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Well, it’s 1:40 am and I’m awake. No real idea why. Could be delayed jetlag, I suppose, though I’ve been back a week and I don’t like the idea of jetlag anyhow. I feel I should be able to hop insouciantly between continents like some some globetrotting gazelle, a citizen of the world not bound by trivialities like time zones. Maybe not. Either way, for something to do, as I sit here in the study listening to a fox making disquieting noises in the street outside, I thought I’d make another list — and this time it’s of some of the best places to sit and have a cup of coffee.

1. Bryant Park, New York
My most recent haunt, and a pretty well-known one. I happened on it as a result of mere hotel-proximity, on my first grown-up visit to the city four years ago, and have sunk many a happy coffee in it since. I don’t know what it is that makes Bryant Park quite so restful. It’s basically just a large square of grass, with beds and paths and trees on three sides and stairs leading up to the rear of the Public Library on the other. It could be the presence of very tall buildings on all sides, which gives something of the quality of a hidden garden. It could also be that, standing bang in the centre of Midtown as it does, it’s the New York park that contrasts most strongly with the streets around it. I have even toyed with wondering whether the fact this block held, for the second half of the nineteenth century, a reservoir, has something to do with it — a large body of water somehow changing the energy field. Though that just sounds like so much new age bollocks, really, not least as throughout 1970s the park was by all accounts an excellent place to score drugs or get cataclysmically mugged, which you might expect to have muddied the energy waters somewhat.

Anyway. There’s lots of places to sit, and a bar in the evenings, and free wifi too, though I can’t always get that to work. This actually makes it even better. I like places where I can’t be in contact with the outside world. They’re increasingly few and far between.

2. Outside Les Deux Magots, Paris
Another non-controversial choice, unless you’re achingly cool. People have been knocking back café crème outside this St Germain hotspot for a long time — it was a popular haunt for Satre and Simone de Beauvoir, not to mention Hemingway and Camus. I tend to wind up spending a good few hours outside the Magots whenever I’m lucky enough to be in Paris, not least because there’s a great bookstore just behind it (the name of which I forget: maybe I’m more tired than I thought). Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but you know what — when I’m in Paris, I’m a tourist. Actually, outside pretty much any Parisian café will do, so if you’re worried about not seeming cutting edge enough, why not hop on the Metro to the outskirts of town and find somewhere there instead. Don’t feel that you have to come back, either.

3. Outside the Seattle’s Best opposite Pike Place Market, Seattle
Especially early in the morning, so you can watch the market swinging properly into life.

4. The Meeting Place, the seafront, Brighton
The fact that the coffee here is actually pretty dire possibly indicates that the quality of the beverage on offer is not of paramount importance. With the sea, gulls, and the teetering remains of the old West Pier to gaze upon, it’s a good place to be. If the weather’s dire (which is far from unknown in Brighton) then outside the Starbucks in the Lanes is a decent second choice. (And don’t give me any crap about Starbucks not being proper coffee. Of course it’s proper coffee, you muppet. It’s not the best coffee in the world — but it’s good enough. Disliking things just because they’re popular does not make you cool. What are you, fourteen? Get a couple of extra shots in your drink like a grown-up, and go peddle your angst elsewhere.)

Hmm. Four isn’t many. I notice that I don’t actually have one for London, for example. Perhaps you need to not be local, for the perfect coffee-sipping experience… Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet. I notice also that all these places are outside. This is partly due to the smoking thing — I like a cigarette with my coffee, and there ain’t nowhere in the civilized world they’ll let you do that any more. But it’s also that I associate coffee with watching the world go by. Tea is for drinking indoors. Tea is self-referential, a medicine. Coffee is for turning outwards and taking in the other: and therefore part of the essence of a classic coffee-drinking spot is it allows you to observe a corner of the universe — without necessarily feeling that, right at this moment, you have to be an active part of it.

Christ, it’s half past two. Better try sleeping again, not least as tomorrow I have a day designing stuff for WHC2010. May your Fridays be golden. And if you’re at a loose end…

5. […]
Suggestions, please.

@ememess


I went out for dinner last night by myself, picking somewhere fairly randomly on 8th, close to the apartment I’ve been borrowing. It was a nice place. Buzzy, not overtly unfriendly, and did very good New Mexican food.

 

What perturbed me was that I noticed — while lurking outside having a cigarette between courses — their delivery menu featured, amongst other things, T-shirts. The place didn’t seem to be a chain, and yet, it had clothing for sale. Said shirts had the restaurant’s slogan on them (do restaurants need slogans?), and I can’t remember exactly what it was, but basically it was existential self-definition in seven words or fewer, and the caption indicated that such a garment was quite the thing for anyone who was willing to ‘tip it, flip it, and make the world their way.’

 

Now, I’m from England. Our restaurants don’t come on like that. They don’t feel the need to provide life coaching. They concentrate on providing food. I tried to imagine the above, or something similar, happening in a gastropub in London: me walking in, going up to the bar, and the guy there shouting — 

 

“Yo! Welcome, friend! Are you ready to tip it, flip it, make the world the way you want it?”

 

‘Well, mainly… I just wanted a beer.’

 

‘Dude, seriously — tell me you’re going to take this world, scrunch it up in a ball, throw it up in the air and then kick that motherfucker through the goalposts to Successville.’

 

‘I’ll have some crisps, if that’s what you mean.’

 

I have trouble even being the second-best I can be, and I can’t see a restaurant — however fine their deconstructed burrito with watercress, avocado and pickled this-that-and-the-other might be — changing that any day soon.

 

@ememess

I’m still in New York, and hacking up and down the streets for a few days has reminded me just how much I love good food stores. I can browse in these places for hours, even if I have no intention of buying — doing so with almost the same level of beatific absorption I attain in bookstores. A quality food purveyor reminds you just how wonderful it is that we have to eat (and also how lucky we are to live in privileged countries, where what we eat can be an existential choice, rather than a matter of bitter existence). Finding an awesome food emporium is like discovering a tiny, wood-paneled and coffee-infused independent bookstore that somehow happens to stock as much as a big chain, only in far more interesting ways, and studded with prizes the big guns don’t even know exist. Wandering around these places is a kind of meditation, and time spent there will find your heart rate slowing and brain waves settling into a contented hum.

Or… maybe I’m just a pig.

Either way, my top choices in this very provisional list come from America, possibly controversially. The rest of the world — and even many Americans, it seems, certainly the ones living near the coasts — tend to portray the United States as a country where the ill-informed and massively-sized chow merrily down on any old crap, so long as it comes by the bucket-load, and are never happier than when stuffing a burger into every orifice. Yet the average Publix or Ralphs will have deli and meat and fish counters that would put European specialty stores to shame, not to mention acres of choice in more prosaic departments. No self-respecting American supermarket is going to offer you just one of something, be it a tin or jar or packet: they will have a choice of nineteen different brands, and many of them will be good. Unless you’re specifically looking for patés, cassoulet and the like, you’re a lot better off here than in the average French hypermarket…

1. The Westside Market on 7th Avenue (at 10th), NYC
New York is, of course, one of the great food cities, with food supplies in breadth and depth. An unassuming deli can turn out to have hot and cold food choices stretching for ten yards, not to mention a perfectly competent sushi chef beavering away in the corner. The Westside Market actually did my head in (more so than the oft-lauded Garden of Eden chain, excellent though they are). I went into near-catatonia with Opportunity Cost Anxiety at Westside, wandering round open-mouthed, like someone in town not so much from the sticks, as from the 8th century — painfully aware that I’ve only got one stomach and only had so many self-catered meals ahead of me. So I settled for buying merely seven times what I needed, and walking with a pronounced list for most of the time. It was worth it.

2. The Broadway Market, Seattle
A big, spacious store, this doesn’t have quite the sense of lunatic crammed-in cornucopia as the best New York markets, but you still want to check it out. As an added but unrelated bonus, in side streets nearby there are some extremely attractive Arts & Crafts bungalows, if you know where to look (or, like me, wander around like a lost dog until you accidently come upon them). Broadway is a bit of a hike from downtown, but it’s worth it. While you’re in the city, don’t forget Pike Place Market. It doesn’t count as a food shop, but is a cool place to walk around (especially early in the morning, watching tough-looking guys bellowing weirdly about fish) — and there’s lots of other food-related goodness in the surrounding alleyways. Seattle’s not just about depressed bands and perpetual drizzle: the food there is good.

3. Hédiard, Paris
I find the much-vaunted Fauchon (just across the Place de la Madelaine) a bit pretentious: there’s a lot of nice food there, of course, but it’s too mannered and arch, packaged as if to be part of some grandstanding gift basket. Hédiard feels more homely and comfortable, and has more game on the savoury stuff, too. There’s another great general food store in Paris, just the other side of St Germain, but I can’t remember what it’s called. Feel free to remind me. And yes, if I was including food markets, then France would move up the list, as it would if I was talking about the effortless ability of just about anywhere to chuck together a simple meal of greatness. But I’m not. Nor am I talking about indoor multi-outlet food markets of the kind Toronto has, fan of these places though I am (and I’m receptive to tips as to where to find others, too). I’m just talking about food shops here. Read the title of the blog, and don’t give me grief.

4. Selfridges Food Hall, London
It’s very good — by all accounts Harrods’ is even better, but that’s too far West for me, and I find the whole idea of Harrods obscurely annoying, for some reason — but it’s not really a patch on any of the above: and oh my God it’s expensive. Deciding to buy a picnic in Selfridges Food Hall is like picking up a copy of the Guttenberg Bible to read while you have a poo. It does have European items like rillettes, however, which can be tough to find in American stores. Though not in France, obviously. Duh.

Four is a weird place to stop, but I’m missing a number 5 for the list — not to mention 6 through 173. So — what have I missed or not yet encountered? How have I been stupid and wrong-headed and completely like a nutbag fool? If I should be in your (or any other) neck of the woods, where should I go to stare longingly at stuff?

Tell me. And be quick about it.

@ememess

Columbo-style, I’m adding just one more tip to my list for travelers. This one applies specifically when travelling to the US. And it is… Don’t have the same name as me.

I arrived at JFK at 4:20 yesterday afternoon. As has happened several times in the last couple of years — I believe it’s been three out of six trips — after having my fingerprints, retina and soul scanned in the immigration line, I got yanked out and sent to Mordor (also known as the Homeland Security Zone), which basically involves being led ignominiously away from the desk (and the doors that lead to baggage claim and taxis and an interesting evening in a new city), and being put in a dire room full of signs in Helvetica, with the other miscreants, bastards and potential undesirables — without the slightest indication of why this is happening to you. Usually it only takes thirty to forty five minutes to sort out the problem (the nature of which I’ll come back to). This time I eventually left Mordor at… half past eight.

Yep. That would be four of your Earth hours. Over half the time it had taken to fly from London to New York.

The reason for this is that… I am not the only Michael Smith in creation. Now, I have been known from time to time to put certain events down to a being I call ‘Bad Mike’, an naughty alter ego who comes out under the influence of alcohol and does the things which, the following morning, most make me wince and moan and want to bite my own head off. Well, it turns out Bad Mike is real, and is out there, really doing really Bad Things. I have the same name as this guy, and therefore I get pulled over.

I doubt he has the same middle names as me, and I know he doesn’t look the same, but that doesn’t appear to make a difference (at the beginning of the process, anyway). By now I even have a vague picture of what this man might look like. The first time this farrago happened, for example, my innocence was eventually proven through a lack of prison tattoos (evidently a distinguishing feature of Bad Mike). You might have thought establishing this would only take a few minutes, but no, it took forty five. Yet tattoos weren’t even mentioned yesterday, so maybe Bad Mike is chimerical, a shape-shifter. Perhaps sometimes he has yards of Aryan Nation tats, sometimes he doesn’t. Or maybe there are several Bad Mikes. Maybe we are legion — though actually I think I prefer the idea of one uber-Bad Mike, bestriding the realms of ill-doing like a colossus.

Yesterday, when, after two and a half hours of not being talked to at all, I was eventually assigned a handler, I actually asked him what Bad Mike had done — and was told that I didn’t want to know. I should probably have tartly replied that I was a mystery and sometime horror writer, responsible for a trilogy of serial killer novels amongst other dark fictions, and could probably handle it. But by that point I’d forgotten I’d ever been that person or done those things, and had become instead a small and irritable cog in someone else’s machine, capable of nothing more than furiously watching a lovely spring afternoon turn into evening, through the tiny sliver of window afforded to the bad and stupid amongst whom I now numbered myself. To be fair, my handler was extremely civil throughout, and even apologized a couple of times during the hour and a half it took for the call to come back from Washington DC to confirm I was self-evidently an effete Brit writer who couldn’t even stick to one genre for any length of time, never mind forge a successful career as a ravening psychopath. But to sit there while two of my handler’s colleagues worked for a while, then talked about going to get their dinner, then went for their dinner, and then came back and worked for quite some time…

It’s lucky I’m not the real Bad Mike. That’s all I’m saying. You can do a lot of damage with an iPhone, I would imagine. Though of course I wasn’t allowed to use my phone, and got barked when I tried. I had an armed escort to even go to the toilet.

The whole experience was… not good.  

Eventually, just at the point where I thought I was genuinely in danger of losing it through frustration and nicotine withdrawal and a gut-wrenching certainty of my own innocence, they let me go. I hadn’t done anything, as I’d known all along. I hadn’t even not done anything, like failing to get a visa or work permit. I’d just had… my own name.

So, to recap, that’s my final tip. Don’t have my name. Oh, and Bad Mike, if you should happen to be reading this, please either change your name or STOP DOING BAD THINGS.

Still, on the upside, it turns out that just along the street from my hotel — where I have a room so small it doesn’t even have a fucking chair — is a place called Virgil’s, that not only does very decent barbecue, but knows how to use an apostrophe.

So, you know, it’s all good.

Says Who?

Michael Marshall (Smith): novelist, screenwriter and sitting-place for cats.

Go to Official Site.

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March 2017
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