An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Things I love about Brooklyn

Posted in Brooklyn, coffee, Local by Frieda on March 30, 2010

Jamey Hamm making a latte at Roots

Today’s post is the first in an occasional series I’m going to do about people & places that I love in New York. I’m going to start with Roots Cafe.

I’ve written before about this subject: New York is chock-full of freelancers, who drift from place to place bringing nothing but their shiny silver mac powerbooks with them. These mobile workers range from impecunious freelance journalists to a man I met at the weekend who designs video games. A host of cafes has arisen to serve this tribe, each with its own atmosphere and clientele: in posh Boerum Hill, my computer-game friend works alongside well-known writers and established journalists. In my part of town, grad students and younger writers ply their trade.

Which brings me to Roots, owned by an Alabaman named Jamey Hamm. It’s a delightful place. The cafe is located in a very slowly gentrifying part of Brooklyn’s 5th Avenue (at 18th Street), which is nice enough for there to be some cool bars nearby, but where you’ll still see old men spitting on the sidewalks. Last week a nail salon on this street, north of Roots and close to where I live, was totally trashed, the windows shattered and the interior looking like it was in the midst of renovations. Somehow people are finding the cafe, though, and it recently featured in the New York Times as one of the best places to get a coffee in Brooklyn.

Hamm wanted to create a community as well as a cafe. This could be just jargon, but if you go there as regularly as I do, you’ll see it’s not. Hamm himself works there almost everyday and is friendly and full of smiles and always ready to chat (perhaps it’s a southern thing). His niceness means it’s hard to be grumpy here — it puts everyone else on their best behaviour.

The cafe is tiny and narrow and somewhat dark. Tables and stools line the walls, with armchairs and a couch squishing up against bookshelves. One wall is festooned with guitars and rock posters; the other works as a rotating gallery for local artists. The music is a mix of pop and rock from recent decades — while I’ve been writing this Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in my pocket” has given way to the Beatles’ “Here comes the sun” — and plays at a crooning level.

Although it started up mid-recession last year Roots does a great business. In February when it snowed you’d have expected it to be deathly quiet. Instead it was packed, as locals sought refuge when the electricity/heating/coffee-makers in their own homes broke down.

A group of friends and freelance-colleagues has sprung up around the cafe, which has become a place of networking and serendipitous meetings. The man sitting beside me today, for instance — a writer, who is wearing a nice peaked cap — came to look at my apartment when I was thinking of subletting it last summer. I’ve bumped into friends here; and I’ve listened in as people exchanged contacts and got gigs.

Last night (ok, so I was here yesterday as well) two older men, one sporting a pony-tail, the other with fluffy white hair and spectacles, started twanging on a guitar and singing. I threw them dirty looks, but as more and more guitar-wielding guys came in the door I realized I was outnumbered. It was open-mic night. The barista picked up a guitar and started to sing; a newcomer joined him and began playing the cello. It felt a far cry from the alienation you’d associate with a big city and which, I imagine, is more a feature of Manhattan life.

It’s raining now, as it’s been doing non-stop for several days. Roots may not not quite be the place where everybody knows your name but most people there will at least know your face. On a wet, cold day it is cosy and warm, a sort of Cheers for the 21st century Brooklynite. Plus, I’m sure it’s cooler than that cheesy Boston pub ever was.

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That hopey changey stuff

Posted in US politics by Frieda on March 23, 2010

Republican protestors on Capital Hill in November (Pic: AP)

I couldn’t bear to watch the end of the healthcare debate last night. When I went to sleep at 11pm, it was still going on, and it continued to midnight. I couldn’t bear to check US newspapers this morning either, so I heard the good news from a more distant source, the BBC Today show. It was the first headline Justin Webb read out: “Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare reforms have finally been approved by Congress.”

There was a hint of bemusement in US correspondent’s Mark Mardell‘s voice as he reported. This is what landmark means: “Nearly every American will have to take out insurance, or face a fine, and insurance companies will be stopped from refusing to insure sick people, or dropping them when they get ill.”

Bewilderment of some sort would be justified. To anyone outside the US who lives in the developed world, the healthcare bill introduces measures that are elementary, basic, almost a bare human right.

This in itself isn’t news to anyone who’s been following the bizarre healthcare debate,  but some of the provisions are truly telling. They show just how bad the situation has been.

The most striking today was this factlet, reported in the Wall Street Journal: From 2010 onwards, insurance companies will be “barred from denying coverage to children with pre-existing illness.” What? What??!! I thought, when I read this. Clearly up until now it had been entirely legal for insurers to deny coverage to sick children. Given the wild costs of healthcare in the US, many kids must simply have had to do without. It seems unimaginable.

Also shocking was news of the turmoil at Capital Hill. On Saturday anti-bill demonstrators hurled racist slurs at African-American senators entering the House. Oh, and spat on them. Nancy Pelosi linked arms with John Lewis, an African-American congressman from Atlanta Georgia, to show her support. Lewis said the protests reminded him of his days as a civil rights activist in the 1960s. “There’s something loose in the land which has created this climate,” he said, adding, “I don’t any ill-feeling or malice towards people who use the ‘n -‘ word, the individuals that spat on my colleague … Our responsibility is to create a greater sense of community.”

But … I just don’t understand. How does healthcare relate to race? The madness that unfurled during this debate seems randomly to blend specific anger about government activities with a free-floating racist rage. It says a lot about America.

I’ve lived in the US for under two years. It’s impossible for anybody here to go unscathed by the maelstrom of awfulness that is the US medical system. Whether you’re rich or poor, uninsured like me (well, we’ll see how travel insurance works!) or even insured, the system gets you down. Just the other day Cary Tennis, the advice columnist at, who is receiving treatment for cancer, wrote that his insurance company had denied a request to pay for the treatment doctors said he needed. After he hired “a professional medical advocate” and asked readers to lobby his insurance company, his treatment was approved.

“Thanks to everyone who has worked on my behalf, the medical reviewers at Blue Cross have taken a second look at the case for proton beam radiation therapy and have approved my treatment,” Tennis wrote today.

He later said: “I do fear for the fate of sick people who lack the communication skills, the research skills, access to media and the resources to call upon the necessary specialists to make sure that their cases get the scrutiny they deserve.”

Hmm. Should a cancer patient need to hire an advocate and establish an internet campaign, just to get care for his illness? Note: this was someone who had insurance. If you don’t have it, you go bankrupt; or simply forego treatment.

On a personal level I’ve had some deeply unpleasant encounters with the US medical system, which I chose not to blog about because they were just too depressing. The most amusing, though, was when I had a shouting match with my elderly pharmacist.

Towards the end of my period of insurance as a student, I went to my doctor to get one or two extra prescriptions to tide me over while I figured out what to do next. When I went to the chemist, the prescriptions wouldn’t go through because I had maxed out my limit, according to my insurance company’s records (this couldn’t have been true, the company just knew I was near the end-date of coverage). I was upset and struggled to understand what was happening. Somehow the grey-haired pharmacist took my questions amiss, and we ended up in a row. “It’ll be worse when Obama gets his way!” the old man yelled at me. “It couldn’t get any worse!” was my reply.

Today I received an email from Barack Obama entitled “Thank you, Frieda” (I don’t quite know what I did but I’m on his mailing list). “For the first time in our nation’s history, Congress has passed comprehensive health care reform. America waited a hundred years and fought for decades to reach this moment. Tonight, thanks to you, we are finally here,” Mr. Obama wrote.

“We have shared moments of tremendous hope, and we’ve faced setbacks and doubt. We have all been forced to ask if our politics had simply become too polarized and too short-sighted to meet the pressing challenges of our time. This struggle became a test of whether the American people could still rally together when the cause was right — and actually create the change we believe in,” he went on.

Yet it’s been those who rallied together against the bill that have really been notable over the past year.

Still, what Sarah Palin called “that hopey changey stuff” has come back to life again. Although it rained all day today and it’s dark now, the world somehow feels a sunnier place.

Update: For another instance of someone WITH insurance being screwed by the system, see Nicholas Kristof in last weekend’s New York Times, where he asks if insurance companies cover any illness at all.

Update 2 (April 1 but it’s not a joke): Certain insurance companies have made women pay more for coverage than men, even men who smoke, arguing that women are more likely to avail themselves of it. For this and more insalubrious info. about health insurance sexism see NYT, March 29 2010, “Being a woman is no longer a pre-existing condition.”

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New York Paddy’s Day pics

Posted in Irish interest by Frieda on March 17, 2010

Irish Queers protesting outside Abercrombie & Fitch.

St. Paddy’s day in New York was surprisingly calm, perhaps because I got to the parade early — and left early. The weather was gorgeous, hitting 60 degrees. At the parade, which runs along 5th Ave. between 44th and 86th Street, the most interesting people were the Irish Queers, who plan to bring a court case against the NYPD and Fire Department for discrimination. Gays can march with other groups, but are not allowed to be openly out at the parade, and activists say this is unfair because other marchers get institutional support.

It’s a way of forcing people into the closet. As Emmaia Gelman, a spokeswoman for Irish Queers, told me: “You can march as long as nobody knows your gay.”

It’s also odd because New York is so, well, gay.

The Irish Queers were friendly folk, so I hope the situation changes soon. The parade would be so much more fun if gays could march, not just protest.

Update: See my report in the Irish Times today.

Paul Rupey, from West Virginia: "I do something weird every year."

Green man. AKA Ryan Higgins, from Rochester. He got a lot of attention from ladies. Perhaps covering up is better than baring all?

The O'Donnell clan from Donegal. I bet they wouldn't be as sartorially daring in Ireland.

Wolfhounds are mascots of the Fighting 69th Brigade.

The solemnities begin.

These guys looked more like mafia to me than marchers.

A protester

Emmaia Gelman, a spokeswoman from Irish Queers

When the mayor et al. walked by, the Irish Queers shouted "Shame, shame, shame, shame."

This was a cute idea.

A feast of puns, not all of them successful

Irish Queers are soon to bring a court case against some City institutions.

Gays are allowed to march in Dublin's Paddy's Day parade.

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Marilyn & a subway fire

Posted in Books by Frieda on March 11, 2010

Norma Jeane Mortensen, AKA Marilyn Monroe

I’ve always thought that February is the cruelest month, not April as TS Eliot suggested. When I began this blog I promised myself I’d write at least one post a week and last month I wrote just one in all. I put it down to turmoil — some romantic kerfuffles, and my first ever time getting laid off. My February was exciting, but frankly, a bit traumatizing. It’s amazing how in New York drama can happen before you’ve even gotten out of bed. My layoff came in the form of an email (I was still in my pyjamas) asking, “did you get the email saying I don’t need you to work any more?” I hadn’t.

But it really is spring now, so this month I’ll write more. I’ve just finished reading a book about Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates, called Blonde, and I’ve been thinking about how personal information is often so much more interesting than history. Or even than reality. Blonde is fictional, although Oates does draw on history. Her account’s a bit overdone at times – for instance, when Arthur Miller comes downstairs in the middle of the night to find Monroe, who was then his wife, munching on a bloody raw hamburger, her eyes gleaming like a cat’s; and the unlikely end, which I won’t spoil for you – but it’s also an entrancing story. It portrays the actress as a vulnerable, wounded creature who is destroyed by the world, and especially by men.

It was probably a bad book for me to read last month. Oates draws absolute boundaries between the sexes, and they never succeed in working anything out – men pursue Marilyn but also hate and despise her. She craves love and affection but when she has it at her fingertips, she blithely throws it away. Could there be something about this that’s cultural, an American phenomenon? I do think the sexes are more divided here.

Oates directs readers who want to know the truth towards historical accounts, so this portrayal of Marilyn is not necessarily fully accurate. But how precise can you be in a retrospective of a person’s life, whether it’s your own or someone else’s? Plutarch, the great ancient biographer, famously remarked in the prologue to his Life of Alexander, that anecdotes reveal more about a person than historical achievements. He often stretched time and inserted events of dubious veracity when it suited characterization or the moral of the tale.

March has seen the publication of my erstwhile boss’s memoir, “An Irish Voice” (note: the layoff was for financial reasons; and I still work freelance for his company). The book promises to reveal some of the secrets behind the Northern Irish peace-process, in which he was involved, and about my boss’s life as an Irish immigrant in the States in the 1980s. Most interesting to me, though, was news of “his private wrestling bouts with the demons of sex, loneliness, drink, depression and poverty.” Gosh!

Why does personal info. hold so much appeal for readers? Maybe it’s because intimate revelations arouse both voyeurism and schadenfreude. More edifyingly, Plutarch might say the lives of others give us examples, showing us how to live — and how not to.

And the subway fire: that was early March. One of my greatest fears is to perish by fire in a small, crowded space, so I was alarmed last week when, after a long delay stuck underground, the train conductor stepped out of his office to announce, “There’s a fire at Bergen Street station. I may have to switch on the XX [some technical thing] so that you all don’t start choking with the smoke.”

I looked anxiously at everyone around me, and kept doing that for a while. After another scary announcement, the conductor said we’d be continuing towards Bergen Street. This seemed like the wrong direction to me.

We trundled on through the tunnel and nothing happened. So the lesson is: subway fires may sound terrifying, but if you happen to be on the New York underground, don’t worry. As for personal details and public confidences: well, it turns out I feature in a fashion blog today in a piece on what bloggers wear when blogging, and I think that’s about as far as I’m prepared to go in showing or telling all. The pics are not too revealing, but you could say they’re a little personal. I’m hard at work! Ie. in a cafe, and in bed (You’ve to scroll down).

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