Will Self: PsychoGeography

American gothic
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The Independent Online

A disturbing tale comes from Ralph in New York. I'm not sure we're going to be able to let him out on his own in future. Apparently in an antic state, he decided to take a party of friends over from Manhattan to Staten Island on the ferry. Being Ralph – and committed to the transgression of all norms – he wanted his party to dodge the ferry fare, assuming that since his first trip stateside, in 1970, it would've risen five-hundredfold, from a nickel to $25. Much to his chagrin, the ferry was entirely free, having been subsidised in a vote-grabbing move aimed at improving the Islanders' self-esteem.

Not without reason is Staten Island known as "the forgotten borough": during the Second World War it was in fact occupied by the Japanese, without anyone in New York – or Washington – even noticing. The Imperial Army were there for so long that many of its troops set aside their weapons and some laboured on the poultry and dairy farms that at that time still occupied the south of the island, while others took lucrative positions in advertising on Madison Avenue – but that's another story (Rising Sun: The Imperial Japanese Army and Soap Powder by Chaim Medvedev, Parallel Books, $24.95).

I digress. Having disembarked from the scandalously free ferry, Ralph went in search of a bar he remembered from four decades before. Outside the Neoclassical nugget of the Staten Island Supreme Courthouse he accosted a gentleman known only – even to himself – as "John". "John" was having a cigarette during a recess from a case he was involved in, in – he told Ralph – an "advocacy role". Ralph took this fellow in his sharp Italian suit, with wraparound shades and a loud Versace tie, entirely at his word, and received directions to the Clipper Bar and Restaurant.

Ralph, the Rip Van Winkle de nos jours, was a little put-out by the new building on the island; when he was last there the old Art Deco buildings predominated. Now it's the same old rectilinear, steel and glass bore-tasamagorica as anywhere in the "developed" world. Be that as it may, Ralph and his posse settled into the Clipper and fell into conversation with a lively fellow called "Bob", wearing a windcheater with a healthy bulge under its armpit.

"Bob" was much taken by Ralph's incessant scrawling on the American flag beer mats that were scattered along the bar, and as Ralph drew more, so "Bob" fed him with mats, until they had quite a stack. Meanwhile, the business of the Clipper went on around them. Ralph had a hamburger, and a woman came in and barked: "Two hamboigers, and d'ya have any relish?" Trying to be helpful Ralph reached for the ketchup and said, guilelessly, "Is this relish?"

"Dat's not relish, shtoopid!" The woman snorted back.

"Sorry," Ralph said – being, at least by adoption, an English bourgeois. "I didn't know."

"Well, ya oughta!" she snapped back and that was when it all kicked off.

"Are you insulting the honour of Italian-Americans?" "Bob" said, leaning threateningly over Ralph.

"Er, no," Ralph replied. "I mean, I've never given it much thought, but I suppose if they need a little insulting I'm the man for the job."

"I should say you are." "Bob" plucked one of Ralph's customised beer mats from the bar. "Look at this, in this toiny space you've succeeded in insulting Staten Island, desecrating the Stars and Stripes, and impugning the honour of all Italian-American women."


"Yeah, impugning. What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing, it's just not an expression you expect to here in the Clipper."

"OK, I've had enough outta you!" And with that, "Bob" pulled an evil-looking automatic from inside his jacket and used the snub barrel to indicate that Ralph should leave. Needless to say, Ralph's free-ferry friends faded.

Outside the Clipper "John" fell in with them, and the two Mafiosi – for that, Ralph realised, was what they were – marched him off along the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk. Ralph essayed a few lame jests such as: "What use was a boardwalk to FDR?" But by then it was clear that the enraged Staten Islanders weren't to be jollied from their dark mood.

Despite being on his way to being clipped, Ralph still managed to take in his surroundings, marvelling at the suburban, almost bosky, character of this, the largest of the five boroughs. It was only once they'd crossed Latourette Park and mounted the ominously named Todt Hill, that he thought he really ought to put up a fight: "Listen, guys," he said emolliently, "my pictures have been known to insult anyone, regardless of nationality, creed, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Don't you think, as believers in the land of opportunity, you should, ah, give some other groups a hand in my execution?"

This gave "John" and "Bob" pause for thought. They're probably still at it, but Ralph managed to sneak away and hide in the back of a garbage truck. Phew!