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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Touched By Genius
by Selina Guinness
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First flight to New York and the lady next to me who deals in antique teddy bears for a living briefly stops talking as Manhattan swings into view like a pop-up in a kid's book. I just want to say 'wow' all the time, the stupidest monosyllable. Last time I felt like this was looking at fish swimming round me on a reef. We take the skyway into the city, past a neon eagle flapping lazily out of a Budweiser sign. The Trade Centre has a thin strip of light running down each tower like the foil band on a cigarette packet. We go into a tunnel on one side of the water, drive up a helter-skelter into a dark labyrinth, and emerge in a multi-storey car-park: Port Authority.
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8th September 1996. Pam, and her boyfriend John, are meeting me for Sunday breakfast at K & K restaurant on 1st Avenue. Out the back, in the sunshine, there are tables under trees, and I wait there wondering whether standing people up is a New York tradition and if it is, for how long is it cool to wait? Half an hour or so. John orders blueberry pancakes. Waffles arrive. Eggs. Cawfee. We chat, and I feel so cosmopolitan, while caterpillars drop from the trees above into our food and we pick them out and continue talking music, books, exhibitions. Hell, it's great to be alive! An elderly gentleman, fat New York Times slippery with supplements bundled under his arm, asks to share our table. Sure, yes, the blueberry pancakes are excellent.
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We've been there a while before John's eyes fix upon the green caterpillar that is perilously edging around our neighbour's white collar towards his full, grizzled beard. We all look, and I wonder, 'what's the cool New York thing to do?' but by that time, John has simply said, 'Excuse me', reached over and plucked the offending creature into the air. His hand is retracting across the table when his eyes open wide and I hear the startled recognition, 'Oh, Mr. Ginsberg, I'm sorry'.
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Now I met Pam at the Yeats Summer School and she's a cultured Upper West Side woman, journalist, poet, happy to find small vintage clothes shops with me as we wandered around the lower East Side that morning, trying things on, talking about John's gigs and his band and I know that this kind of encounter probably happens to her all the time. So it doesn't totally surprise me when she stretches out a hand and introduces herself and then, us all, and I find myself not two days in New York, having breakfast with Allen Ginsberg, thinking 'Damn, I've read nothing beyond bits of Howl, and conversation about caterpillars, their surprisingly high incidence in lower Manhattan, their diet, their short incarnation, and future migration patterns is only going to keep us going so long!'
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The New York Times had unfurled its intellectual wings all over the table and I had scruples about intruding upon the Great Beat's morning routine, those vital book reviews, the Philarmonic summer programme, the latest exhibition in the Met, all missed due to sitting at the wrong table with some gabby twenty-somethings. But he seemed quite happy to talk with John about his, Mr. Ginsberg's, forthcoming album, with J.J. Cale and a host of famous musicians that John caught, but I didn't. Mr. Ginsberg mumbles. And he's not a humorous man, laconic perhaps, but at a stretch. He stirred around his blueberries, making a chopping noise on the plate, while he told us about his 33 stanza polemic, 'The Ballad of the Skeletons' - an attack on right-wingers that seemed to consist of not-always-clever obscenities about family values.
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'You're Irish?!' He seemed happily surprised and without pausing for breath, told me about reading at Liberty Hall, the crowds, the glory when Bono, yes, Bono, came up afterwards and asked for his autograph, all of which led to one of those famous all night sessions in some place called The Factory, so great to know that the younger generation in Ireland were really politically interested and maybe he and Bono would record an album next. And Yeats, well, he knew off by heart his Crazy Jane poems, Byzantium, Sailing to Byzantium, and quoted a bit to demonstrate, except that some of the words were wrong, but the gist was there all right. And Blake, what an inspiration!
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After that we returned to our separate conversations, or rather we tried to return to our conversation but were now terribly awkward and self-aware, as the poet pushed his plate to one side, and though he made a good job of browsing the headlines we all sneakily, and self-importantly, felt he just might be ear-wigging and pick up on how second hand our opinions really were. Breakfast over, Pam stood up to go and surreptitiously pulled a camera from her bag with a nod and a wink to me, to nudge a little further up the bench closer to Mr. Ginsberg. But to my later regret, I just couldn't do it. It would have shot down the moment as 'uncool' forever. Instead I've got a photo of me on my own at a picnic table, with two black eyes, my mascara having run in the summer heat, grinning inanely as a caterpillar inches down my summer shirt.
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