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In a New York winter, it takes a nonagenarian piano player to shut out politics

A strange, embattled year it’s been, but here we still are.

Having written about America last week, I am now in New York, which – depending on your point of view – is either not America at all, or its best and truest representation. I am here with my sister, Debbie, on a pre-Christmas jaunt, and although I may be trying to avoid politics, there is, perhaps unsurprisingly, no escape.

On our first morning we walk the High Line, the public path built on an old freight rail line elevated above the streets on the West Side, starting in the Meatpacking District and ending just below Hell’s Kitchen. I always forget how cold New York is, and this morning, though the temperature on my phone says fine, the wind chill says you haven’t got enough clothes on. Dotted along the path are pieces of public art, the most striking being a huge billboard bearing the complete text of the artist Zoe Leonard’s piece from 1992, I want a president.

“I want a dyke for president,” it begins. “I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for vice president . . .” Listing all the ways in which a president could truly be one of the people – “a president with no airconditioning” – it concludes by asking why none of these things is possible, and why the president is “always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker . . . always a thief and never caught.”

It’s breathtaking, both in physical scale, as it rears up 20 by 30 foot high, forcing you to step back to read it properly, and also in its sense of topical relevance. The piece was placed here in the lead-up to the election, and although it was written 24 years ago and has become a cult hit in the intervening years, it is viscerally shocking to read it at this moment in time.

The next day I’m walking down Fifth Avenue when I notice the police, lots of them, and vans and barricades, and camera crews, and a reporter straightening up in front of the mike to deliver a piece, and I realise I am standing before the vast, gaudy, monolithic Trump Tower. New York is nothing if not good at contrasts.

At dinner the previous night, I had met my first ever Trump voters. They were at the table next to ours in a packed restaurant, a situation that in England would have led to much exaggerated eye-contact-avoiding, but which here meant that they started chatting to us – first to recommend the starters, then asking where we were from and what we Europeans (still European, hooray!) think of Trump.

“We’re all terrified,” we replied, and they seemed sympathetic. Friendly, smart, charming people, they wanted to discuss the Scottish indyref and Brexit, and all they said was that they simply couldn’t vote Hillary, for reasons they never made clear. It was an odd encounter, as it always is when you get that feeling that you have both connected with someone and, at the same time, missed by a country mile.

Still, this is the Christmas issue and that’s enough politics, so let me end with my highlight of the whole trip, which was a performance by Barbara Carroll, the 91-year-old pianist and singer, at the legendary jazz club Birdland. Stick-thin and elegant in a dress and trousers, diamond earrings, hair in a tight chignon, she had to be led to the stage, where she performs an hour-long set at 6pm every Saturday; but, once there, she came glowingly alive. Playing with fluidity and grace, accompanied by Jay Leonhart on bass, she played a choice of songs that reflected a certain poignancy to do with her age.

From my long-time favourite “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” – “And when the kids grow up and leave us/We’ll sit and look at that same old view, just we two,/Darby and Joan, who used to be Jack and Jill” – followed by a brief extract from “Send in the Clowns”, she finished with the Sondheim song from Merrily We Roll Along “Old Friends”. A tribute to the enduring quality of friendship, it ends with lines taken from a great Scottish drinking toast, and I will leave you with them as this year draws to a close. A strange, embattled year it’s been, but here we still are, and as the song has it, “Here’s to us!/Who’s like us?/Damn few!”

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.

Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.