I’ve played the saxophone in some run down places: grim stinking pubs in the forgotten outskirts of Sydney, a few desperate alcoholics braying for ACDC despite our matching suits and 60s Rhythm & Blues setlist; slick cocktail bars in South East Asia, incongruous with the rats and trash, the abject poverty on all sides; below-deck nightclubs on seedy Russian Cruise ships- bleary vodka eyes and sudden outbursts of horrific drunken violence. And then there’s NYC’s West Village, January 2021.
Although I don’t like to admit it, behind this snarky sardonic facade lurks a rosy-eyed optimist. I keep it well hidden because there’s nothing more annoying to any half-cognizant New Yorker than positivity, but most of the time I’m looking on the bright side (please don’t tell anyone- if my secret gets out, everything will probably be fine). For the past ten months I’ve been secretly confident that New York was just biding its time: the lockdown is only temporary, the city will bounce back, jazz clubs will hang on, our community and our battered city will get through this. After all, NYC is known for being tough- it’s kind of our brand. That and believing our own stereotypes. Never mind that over the last 30 years, the gangsters and hustlers of Greenwich Village have largely disappeared, recently replaced by tattooed baristas and vainglorious social media influencers; that your biggest danger on a night out is an eye-roll from a hair-gelled sommelier. At its core, the city retained a teeth-gritting survival instinct, weeding out the weak, the whiny, the opportunistic, those who were here to take and not give back. This place has endured blackouts, blizzards, riots, economic collapse, Chris Botti at the Blue Note, and picked itself up, straightened its tie, and got back to work.
I arrived in the Village uncharacteristically early– the trains heedlessly keep to their rush hour schedule, even though sometimes there are only a handful of riders– and emerged from the subway into bleak desolation. Frigid winds whipped dust and candy wrappers around my feet, grit blown into eyes and mouth. A neon beacon in the distance announced the survival of Bleecker street pizza– in the old days they slung a conspicuously superior slice, and it was a regular stop for those in the know. I stepped inside and nodded gratefully to the guys behind the counter, cheerful but clearly exhausted, working as hard and fast as ever. I folded my cheese slice, shouldered my horn, and walked up Seventh Avenue into the wind.
Dusk on a Monday and the street was almost deserted; I felt out of place in my sharp suit, but the few locals scurrying past kept their eyes downcast, protectively clutching purses or bags of groceries from one of the few open markets. A gaunt man with hollow eyes peered out of the only remaining newspaper stand. Storefront after storefront, restaurant after bar after coffee shop, all abandoned, strips of cardboard and planks of wood torn from old pallets blocking up the filthy windows. Empty, but more void– even the echoes of the old days had moved out. Chalkboards with faded daily specials, a tattered banner trumpeting happy hour prices, grim cruel reminders. Smells were noticeable in their absence; normally 7th Avenue would be an olfactory assault, every few feet bringing a new odour: burnt coffee from the diner, stale beer from the crowded bars, weed smoke, Peruvian barbecue, BO, greasy street meat. But now, another void. The few restaurants that remain, blindly stoic, have blown money they’re not earning on ridiculously elaborate roadside tents, expensive heaters labouring vainly to keep the freezing wind out, for one or two intrepid diners, huddled in parkas and hats over their cold dinners. I stopped on the corner of 7th Avenue and West 4th street and surveyed the wasteland. A year ago this sidewalk would have been jammed, bars opening up for business, tourists, locals, business folk, weirdos, hipsters, musicians; shouting, laughing, horns honking. I would’ve cursed the slow walkers and lolly gagging tourists, stopped in at Kettle of Fish for an early beer, nodded to the odd regular, greeted a fellow musician…
But what now? Even when the lockdown lifts, even when the vaccine gets to all of us, who’s here to open up a new business? What would the tourists come for? (Maybe in the way NYC has lately become a caricature of itself– a sort of New York-themed amusement park– we could rebrand and sell it to tourists as a dystopian ghost town, run bus tours like they do in Chernobyl. Employ broadway actors to play zombie hipsters…)
I descended the familiar staircase of Smalls Jazz Club, my second home, and into the underworld. It was almost empty, the old jumbled crush of mismatched chairs replaced with coordinated, respectable, almost prim table and chair sets, responsibly distanced in preparation for the mad rush of 15 people who might one day be allowed in. No bartender to slide me a drink before I asked, no musicians desperately networking in the back, no wide-eyed tourists, sweating in their anoraks, staring in disbelief at the motley array of characters. But the music was playing, and gradually I realised it still smelled the same; the pictures of our heroes still hung on the walls, the ghosts still haunted the bar. And as we started to play, friends started drifting in, just a few, but enough to move the air with supportive applause and shouts of encouragement. New York City is probably fucked, but for now at least I’ve still got somewhere to hide.
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