Saturday 13 June 1998
Diminutive, whey-faced, utterly withdrawn when not playing, wearing a terminally frayed blue shirt, Mr Allen is surely the least charismatic performer ever to draw an audience willing to pay $50 apiece for an hour of his company. Yet the magic remains powerfully potent. "Woody Allen was sitting right here," vouchsafed the maitre d' to a female customer as he honoured her with the seat lately vacated by the star. During the course of the band's first number (a funereal blues), we were scooped up by the maitre d' and guided to a front-row table not much farther from the illustrious clarinettist than this page is from your nose.
Mr Allen's slender, spatulate fingers danced over the keys. Following a hectic acceleration in tempo during "Alexander's Ragtime Band", he permitted himself a wan smile. The audience, which showed scant sign of being devotees of antique jazz, were far from reverential as one delicate, dusty tune followed another. Steak-chewing and chit-chat continued unabated during the star's accomplished solos. Cameras flashed intermittently. When not engaged in tootling, the captive celeb stared in an unfocused way at the floor. So why does he do it? The obvious answer is that he adores playing, even for an audience of star-smitten gawpers. Distanced by the clarinet, Mr Allen is at liberty to crack jokes. He gives himself all the best lines - flashy arpeggios, baroque twiddles and bubbling embellishments - and chortles through his mouthpiece in a way that he would never dream of doing without the camouflage of music.
In between tunes, there would be a brief confab with the band leader (it often involved Mr Allen shaking his head and whispering "I can't remember ... "), a generously proportioned banjoist who occasionally contributed genial vocals. During his colleague's infinitely benign crooning of "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", Mr Allen bent an ear and listened as carefully as if it were Kierkegaarde relieving himself of a few apophthegms. Suddenly, the curious entertainment came to a halt. Mr Allen dismantled his instrument and applied a pull-through to the bits, like a rifleman after target practice. He then donned a tiny tweed jacket, and evaporated. Still directing their lenses at the empty stage, the audience took a few minutes to realise that their brush with celebrity had terminated.
The infinite variety of New York never fails to astonish. The cornucopia crammed into our local supermarket included 17 varieties of mushroom, 12 types of loose olive, six flavours of tortilla, etc, etc. However, Mrs W refused point-blank to enter the specialised eatery immediately adjacent to our hotel. "La Nouvelle Justine" described itself as "New York's S&M Cafe". (No jokes about whipped cream, please.) I couldn't quite summon up the nerve to enter alone, but through the mirrored windows I heard what sounded like the smack of billiard balls. It took a few minutes for the penny to drop, that the smack had nothing to do with billiards.
Talking of the unexpected, even seen-it-all locals were surprised by the ferocious hailstorm which suddenly descended one afternoon when the temperature touched 90F. (Thanks to America's adherence to Fahrenheit, for the first time in years I knew what the temperature was.) As we cowered in a sports shop, bullet-sized chunks fell with sufficient ferocity to start car alarms. "Gee," declared one of the staff. "I can't believe it. Iced water."
Art is the religion of Manhattan, and its great museums are its cathedrals. These institutions hold themselves in haughty high regard - none higher than the Museum of Modern Art, commonly known as Moma, repository of such modernist icons as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (contrary to the film, it didn't go down with the Titanic) and Matisse's sublime Dance 1. So you can imagine my low Philistine glee when I spotted a bloomer in the Moma catalogue for a large retrospective devoted to the contemporary artist Chuck Close, who made his name with a series of immensely enlarged, photographically detailed portraits of goofy, slightly creepy subjects.
The catalogue, which bears the inviting title Angles of Refraction, notes the artist's extreme reluctance to be regarded as a member of the realist school which emerged in the Seventies. "This reaction, Close now readily admits, borders on the Woody Allen syndrome - refusing to be a member of any club that would have you." The fame of a certain media haunt in London makes it unlikely that any British writer would commit the same misattribution. What a shame that Groucho isn't around to sue.
Despite New York's unparalleled trawl of cultural riches, infinite gastronomic possibilities and wonderful architectural treasures, ancient and modern, there comes a time each day - I'd place it around 5pm - when it is transformed into a species of hell. A combination of heat, humidity, car horns, surging crowds, pneumatic drills and traffic jams pushes every one of your senses into a bright-red danger zone. Just when you feel for your situation could not possibly become one jot more oppressive, a T-shirted fellow next to you starts playing the bagpipes.
The best antidote, as I rapidly discovered, is the immediate intake of one, two, possibly three cocktails. For a recommended venue, I can do no better than echo the advice of a shopkeeper in one of the SoHo boutiques which Mrs W patronised to ruinous effect. "Try Bar 89 at 89 Mercer Street," the newly enriched salesman advised. "Best cocktails in New York. On no account miss the toilet."
Intrigued, we headed for this stylish place of refreshment. The barman's margarita was indeed a restorative worthy of Jeeves himself. After lowering the level in my frosted glass by a couple of inches, I climbed the stairs to the unmissable conveniences. Unusually for strait-laced America, where even the word "toilet" causes such palpitations that the weird euphemism "rest room" is preferred, they turned out to be unisex. Even more remarkably, the glass doors of the half-dozen WCs, which all happened to be vacant, were transparent. Unconcerned, a female customer popped into one of the cubicles. "Wow, New York," I thought, as I performed the necessary. Being a chap, I didn't realise until I turned round that the glass door became magically opaque when closed. "Yeah, liquid crystal," explained my pal the barman. "You thought that ... ? Nah, that would be going a bit far, even for madcap Manhattan"
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