COLUMN NINETY-SIX, SEPTEMBER 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
YORK, NEW YORK!
SECRETS OF A MYSTERY ISLAND REVEALED!---
BY A FORMER INHABITANT
first glimpse across the water?from Brooklyn or New Jersey?New York looks
like a mirage. Massive skyscrapers
packed together so densely their combined mass must approach the weight of the
moon, and yet it all seems to float on a wafer-thin raft of land. A futuristic metropolis, perhaps, or a mythical place like
Xanadu or the Tower of Babel. And
yet as soon as you set foot in Manhattan you know there is no more materialistic
place on earth: a brutal concrete and steel labyrinth built on bedrock and cold
cash. But then night falls
and you are surging down Broadway in a crowd, bathed in the dazzling neon of
Times Square, or strolling down Fifth Avenue past the lighted Ali Baba shop
windows, or walking through Central Park in the spring under a blizzard of
cherry blossoms?and it has become a dream city again.
all its bravura and resiliency in the face 9/11, the terrorist attacks have left
the city a wounded giant. New
York's sense of invulnerability shattered along with the Twin Towers, and the
gaping crater at the end of the island a constant reminder that New York has
become a world city in a darker sense. But
will this spell doom and decline for the once greatest city on earth? Aw, c?mon, this is New York City we're tawkin? about.
New York is Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca,
Bruce Willis in Die Hard"a tough guy
with soft heart who's not gonna roll over and play dead just because a bunch
of kamikaze Arabs crashed into the World Trade Center.
The very opposite, my friend.
can't stop New York. And, let's
be honest, it was?and still is'the center of the universe.
If you want to make a coup de th?'tre,
write the great American novel (and get it published!), make the Top Ten with a
bullet, create a work of art that will make others wonder what art is, or just
have the wildest time you'll ever have on this planet, you've gotta come to
blessing for the beleaguered city is that in the three years since 9/11 it has
been viewed more benignly than it ever was in the last hundred and fifty years.
For most of its history New York has been regarded with panic, envy, and
loathing by outsiders. But this is
because New York?poor thing!?has always been misunderstood by the rest of
the world. It's a looking-glass
city. It's not just that the
Bronx is up and the Battery's down; practically everything about New York is
contrary. If you don't get that,
you've got it all wrong.
begin with you have to understand New York as a kind of magical site that, like
most occult places, disguises itself under its very opposite: uncaring masses,
rudeness, haste, grime, crime, indifference.
joke is that these are the very things New Yorkers miss most when they leave the
city: humidity, noise, the crowds?even the sirens.
The police sirens that alarm tourists are the city's alto sax solos,
its neon-lit song, rising above the rhythmic honking, the staccato of
jackhammers and the infernal grinding of garbage trucks.
If you believe this is an exaggeration, think of it the next time you
listen to Rhapsody in Blue.
It's a symphony of New York noise?its rush and sweep, the
intoxicating, disorienting, vertigo-inducing delirium of the city's raw
energy'the horns are car horns, the flash and roar of traffic transmuted into
a lullaby of Broadway.
art out of a dismal environment is one of the city's specialties.
The New York subway is the grungiest in the world (because the first to
be built), a brutalist warren of raw concrete and flaking I-beams, but even
those grim stations (now slowly being gussied up) have been transformed into
spontaneous galleries of exuberant art by hip-hop artists tattooing trains and
tiles with leaping-off-the-wall graphics.
came out of the boroughs, making flinty poetry out of the grim projects and
crack-infested corners. Punk was
invented at CBGBs on the Bowery, amongst the broken bottles and bums.
adept must learn not only to surmount the negatives of New York, he must?if he
wishes to survive?learn to embrace them.
All the things tourists complain about, natives find addictive: the
frenetic energy, the scale, the contrast, the tension, the crowds, the
hustle?even the lack of concern?are what the New Yorker misses most when he
leaves the city. It is one of the
odd truths about the city that almost any criticism an outsider levels at New
York can be turned on its head by the native New Yorker.
the ugliness, the filth?what filth? The
New Yorker lives in his own bubble. He
is far too beset with his own obsessions of the moment to worry about that
discarded coffee cup in the gutter. Rudeness?
C?mon, that's just New York style, as Mark Twain jotted in his
notebook in 1885: "All men in New York insult you'there seem to be no
exceptions. There are exceptions of course?have been?but they are probably
Yorkers don't pander to you'they think of it as a form of sincerity.
Hey, buddy, at the center of the cyclone, there's no time for decorum.
The impersonality of the place?
Those vast faceless uncaring crowds, that feeling of utter
insignificance, being lost among millions who neither know you nor care.
The average subway straphanger is likely to respond to this
self-indulgent pap with a brisk: "Get a grip!" After all, this deluded
nonsense is a basic misunderstanding of how New York works.
Anonymity is a sacred value for New Yorkers, most of whom left their
small towns specifically to escape the so-called caring censure of their prying,
tut-tutting, busybodyish neighbors.
Alright, you may say, but answer me this: what about the fear factor, the ever-present menace, the muggings, the violence? How can you possibly find anything positive about this? But New
'...more freaks, eccentrics, weirdoes, and geniuses per square foot in New York than anywhere. . .'
like people who build their houses in the path of tornadoes, can even make a
case for that. "I like it here in New York," says John Cale, formerly of the
Velvet Underground. "I like the
idea of having to keep eyes in the back of my head all the time."
you don't visit New York to see what you could find at home, you come to see
something radically different?and you will.
There are more freaks, eccentrics, weirdoes, and geniuses per square foot
in New York than anywhere else in the world.
It's a city of florid fantasies. New
York cultivates them; it has a boundless tolerance for eccentricity. You can
become whatever you want'the more outrageous the better. The composer Moondog (he wrote Janis Joplin's Blindman
among other things) took up his stand daily on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 56th
Street in full Viking regalia, including an operatic spear.
Warhol'the oddest great painter in a long line of oddities of art?was the
quintessential New York artist. New
York embraced him. Cops,
cabdrivers, and doormen called him by his first name.
If New Yorkers had ever voted for an artist laureate it would have been
Andy. A painter as outlandish as a Looney Toons character, he
claimed "art was what you could get away with."
No one in their right mind
moves to New York to lead a tranquil life among courteous and considerate
people. You come to New York to
transform yourself?and you've come to the right place.
Like the archaic torso in Rilke's poem, everything about New York tells
you "You must change!? All the
certainties you had about life evaporate in its ferocious centrifuge.
It may seem like tough love, but there is nowhere on earth you can go
that will tell you who you are with more stringency than New York. Emerson, who
otherwise had nothing good to say about New York (a sucked orange, he called
it), at least got this point: "Cities give us collision. 'tis said, New York
takes the nonsense out of a man." New York is Existentialism in action.
You go there to find out who you are.
It dismantles you, sands away the dross, reassembles and refines you.
A process that, naturally, creates as many monsters as it does saints,
but so be it! says the New Yorker. At least you know.
If the valedictorian who won the music scholarship at Mamaroneck High
ends up a key-pounding Dracula in a smoky bar?hey, that's destiny, man.
The city's primary social
function is as a metamorphosis engine, and, as in the nightclub conjured up by
William Burroughs, the price of admission is mutation.
New York is the place you come to be more yourself than you could be
anywhere else. It's a pressure
cooker. Under the extreme conditions of the city the superfluous falls away, the
molecules condense, the brittle shell cracks and what is left is you, the core
you, the you you.
If, when you get to the bottom of it, you don't care for what you find
" start again!
New York's mantra is
re-invent yourself! There's no
limit to the selves you can create. Take the case of Madonna Louise Veronica
Ciccione. A dorky kid with $37 in her purse moves from the Detroit burbs to New
York City 1977 with the express purpose of becoming Madonna. She morphs into
East Village hipster absorbing the style and outrage of the Downtown scene and
becomes the punk Alice in Wonderland character she will play in the title role
of Desperately Seeking Susan.
"Hey, I'm a sponge," she says of her voracious appetite for new
personas. "I soak up everything and
turn myself into it." And she isn't kidding.
Her career became a series of ingenious self-transformations that
uncannily intuit the public's next craving.
Richard Meyers comes here
from Kentucky to transform himself into Richard Hell and invent Punk as we know
it'spiky hair, safety pins, nihilist anthems (Blank Generation) and
torn t-shirts with "PLEASE KILL ME? scrawled on them. Shelton Lee from
Atlanta, Georgia, turned into Spike Lee in New York. Robert Allen Zimmerman came
from a little Minnesota town to become Bob Dylan, the voice of his
generation?along the way making up a fantastic past for himself; stories about
ramblin? and hangin? out with Indians and sleepin? under bridges and
taggin? along with old blues singers to learn the blues?all that wonderful,
picturesque make-believe autobiography?inspired by being in New York where you
can be anybody you darn well please.
People come to New York to
forge their 'real? selves, the person they were meant to be?once they
escaped their families and hometowns. "Every
person on the streets of New York is a type," said Jerry Rubin, as he and his
fellow conspirator, Abbie Hoffman turned the city into street theater. "New
York is one big stage where everyone is on display." When you appear in this charged space you must perform or
Walt Whitman, the supreme
poet of the city, was so besotted with New York he wanted to make love to it,
fuse with it in an eternal embrace: 'the beautiful city, the city of sparkling
waters! The city of spires and masts!/ The City nested in bays!
My city!/The city of such women, I as mad with them! I will return after
death to be with them!" Inspired by Whitman's raptures, the novelist Thomas
Wolfe, came to New York from Asheville, North Carolina.
'the city flashed before me like a glorious jewel," wrote Wolfe,
"blazing with the thousand rich and brilliant facets of a life so good, so
bountiful, so strangely and constantly beautiful and interesting that it seemed
intolerable that I should miss a moment of it."
reading that in Lowell, Mass., said to himself, 'the only thing to do is go?
and follow in the footsteps of his idol, Thomas Wolfe. And he did, and became
Jack Kerouac king of the Beats, and, from the moment of his arrival saw New York
as a wide-screen movie, swimming through the city like the eye of an ecstatic
camera. The neon signs in Times
Square were, "a blazing daytime in themselves, a magical universe of lights
sparkling and throbbing with the intensity of a flash explosion."?
Kerouac saw the tenements of Paradise Alley as a symbol of the
overflowing too-muchness of New York.
They were 'something
straight out of Dostoevski's Petersburg slums," he wrote in The
Subterraneans, 'the wash hung
out in the afternoon the great symphony of Italian mothers, children, fathers
BeFinneganing and yelling from stepladders, smells, cats mewing, Mexicans, the
music from all the radios whether bolero of Mexican or Italian tenor of
spaghetti-eaters or loud suddenly turned up symphonies of Vivaldi harpsichord
intellectuals performances boom blam the tremendous sound of it which I then
came to hear all summer wrapt in the arms of my love"."
city's seductive charms were enough to make the punctilious E. B. White, the
classic New Yorker writer, quite
giddy: 'the siren south is well enough, but New York, at the beginning of
March, is a hoyden we would not care to miss?a drafty wench, her temperature
up and down, full of bold promises and dust in the eye."
Ever since Baudelaire,
poets have been as much in love with cities as they once were with windswept
moors and picturesque ravines, but few have matched New York's bards in their
eulogies, from Whitman's cosmic visions to Hart Crane's epic to the Brooklyn
Bridge to e.e. cummings's delight in a snowstorm in Washington Square park to
Ginsberg's Blakean epiphanies to Frank O?Hara's lyrical evocations of
meandering about the city: "Often
this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon
[O?Hara writes of himself] has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty
or forty lines of ruminations, or pondering more deeply has withdrawn to a
darkened ware- or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the
eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth, while never forgetting to eat
Lunch his favorite meal."
Pop songs spilling out of
the Brill Building, New York's inspired Tin Pan Alley, are different sorts of
poems, little hymns to New York: the
Drifters? Under the Boardwalk and Up On the Rooftop, Wilson
Pickett's Funky Broadway, John Sebastian's Summer in the City,
and Paul Simon's The 59th
Street Bridge Song. Even the darker sonnets like Hendrix's Crosstown
Traffic, The Pogues? Fairytale of New York, or Dylan's Positively
4th Street have become indelibly imprinted on our internal
Catching the iridescence of squalor (what the French call nostalgie de la boue) has always been a specialty of city writers. William Burroughs? junkies traverse the subterranean city like hungry
is by nature
a city of jazz. . .'
ghosts, the best minds of
Allen Ginsberg's generation "destroyed by madness, drag themselves through
the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix," while Lou Reed, New
York's own Prince of Darkness, savors the perversity and doom of the lower
depths as if it were cotton candy.
New York is by nature a
city of jazz, because jazz best expresses the city's multiphrenic personality.
Bebop saints Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Thelonius
Monk, Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis gave birth to the cool in the New York
night. New Yorkers even talk in a
jazz patois, a street polyphony of overlapping dialogue (elsewhere known as not
letting the other person finish). The
skyline itself has been compared to bebop improvisation.
"In jazz each player goes his own way," John Kouwenhoven wrote in The Beer Can by the Highway, "inventing rhythmic and melodic
patterns which, superficially, seem to have as little relevance to one another
as the United Nations building does to the Empire State. And yet the outcome is
a dazzlingly precise creative unity."
In the fifties this gotham
counterpoint became the lingua franca of New York art?from Jackson
Pollock's swirling drips to Kerouac's spontaneous prose to the
octave-leaping language of bebop?as if the city itself were speaking in
tongues, and its inhabitants, hooked into some giant electrical circuit, lived
in a future space where language, gesture, customs obeyed new laws of physics.
To live in New York you
have to reboot yourself. You even
have to learn how to walk all over again?or get trampled. The clip, the pace, the momentum of the street is frantic.
The way New Yorkers walk down the street is like an army marching in
double-time. Certain avenues are to be avoided if one wants to dodge collisions
with visiting pedestrians who haven't mastered the New York City stride. Fifth
Avenue can be especially treacherous and inconvenient to the native because of
the odd strolling and gawking habits of visitors. Tourists!
Watch your step! they say to themselves.
Citizens, be on the alert, there's people actually looking up!
In the wake of 9/11
something unexpected happened: the denizens of the formerly cynical and famously
indifferent city realized they urgently needed one another.
And since that time a new sense of camaraderie has developed'the way
Londoners came together in the blitz or Berliners in the rubble after WWII.
Previously New Yorkers had felt they were too sophisticated and their
city too big to indulge in the civic solidarity that small towns pride
themselves on. But New York is
actually a collection of small towns, it's a city of neighborhoods, and people
began from the moment of impact to become aware of their neighbors, to become dependent
on them. The attacks have created a
new responsiveness to the connections New Yorkers have to one another.
People actually began to talk to each other?not face to face at first,
that would be too much to ask?but on the Internet, through community sites
like intracommunities.com, downtownlives.com, and appleseednyc.com.
Even those who absolutely
abominate New York, end up begrudgingly?or inadvertently'singing its
praises. They just can't help
themselves?it's a living, breathing superlative. It flabbergasts, makes you
speechless. You can't put it into words (although it has never stopped anyone
from trying). 'the glamour of it
all! New York!
America!" Charlie Chaplin exulted on the wonders of being in Manhattan
in his movie, A King in New York.
Just thinking about it drove Salvador Dali into an ancient delirium:
"New York, you are an Egypt! But an Egypt turned inside out. For she erected
pyramids of slavery to death, and you erect pyramids of democracy with the
vertical organ-pipes of your skyscrapers all meeting at the point of infinity of
"New York is what Paris
was in the twenties," as John Lennon once said.
'the center of the art world. And we want to be in the center. It's
the greatest place on earth.... I've got a lot of friends here and I even
brought my own cash."
It's 'the Big Apple,?
(that chafing phrase drilled itself into our heads), a world city, the planet in
parvo, the center of the universe, the omphalos
(bellybutton) of the world. 34th
Street and 14th Street are international souks with muchachos
selling plastic sandals from Taiwan, turbaned Hindus hustling black velvet
paintings of dogs playing billiards, Hassids haggling over knock-off Rolexes,
and young women in pink saris beckoning you into their shops with
preposterous promises of haute-couture labels, as if here on filthy,
funky 14th street there were some magic portal to the great fashion
houses of Paris. Arabs, Ethiopians,
Ugandans'trading, bickering, bargaining.
There are even plaid-pelted Canadians selling day-glo Christmas trees in
And because it's the biggest, the baddest, the wildest, and the mostest, you've gotta be there or be square. Actors don't get taken seriously until they've performed on Broadway or Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway. Even the great ones?Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe?come to New York to get their chops. Natives like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Woody Allen have become walking, talking, spritzing incarnations of New York.
"Everything in New York seems more real," says Gwyneth Paltrow, "because in New York everything happens in real time." There's the sensation of urgency about any activity in New York, as if time were somehow contracting or the world about to end. An eternal howling NOW, a hectic climate familiar from scenes of volcanic disasters. A crisis unmasks everyone, and New York is a city in state of permanent emergency, a continually erupting volcano. Lulls are considered ominous and unnatural. "When the typewriter [an ancient keyboard device] stops in a New York office," John Dos Passos wrote over 50 years ago, "everybody's embarrassed; men start to quarrel or to make love to the stenographer or drop lighted cigarettes in the wastebasket."
There's the sense that if
New York ever stopped it might affect the rotation of the earth, hemlines in
Paris or the price of blowfish in Indonesia.
Like Bob Dylan said, in the "60s, "You didn't ever want to go to
sleep because you might miss something."
Even back in the mid-nineteenth century New York had the reputation of
the city that never sleeps. "Compulsivity
may overtake you so you stay up all night drinking, talking and making the most
out of it," Mark Twain wrote in 1867. "Like
the early pioneers who went west, you sort of want to see what is out there. You
want to meet up with strange and unusual like-minded travelers of the night.
That seems to be the easy part. Someone is there every time you turn around. New
York never wakes up because it never went to sleep. Instead each morning you
sort of join the program already in progress."
New York's skyscrapers
are emblems of its vertical ambitions as they push and shove upward in a lunge
of hubris, greed, and capitalist narcissism. But in the process something
strange and beautiful happens: out of this clamoring forest of expensive office
space emerges a transcendent sense of space that has affinities with the
spiritual yearning of gothic cathedrals. Their
stepped-back profiles may have been the unintended consequence of the 1916
zoning laws, but New York's classic skyscrapers are monuments of supreme grace
and elegance: that art deco diva, the Chrysler building; the sleek moderne
Empire State Building, a cool aristocrat of skyscrapers; the anorexic Flatiron
building. The svelte Lever and
Seagram buildings are throwing a chic International Style cocktail party on Park
Avenue while the Guggenheim Museum holds a s?ance to art in its inverted
Resentment boils up in the
outsider as he endures the New Yorker's insolent litany of superlatives:
"Not just the place to be, it's the only
place to be." "Outside of New York everywhere is Podunk." The arrogance of
the New Yorker inflames you. But
it's not just "we're the biggest
and best," not just naked competitiveness?well, not only
competitiveness?it's because city dwellers think of Manhattan as a
supernatural place. Not the hallowed city on the hill of the Pilgrims perhaps,
but still a city with its own numinous sense of place.
Perverse, ingenious, delighting in everything new, ruthlessly
indiscriminate?an island bound by two rivers, its fish-shaped land carved out
by some sly mercurial god to be his eternal abode.
New York makes sense only
as an evolutionary mechanism, a transporter system for the daily absorbing and
nightly redeploying of ideas, images, money, merchandise, sex, intelligence,
chutzpah, and flash, using its own haywire energy as its turbine.
It's a whirling dervish of a city, and one gets the feeling that if it
weren't held down by its graph-paper street grid, New York's centripetal
force might simply spin it off into the Atlantic Ocean.
But the true meaning of
Ground Zero is that New York has to begin all over again. The city famous for
transforming others has to transform itself.
The great colossus knows it must reinvent itself but is in somewhat of a
quandary how to accomplish this.
As brutal and monumental as it may seem to the casual tourist, New York was always an imaginary place, the vision of a great world city. It's a work in progress. Like the old New York saying, "It'll be a great place when they finish it." And now, more than ever New York needs dreamers who, like Alice, can entertain ten impossible things before breakfast, and believe in them fiercely enough to be able to rebuild the polycephalic dream of New York. Because that rose in Ben E. King's Spanish Harlem "growing in the street right up through the concrete, but soft and sweet and dreamin?? is the very essence of New York spirit. ##
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