An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Losing things

Posted in Irish, Local, New York by Frieda on August 6, 2010

The city

You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged here of late. That’s because something very sad happened which I didn’t want to write about, but didn’t want to bypass either. The result was that I didn’t write.

When I feel stressed or tired or upset, I often find that I’m clumsy, more likely to trip, or lose things. True to form, yesterday I lost some prescription spectacles (the purple ones that you can see on the right) when their case fell out of a hole in my bag as I cycled along St. Mark’s toward Franklin Ave. The day was gorgeously hot and I was wearing sunglasses, and though I heard a clatter behind me I just kept going. Later, when I went back peering under cars to look for them, they were gone.

A few months back, an acquaintance told me about a friend of his, an Irish woman called Lydia Prior who was based in LA, but moved home to Belfast when her father died. She’s writing a blog about his death called the Dead Dad Diaries. I’ve glanced at it from time to time, and I’ve found it to be excellent and intriguing, though the title is a bit much for me. Recently Prior posted up a poem by Elizabeth Bishop on the subject of loss. It’s a well-known poem, perhaps almost cliche; still, I’ve found that, more than anything else, poetry articulates these feelings best.

One Art

By Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

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Rapping on Dean Street

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 18, 2010

Leah Hart & friends, ready to rap

When I picked up my camera this afternoon and headed outside, I never thought I’d come across a bunch of rappers: eight of them, along with a woman with a video camera and a car blasting background music, right outside my house. The videographer was Leah Hart, and they were performing a rap cypher, a 16 bar chant to which all eight add their own individual rhythm. They live nearby — Leah’s on Park Place — and they chose my street because they liked the graffiti.

I love my new neighbourhood, Crown Heights in Brooklyn. There’s something magical about it, a community feel with creative artistry sewn in. It’s ethnically diverse and has not always fared well. In 1991 riots broke out after a 7-year-old African American boy was killed by a car driven by a Hasidic man. In the three days of violence that followed, one man was killed and almost 200 injured. Now, though, such conflict seems a thing of the past, and all sorts of groups co-exist and work together, literally, with businesses that are side by side.

Nearby Franklin Avenue is a hive of activity: locals gather on their apartment stoops, businesses thrive. Yesterday I discovered a bijou community center, where freelancers, artists, and local organizations can meet, for free. One or two organic groceries and swish coffee shops bear witness to change: gentrification, which is raising rents and bringing double-edged benefits.

Off Franklin, warehouses and factories overshadow the sidewalks, some in their original function, others converted (legally & illegally) into artists’ lofts and collectives. Everyone seems to have something on the go. At the end of my road, canopied by orange parasols, a man sells watermelons, and plants from his garage.

These are pictures from my 15 minute walk.

Poem by James Wright, on a lampost at Franklin & St. Johns (click to enlarge)

Locals plan to appropriate this disused lot & make it into a community garden (this weekend)

Notice on on Franklin Ave.

Factories on Bergen St.

Local film-maker, McClinton Karma Stanley (see http://www.youtube.com/karmastanley)

A graffito on Franklin Avenue

New York blues

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 10, 2010

The view from my house yesterday

If you’re in a bad mood in New York the best thing to do (if possible) is to stay indoors. Don’t go to the shops, don’t buy coffee, don’t get on public transport or walk on crowded pavements. Don’t even check email. Wear a helmet. There’s something strangely responsive about this city, as if it senses your troubles and chooses not to help, deciding instead to hurl irritations, hindrances and crazy people in your way. On a good day the sun shines and people will be astonishingly nice, but if you’re having a difficult time the environment easily becomes hostile. And, to be frank, bad things may happen.

Last Thursday was a case in point. In the morning I attended an MTA appeal. After going through a three-hour process, I was given the maximum fine. A few hours later, as I cycled tired and annoyed along a street near my home, my bike hit a pothole and I flew over the handlebars, landing on my left elbow.

Within two hours of my bike accident I had inadvertently managed to offend a friend’s friend. He was extremely angry with me and I was angry back. We have resolved the matter, but the offense was as unintentional as my bike accident, and it seemed odd: I truly didn’t mean to stir up trouble.

All that took its toll. This week I’ve felt as if the whole city has been fighting with me, and my misery only seemed to attract more of the same; or as a rather more expressive writer once put it, ‘when sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in battalions.’ Things have kept going wrong. On Monday I waited for the subway, huddling towards the upper end of the platform away from other people, but when the train arrived, the conductor yelled, ‘First three carriages are not in use!’ Cradling my coffee I stepped toward carriage four, only to see the subway doors close, as the train pulled off.  The conductor could have waited for me, he just didn’t. (It’s also true that I didn’t smile at him when he made his announcement, when normally I would have).

My computer started to play up and went into ‘Panic’ mode without my asking; Google refused to work, linking instead to a weird Wiki page full of meaningless text. But Tuesday was the nadir of my New York blues. I was walking down the street to a coffee shop near my house when a woman approached me. Something in her step put me off, and I wondered if she would be mad, or hostile. I didn’t have to wonder long. She walked towards me and thrust her face at mine and said in a tone that was almost sane, ‘I am everything. You are nothing! I am everything. You are nothing!’ I was scared. I ducked and ran away from her, across the quiet street. Yet she’d got something right: she had articulated, succinctly, aggressively and in a way that was fittingly unhinged, the world’s hostility.

After that, and after I spoke to a friend, things gradually improved. Today even Google has cooperated, miraculously righting itself without intervention from the ‘Genius’ men at Apple (perhaps the weirdness had to do with this). Still, it has rained all day — see the pic above.

*******

One day on, we are on good terms again — the city seems back to its magical self. On the subway this morning, a man smiled and gave me his seat. ‘Your bag looks heavy,’ he said, as he thought up a beautiful image: ‘What are you carrying? Golden bricks?’

The door leading up to my roof

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Crime & punishment

Posted in Brooklyn, Local, New York by Frieda on June 3, 2010

Don't mess with the MTA

It’s well known that the Metropolitan Transport Authority is utterly strapped for cash at the moment. This means they’re cutting services and firing employees. It also means it’s a bad, bad time to offend them in any way. About a a month ago I made a foolhardy attempt to save 18 minutes by skipping under a turnstyle (all excuses can be found here). I had my hearing today and received my just desserts — or unjust ones, depending on your perspective.

MTA officials are often very unpleasant, but the office at 29 Gallatin Place was surprisingly calm, much like an NHS hospital waiting room. My number flashed up and I moved from ticketing desk to another desk to an adjudicating official within three hours.

29 Gallatin -- actually quite an insalubrious area

Most people there were African American and Hispanic: laconic teens, ironical women who had seen it all, and aggravated, angry men. Most seemed a bit down at heel, but a few men in shirt suits sat looking around them in bewilderment. I felt acutely aware of race and gender. It was notable that none of the adjudicating officials were African American or Hispanic — I spotted a blond woman, a white man with bushy eyebrows, and another woman with dark hair and glasses. I hoped I’d get a man, thinking he might be more sympathetic.

Well, Mr. Andrew R., watery-eyed and middle-aged, was nice enough. He switched on an ancient vintage-style tape-recorder, read out my charge, and other details, read me my rights, and got me to swear to tell the truth holding up my right hand. It seemed rather melodramatic. I recounted my take on the situation and he listened with what appeared to be a friendly ear.

Back in the main office, I awaited the verdict. Because we were all in the same boat the atmosphere was friendly, and people began to chat about how much they hated the MTA. The man across from me had been booked for going through the emergency door, after he had swiped through with his card. He had paid with the card! he said. Another man, dignified and bespectacled, was quiet about his crime. It was hard to imagine what he could have done. ‘They just need money,’ he said. ‘They’re fining everyone for everything.’ I thought, uneasily, how if I was in charge of the MTA, it would make sense to ask all adjudicators to fine everyone uniformly at the maximum amount.

The dignified old man was called up to the window, and we all jumped when he waved his arms and shouted, ‘This is ridiculous!’ He stomped out the door without looking over at us.

Next was a young, anxious-looking Asian-American man who’d been sitting beside me and who seemed worried about getting back to work. Next was me. My heart beat when I looked at my form, where Andrew R. had written that my tale of having bought the monthly travel card did not diminish the fact that I’d broken the law. The fine was the maximum: $100.

So that’s the way things are at the moment in New York. There’s no leeway, no discretion, there are no excuses or explanations: if you get booked for something here — regardless of X or Y or P or Q, the morals of the situation, or whatever plaintive reasons or motives you may have had — you’ve broken the law and you will be punished.

The funny thing is people do break rules here all the time in flagrant, flamboyant ways. It’s only a problem, as it always is, if you get caught.

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Recommended: Twigs hair salon

Posted in Local, New York by Frieda on May 18, 2010

Julie Reale, one of three stylists at Twigs

My second post in the Things I Love about New York series. This time it’s a Manhattan hair salon!

One Friday night in autumn 2008 when I first arrived in New York and had little else to do, I was wandering around the East Village. I spotted a hair salon and popped in for a cut. There I met Julie Reale, a blond, tattoed, talented stylist who would become my New York Hairdresser. She whispered to me that she was about to leave that salon and set up on her own. We exchanged contact details.

Just a few weeks later she’d set up Twigs, a delightful salon further east in Alphabet City. It’s a supercool place: the decor is warm and simple. The floors are wooden, and flickering green silver birch screens adorn the walls. In the basement a red wood-stove-light creates a sort of ski-resort feel. The building may or may not have been a rub-and-tug brothel in an earlier incarnation, but Reale and her friends Janell Waddington and Kristiana Andrews transformed it into a cosy, bright space.

Most importantly, Reale’s cuts are good value (starting at $85) and consistently excellent. I’ve received compliments on my hair from strangers and friends in Dublin, New York and San Francisco. Once at a book launch, a random woman started taking photos of me, sweetly explaining it was my haircut, not me, that she wanted to snap.

One of the impressive things about this business is that the girls set it up at the peak of the recession, yet it’s fared extremely well. Reale says she’s noticed a trend. “There’s a lot of stuff closing down, but I feel that a lot of really nicer places are opening up,” she says. That makes sense. Another business I know that flourished in the last two years  is Roots cafe in Brooklyn, which like Twigs provides a friendly, high-quality experience.

Twigs salon

The downturn brought other benefits. “Because of the recession, we got to negotiate on everything,” Reale explains. She and the other girls had been pushed out of a former salon by the high rents they paid for chairs, but with their own salon they could do deals. “The landlord, the contractor; people are willing to be more flexible.”

Reale is from Albany but she’s a de facto New Yorker. She’s lived in the city for 12 years, and shares a rent-controlled apartment in the West Village with her boyfriend. From an early age, she wanted to be a hairdresser. “I met my sister’s friend who was a hairstylist, when I was a kid,” she explains. “She looked like Joan Jett and had a really cool car. And I thought, I wanted to be like her.”

It’s a flexible job. “We don’t have to work in flourescent lighting, there are no cubicles. And you don’t get secretary spread!” she says. Incidentally this ties in with an article on happiness in the Guardian last month, which said that hairdressers rank as the happiest workers in the UK.

Reale’s apartment is also shared by two dogs, and a cat. In her spare time she works on her own canine-fashion website called The Punky Pup, an excessively cute business that sells punk rock t-shirts, collars, tanktops and accessories, for pets.

East Village is sometimes overrun with NYU students and tourists (especially at the weekend), but Alphabet City, named because it begins at Avenue A, is just a little ways off from that, and it’s more diverse and residential. The whole area was Patti Smith territory in the ’60s and ’70s — the rockstar gave her first poetry reading at St. Mark’s church — and it’s rich with history, late night second-hand bookshops, family-owned pizza joints, design stores, coffee shops and restaurants.

In short, go there. And get your hair cut.

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Booked by the cops!

Posted in Irish, Local, New York by Frieda on May 13, 2010

My local station

“Where’s your ID? Are you here legally?” The two police spoke at the same time, loud and threatening, as if that was all they cared about. I was very glad to be a US citizen. And mad at myself for getting caught. “Are you here legally?” Officer Daly repeated. “Oh, come on,” I said, “My dad was American, I’m a citizen. Come on.” He stopped asking.

But I realized how bad it would have been if I’d been illegal, like so many other immigrants in New York. This is when you get caught: a small misdeamour or mistake and you’re on the plane back to Ireland, never to return. That Thursday, I was on my way back from an event at the Irish consulate, where I’d lunched with senior Irish educationalists at a networking event. I was wearing a short black dress, silver pearls and a blazer. I hopped into the 5th Avenue station and used my monthly card. Then I decided to step out again and make a call, to see if a Manhattan friend would like to meet for a drink. She wasn’t in, so I went down to the train again, but this time, as is usual with New York metro cards, my card ($89) wouldn’t work — you need to wait 18 minutes between use.

Feeling a bit rebellious, I snuck under the turnstyle — or “crept under” as my charge card later stated. In fact I’d done it earlier that week rushing to catch a train at my local station, and not gotten caught. Who cares? I thought. I’ve paid for monthly travel.

I was scooting down the platform when my eyes were drawn towards Officer Almodovar. He was smiling at me, and beckoned me to him. At first I smiled too, thinking he’d chastise me and let me go, but as he took my name, address and phone number, writing with incredible slowness, I realized that wasn’t to be. I pleaded, begged, told the officers they’d ruined my day, and finally became stonily silent. The fine was $100.

“But I paid, I have a monthly card!” I argued, several times. “We can’t bend the rules for anyone,” explained Daly with determined logic. He was a narrow-faced fair-skinned short-haired man several years younger than me. “We can’t have different rules for different people.” He pointed out I could have asked the attendant to let me through and this wouldn’t have happened. Not that I’d known that. He started to give me advice on how to get an ID card so I wouldn’t have to show my horrible, out-of-date NYU ID. He was quite nice. Meanwhile middle-aged Almodovar grinned in a way that made my blood boil. Commuters looked at me in surprise as they went by — a nice young woman in a posh part of town, getting booked by the cops.

Last night over drinks, I discussed this with a friend, a German science post-doc. who works at NYU. He told me how he’d been rushing for a train late one evening, and his card was out of money. He sped under the barrier, to find a cop on the other side. “In France, or Germany, there’s always some leeway, you can talk to them,” he said. “But not here. They were really serious and aggressive.” He’d gone through the same emotional cycle as me: friendly surprise, smiles at the cops; attempts to chat and plead; ending up in aggrieved silence.

“It’s $100,” Almodovar said when he’d written down all my details, with faux-reassurance adding, “We’re going to say that you broke the rules but it’s not a criminal act.” I asked if there were alternatives to payment. “You can turn up to a summons, if you want to.”

“Thanks, guys,” I said over my shoulder, as I headed off in a blackened mood. See you in court, I was thinking, already formulating arguments. It felt as if people were still staring; I was trembling, and too embarrassed to look at the yellow slip documenting my crime.

I’ve since mislaid the little yellow sheet, but my hearing’s sometime between 8.30am and 2.30pm on June 4th, in the not-very-glamorous MTA adjudication bureau.

I know I was in the wrong. But my crime was technical, not moral. I’d bought the bloody metrocard after all. I just hope the judge will agree.

For more info. see the MTA rules of conduct.

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Waiting for paint to dry

Posted in Brooklyn, Local by Frieda on April 9, 2010

My house in Brooklyn, today: picturesque, no?

This is what I came home to on Tuesday. Our landlord — who’s otherwise very nice — has made an executive decision to paint the front door dark green and to further improve our living situation by retiling the porch. Today I returned around lunchtime to find both the main door and the door of our apartment wide open (the green paint was drying). This was annoying. Our little cat Booboo could have made a bid for freedom and met her end on the street outside. More crucially, someone could have crept into my bedroom and stolen some of my stuff.

I came in and sat down in the kitchen to do some work. But the big orange contraption you can see in the photo started to make the beep — beep — beep sound that it has been making all week from 8.30 am onwards. I flew out the door in a rage to ask the men who were working (now doing something on the third floor as you can see) to keep it down.

The door slammed behind me and all of a sudden I was outside without phone or keys or purse. I shouted up to the men asking if they had keys. They didn’t, our landlord’s dad had opened the door for them that morning. How about the landlord or his dad? They were at work.

The younger of the men, a pallid guy in his early twenties with short spiky hair who spoke with an unidentifiable accent, climbed in the upstairs window and came downstairs to help me. Taking a set of cards from his wallet he began to slide one into the lock to open our door, with worrying expertise. The trick failed. Then, when I told him the back door was open, he knocked on the upstairs apartment. After, I have to assume, leaping off the roof and entering through the back door, he opened my front door from the inside and politely let me in.

An emergency was averted, I wasn’t going to have to sit on my steps for hours waiting for a key-bearer to arrive. I could feel ambiguous relief: the people working on our apartment, performing whatever mysterious tasks they’re engaged in, are friendly and helpful and chivalrous; they just happen to be good at breaking into houses too.

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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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Time for the Co-Op

Posted in Brooklyn, Local by Frieda on December 8, 2009
The Park Slope Food Co-Op at night -- eerie, or friendly? (Pic is from image from http://www.paullarosa.com/blog/?p=948)

The Park Slope Food Co-Op at night -- eerie, or welcoming?*

Ah, the Park Slope Food Co-Op. Today I pulled two brown cloth bags bearing its logo over my shoulder and made my way to the subway for my twice-a-month expedition there. It’s 10 minutes away from me by subway and an average shopping trip takes one-and-a-half hours minimum.

The Co-Op is a divisive entity in Park Slope, Brooklyn (which is where I live). It’s a food co-op where you buy organic/freerange/greenie items cheaply, but at a cost — you have to work there. You really do. The work requirement is two and three quarter hours per month and if you do a cleaning shift, like I do, that shrinks to two hours. If you miss one shift you have to do two within  the next month. If you miss two, you’re out, suspended. You can’t shop there until you make up the work you’ve shirked, which by now will be about eight hours.

But the benefits are brilliant. Contrary to what lots of people say, food is extremely expensive in New York. I’ll never forget an evening in my first month here when I popped out to a local deli (bodegas, they call them here) to buy pasta and sauce and an onion — and came home with $20 less in my pocket. The PS Food Co-Op makes it possible for an impoverished journalist like myself to live on a diet of organic wild Alaskan salmon, free-range eggs, seasonal organic veg, etc., etc. This is important in a country where scary food stories are rife.

Two hours per month may not sound like much but in a busy city life it feels exhausting, on a Monday evening even once a month, to trail my way to the Co-Op and clean and mop and scrub from 8pm to 10. The Co-Op has 15,000 members, which is a lot, but the work requirement is what puts many Park Slopers off. They feel vehement about it. At a recent dinner in a family member’s house in Park Slope, my uncle and cousin disagreed with me about a minor detail of the Co-Op work requirement, insisting they were right, even though they don’t work or shop there, and I do (they were wrong, I checked later).

The burdensome work requirement has also spawned a spate of articles about the place. Park Slope is full of writers and you annoy them at your peril.

So today in the Co-Op I picked up the Co-Op’s own little paper, the Linewaiters’ Gazette — probably so called because you will often stand in a line for up to half an hour before you reach the cash register. It’s usually highly entertaining, full of letters complaining about how certain workers don’t have the right attitude and don’t smile enough. Anyhow an article on the Gazette’s front page read, “They write about working when they don’t do the work.” The author went on to complain about the writers who write pissy articles about the Co-Op in the New York Times.

I’m between two minds about the Co-op myself. As I said, it helps me keep healthy, but on the days my work was piling up and I was under pressure, hauling out my bike and cycling through the dark (or getting the subway) to clean floors seemed like a terrible punishment. And the system is inflexible. A friend of mine left the Co-Op because when he called up to say he couldn’t make his shift since his grandmother had died and he wanted to attend her funeral, the person on the other end of the line said, “We only let you off your shift for death of immediate family members.”

My next work-shift is December 21, when I’ll be flying through the sky to Dublin. I won’t get away with missing it, though, I’ll have to swop the shift with someone. But after today’s shop, my fridge is stocked with veg and that wild Alaskan salmon ($2.15) is in my freezer, and I’m making a wholesome vegetarian shepherds’ pie for dinner tonight. You might hate or love the Co-Op — in my case, it’s both.

[* The pic above is from image from http://www.paullarosa.com/blog/?p=948%5D

The hazards of working in a cafe

Posted in Brooklyn, Freelance life, Local by Frieda on December 4, 2009

Red Horse Cafe (in summer): not as benign as it might look

There are a number of cafes that I work in near my flat in Brooklyn. If you freelance, cafes are wonderful places to bring your laptop. You can strike up random conversations with strangers and listen in on people’s private chats. You escape the cabin-fever of working from home and your life doesn’t involve sitting alone all day in the room where you normally eat your dinner or, worse, your bedroom (I’ve done that before and I really don’t recommend it, it’s not good for you).

But being surrounded by people has its own inconveniences. You can’t choose the company you keep. Humans can be annoying, as anyone who has ever worked in an office knows — the cough, the laugh, the shuffle, any tiny movement can get on your nerves if repeated often enough.

Right now, for example, I’m in the Red Horse Cafe on 12th street & 5th in Brooklyn, which is so cool that it has both a ning network and a blog (actually the ning site is the new one). I’m sharing a black leather couch with a man who is very sweet I’m sure. And who knows, he might be a famous writer or a little known multimillionaire or just a lonely person looking for human interaction. Still, I can tell you that he is chomping and crunching his lunch noisily, and clearing his throat every 12 seconds. His lunch began with an orange-coloured soup (slurp, slurp), followed by a dish of crisps and a sandwich (munch, chew, chew). It’s winter but he wears a waistcoat that leaves his slightly plump arms bare and in close proximity to mine. He is accompanied by four ring-binder notebooks, a rucksack and a paper-bag filled with other paper-bags.

The man opposite me catches my eye and his eyebrows twitch. He throws a disapproving glance at my couch-mate.

As I write, the snuffly man is gathering his belongings. First I think he’s talking to himself but then I realize he’s addressing me. “This isn’t a good place for short people. You see, I’m unusual because I’m short but I have a terribly long torso. These couches just aren’t comfortable.” Innocently, I gesture to the chairs on the other side of the room. I’m sure they’re far more comfortable. Indeed, that’s where I’d be sitting if that side of the room had computer plugs.

Spanish music is playing in the background. The twitchy guy asks the girl opposite me, who’s wearing a lovely pink and orange shirt, where she got her green MacBook cover.  I don’t really listen in, but it all seems very pleasant.

A fellow with grey hair and a green coat looms over me and asks if I mind if he sits down. I don’t. But unnervingly, the eyebrow-twitcher looks over. I meet his glance, then look away, then meet his glance again. What?!

“Am I typing too loud? I’ve been told before I type too loudly,” I say. This is true. When taking the GRE exams for US college, I was reprimanded by the exam supervisor. The person beside me had complained about my typing.  “Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Twitchy says. “It’s ok.”

Cars beep outside, an alarm goes off. Over by the window the snuffly man is finishing his lunch. On the couches, we sit in a square, Mr. Twitchy, the pink-and-orange-shirted girl, and the green coated man, all typing away on our computers, engrossed in our work and tapping, tapping, tapping.

[The image above is from Brownstoner.com]