Missing Ravi Coltrane

Simon Lee comes to terms with New York

Illustration by Marlon Griffith

I left Trinidad for New York early one summer Sunday morning, warnings reverberating in my head. I’d been admonished not to venture anywhere alone after midnight, cautioned not to stray into the badlands beyond 129th Street, forbidden to brave Jackson Heights even at highest noon. I ignored the nervous twitch on my friend’s face when I said I’d be staying in Harlem.

After all, I’m a big-city bwoy, born up in London town, who’s faced down gunmen from Morocco to Kingston and come through unscathed, even if I did lose my glasses twice after street negotiations turned sour in Port of Spain. I relished the challenge of my first trip to New York.

The New Jersey shore looked disappointing from the air. Somehow I was expecting the Manhattan skyline to leap up in my face, skyscrapers brushing the wings, or at least a wave from Ms Liberty. On landing at JFK I asked my Harlem buddy whether this was the main airport. The Arrivals Lounge seemed small and surprisingly low-keyed, but apart from Harlem, I guess nobody was expecting me.

After a night in the sanitised burbs of Long Island, where even the mafioso neighbour was friendly enough to extend an open invitation to his pool, I headed into the city.

Scrutinising the subway train for graffiti, I was perplexed to find none. Emerging into the mayhem of Times Square, I was shocked at how spotless ground level was. And where was all the colour — the hookers, junkies, lowlife NY was famous for? My buddy muttered something about Mayor Rudy turning town into Disney World.

By the end of my first day in the Apple I’d cruised Grand Central and Penn Stations, tackled the A train, ambled through Harlem, and hit Central Park in the dark. It had to be one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen, and the citizens were charming to a fault, from the Senegalese street vendors to the Ethiopian restaurateurs.

Not only was I in one piece, but the modest contents of my wallet were still intact. There hadn’t been the hint of a bad word, much less a mugging. It wasn’t that I felt cheated, expectations dashed. I was glad Rudy had made the mean streets safe to walk, but something was missing. Oh well, when in New York . . .

I relaxed into the multicultural flow, stepping out along Fifth Avenue head and shoulders above Mayans and Peruvians, dwarfed by Ukrainians and Lithuanians, belly to belly with Dominicans and Haitians. Polyglot sounds enchanted my ears; this might be the cleanest city, but it was also the most mixed.

Throwing all caution down the subway, I got into the big city groove, doing all those things I could only dream of in my mountain village in Trinidad: I hit the local bodega for bagels and Cuban coffee early morning. Courtesy NY friends encountered on the road over the years, now seen on home turf for the first time, I was wined and dined Italian, French, Ethiopian and Thai style, with some Russian cocktails thrown in. I spent mornings wandering through the Barnes and Noble emporium of books, acquiring an imaginary library at home. I must have filled a container full of CDs from the Times Square Virgin Superstore.

In the afternoons I’d hit the museums, transfixed by face-to-face encounters with the canvases of Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall, Manet, Duchamps, Cezanne, Delauney . . . No disappointment here. Or I’d simply drift the streets, on rainy days tracking the Empire State Building as it disappeared in the clouds.

My nights were bursting with music — jazz, soukous, rumba congolaise, timba, salsa, bossa nova. I swear one night in the forecourt of the Lincoln Center I saw Albert Einstein jiving at an open air jazz concert. I gave Albie a high five and headed for Iridium across the plaza, a bar whose sinuous Bauhaus-style decor is one man’s interpretation of jazz. Cool.

I slid onto a stool and was soon quaffing dark Porter, which I’d only read about before in James Joyce’s short stories. A flyer caught my eye advertising Ravi Coltrane (son of John, and definitely a chip off the old block), one hot saxman I’d met in St Lucia. I made a mental note (don’t miss Ravi) and returned to contemplate more Porter.

Around midnight I headed to the washroom in the basement. I took a wrong turn and there was Ravi, packing away his sax. “Yeah, hi man, how ya doin’? Jus’ finished blowin’.” I was truly transportered. I’d literally been sitting on top of Ravi for the last hour.

I felt dismayed yet vindicated. “Life is jazz,” I told myself, “and you just blew the gig.” But there was the final satisfaction of finding the key to my New York trip: missing Ravi Coltrane.