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Friday, November 22, 2002

++ Things I Learned From Listening To The City

++ New York feels quiet. Not as quiet as Noe Valley, my own neighborhood in San Francisco, but quieter than I'm used to when I'm here. Perhaps it's my choice of stomping grounds this time around: killing time slipping down obscure streets in Chinatown, the Lower East Side, Nolita; roaming in the afterhours where store grilles are rolled shut and the rain damps the sound of rolling car tires as they hiss by, ungainly instruments of rubber and steel.

The days are patched together in sound, scraps of tone that hold the city together like butterfly bandages. As I'm sitting on the phone, listening to United Airlines' infernal Ellington theme, the car horns six flights below hone in on the signal and lend their voices in key. At night, when I'm exhausted, lying in my friend's spare bed, the radiator seems schooled in Francisco Lopez: a long, rising tone grows louder as it ascends, gaining mass, until it presses against the white noise all around it, a kind of three-dimensional asymptote trailing feedback in its wake. In the flavorpill offices, where I take time out from record shopping to do something approximating work, the wind howls through the gap around the radiator, and its ability to harmonize with whatever's in the CD drive — I Am Spoonbender, Cat Power, you name it — is uncanny.

In a long subway corridor, three different buskers' songs intertwine; the long path past them is like a walk through the innards of radio waves. A man in a suit and hat — "I just came from church," he says as we wait for our train — strolls in front of me, singing hymns to himself, but still loud enough for others to hear, adding yet another element to the swirl, jousting with his accidental collaborators.

++ The city seems sobered, perhaps nowhere more than in Café Gitane, my usual haunt, where cigarettes have finally, surprisingly, been banished — in anticipation of Bloomberg's inevitable decree? — and the ruby-red packs of Gauloise stay tucked into the shirt pockets of stubbled Frenchmen. It's an unexpected capitulation, and one wonders if New Yorkers have suddenly grown up and decided to stop pretending to be decadent Europeans. It's the responsible choice, of course, but there's a sense of resignation behind it, of accounts come due. If this is California's fault, I feel like I owe the city an apology.

In Café Gitane, stilted, tinny bebop keeps the prewar spirit alive, and then Nick Drake has his sad say. Every jukebox in the city seems to be playing him this week: Drake and Bowie, the soundtracks to late fall.

Bowie's version of "Amsterdam," a Jacques Brel song, comes on the changer. Through the clinking glasses and the grey din, it sounds for a moment like "House of the Rising Sun" and "Greensleeves" alike, and I'm struck by how the blues and European folk music almost — almost — kiss cheeks before veering away again.

Next to my table there's a lit cabinet with frosted glass; inside two backlit bottles are visible, hollow shapes thrown in such perfect relief that it could be a gallery project. I'm struck with the desire to reach through the glass, and I think of Touching Through a Distance, the biography of Ian Curtis that I've been reading on the long journeys from the Upper West Side to downtown, to Brooklyn, and back, falling so far into the bleakness and promise of those years that when I come to, my stop is rolling by. This is how one wears out shoes in New York City. When I finally emerge from the subway, somewhere I don't mean to be, the rain has begun again and the light is gone, the day having been secreted away during the timeless stretch I was underground. Perhaps somewhere, someone was singing Swans' "God Damn the Sun," and for once, God listened.

In another bar, one so smoky that you look for bruises on the foreheads of patrons who didn't duck when entering — suddenly Gitane's no-smoking policy makes sense again — the Pixies' "Debaser" comes on, and beneath the shrieking, slivers of melody are barely audible, the guitars like silver Tiffany teardrop pendants melting in the fireball.

++ Sunday evening at Halcyon, on Smith Street in Brooklyn, Bryan of theAgriculture gives me his set from 7 to 8 p.m. I arrive late and wet; inside, the couches and stools and easy chairs are full of people reading, talking quietly, tapping on laptops. It's the perfect rainy Sunday evening setting, and I play the music I've been wanting to hear all day: Dr. Alimentando's "Best Dressed Chicken in Town," the Heptones' cover of "Suspicious Minds," and then nu dub from Future 3, Urban Tribe, Mapstation featuring Ras Donovan.

I tear the shrinkwrap from Ultra Living's mix of Him's "Sea Level," purchased at Other Music just hours before, and am delighted to discover it's exactly what I hoped for: a dark, chugging, atonal monster, and the perfect setup for Napoli Is Not Nepal's "A Night Outside in the Bunker" and Patrick Pulsinger's post-jazz "You Knew I Would Come Back." From there it's a detour into R&B — D'Angelo's "Feel Like Making Love" (a track that turns every clock to 2 a.m., no matter what time it is), His Name Is Alive's "Happy Blues." Caural's choppy acoustic-guitar churn turns the rain to a whitecapped sea covered with lilies.

At 7:56 I finally figure out the CD player and pop in the gem of the day: Schneider TM's and Kpt. Mich.i.gan's "The Light 3000," a cover of The Smiths' "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." I've been looking for this record for six months now, ever since hearing it on a Chris Coco mix, and as Schneider TM begins humming "Take me out tonight" through a thin-lipped veil of clicks and static, my night becomes perfect.


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