Dear Diary, Going back isn’t quite what it used to be. I alluded to this in the letter that introduces the new issue of our magazine, but there was a time when for reasons of either age or geopolitics or a different information culture or all of the above I used to feel like I needed to pretend to know what was going on in New York at most all times. I can tell you, diary, that I used to live in full-on terror of mispronouncing last names I had only seen in print. These days, it’s just another city I don’t live in, albeit the one I’d probably rather live in. That and some of my friends now have kids or at least wives. And as much as I reminisce about my early-aughties years in China, all the two- and three-day New York interludes of scrambling to see every show and squeeze in every possible coffee, I like the runaround slightly better now that I care slightly less.
Yes diary, one trick is to stay somewhere where people will be happy to come to you, and The Ace Hotel is, as they say, so very something. It starts with the lightbulbed marquee over the entrance, which just says HOTEL, an object that works more or less like the minimalist pearly white marquees that the French artist Philippe Parreno likes to put above entrances to “announce something” without saying quite what, as he famously did in an exhibition entitled theanyspacewhatever last year. The bell captain has one of those 60s haircuts with extremely closely shorn sides. The dark and cavernous lobby, diary, at any time offers at least six possible haptic scenarios for two people to drink an espresso, ranging from lazy couches to uptight barstools. In the rooms they give you bedside music paper, because you are apparently expected to dream in transcribable movements. Downstairs, the baristas dress like characters from the 1992 motion picture Newsies! Like one friend I see when I’m in town says, hoteliers are the auteurs of our moment, creating spaces in which narratives can be staged. And narratives did we stage.
I had lunch with that friend in the bar on West Broadway where they filmed the Jiang Wen short in the 2008 motion picture New York, I Love You, the one where Cui Jian is playing on the radio and the guy tries to pick the girl up by translating the lyrics to the former’s famous ballad Greenhouse Girl in which “greenhouse” is actually an anatomical metaphor. And then we went past the Ghostbusters firehouse and up to his loft where his one-year-old was watching a made in Brooklyn instructional speak Chinese DVD featuring someone named “Pim,” with a properly multicultural cast and repeating words like toothbrush well ahead of the curve. When the segment ended, dad put on Kings of Convenience and the kid began to dance in front of a wall of books with a ladder on wheels as we strategized over his pre-school applications. Diary did you know that lactation consultants in Manhattan, of which my mother was once one in the Philadelphia suburbs, bill at USD $400/hour?
Ah yes, ART. Well, for starters I ran into the unsung hero of the Arte Povera movement at a sample sale on Orchard Street, and we traded observations of his one-off collaborator Ai Weiwei’s ambivalent megalomania as I was trying on raincoats. That morning I saw a really nice gallery show or several, disaster-scene photos by an obscure Swiss policeman that Harald Szeemann put into his last big show but which failed to really gain traction. Leo Koenig is trying again. Then there was the Jo Bear/John Wesley show at Matthew Marks, her stylized minimalism bouncing so perfectly off of his visual jokes. I saw a guy in glasses not unlike my own stand in front of a Wesley pun about silhouettes on currency, laughing ostentatiously out loud. And I’m not sure what the big deal is with (2009 Venice Biennale Icelandic pavilion sensation) Ragnar Kjartsson, if there was a big deal. MoMA, now there’s a museum! I got a purloined copy of the TOC for their forthcoming Chinese documents anthology from some young curators, only to stumble upon the entire family of my first Beijing friend–mom, dad, bro, newly engaged sis–lounging in the lobby where that Barnett Newman used to be in front of a Yoko Ono shout into the microphone piece which seems like a really weird thing to put on the site of the Abramovic starefest so soon after the fact. In the architecture gallery they have a show about the lower Manhattan estuaries of 2100, and walltexts that simply presume that the island will go perhaps 61% under.
Of course the reason for the trip was a wedding, a three-night extravaganza which began on Thursday with fourteen men eating a set menu of “Beef Seven Ways” at the latest project of Momofuku’s Danny Chang in the Chambers Hotel. The Milk Bar upstairs at street level purveys an astounding array of dairy products including “Cereal Milk.” When the woman at the next table asked what we did, I explained that our friend the anthropologist was to wed and that half of us had just flown in from China. They believed us only upon seeing a tote bag inscribed with Chinese characters. We made our way to an assortment of downtown bars at various levels of in-ness, and then finally to a karaoke place on 17th Street where a song is two dollars and we sang a lot of them.
The wedding toast, according to the Paris Review advice column, is one of our great American folk rituals. I gave one at Szechuan Gourmet on West 56th Street on Friday. There are some funny discursive issues to be thought through with wedding toasts, first and foremost your place on the batting order. I was up early, and gave one sort of like the proclamation they encant at the beginning of Midnight Mass on Christmas, in our archdiocese of Philadelphia at least, that situates the nativity in the context of salvation history. I like that phrase, “salvation history.” Perhaps not as much as “eschatology,” but almost as much. And these are precisely the sorts of contexts, on the second floors of Chinese restaurants in midtown Manhattan surrounded by aunts and uncles, in which a sweeping statement or two about our generation and its uncertainties can do a bit of work. I told them that the reason we live in China is to prevent war, which is more than partially true.
The next night, they had a bluegrass band beside their chuppa on the bluffs above the Hudson in a state park way way uptown. Orthodoxim on nearby benches looked on in disapproval as the setting but not yet set sun turned the lovers into silhouettes. They looked stunning, saying their seven prayers in Vera Wang and John Varvatos. Wallace Stevens was the scripture and the self-written vows included the phrases “condition of possibility” and “future anterior.” When the groom drank from the cup of blessed wine, he made the wine-tasting face. The shawl their fathers wrapped around them at the very end said on it “Property of Congregation Beth El, Great Neck” in black permanent marker. We walked down a hill into the WPA-era maintenance shed turned bistro for vodka ginger martinis and rock shrimp, then sat down and ordered our mains as if at a restaurant. There were more toasts, then dancing in a circle with joined arms.
Later the sweet strains of bluegrass rang out as they rendered Michael Stipe’s straightforward lovesong which includes the line “I count your eyelashes” and the bride and bridegroom danced a routine, a routine with a higher degree of difficulty than most pre-instructed wedding dance routines. Soon it was 4 a.m., and then 9 a.m., and then 12 p.m., and before I knew it I had eaten a bagel toasted with cream cheese and drunk a carton of Tropicana Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice and taken the NJ Transit Northeast Corridor line to Newark Liberty International Airport and passed the TSA inspection and was aboard Continental 89 with nonstop service to Beijing.