New York, New York, it's still a helluva town - just don't `over- share'

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I spent last week in New York, interviewing several grizzled celebrities. I had Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, explain to me how supporting the death penalty was now considered "a liberal position" in America. Elmore Leonard, supreme fetishist of the Magnum .45 and the Browning automatic, told me that if he had his way, these awful handguns would be banned in the States, as they are in the UK. And I made Joseph Heller cry by asking him about his relationship with his mother. What else, now that we have strayed into Name-Drop Land? Oh yeah, I stood beside Francis Ford Coppola at a party at the Tribeca Grill (owned by Robert de Niro) as the ursine patriarch of Zoetrope studios embraced various elderly actors. And I sat with my face precisely six inches from the end of Woody Allen's clarinet, as he swung into "Jambalaya", the Carpenters' swamp-foxtrot celebration of Cajun soup.

Allen has been playing with Eddie Davis's jazz band for years now, and his public appearances are regular enough to appear on tourist itineraries. He used to "sit in" with them at Michael's pub, where a crowd would come to gawp at the specky auteur every Monday evening. Lately, though, the band have shifted to (unannounced) gigs at the classy Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side. The audience was full of cool out-of-towners, desperate not to be thought of as star-watchers, but as bona fide trad-jazz fans. Beside me a chap in Karl Lagerfeld ponytail and his Christy Turlington- esque trophy girlfriend were regretting they'd ordered supper, as the remains of their prawns-in-salsa sat congealing on their plates over the next hour.

For the rest of us, it was an hour of rapture. I'd assumed that Mr Allen played clarinet the way Bill Clinton plays saxophone. Not a bit of it. He performs like a devotee, like a zealot, like he practices 12 hours a day. He swings through "Shake That Thing", he tootles in and out of "Baby Face", he gets all gathered and intense for "All That I Ask is Love". The band is a mix of New York faces, from the Ivy League smoothie on slide trombone to the boyish matinee idol on slap bass. Veins stand out on the brow of the trumpet player as he wah-wahs away with a plastic hat over his instrument. They blend together like a complicated dance troupe, while giving the impression of not knowing each other well. Eddie Davis, the banjo player, calls the tunes, in a tone of puzzlement. "I'll try it," says Woody, sotto voce, "though I can't remember it." And off they go again, harmonising immaculately. Between solos, Woody sits, looking suburban and crestfallen in his pink shirt, his apologetic corduroys and meek little socks, the clarinet balanced on his chair like a bottle of wine. Is he enjoying himself? Does he mind us staring, and wondering about Soon-Yi? Why does he do it?

After an hour, most of the band disappears, leaving Woody playing duets with Eddie Davis. They play "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and "After You're Gone". You look at the two men, the myopic Woody and the chuckling Eddie beside him - Eddie the banjo man, fat as Buddha, hairy of arm, capacious of trouser, wholly delighted by the music - and you realise how much the film legend needs the jazzman. It occurs to you that, amazingly, this jolly roustabout, his head full of a million songs, is a person Woody has aspired to become for years.

up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, beside Central Park, one has a rare chance of seeing some spectacular Mughal carpets or inspecting the sketchbooks of Jackson Pollock (1937-1941) in their glory. Regrettably, le tout Manhattan is ignoring both worthy exhibitions and descending in a lowing herd to the Versace show in the basement. The display of the late Gianni's most outrageous frocks has entranced the city's aesthetes and fashion victims alike, and they mill about, swooning in front of the glass cases, cooing at the Whaaam! dress modelled on Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art explosion, the figure-hugging Italian Streetwalker sheaths, the stunning pink, slashed and ruched evening gowns, and the wild shores of fantasy clothes - the Lycra "unitards" and balloon pants, the Devil outfits and applique gems and peasant-panto costumes full of rags and patchwork. Whew. The only thing wrong with this startling showis the accompanying text, the most pretentious crap ever appended to a few yards of silk and jersey. It gushes about Versace's "graphic truculence", his "Promethean redefinition of fashion as sexual and media energy". And if you thought the great couturier liked long cutaway skirts in neo-classical toga-folds because they were dead sexy, think again. "An enthusiast of history, Versace sought no replicas or simulacra," drones the text. "Rather he read history into the present and rendered the past as pertinent to his unending perception of the new". Donnez-moi une fracture, as we say on the Paris catwalk.

Invasions of your emotional space are everywhere in Manhattan, like the smell of roasting pecan nuts. The chances of being mugged in midtown have dwindled to nothing, but you can still encounter, as I did, a young black girl emerging from a doorway, clutching your arm and saying, "I'm from Washington and I have Aids. Can you help me with a meal?" Of course you give her money; but this is a classic case of what's now called "over- sharing", ie those moments when somebody tells you slightly too much about their intimate secrets (bankruptcy, messy divorce, chronic diarrhoea). What's remarkable for New York is that you're now allowed to say you'd rather not know.

On the subway, your emotions are stirred by advertisements which have a built-in pathos. Suffering wives too poor to shed a horrible spouse are advised how they can go about it without breaking the bank. "Finally, an affordable attorney", it promises, "Ring 1-800 DIVORCE". Next seat along, a poster inquires, "Is life in your face?" and suggests, "Reach out for someone who really cares about you", though it's hard to see how the people manning the phones at Covenant House can have many personal feelings about the strangers who ring up. Lastly, "Do you know who the father is?" asks a sad little hoarding. "The New York Immunogenetics Center is New York's only paternity testing lab. Ring 1-888 DAD-SEARCH".

The city's yellow taxis have acquired a new hazard: the taped celebrity message. In an initiative brought in last year by Mayor Giuliani, all cabs now carry recordings by TV stars telling passengers to wear seat belts and so forth, and adding cute little messages at the end. When you sit inside, the voice of Joan Rivers tells you to buckle up, "and by the way darling you look gorgeous. That colour is just you", or the fruity Mitteleuropean tones of sexologist Dr Ruth Westheimer advise, "and get a receipt from zer driver. I'm glad ve've had this liddle chat." After the first 20 times or so, the cheery salutations from Jackie Mason or Placido Domingo start to grate on you. But New Yorkers have recently discovered that every cab's licence plates carry a code number telling you which celebrity voice is playing inside. So if, like me, you really can't stand hearing Eartha Kitt saying "and have a purrrfect day. Grrrrowwlll ..." ever again, you can steer clear of all cabs bearing her mark.