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25 December 2016

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.

By Tracey Thorn

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.

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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!”

This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016