Sunday, 22 April 2012

Star-spangled Banter II - Sea, Caucus and Cow Carcass

I had a moment of triumph on my first night in America when I met two girls from New Jersey. I told them that I would be spending the remainder of the week in their state: “in a place called ‘Seacaucus’”, I said, separating the ‘sea’ from the ‘caucus’. “Oh, you mean ‘Seacaucus’” they said, putting weight on the ‘cauc’ but turning the sea into a ‘suh’. I did not mean that, actually, and was vindicated when Tak Tak - the gentleman so kind as to give me a place to sleep and a native of the town in contention - divided the sea and the caucus too. I felt, through this little victory, a stronger connection to the place.

You take a bus from a grotty little stop underneath Times Square (‘Port Authority’ bus station - though I don’t think it’s very near a port, and I would have thought that the people who administer the ports of New York probably work near the ports of New York), and it takes around twenty minutes to get to Seacaucus: it’s essentially countryside after the centre of Manhattan.

What’s striking, though, is that it is so close to Manhattan: it’s on a hill overlooking the NYC skyline (you can see the Empire State Building from almost any position), except you’re in a different state and there’s grass everywhere. This highlights the weird urban geography of the Big Apple: go that distance from the centre of London and you’ll be in, well, the centre of London. New York, however, extends east and doesn’t deign to dwell on the western shore of the Hudson. NY, NY only.

Despite its proximity to mania, Seacaucus feels very small town-y. You live in a wooden house that is painted a light colour. You have a lawn and you take your dog for a walk. They have a Starbucks, a pharmacy and a place to dunk one’s doughnuts, as it were. Apart from that, you have to get in a car and “hang out at the mall” as Americans do (NJ has no VAT on clothing so I managed to get some lovely, sturdy walking boots for less than thirty pounds!).

I stayed with Tak Tak, his Dad and his dog (Jackie-chan), the yelpiest little dog in the world (possibly). To no-one’s displeasure, Tak-Tak’s Dad took the presence of a guest as an excuse to gorge on red meat, so we went to a fantabulous Asian barbecue place called ‘Gyu-kaku’ (you can take the boy out of Japan) for some yaki-niku. I had left Seoul a handful of days earlier, so this was a welcome continuation of the meat binge I had started in Korea.

Japanese people often express naïve surprise that I “can” eat Japanese food. When they ask me how it is possible that I, as a westerner, “can” eat raw fish and grilled meat (of all the things in the world) I reply that I love Asian food because it is interactive (NB – this is an excellent way of wasting time in an English lesson: explain what ‘inter’ means, explain what ‘active’ means and get them to work out what interactive might mean (they’ll rarely have the balls to make a guess, though)). I love food that involves a bit of fannying about: put this sauce on here, sizzle this like that, put this in that, wrap it up and then ram it in your gob, &c. None of the boring, western, “here’s one plate with your – and only your – food; now shove it down your neck and get out” for me, thank you. This Gyu-kaku place has adopted, to some extent, the Asian way: the DIY way. It has been said that the USA is the land of tortious liability and so the experience of restaurant DIYBBQ is somewhat different on the other side of the Pacific, where the waiter does most of the setting up for you and instructs you on how long to cook the meat for (“please, [insert name – American waiters always seem to want to tell you their names], I’ve done this before, yeah?”, I want to say). In Korea, some gruff little old lady as good as slams the white hot coals on your lap and you had better be grateful, and eat the kimchee you have before asking for more. “You enjoy your meal now”. “Thanks, I will”.

In the few days I spent in Seacaucus, we did a surprising amount of driving and drank an unsurprising amount of coffee. I’m very grateful to all of the Nagayoshis (especially Jackie-chan) for their hospitality!
It was thence that we drove to DC! 

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