go to the loo again. I advise him to enjoy being able to drink gallons of beer and hold it while he’s young because it won’t last, he laughs and I study the menu. This is an extensive menu for a small place and they are doing God’s work (as Anthony Bourdain would say)! They have twelve small plates, six Banh Mi sandwiches, six noodle dishes, beef three ways, a fish of the day, and four clay pot meals. I ask the waiter how much food you get with the small plates and explain that I want to eat as much as I can without being a pig because we don’t have Vietnamese food by me anymore. So he advises on portions and I go with Chim cut roti: five spice quail roasted with small rice cakes as an appetizer, a small Pho Bo, the ubiquitous noodle soup that I first learned about in a book called “Rougue Warrior” by the former leader of seal team six, and for my main the much-loved French inspired Banh Mi, a toasted baguette with an assortment of luncheon meat, house made pickles, honey plum – glazed pork, cilantro, jalapeno, and mayo and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
I gaze out at the street and wait while I write about the day so far, my waiter brings my wine which is good and soon another brings my quail. I wanted to try this because of my experience with it at a Spanish tapas place last year, to compare flavors and textures. This is far superior, this is tender and spiced just right. Next my piping hot Pho comes and is just what I expected, good ox tail broth with shaved eye round, noodles, bean shoots and mint leaves, with Hoisin Sauce and Sirrachi to taste and a twist of lime. I relish every drop. But the jaw – dropping taste of the Banh Mi is what I came here for and I wasn’t disappointed. The crunchy baguette (which is cut in three pieces and served on end) filled with the different textures and flavors of meat and veg is a revelation another dimension of good, now I know why Tony went nuts over it in Saigon on No Reservations a few years ago. This is needs no other accompaniment, I could have eaten just this and been perfectly happy. If you eat this…you’ll never want a ham and swiss on white with mayo again!
My waiter was a gem of a guy, I made conversation with him about the food and how people who wouldn’t try this (like the guys I work with) are missing out on flavors you can’t find in any other cuisine. I ask about his accent and find he is of German/Swiss origin and we talk about his father in Germany, growing Heirloom tomatoes, and he tells me of the ease to travel in Europe where three hours in any direction can take you to a whole different country! He listens with interest about my writing and later will ask me for the web address to read some. A solitary traveller like myself really appreciates the momentary friendship of one such as he, and even though he and his co-workers probably joked about the strange guy later, it’s okay I was much the same myself. It’s important to treat your waiters and waitresses as friends rather than servants, the first glass of wine I got was a typical house pour, the second was much larger. The point is treat well and tip well and you will enjoy the experience of dinning much more, and will be remembered when you go back. I pay my bill and shake hands and grab a paper menu to take with me and go off towards the Highline.
I am surprised to see a line still, but when I try to go to the front and get my ticket at will call I am stopped and told to wait at the end of the line. So I wait and freeze a little in the windy street for about 45 minutes. Finally we get in, and can enjoy the zany music and antics of Voltaire, a top hat wearing, guitar playing Goth troubadour with a flair for comedy. He is the opening act and explains at one point that it was Rasputina that first inspired him to buy a guitar and learn how to play. He was actually using his old student guitar that night!
He is very entertaining and as there are tables right up to the stage for those who want to sit all night, he does play with the audience including a beautiful black transsexual? ( I don’t know if she was or Voltaire was just joking) that provides comic material for us. Just as a sidenote, the he or she (as the case may be) was asked to leave because of her drunkenness. So her tall, bald, white Vin Diesel looking boyfriend had to help her out of the ballroom followed by a phalanx of security.
While I wait for Rasputina to go on I buy the new CD and also a live CD that I don’t have, then I make my way to a good spot to stand and scan the crowd. There is an eclectic mix of types here, a few that dress a little period like the band, men in top hats and 3/4 huntsman’s coats, girls in bodices and floor length dresses, a few “Johnny Depp” types in overcoats with the appropriate facial hair and glasses with hat, and some who look like they got dressed in a costume shop in the dark! The mix is fascinating to me and I am more than a little envious of the cool look that some guys can pull off that I couldn’t even when I was young.
Finally the band comes out and the lineup is yet again different from on previous albums. The fans roar with enthusiasm as they take the stage and two cellists and a drummer begin the play some of the most unusual music you could ever hear. I know they use effects to add to the music just like guitarists do, but you wouldn’t believe the blinding speed that they can move their hand up and down those strings while the bow must hit every string while the pressure is on the string at the same instant. These cello’s sound like heavy metal guitars at times and other times like synthesizers, they play soft and classically on some songs and others like Jimi at Woodstock! Melora runs a tight ship as she calls it and the “Recital” is fantastic, they even played “Barracuda” by Heart! Then after a three song encore they go off and I wait around hoping to get an autograph from Melora but she doesn’t show up at the tables. I do however shake Voltaire’s hand as he walks about selling CD’s and making new friends. I move downstairs through the crowds and outside the clubbers are lineing up to go down to the basement club for the night life. Their evening is just starting as mine is ending, which is good for me because if I make good time I can be home in time to watch Saturday Night Live and get to bed half-way early, and let me tell you that’s a great plus for me these days. Isn’t it funny how time can shift your priorities to sleeping all night instead of being out all night!
I walk back along 9th Avenue at a brisk pace and at one point hear the sound of a loud gunshot somewhere nearby, in the city such noises echo through the canyon like walls of the skyscrapers. No one seemed to take any notice so I didn’t either, if it was actually a gun I’ll never know but otherwise the trip back to Penn was uneventful, I grab a beer and dash for the train that is leaving in three minutes. Not much time but I make it OK and even find a seat, I could have waited for the next train but that was an hour wait. So I sit and write and sip my beer entirely thrilled with my trip and all I experienced. Everything went off without a hitch, another great meal and more great music. I’m lovin life right now, the way it should be. I am excited to see what the summer concert and play season brings as I drift off on cello harmonies.