Wolfgang is punctual for the ten am opening of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. We’re here to see the much praised
and must-see exhibition of ‘Camp’, programmed to coincide with World Pride.
In our search for the exhibition, we are seduced into the
Impressionist galleries. Wolfgang is thrilled and has to revise his opinion of
some painters. I’ve seen these before, but had forgotten how many impressionist
paintings have ended up in the US. It’s great to re-visit these old friends.
The word camp, is almost impossible to define and it’s not necessarily
gay. Originating in France it can be roughly be described as standing with one
hand on a hip the other arm limp wristed and striking a pose with attitude.
Christopher Isherwood identifies two versions – High camp (with elegance and
taste) and Low camp – without the taste, shocking, outrageous, vulgar. Susan Sontag
is the only one to break it down intellectually. The exhibition itself is mostly
about fashion beginning with Marie Antoinette’s big frocks. Seventeenth Century
fashion is regarded as the height of camp. Then there’s the cross dressing –
famously the brother of a king of France lived dressed as a woman for the later
part of his life and there are numerous other examples – the Molly Houses where
gay men dressed up in private and more publicly, male couples appeared in
public as women. Oscar Wilde is cited as a camp icon as is Cecil Beaton, Vivienne
Westwood, and tiffany lamps. The last room is a huge gallery of outrageous and
elegant fashion which takes the breath away. Individually each display is
I’ve bought an on-line ticket for the Guggenheim, just
along the avenue from the Met. Wolfgang wants to walk though Central Park, but
I’ve got the wrong direction in my head and we end up having to double back.
I’m hugely impressed by the way New York is embracing World
Pride. Rainbow banners are everywhere, shop displays celebrate and there are
churches flying the rainbow flag alongside the Stars and Stripes.
It’s the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit we’ve come to see –
the Guggenheim has most of his work and although I’ve seen many of them before,
there’s quite a bit of early work which is worth seeing. Mapplethorpe remains
shocking, complicated and beautiful, more old friends. There’s a diptych where
we can take a selfie and be in the mirror half of a Mapplethorpe.
I’m flagging by now and after a coffee, I have to go back
to the apartment for a sleep before dinner with the Guptas. Udayan and Kathy
live in the Battery Park area overlooking the site of the Twin Towers. They
were very much caught up in 9/11 and the aftermath. Udayan and I were pen pals
as schoolboys, whilst his older brother and wife were and are still important family
friends. We walk though the beautifully planted park to an Italian restaurant –
alfresco. The Guptas have their favourite, soft-shelled Crab while I carb up on
a delicious pork and fennel pasta dish. It’s an evening of conversation –
touching on politics and a lot about health issues. We flag towards the end and
arrange for breakfast on Monday.
The competition pool is cool, delicious and of even depth. I can tell at the end of twenty-five metres that it’s fast. As I reach forward, it’s easy to catch the water and push it back. Perhaps it’s also the training kicking in – aerobic fitness from threshold sets building up stamina. I glide though my wall at the end of the first two hundred – the warm up is going well. I use the backstroke section to pay attention to turns. Theoretically the flags are at the same position in every pool but that doesn’t always guarantee a perfect turn. There’s something not quite right but I’m sure it will be ok.
It’s an early start, negotiating the subway from Mid-town Manhattan to the pool at Flushing Meadows – all with the aid of my phone. My stop is Mets Point the site of a huge baseball arena, deserted today but I meet up with some of my team walking in the same direction to the pool. They’ve divided the fifty metres in half so the diving end is for warm downs and late warm ups. Everyone comments on the fast pool. There’s a problem with the electronic timing pads so the programme is an hour late starting. I’ve planned to top up my warm up nearer to my event, later in the morning. Ten o five becomes eleven o five and a session of HVO’s sets me up for the 200m backstroke. I’m swimming well, but manage to miss-time most of my turns – too close to the wall at one end and not close enough at the other. My race plan almost disappears as I struggle to get the turns right. It’s initially a disappointing start but I end up with a Silver medal and a PB. I’m thinking it could have been a few seconds faster had I got the turns right.
For lunch, I collect a salad with beef from Chipotle across
the road from my apartment but can’t finish it. I’m meeting up with IGLA
friends to see a documentary Light in the Water later and Marcel from
Gay Swim Amsterdam messages me about meeting for something to eat before. Time
for an afternoon nap to sleep off the salad – perhaps I’ll feel like eating
later. Marcel & I go for a pizza slice – full of carbs for the next day. We
have time, to explore the World Trade Centre area – once Ground Zero. There’s a
huge skeleton-like building, the entrance to the world Trade subway stations. The
footprints of the twin towers are gigantic water features surrounded by Oak trees.
I’m reminded by Kathy Gupta’s excitement when the first trees were delivered
and planted. She and Udayan live across the square and I’ll be visiting them later
in the week. Last time I was here in 2010, this was still a site of devastation
– twisted metal and holes in the ground.
Light in the Water is the story of West Hollywood Aquatics the first LGBT swimming club. A couple of gay swimmers started it to beat homophobia in the swimming world and create a safe space for LGBT people to train and become accepted as gay athletes. The movie traces the origins of the Gay Games and its history. The AIDS epidemic is a large part of the story and how WH2O became a family fighting the hysteria and taking in people rejected by their biological families. There’s a Q&A session after the ninety – minute film. Nine of the interviewees have turned up along with the current co-chair of the Gay Games. These are men of my age group who have turned up to race. Some of them were instrumental in setting up IGLA after the first Gay Olympics to make swimming an annual event. The Olympics sued but allowed other non-gay and trivial Olympics to go ahead. Current difficulties with homophobia are touched on in the Q&A and the message is that we all need to turn up and show the world that gays can be top athletes. One of WH2O’s aims was to compete in regular Masters Swim Meets and beat the straight guys, and they did. WH2O have a strong presence here in the IGLA competition, winning lots of medals.
Tuesday: I need to warm up in the competition pool –
concentrating on backstroke turns. There’s only one turn today in the 50m
Backstroke but it has to be right. There’s quite a wait for the event so I do
another top-up warmup; more HVO’s (High Velocity Overloads) fast off the wall
for ten metres then easy to the end. There are no backstroke flags in the warm
up half of the pool, so caution and counting strokes are required. The race
goes well and Head Coach, Michelle is pleased plus I’ve got third place for a
bronze medal. I have to remember that all the Americans are here this week and
they are fast.
There’s about an hour before our 160+ years mixed 4 x 200
freestyle relay. It’s not my favourite freestyle distance but we’ve been
working on blocks of two hundred metres in training. I break it into 100m then
2 x 50m in my head, aiming to get faster over the 50s. I think our entry time
of 10 minutes was a guess and we come in at 11 minutes, but it’s enough to get
gold and my section of 200m is a personal best.
I met Buck and Wolfgang in Amsterdam earlier in the year. They live and swim in Berlin, though Buck is a New Yorker. He’s sent me links to sign up for the Macey’s Pride Party (they have one every year) – yes, a party in a department store. I join a huge queue snaking around and though the merchandise in the menswear department. Marcel approaches and I suggest he joins me in the queue but he’s not sure he wants to be here, opting for the IGLA happy hour drinks. We’re in line to collect our rainbow wrist tags and two free drinks vouchers.
There’s a cramped ‘main stage’ obstructed by pillars and sales tables. The guests crowd around holding phones up to film winners and runners up from the ‘Rue Paul Drag Race’ – a tv reality show to find the best amateur drag artistes. Nothing much here is pushing my buttons so I go up to the 9th floor after queuing for my first drink. I ask for a Gin and Tonic and get the largest and strongest mix of Ballantynes Gin ever. Until the ice melts, it’s almost impossible to drink. It might just as well be a martini.
Nothing is happening on the 9th floor and I get lost in the strangely deserted Ladies Lingerie department – a scenario for a horror movie suggests itself – nothing like that happens in Macey’s I tell myself – but remember Stepford. On the 9th floor, chairs have been arranged for what looks like a platform for corporate speeches. The plastic drinks glasses are half the size here – time to return to the 2nd floor for my second drink and where I run into Wolfgang. It’s much more fun observing this marketing show with someone else.
We look at some Drag boys being photographed with disabled and elderly women who may of may not be lesbians; there’s a mini live cinema with iconic gay songs and a long queue. A couple of hunks are playing games -getting guests to throw soft bags into a rainbow hole and a sparkling woman on stilts just passes by.
Time to meet up with Buck and walk ten blocks downtown to a
Thai Restaurant. The signs that New York is welcoming pride are everywhere.
This is not Trump land and like London, New York is another country. Many of these
guys quietly reveal that they are not fans of Donald – there’s no hysteria,
just a reserve which I find refreshing. Our party of older men seems to grow –
there’s good food, conversation and laughter.
Each year, IGLA ( International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics) supports an aquatics event somewhere in the world. This year it’s in New York, home of TNYA. It’s also World Pride, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots which sparked Gay Liberation and Pride.
New York is
cloudless and still from the sixty-seventh floor. A cruise liner nestles in the
millpond Hudson River, a wisp of smoke emanating from its funnel. From a
different angle, peeking between two towers the ‘neons’ of Times Square
continue from the night before – New York never sleeps.
As far as budget airlines go, Norwegian, new to transatlantic crossing are luxurious. I’ve opted for hand luggage only and no meal. There’s still a check-in desk and there are isle seats left towards the front of the plane for a speedy getaway. The young man next to me has heavy stubble, wears headphones and keeps falling forwards into sloop. Eventually he rests his head in the seat in front of him, activating the screen. Opposite, a row in front of me, there is a man about my age with a grey beard. He’s wearing casuals a pink shirt and Crocks on his feet – not quite chic, but he does have a large phone and a laptop. He’s American from his accent, which surprises me because he’s so arrogant and rude to the young woman serving the meals – no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ which is the norm with polite people in the US. He’s ordering soda water and ice and insisting on looking at the meat he’s ordered before accepting it, demanding to know what the sauce is. The young woman is being very patient, polite and accommodating. I’m seriously wondering why he’s traveling on a budget airline and in Economy, not Premium class at the front of the plane.
Eventually, after four or five hours of harassment, the young woman calls in her male senior. This man has been drinking his own duty-free alcohol which is illegal on planes. The senior, threatens to call the police when they get to NY. He tells him how to order his drinks from his screen. The man dismisses this but after half an hour of thinking about it he gets out the screen and orders a beer. When it doesn’t arrive immediately, he presses the call button. They’ve run out of beer, but some time later, what looks like fruit juice is delivered. I’m thinking that we’ve got a functioning alcoholic on board. Discarded sachets of milk are scattered in the isle and he makes no attempt to retrieve any of it when the young woman passes to collect rubbish. I try to lean forward and collect it for her, but am restrained by my seat belt. She’s touched by my gesture and thanks me – a recognition that she knows I’ve shared her difficulties with this customer. As a final act of defiance, he unbuckles while we are still taxiing towards the terminal, gets out of his seat and retrieves his rucksack from the overhead locker two rows behind me. This prompts an extra announcement for passengers to remain seated with seat belts fastened until we have stopped. He’s got away with it and the moment we do stop, he’s around the corner in a flash to the exit door, no doubt shoving ahead of the Premium Passengers who are supposed to exit first. That’s partly what they’ve paid for.
are thirty minutes early, we’ve had to wait until our parking place has been
vacated by the departing plane. There is confusion in immigration (JFK along
with Heathrow is one of the busiest airports) created by poor signage. The staff suddenly realise that those of us
traveling on returning ESTAs (Visas) are in the wrong queue. It takes the
machine ages to recognise my fingerprints – I don’t think they have changed
since I last visited the US two years ago.
determined to make use of the subway with a weekly pass but I can’t buy this on
the Air-train which cost $5 on a metro card. It takes me a while to work out
that the weekly visitors pass is a different card from a different machine.
Success, but there’s a replacement bus service for the first two stops and it’s
now dark and I have to find my way outside to a bus stop. All is well and I’m
delivered to the Union Turnpike station as promised. The carriages are empty,
but one stop later a herd of young middle class-looking people crowd in.
they’ve been to a concert and the young man next to me senses my anxiety as I
check my destination on my phone subway map to compare it with the on-train
indicator. He assures me that we’re going to 7th Avenue but I wasn’t
expecting so many stops. It’s late and several lines are combined to stop at
every station. It takes forever and it’s 11.30pm by the time I get to Stuart
and Emma’s apartment. The guy on the desk (Chris) is super helpful and friendly
with directions on where to by breakfast stuff at this late hour. The drugstore
around the corner has everything I need.
does not service floors until #46 where the apartments begin. The view from the
67th floor is magnificent but vertiginous – wow!
Sunday Morning: Still on London time, I meet the sunrise
but doze on to recover from the travel. A short walk to Columbus Circus, a few
blocks away seems like a good Sunday idea. This is one of the entrances to
Central Park and the monument to Christopher Columbus (discoverer of the
already discovered Americas) shrinks against glass towers of apartments. The
statue celebrates this discovery of America by describing it as a gift to the
world. Now, in 2019 this seems like irony (which Americans don’t do) but
colonialists never benefitted from hindsight or an appreciation that other
civilisations existed. Pigeons perch on statues which seem to be placed
especially for their convenience. Homeless-looking people sleep on the monument
steps, one with his legs entwined around his very new-looking bicycle, as a
precaution against theft. I return to my tower block via a grocery store to
stock up before more sleep recovery.
York Aquatics have arranged for a training session at one of their pools in a
very posh Convent School up on the East side. It’s a twenty-five-yard pool – a
strange experience swimming less than the usual twenty-five metres I’m used to.
Each length seems to be over so quickly and one length of butterfly is one
stroke less. Quite a few have turned up including many of the Out to Swim team.
I don’t swim for long, just enough to get the heart and lungs going for
tomorrow. Later, there are welcome drinks at a bar called Industry. It’s great
meeting up with old friends going back from Edmonton in 2016 then Miami and Paris.
I’m the only Out to Swim competitor in my sixties, so it’s nice to socialise
with my age group from around the world. I end up in a Pizza with a group of OTS
youngsters but a salad and a slice of Pizza is too much and I end up taking
half of it home to watch the sunset over the Hudson with a beer.