Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Few Faces of Harlem

My neighborhood has been showing me some interesting sides recently. First up, you Law and Order: SVU fans might want to take special note when watching the show on October 28th. No, you won't get to see me in the episode, but there's a good chance you might get to see my building. Last week the show shot a scene on my street, and the props/set crew tarted up the front of our building for some of the angle shots. I came home from a short day of modeling to find the street emptied out with just a few cameras, crew, production assistants and background actors roaming about. I was tempted to wave my SAG card at one of the PA's, and see if I could pick up a little extra cash working background, but realized that would be more trouble than it was worth. The shot I saw being filmed was all a car interior; I couldn't see who was in the scene, but learned later from my Super's son (and de facto second-super-in-command) that it was the stars of the show, or as he called them, "Chris and Mariska." He said they were very nice. I think he may have been made a PA for the day, since he let me in the building when I got home, and probably had been asked to control when people entered or exited when other angles were being shot. I'm kicking myself that I missed out on a chance to convince Chris Meloni to have sex with me, and hell, I wouldn't kick Mariska Hargitay out of bed either (she could bring her hunky husband too), but they were working. Some other time, perhaps.

I haven't been on a film set in about four years, so hearing the the periodic calls and responses ("picture up!" "Picture up!" "Rolling!" "Rolling..." "... and ACTION") was strangely amusing. It was hard not to note how much quieter my street is when there's a TV shoot on it. As soon as the crew was done for the day, a group of kids started a touch football game that seemed to require an inordinate amount of high-pitched shrieking. Then that night there was yet another cocktail party that went to all hours. There's a bodega across the street that seems to be hosting lively street parties on a regular basis, while the weather stays warm. At first I assumed it was some sort of front for a drug ring, but given how much attention the place draws to itself with the crowds and noise, I have to assume that isn't true. Or maybe it is true, and they're just not very SMART drug dealers.

So that was two, maybe three faces of my neighborhood.

I've been living in this building for ten years now, and have built up a friendly chit-chatty relationship with several of the other tenants. In some cases we don't even know one another's names still (and I feel silly asking, after ten years), but are still willing to greet one another warmly. I tend more towards a 'give'em space' policy when it comes to neighbors in big cities, assuming that we all like to have a bit more anonymity to make up for the lack of physical space. There are some people I will see every few days, then there are others I will see only once or twice a month, or even once or twice a year. Sunday I ran into one of the twice-a-year folks, a nice guy who mostly lives with his partner about ten blocks from here. As we painted in the last year six months of our lives in broad strokes (mine were broader/vaguer than his), he ended up inviting me to a party he and his partner were hosting the following evening. His partner is a professional violist, playing for various Broadway orchestras, recording sessions and such all around the city. This party was an excuse to get several friends/colleagues together to play some chamber music. I blurted out that I had played viola all through school too, which I think is what got me the invitation.

I've been going through a weird shy phase lately, where a room full of strangers sounds more daunting than intriguing (apparently we never grow out of having phases), but this party sounded like too much fun, especially once I figured out that I could show up right before the performance, thus getting to enjoy the music without having to mingle with strangers for too long. That said, I still was tempted to chicken out, but I'm really glad I didn't. The idea of going to a private home in Harlem to hear professional musicians play chamber music was just too tantalizing. The fact that I could walk to the party was also really appealing. It's rare for me to be able to go to anything in the city without getting on a subway first.

The house itself was intriguing, as from the outside it was a non-descript metal box, flanked on one side by an apartment building, and on the other by an empty lot that appeared to be on its way to getting built up. Across the street were some eccentric looking row houses, unlike any I've seen anywhere else in the neighborhood or even the city. Just walking by this place, I would have assumed it was the last evidence of an industrial era, soon to be torn down for more condos or apartments.

My neighbor greeted me at the door, and ushered me into one of those magical urban oases that long-time owners so often make of their homes. It was elegantly designed and decorated with lots of original artwork and what I assume were some traditional African sculptures and crafts. A small living room opened up into a large space that showed again evidence of industrial roots, but had been transformed into a large multi-use room, with a lot of big art pieces, work tables, screens, furniture and plants. There were maybe thirty people in the room already, a mix of ages (which is also unusual for my New York socializing), and foreign accents. Plates of cheeses, crabcakes, olives and pickles were scattered throughout the room.

My neighbor W handed me a glass of wine, told me to mingle, then disappeared to attend to hosting duties. I figured out who my other host was, introduced myself to him, then he too rushed off to take care of business. I stood around awkwardly for a bit, ate some crabcakes and cheese chunks, then sat down to introduce myself to a couple sitting on a couch. They seemed initially uncertain of me, but warmed up eventually. A few more crabcakes, another glass of wine, and it was time for the music.

The musical selection was Mozart's Quintet in G minor (two violins, two violas, and cello), a piece I was not familiar with; I love classical music, but don't pretend to know it exhaustively. As I mentioned, I played viola in school. It's been twenty years since I've played regularly, and I was never that good, but I got to do a lot more than maybe I deserved to, string quartets and small ensembles and such, simply because I was often the best violist available. This really is a theme of sorts in my life, getting to do some cool stuff only because no one more talented was available or interested, but as I get older, I'm less bothered by it. My lack of talent aside, just a little experience or training at anything can give one a deeper sense of the skill and artistry required. Hearing these five musicians play this piece, after a single rehearsal that afternoon, was inspiring. Only great talent and years of training will allow someone to make Mozart sound that light and effortless. Maybe a true expert would have noticed more flaws than I did, or have found the interpretation ininspired, but I was transported. It was also humbling to see these professionals, people who work steadily and constantly as musicians, choose to spend some of their free time rehearsing and performing at a party, for free, simply for the love of it.

I felt like I had stumbled across treasure in my own backyard, like I was living a certain kind of New York fantasy; here I was in a private home in Harlem, sipping good wine, eating elegant snacks, chatting with interesting, beautiful people, then listening to professionals play chamber music. I looked around the room at one point, wondering if I was seeing the next Zora Neale Thurston or Langston Hughes. I think the world moves too fast nowadays for anyone to have the influence those artists did, but it was still a fun fantasy.

With the performance done, the musicians, including our host, R, were free to drink and enjoy the party. I was much more relaxed now too, and mingled with something closer to my usual level of ease. It was a school night though, so I left around 9:30pm, still feeling like I had experienced something magical. A ten minute walk had me back in my apartment, and my sweats. It probably makes little sense to most people, but the geography involved in the event played no small part in my enjoyment of it.

Harlem wasn't done showing me her faces though. It was a relatively warm evening, so that night a group of high school kids stayed out all night, listening music, talking, laughing, possibly drinking and occasionally shouting. They weren't even that obnoxious, I think they simply didn't know that their voices carried. They may have had the day off from school Tuesday, because of Rosh Hashanah, which is why they were still out there making noise at 5am. I got up to make a noise complaint, but looked out the window first to see that a cop car was already on the scene. I don't really know what was going on, but one guy was looking awkward and apologetic as he talked to the driver of the car. When the cop in the passenger seat got out, holding some little computer thingy with a blue light, my story-telling brain decided the kid was being accused of a parole violation. Don't ask me where that came from. In any case I went back to bed without making my call, thinking the situation was handled. I woke up later to realize the sound had resumed, and only disappated after one young woman said "damn it's 5:30, I have to go to bed!" Around 6am the garbage trucks (why do they seem to come in fleets?) starting rumbling by, then the utilities company began making a lot of racket drilling a big hole. I would like to say that the magic of the chamber music got me through my mostly sleepless night in a sweet mood, but I'm not quite that much of a Pollyanna. I likes my sleep, and sadly, this kind of racket is far more a part of my daily experience here (at least during warm weather) than is the magical musical evening.

I will say though that now, days later, it is the party that still lingers in memory. My irritations with this place and my life in it are by no means solved, but I'm pretty sure it won't be the sleepless nights I remember on my deathbed.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Damn---a terrific piece of writing--you have caught and transmitted the essence. Thanks!


Greg said...

This really was a great read...what a cool look at some different sides of your which you are, perhaps, more connected than you often let on.

A true shame about missing your opportunity with Meloni (sigh), but what a treat was the invitation to an evening of chamber music and hors d'ouevres and society!

It's a good thing you don't keep a basket of bricks near your window for those sleepless nights.

Java said...

It seems rather charmed to me, the whole gestalt neighborhood experience. Even the noise.

Ear plugs, darling, ear plugs!

Jess said...

You hit it on the head. The joys in life are what matter. There are pluses and minuses wherever and however we live, but we need to focus on the good things a place has to offer. Besides, if you want an occasional break from the city noise, your room here always awaits! :)

Gillian said...

Yes! Well done Patrick.
You are right, it isn't the things we've done that make us regret; it is the things undone. Good for you for hangin out with the Harlem people. Sounds like a perfect evening to me.

Birdie said...

On my first visit to NYC only five years ago, I continually shouted out titles of movies and TV shows as I recognized scene locales. It was fun.

Thank you for this vivid slice of life in the City That Never Sleeps, with proof of the aforementioned to boot. For the record: Meloni is mine.

Sooo-this-is-me said...

Interesting evening, almost sounds as if you were in a movie after all, you know one of those small budget flicks that focuses on the characters of the film and not about car chases.

Since you often do a photo blog like when you go for a walk etc, will you promise to do the same if you ever get to sleep with Chris??? That way I can just live through your experience!

Patrick said...

Greg: yes, it really was a wonderful evening, and reminded me to keep an eye peeled for hidden treasures here, as much as possible. Believe me, I've considered stocking up on bricks. Though I never succumbed, I do know that others of my acquaintance have occasionally heaved eggs at noisy neighbors.

Java: Believe it or not, I WAS wearing ear-plugs. Tells you a little something about the volume, no? Of course they don't always stay in my ears all night; I'm not sure if they fall out on their own, or if I take them out in my sleep, because they're uncomfortable.

Jess: Thanks, as always, for the promise of a suburban escape. I'll be seeing you soon :).

Gillian: Yes, the things undone are usually bigger regrets. That's a lesson I have to relearn at regular intervals, since an important corollary is relearning how not to regret mistakes. If I'm feeling shy about falling on my face then the temptation is to play it safe for a while... until what usually happens is I fall on my face playing it safe too. If mistakes are going to happen (and oh yes, they will) might as well make them having fun rather than hiding. But I lose sight of this lesson a LOT.

Birdie: I knew I might have to arm wrestle my sister over Meloni, didn't realize I'd have to take you on too. I'd like to point out that both you and my sister are MARRIED. Gotta leave SOME of the good guys for the rest of us, right? Then again Meloni is married too. To a woman. So there's that... sigh. Well, at least I have location going for me. Because yeah, we he and I live in a city of 10 million. Double sigh. Can we at least share, or would that be creepy? The man was filming two hour-long TV shows for a few seasons, something tells me he's got some stamina.

Steven: believe me, if I ever get lucky with Chris Meloni, there will be a press release, photo montage, commemorative video and possibly a book tour documenting the event. Or events, if the book tour happens. Don't you worry.

tornwordo said...

That was a lovely piece. Those magical nights are so rare and thus the most lingering. You captured it well.

Butch said...

These beautiful evenings are unique in that with "live" performances, you will hear the music played or sung that way only once. The next live performance is yet, another snap shot. Anything can happen in a live performance and that is what makes them so special. Recorded music is wonderful but nothing compares to seeing and hearing it performed live. Glad you enjoyed the evening.