Ms Baker, my love...

Trip Start Aug 30, 2012
Trip End Oct 19, 2012

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Flag of United States  , New York
Tuesday, September 11, 2012



        I’ll warn y’all in advance that this one’s a long one. But it’s worth it.

As I mentioned, I have a growing affection for the big apple, and a significant part of that is due to a lady I’ve never met. This lady has been dead many years. Her life story is a tangled web of myths and lies - many of which she planted herself. This mysterious lady’s name is Ms Josephine Baker.

Before hearing even a whisper of her name, though, I spend a couple of carefree days in the big apple. I’ve done the city a few times now so I don’t feel any pressure to race around doing the touristy stuff… it’s pretty pure relaxation. As my Julia says: “nothing to do, nowhere to be”. Bliss.

My friend and one time neighbour Jono has recently moved to NYC with his lady Celia, and it’s nice to do some make-you-all-back-home-very-jealous activities together like catch up over brunch on the lower East side, stroll the highline park, jog central park, discover Chelsea Market, sip Sangria in the meatpacking district and discover that Shake Shack really DOES live up to the hype.

On my own, I also manage to hit some tourist spots I’ve missed on previous visits (like Chinatown for amazing soup dumplings and the Museum of Natural History) and do some less-touristy things like jog the Hudson riverline at sunset (getting carried away and doing 8km, eep!), discover an amazing local restaurant called ‘Tortilla Flats’ (where they do trivia in an unconventional way… shout out the correct answer and get a free tequila shot), and stroll some vintage stores (Starstruck Vintage I love you). I’m 85% sure I strolled past Jake Gyllenhaal at one point.    

        On my last night in NYC however, I’m feeling lonely. I’ve been traveling solo for over a week now (albeit with intermittent company both new and old), and I feel like making friends tonight. So… although I’ve been avoiding it, I head up to Times Square where I hit the TKTS booth to see what’s what (don‘t ever pay full price for tickets in NYC unless there‘s something you have your heart set on that‘s popular). After a short discussion with one of the theatre students loitering nearby, I settle on a 30% discount for a 4th row seat at ‘Newsical the Musical’, buy myself a new frock to take myself out on the town in, and jet home to freshen up.

Arriving back uptown at theatre row an hour early, there’s time for dinner. I settle on a place nearby called ‘Chez Josephine’ which doesn’t look like much from the front but on entering I am welcomed with opened arms. It’s decadent in there. It’s a piano bar as well as a restaurant and there are rich colours, chandeliers and vast expanses of paraphernalia featuring a lady named Josephine, who’s obviously some kind of performer.

“And now you must have Martinis!” the manager, Manuel, exclaims. “We’re open til Midnight, so there’s no rush. You stay.” Unfortunately I do have to make the show, but I manage to squeeze in a 3 course meal (decadent, I know), make friends with the wait staff, meet the owner Jean-Claude and promise to come back afterward.

A promise I almost didn’t keep. I’m exhausted, and although the musical is wicked funny and very clever (also guest-starring Perez Hilton but that doesn’t detract from it one bit) and lifts my spirits a little, I’m considering going home to bed.

I hover on the street for a minute. It’s late, I’m tired and I’m not sure I have the energy to put on a friendly face alone at the bar. F*ck it. Let’s do this. Josephine has lured me back into her arms and I’m welcomed enthusiastically and propped up at the bar for drinks.

The barman, Evan, is a tall good looking young man who’s very ‘New York’ (read: cranky). If you’ve read previous travel blogs of mine you may recall a particularly funny story named ‘JT’s last dance’ about a cranky San Franciscan barman my friend and I won over… who got himself fired, tapdanced out of the bar and took us to karaoke. It seems I do alright at winning over cranky barmen… and it seems once you’ve won a barman over they love to do free shots of Jameson with you. And your night gets turned upside down.

But let’s leave the restaurant’s supporting characters aside for a minute. Back to its star. This Ms Baker. The restaurant is named for her. It’s a shrine to her. She’s intriguing. Intoxicating. Josephine Baker was an American born French dancer, known as the "Bronze Venus", the "Black Pearl", and the "Créole Goddess". Ernest Hemmingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” She was a passionate civil rights activist. She acted as a spy for her adopted country, France, during the second world war. The restaurant’s owner Jean-Claude was her adopted son.

Jean-Claude is French but like an old-time Angelina Jolie, Josephine wanted to adopt a ‘rainbow tribe’ of children. Jean-Claude is one of 12 adopted by her. He’s written a book about her which sits behind the bar and I’m allowed to have a little read between drinks.

The book chronicles Jean-Claude’s efforts to uncover the true life story of this mysterious lady. His “search for the truth of her fractious life”. There are many accounts of Josephine Baker‘s life, many myths planted by the lady herself, and as Jean-Claude writes: “because I loved her, hated her and wanted desperately to understand her I read them all. And they made me crazy. It’s hard to read a life of anyone you’ve known and be entirely satisfied with the account. You recognise too many half truths. You find too little illumination”.

I’m intrigued, as I always am by stories of a search for identity. I think it’s partly to do with my background and how I don’t fit the stereotype of a typical ‘Aussie’ (being very well educated, part Asian and well… female). For a long time, I didn’t truly feel ‘Australian’… and as it turns out I find a kindred spirit in Evan, also once a literature major, who feels similarly about his own identity.

Drawn in by Josephine’s story, Manuel’s hospitality and Evan’s drinks, I stay. She’s got a hold of me. She has a hold of so many… wait staff who are off-shift drift in and out to visit those who are working tonight... Joe the off-duty piano player stops by… It’s obviously a place the staff feel like family and reminds me of working for the Yota family during my university days. Regulars come and go for drinks and late night snacks. Drag queens, stunning transgender ladies dressed to the nines, and two big-haired performers from a nearby burlesque show. The bar closes and only the staff and some regulars kick on. Manuel and Evan gesture at me - “she can stay”.

The night becomes a heady, magnificent blur. Drinks keep coming, and then a cheese plate for me to ‘help soak up the alcohol’, followed by more drinks. I try to pay for my many beverages and the cheese, but my wallet is waved away. I try to buy Jean-Claude’s book but it is gifted to me. A man comes in asking for directions to Toronto. I meet Cyndi Lauper.

I try 3 times to slip away into the night, and 3 times Evan catches me and talks me into staying. It’s way too late, and there’s only myself, Manuel, Frank, Evan and one other (I wish I could remember his name) remaining. We leave. There’s walking. There’s delicious NYC pizza thrust at me. The boys keep bringing me water and the next thing I remember we’re at a Mexican dance club.

Frank, Manuel and ‘the other’ all spin me around the dance floor for a couple of songs while Evan is accosted (read: borderline disco-r*ped) by a very enthusiastic blonde girl. Observing her writhing and grinding and backing it up and carrying on like a pork chop for a little while I can’t help but erupt into giggles exclaiming “that’s not a dance move, that’s a DOCKING MANUEVER” …. “THIS is a dance move!” … breaking straight into bandit’s ‘milking the roof’ a-la Swenny‘s bachelorette party. I think my sweet grooves won everybody over. And were too much for ole blondie there, who we don’t see again.

Eventually, the music stops. The lights come on. It’s 4am and I feel a long way from the safe leafy streets of the Village. Evan’s been looking out for me all night long though, not letting me come to any harm. Like the gentleman he is, although he lives all the way up in the Bronx, he makes sure I get home safely.

I can’t promise I’ll cross the stoop of Chez Josephine ever again. Nor will I stay in touch with these people. It would never be the same. They were family for a night but knowing too much would only sully the memory of a crazy, incredible evening in the city that never sleeps. A night I sometimes can’t quite believe happened. A night I feel lady Josephine would approve of.

Happiness is being welcomed like family, late night pizza you can barely remember, and a safe shoulder to rest on for the long cab journey home.

Cheers to you, lady Baker.

Your B. xx
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Milly on

By far my favourite post thus far. Love reading of your adventures, wishing I was sharing in them. Ms Baker's birth name, banana dance and colourful story inspiring Freida in more than name, this is one adventure I am truly envious of. Miss you loads x

Kristy on

Woowww, Sounds like the most random experience ever! Loving the posts...and sooooo jealous you seen Dr House, have a huge old man crush on him.
miss ya xox

Kaska on

Hey Erica, It sounds like you had a great night out! What a way to remember NYC. It sounds like you will have a new pic or two to add to your desk back here at work (you remember work right!?)
Well keep on enjoying your trip, cant wait to see you when you get back :)

sparkeflies on

Ms Baker was just what the doctor ordered. I miss you all too - see you for big hugs when I'm home. xx

Priscilla on

Sounds like a perfect NYC night

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