John Walsh: In New York

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Indy Lifestyle Online
New York in early summer turns out to be just like London. Temperatures in the mid-50s, chilly tourists, moral obloquy in government circles and lots of crowing about falling crime rates ("It's so safe here now," a wag says, "that they're turning 911 [the US version of 999] into a telephone sex line.").

But some things are interestingly different. The American lottery, for instance, doesn't bother with any optimistic "It-could-be-you" stuff; all that the adverts shruggingly promise is "Hey, you never know". Uptown restaurants, clearly tired of staff complaints about meagre tipping, feature a mandatory service charge of 17 per cent. The word "special", judging by the papers, no longer seems to mean outstanding or precious. It means "retarded", as in "Christine's special brother raised the alarm".

Nothing, however, illustrates the unique attitude of East Coasters more than the exclamatory signs in the shops you pass on Fifth Avenue and Broadway. "Going Out of Business!" shouts one, as though flagging one hell of a party. "Downsizing our Inventory!" yells another on Seventh Avenue. "Lost our Lease!" shrieks a third. By the time you get to the more apologetic "Everything must go" on the second line, you're convinced that imminent insolvency is the greatest fun to be had anywhere.

The trendiest Londoner to hit New York lately was Damien Hirst (invariably described here as "this British enfant terrible") whose "No Sense of Absolution Corruption" exhibition opened at the Gagosian Gallery in the heart of the SoHo district. It's unusual, for a gallery, in having a completely opaque and metallic front window, like a bankrupt abattoir.

This turns out to be a useful metaphor for Mr Hirst's imagination. The exhibition comprises two cows chainsawed into 12 sections and amusingly interspersed through a dozen glass cases; one bisected razorback sow, its guts an unlovely shade of crabmeat-brown; a giant ashtray full of normal-size dog-ends; several rotating circles of splashed primary colours; and one of those electronic advertisement hoardings that displays three images in turn. The piece is called "The Problems With Relationships", and one image features an enormous phallic cucumber and a small tub of Vaseline (geddit?).

It made you proud to be British as the drifting shoals of Manhattan's quivering aesthetes stooped before the formaldehyde tanks to exclaim to each other about the "texture" of the bovine oesophaguses on display.

Feeling sure that New York would never really fall for such a carnival of grotesquerie, I escaped to the sanity of the shops around Green and Mercer and Spring streets. And there, gentle reader, I found a shop called Evolution, where a riot of skeletons, skulls, collectors' item moths and fossilised viscera were on revolting display.

Once you've taken in the ostrich and emu eggs ($29), the wart hog tusks ($29) and scorpion paperweights, you're ready for the stuffed Titamus gigantus of Brazil, the world's largest insect, a flying beetle the size of a hovercraft ($2,500). But nothing prepares you for the Human Skull: Three-Month Baby, an obvious bargain at $1,500. The Coyote Penis Bones ($5 each) are a bit of a shock, too (penis bones?). I finally plumped for a Baby Shark in a jar of embalming fluid, and bore it home in triumph to start my own D Hirst Memorial Museum.

One joy of visiting the Big Bagel is seeing the movies that (sneer, sneer) one's stay-at-home friends will only catch up with in high summer. And what a pile of crap awaits them: from the bizarrely incomprehensible Mission Impossible, in which Tom Cruise keeps peeling other people's rubberised features off his face - an effect I thought had gone out with Captain Scarlet - to the understandable but gibberish-ridden Charlie Sheen vehicle The Arrival, about the cunning infiltration of alien beings who are detectable only by their kangaroo legs.

Despite these delights, I predict that the last word in must-see film- going this summer will be Twister. Its pedigree is impeccable - produced by Spielberg, written by Michael Crichton, directed by Jan (Speed) de Bont - but more important is its role as a cultural phenomenon. For here is a movie with no discernible plot, dialogue that's 90 per cent Met Office jargon, no famous names, terrible acting and ladles of ghastly redneck sentiment - but it's brilliant because it's got tornadoes. I defy anyone not to emerge from their local MGM fleapit shaking and warily eyeing the sky for flying cattle. What Spielberg has now done to film audiences, after chasing them with sharks (Jaws), wowing them with fairy lights (Close Encounters) and showing them things they couldn't possibly ever see (Jurassic Park), is simply to throw things at them and watch them duck. I think it was the moment when we gazed up into the funnel of the mile-wide Last Tornado and realised that the glinting silver stick we could see amid all the swirling dust was in fact an oil tanker, and was about to land on our heads, that I realised this was something called "total cinema" and stopped complaining.

The idiot's lantern that is American television has a new irritant: subtitles. Allegedly for the hard of hearing, they are clearly meant to assist the increasingly non-Anglophone TV audience in understanding what on earth is being said on NYPD Blue or the vapid late-night talk shows hosted by Jay Leno and David Letterman. But they fall into two speeds of annoyance. On pre-recorded shows such as Roseanne, they give you the dialogue before the actors have got round to saying it, which does little for that precious thing called "timing". And on live ad-lib shows, they strive to keep up with the slangy exchanges by relying on guesswork; in doing so, they come up with some phonetic marvels. "Ha ha," laughed Mr Letterman, apparently, one evening, "I guess you eight something you wish you haddon." And a tiny virus seems to exist in the subtitling studio, one that hates song lyrics. As I watched Alanis Morissette performing her new song one night, can the lyrics (as the subtitles informed us) really have been, "Ng ostrplig lil fonternack ydn brumpshl om zzfn?" Or was it the Jack Daniels?