Are you an alcoholic?” asked Conan O’Brien on his late-night talk show. “That’s not a very welcoming question,” I observed. “It’s just that you seem to drink all day,” he countered. Not exactly Wilde, but O’Brien packs a punchy wit. He once produced and co-wrote The Simpsons.No, I’m not an alcoholic. I won’t even joke about that affliction. Perhaps I waive one addiction in favour of another. I am a workaholic. “Addictive personality,” explains Freckles, the psychotherapist in my life.Being a workaholic, I find vacations very stressful. Fight or flight? I flee, and hide in midtown Manhattan. This is where I go for quiet time. Freckles knows where to find me: “West 44th Street, between 5th and 6th.” A request like that makes sense to a New York cabbie. He may have arrived on the same plane as you. It is pointless saying, without avenues and cross-street, ‘Algonquin’, however famous that hotel is.Dorothy Parker spent her most extravagant days of whisky and wit here. Today, the rooms are named after Parker’s contemporaries. The odd literatum may stop for a drink, but the wit is not cutting edge. Never mind. I do not come here to be sharpened. I come for unfussy comfort. I begin the soothing process by having a Tallulah. This is Knob Creek Bourbon, with a dash of Averna bitters, served like a Martini. A good pre-dinner drink. The dinner is no gastronomic event, but the Algonquin has cabaret. This week, instead of the late Tallulah Bankhead, we have Dave Frishberg, a jazz pianist who writes very tart lyrics. I spot Scottish jazz-singer Annie Ross in the audience. We once got drunk together in Copenhagen, but she wouldn’t remember me now.Next morning I note that Frishberg is a devotee of the Red Flame, the diner where Freckles and I have breakfast.
A big, fat man in a yarmulke eats French toast while reading a professional newspaper for lawyers. A young woman in a power suit talks earnestly with a bag lady while picking over a fruit salad. An Italian-American with a Jersey accent is arguing about tomatoes with the owner, who is of Greek origin. A couple of cops, one Hispanic the other black, squeeze into a booth. Then a man in a Native American feather headdress enters. I note the style is Cree, which is related to Algonquin. He also wears Scottish formal dress, including a kilt in the Mackenzie tartan. A breeze of kilts and bagpipes swirls around the end of the counter. Someone asks the kilted newcomers where they are from. One says: “Green Bay, Wisconsin”, which sounds unlikely. Another has a cloth badge on his sleeve, announcing The Gordon Highlanders of Locust Valley, New York. “We got here four hours too early,” he confides.I hear pipes, look outside and see W44th is filling with bands. So, it turns out, are many parallel streets. There is to be a parade to mark Tartan Day and raise money for cancer research. It is hoped there will be 10,000 pipers.They are impatient; perhaps that is why they arrived prematurely. Now, all they can do is examine and adjust their pipes, like roadies before a rock concert; have a few practice swipes at their drums; stand and rehearse. The leader of one band is so intense that he seems to be eating the mouthpiece of his bagpipes. The band has formed a circle, and the big, hefty man opposite is holding a huge pretzel. He must have just bought it, and has been caught unawares. He tries to hold the pretzel while also blowing into his mouthpiece. The Indianapolis Firefighters Society; Massachusetts State Police; Caledonian Pipes of Buffalo, New York; Dalkeith Pipe Band, Forfar and District Pipe band … soon they are marching up Sixth Avenue, toward Central Park. Tonight, they will be back on West 44th, drinking Scotch in a place called St Andrew’s. An April shower turns to snow, the flakes lit by the sun as they spin to the ground. People gather to watch and listen. Amazing Grace, Scotland the Brave, Scottish Soldier … a black lady finds her feet led astray by the skirling. She slides into a dance alongside the parade, then raises her arms to ‘conduct’.