David Usborne: Our Man in New York

Why I turned down the chance of a night at the roulette wheel with Christina Aguilera
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The Independent Online

If you live in New York and have any kind of salary at all, you will know the disappointment of opening invitations that promise nights filled with glamour and sophistication, until the card that is tucked inside falls on to your lap listing the different levels of donations you may care to ensure your attendance.

If you live in New York and have any kind of salary at all, you will know the disappointment of opening invitations that promise nights filled with glamour and sophistication, until the card that is tucked inside falls on to your lap listing the different levels of donations you may care to ensure your attendance.

"Gamble with Today's Hottest Models. Experience the unique, rhythmic sounds of Rondo Veneziano. Win Luxurious Prizes. Savour Italian Delicacies," exhorted one such missive recently delivered to my desk. The organisers - the Design Industries Federation - were promising to transform Gotham Hall on Broadway into a casino for one night. It sounded fun and, look, Christina Aguilera would be there.

I passed, even though the cause - fighting Aids - was admirable. The small print did it, as it so often does, even though the demands on my wallet for this event were relatively modest. A mere $300 (£164) would have got me inside. Had I chosen to fork out $1,000 (per person) I could have got VIP seating for dinner, my name in the programme and $100 in chips to play the tables with all those models.

So relentless are the requests for my money that my capacity for guilt has long since been worn down. Even my favourite radio station tries it on. That would be NPR, the nearest thing to the BBC over here. The New York NPR affiliate, WNYC, has fund-raising drives three times a year, when regular programming vanishes to be replaced by cooing voices urging me to pick up the phone and give over my credit card details. Next time, I promise.

My record of giving is not completely blank, however. My excuse for skipping Las Vegas at Gotham Hall was that I was actually planning to cross the East River into Queens for a competing event. Christina was not going, but I was ready to live with that. It was the annual benefit to support a tiny gallery space called The Chocolate Factory in Long Island City, one stop away from Grand Central on the 7 line.

In fact, I had personal reasons to choose this one. To help spur attendance, the factory had invited the Mexican artist, Isabel Martinez, to display some of her paintings inside. The benefit doubled as the opening for her exhibition, which will remain there for the next several weeks. Full disclosure: Isabel is the aunt of a good friend, but I love her pictures all the same. (Take a peak at www.isabelmartinez.net.)

Long Island City may be separated from Manhattan by a single subway stop, but in terms of pretensions it is still a world away. The Chocolate Factory, bereft of air conditioning on a very hot night, is definitely not Gotham Hall. Hence, the only drain on my wealth was $25 for entry. Given my copious consumption of chilled white wine and Mexican quesadillas inside, I should have been a little ashamed.

Sweet charity

It was lucky then - for my conscience - that the evening also featured both a raffle and a silent auction. The raffle was a bust. My friend bought tickets for me and I won nothing anyway. But for the first time in my life, I did get into the spirit of the silent auction, rashly signing my name on the sheets for assorted goodies, including dinner for two at a French culinary school and a couple of tickets for a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway.

I learned that there is an art to silent auctions from a man with far broader shoulders than mine. I watched with despair as he lunged to write down his bids at the very instant the organisers were declaring that time was up. He bumped me off the French dinner with a paltry five dollars more. He was not behaving in the spirit of charity, it occurred to me. In fact, I told him, spurred by the effects of the wine. But that night I went home armed with a voucher for two tickets to watch Natasha Richardson play Blanche Dubois in Streetcar. More importantly I reckon I have done my modest bit for New York philanthropy, for a while anyway.

Wheels on fire

Smokers in New York have a connection like never before, as I discovered again on the night last week when we cashed in our vouchers and went along to see Streetcar. (And yes, Ms Richardson is mesmerising.) As all the smokers in the audience made their inevitable dash for the pavement outside during the interval, an elderly gentleman suddenly struck up conversation.

He wanted to apologise for having stepped away from me moments before. The reason, he said, was that he was lighting up and thought that maybe I was a non-smoker. Such is the paranoia of smokers in New York these days, who can't even indulge in the open air without fear of recrimination. Anyway, he had then noticed that I too was happily puffing away and wanted to share a funny story.

It had come, he said, from the morning's newspapers and therefore - as they say - had to be true. "It was about this guy in the Bronx," he began. "His car has caught fire and he and a big crowd are looking on as it burns out of control, the column of smoke rising 15 storeys high. Then the firemen arrive and he starts shouting out in desperation, "Please, please, do something. My cigarettes are in that car".

Desire indeed. This car, one can only assume, was no Mercedes Benz or BMW. Because its owner's urge was all about the nicotine. I never thought to enquire how the inferno began in the first place, but it's not hard to guess.

I will be giving up shortly.

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