New York, New York

My first trip to the land of fire escapes

Jon Dee Graham (right) and myself onstage at Rockwood Music Hall.
Jon Dee Graham (right) and myself onstage at Rockwood Music Hall. (by Jacob Stetson)

Last week, I began a love affair with New York, from the high rises of Manhattan to the historic brown stones of Brooklyn. It’s an exhilarating thing to see the city for the first time out of an airplane window. Flying into JFK, my first sight was the Jamaica Bay shoreline.

We grab our guitars from the cargo area and straight away a taxi whisks us over the Van Wyck Expressway. The cabbie exits early in Williamsburg, and the first New Yorkers I see are young Hasidic boys with fingers wrapped in their curls.

We’re dropped off in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where we’ll spend two nights at a flat belonging to the brother of Sarah Sharp from the Jitterbug Vipers. It’s a brownstone off DeKalb Avenue, where flower boxes spring from every window. We immediately find ourselves on the back fire escape where my dad, Jon Dee Graham, smokes.

Music, from the tiny yards below to the neighboring apartments – all with cats in their windows – seems to be coming from everywhere.

We’re in New York for my brother Roy’s graduation from New York University, so I’ve booked us a gig at the Rockwood Music Hall. We joke they should call it the Austin Music Hall after we see Charlie Faye perform there and glimpse a calendar lined with shows from Austinites Matt the Electrician, Jess Klein, Aimee Bobruk, and Anthony da Costa.

Turns out the stage is literally underground. It reminds me of the old folk venues such the Gaslight and other Sixties venues featured in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. Quiet and warm beneath the big city bustle, the Rockwood feels cocooned, its deep red lighting giving it a speakeasy feel.

After the show, we hop a taxi and head uptown, all the way to Central Park. The night fills with wonderful food and music. Earlier in the day we discover that the historic Tavern on the Green has just reopened, so having dinner there at midnight feels like a fairytale.

On nights three and four of our trip, we stay in the East Village, right next to St. Mark’s church. A plaque on the house of worship’s wall notes that a Kousa Dogwood tree was planted for Allen Ginsberg, who’s quoted: “I lift my voice aloud, make Mantra of American language now.” Now we’re in the thick of it. Anyone could be anyone. If you squint that guy could be a young Dylan walking with his guitar on his back.

We walk for miles and it seems like five minutes. We eat real pizza. We take the subway. Everyone on the trains has earbuds, music filling their ears and bringing them peace among the NYC shuffle.

On our last day we stroll though Central Park. We pass so many memorial benches. One with a proposal: “Elle, there comes a point in life when you realize who really matters, who never did & who always will. Marry me? Evan.”

Dogs on leashes almost outnumber people. Another bench reads, “In loving member of Tyler Stading-Younger, a perfect Golden Retriever who reminded us that quality of life is more important than quantity.” After snapshots on the famous Bow Bridge, we get lost three times trying to leave the park.

Street musician happenings seem to be at Washington Square Park, where my brother often swing dances on Sunday afternoons. There’s a guy with a piano, and not a small one, either. It’s huge. My brother says he once helped the guy roll it to its storage place. The fellow plays several times a week in the park and makes NYC rent. Another guy’s made a drum set out of a suitcase, his multi-instrumentalism reminiscent of Austin’s Shakey Graves.

Everywhere are purple NYU graduation robes blowing in the wind. My dad says, “I think I just saw Ric Ocasek from the Cars.” Later on Facebook, several other Ocasek sightings at Washington Square Park confirm that must have been him.

We watch my brother graduate from NYU at Lincoln Center. That night my father glows with a pride brighter than what Rockefeller Center is said to look like during Christmas in Manhattan. I’d come to NYC thinking it was a hustling, overcrowded town, but the people, living on fire escapes and sitting on their front stoops, are as hospitable as Austinites.

We’ll be back soon New York. Start spreadin’ the news.

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