Roger Federer on the Drums

New York Drums

Walk north of New York's Upper East Side, cross a line above 100th Street, and suddenly everyone is black. Tramps push trolleys through the derelict parks, drunks loll on benches, two women scream and fight on the pavement. Here is the most dangerous corner in the city (number of shooting homicides) and here is a street protest and a black woman with Bible and megaphone: "Where did it go, the spirit of black youth?" she cries (eyes closed, rhythmic evangelical singsong). "There's a shooting every night on 129th Street. Lord Jesus, where did our spirit go?" It was crushed by the banks, comes the answer from downtown, where protestors camped outside Wall Street hold up signs: "We are the 99."

 Above 100th Street, on teeming Martin Luther King Boulevard, they are all the 99. "Pray for spirit" the woman cries, but downtown they're talking something more useful: politics. And the question of the day: will western governments that welcomed the Arab Spring be called to account themselves? There is poverty, inequality, financial and political corruption right here in the land of the free. If the season is changing and spring has come, why should western countries think they're immune?

The hotel barman says, 'Roger Federer just checked in.' That night in a distant room, someone starts playing the drums. I decide it's Federer, drumming to relax. The next night Federer's entourage holds a party on the hotel roof, a garden deck that looks over the vast penthouses on the Upper East Side. Every evening I go up there looking. I want to catch sight of a small man with black-rimmed glasses: Woody Allen, who lives off Fifth Avenue and plays his clarinet in the Carlyle Hotel on Monday nights. I want to spy the great artist strolling in his roof garden, against the New York skyline. But no luck, he's still in Europe making a film. I see myself in the lift, frowning at Federer: "Roger. About those drums..."
In the bar at the Carlyle, Tim Wilson is making me laugh. We're talking about the NZ Post Book Awards, where we were both finalists this year. He takes my mildly funny anecdote and makes it hilarious. We move on to Dominique Strauss-Kahn. The woman next to us flares up: 'I don't want to hear about blowjobs!' Her companion nods, "Of course not, honey," and suddenly looks depressed. A woman approaches. "You look like you're having fun." Monica is tall, young, glamorous, black. "I practically grew up in the Carlyle," she tells us. Her father plays in Woody Allen's band; to her Woody's just a funny little clarinettist who's something to do with films. "Oh, Dad likes those old movies," she says vaguely. We move on to Lexington Bar and Books, where you can smoke cigars in the book-lined, wood-panelled gloom. I say to Tim, "No, the party was incredibly boring. We spent hours sitting on a ponga log." He looks pained: after years of living and working in New York, he thinks about coming home. "Don't tell me about boring parties and sitting on ponga logs!" Monica talks about her life. She is six feet tall and remarkably beautiful. She is dressed in black; Tim is wearing a white suit. She is angelic; he has a louche, late-night, faintly Satanic air. The cigar smoke swirls and coils around our table. Outside it's starting to look like dawn.

At Yankee Stadium 100,000 people rise to sing God Bless America. On the train afterwards a woman panics in the crush, "Let me breathe!" When the train empties a man gives up his seat for a ragged woman with a baby. She asks me if she's on the right line. I don't know, but someone answers for me. The woman's English is poor. Other passengers join in; one gives her directions in Spanish. There's a general discussion on which line she should take: the hardboiled city showing its humane and civilised side.

Midnight in a restaurant on Madison Avenue, a couple is having a fight. She is much younger, a smooth, impassive blonde. His expression is tortured; he covers his face with his hands. Few Kiwi men could be so uninhibited, so articulate. He rages, "Ask your therapist. My children don't accept you. We have a miserable marriage." She says little, as if she knows his fury will burn out. When they leave he's exhausted, leaning on her shoulder. The people of New York move through the night. A woman holds out a cup and cries, "Help me, help me." In tents outside Wall Street they're waiting for spring, in Harlem they're searching for God. On the Upper East Side they're rearranging the chairs; the deck is rocking, the cocktails are flowing, and Roger Federer's warming up on the drums.
First published in Metro Magazine NZ