9-26-07, 1:45 PM –
Many score and quite a long time ago, longtime subscribers to this list were told that the Letter From NYC was over. Toast. Run down the curtain and joined Graham Chapman in the choir invisible.
And it was.
But…as my plane idles on the New York tarmac, as I head home from my first visit to the Windy Apple since leaving it nearly two years ago…well, I figure what the hell. Once more for old times' sake.
Ironically, my visit this time wasn't all that different from the day I moved here in 2002. Both times, I barely had two nickels to rub suggestively against each other. And while the cause last time was simple endemic poverty, this time I had merely been stiffed by my employer, who was late with my check. The difference this time was that I had friends in town. My pals Paul & Maja were putting me up at their place in Harlem, and figured, hell, I could bum food money from them too. More on that later.
One of the wild cards about flying into LaGuardia is whether or not you’ll make your approach with Manhattan in full view. It depends on the weather, the flight traffic, and perhaps, which hand the pilot uses to steer and which to sip his Scotch. But the travel gods were in a good mood on Sunday, and I had a good view of the city that was my life for four very pivotal years, and it was a mighty fine sight. You might think that a two-year absence would make the landscape less familiar, but instead I had the same feeling of homecoming as I do when I pull up in my parents’ driveway, as though I might get off the plane and be back in my old life.
Old habits came back immediately. A couple at the baggage claim were fretting about where they could get a cab, and I directed them to the taxi line, right where it was the last time I used it. But no cab for me. Lack of cash and extra cleverness at knowing how to work the system put me on the M60 bus, which took me exactly where I needed to go for a mere $2.00.
On the bus ride, my re-immersion was complete. The M60 goes from the airport to Manhattan, but it’s also a neighborhood bus, and picks up locals on their way home from church, work, or the grocery. As I’ve mentioned before, the convention is that while conversation is relatively rare on the subway, the bus is a veritable barbershop. People who don’t seem to know each other unabashedly start up chats about the weather, debate city politics, and tell stories about daughters with A-plus averages and no-good boyfriends. The Daily News, that old crappy rag, pokes out from folded armpits, except where the Post rears its even uglier masthead. The Times is nowhere to be seen.
As we inched through Astoria, the New York sidewalk scenery clicked fully into place. Of all the things I thought I might forget about NYC, what turned out to surprise me was the dirt. While the tourist-centric sections of New York are about as clean as any other American city, the neighborhoods where the vast majority of New Yorkers live really are dirty as hell. You do get used to it over time, but after a long absence, it’s a bit shocking.
But part of the reason there’s so much dirt is that unlike most U.S. cities, people actually use the sidewalks. In car-dependent towns, trash collects in floorboards & parking lots. Your trash lives where you live, and a good portion of NYC life takes place on the street. That was particularly evident after the M60 bus crossed the bridge over the East River from Astoria into Harlem.
Harlem life is street life, and 125th Street is the cram-packed, boisterous heart of it all. The Apollo Theater still stands proudly, as do rows upon rows of shops, apartment buildings, and overhead rail lines stitching it all to the rest of the city. Filling in the few gaps in sidewalk space are DVD bootleggers, amateur jewelers, street preachers, and guys who just pulled up a chair to sit awhile. Opinions are for the sharing, often loudly, like those of the guy pounding on the hood of my bus, cursing the driver for nearly running his dumb ass over when he jaywalked out into the street from nowhere.
Finally I reached the subway station at St. Nicholas Avenue, another vital Harlem artery. The crowd poured out of the bus and took me with it, flowing down to the platform. Old habits kicked in, and I reflexively stepped back from the platform just enough as the train came in. I found myself in a temporal bubble where nothing in my life had changed in the last 21 months, where I was just hopping on the train to go see my friends, who live in the same apartment I helped move them into three years ago, when Nathan was but a blip on the sonogram screen.
Stepping out of the train at their stop, however, the length of my exile became instantly and painfully apparent.
I had to climb stairs.
There are subway stations with stairs, and then there are stations that I believe were built on top of pathways out of the local Hellmouth. The 145th Street station at St. Nick is one of these. It’s not simply that the staircases are long, it’s that the station is designed in such a way that right when you think you’ve reached the end of your climb, yet another stairway swings malevolently into view.
I had expected to be a little rusty, but the 145th Street station showed me just how pitiful my atrophied legs had become. By the time I emerged onto street level, wheezing, sweating, and clutching my chest, I looked less like I had ridden a train than that I’d escaped from a CIA interrogation room that had for some reason been hidden in the basement of a Harlem laundromat. I had to lean against the wall for several minutes to make sure that my heart was not in fact going to come thumping out through my temples, and to let the little red dots clear from in front of my eyes.
After I recovered, I made my way to Paul and Maja's, remembering to walk with the purposeful nonchalance that separates residents from tourists. By this time I was getting a bit hungry, and looking forward to mooching some grub from my friends. But while they were glad to see me, there was no mooching to be had. They, too, were stone busted, and wondering could their friend from Texas possibly make with the cash he had earlier bummed from them & promised to pay back when the damn check came. Well, fuckstick.
But I’ll tell you something. If you ever have some decent cash on you & want to feel really good about yourself, enter a room full of broke people. For that is precisely what my old friend deanpence did at that very moment, and he is now the hero of this story. For without him, we would not have been able to do a damn thing all week, much less procure sufficient amounts of alcohol & food to last into the wee hours where many great and earth-shattering philosophical discussions were duly convoked, o yea. The world’s problems? Totally solved. The solutions? Don’t ask me, I’ve got a headache.
I spent a day & a half wandering around old haunts, most of which hadn't changed much. Central Park, of course, seldom changes, and as long as there’s Central Park, there’s a discovery-of-the-corpse scene that needs to be filmed for Law & Order. Paul & I stumbled onto one such taping at my beloved Bethesda Fountain, where Ice-T was very intently inspecting a blood-stained dummy for signs of life. Jaded as we were, we didn’t hang around or take pictures. Leave celebrity fawning for the tourists.
Made a pilgrimage to Forbidden Planet, my favorite comic store, a lovely dorkfest right off Union Square. And while I enjoyed myself as always, I must say that the ever-expanding presence of manga in comic shops is beginning to freak me out. I think the U.S. should send armies of psychotherapists to Japan to help men deal with their little girl sex issues. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just pretend that last bit was in Klingon. Gaarrr-dahk…
I have to say that as fun as this trip was, it really didn’t contain any profound moments of insight. The things I like about New York are the same, as are its properties I’m less fond of. It did help to solidify my conviction that NYC had reached the end of its usefulness to me, creatively and logistically. When enjoying my favorite things in the city, there were of course those pangs of longing, the wish that I could do them more often. But my musical activity, i.e. the bulk of my soul, has so many more allies and so much more opportunity now in Texas. Moving back to a cramped NYC apartment and fighting the dour hipster legions all over town just doesn’t bear thinking about. And that’s completely leaving aside the childrearing considerations, which are many.
I discovered an interesting statistic recently. According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, two-thirds of all Americans will live in the southern and western United States by 2030, with 30 percent in just three states - California, Florida, & Texas. Based on data from the International Monetary Fund, Texas is the 10th largest economy in the world with a gross state product of nearly $1 trillion and has one of the highest population growth rates in the country. That seems to reflect my experience of bumping into so many new transplants in Dallas from up Yankee way, or from overseas. New York, while still a powerhouse, may be less and less the center of the universe in the coming decades. My present city of residence seems to be growing a much faster rate than it was a few years ago, bringing in diverse tastes and lifestyles. Who knows, by the time Nathan’s grown, Dallas’ own ever-growing dour hipster legions may have taken over, and I'll have to move again.
However, New York is still New York, and there are things about it that can never exist in any other city. I do hold out hope that in my dotage, I can spend a couple of months each year subletting an apartment in some decent neighborhood and get filled up with the city’s energy. I think it’s definitely one of those things I need to stay connected to, even if I don’t live there. There is still nowhere like it, and I’m privileged that my relationship with it is one of intimacy born of shared experience.
You know, in all of this I’ve forgotten to mention the reason I was there at all. My fellow prog-dork Paul was so kind as to offer me tickets to the Genesis reunion show at Madison Square Garden, an invitation I greedily accepted with much snorting, D&D dice-rolling, and taping up of my glasses.
The thing about Genesis is that they really have two separate audiences. There are aging soccer moms with adolescent memories of rocking to Invisible Touch, who may not be aware that Sussudio is in fact a Phil Collins solo track, and then there are people for whom swirling polyrhythmic instrumentals and faerie lyrics are the closest thing to getting a blowjob from Princess Leia. And while I’m not usually one to paint along gender lines, at a Genesis show it’s usually girls vs. boys. Faced with this daunting state of affairs, Phil, Tony, Mike & Co. did a mighty fine job of keeping both camps leaping about and not scratching their heads too much. I am in the highly unusual position of enjoying the band’s output from both ends of the spectrum, so for me the show was perfect. Go ahead, deduct my rock-n-roll cred points, but if someone’s career is so far-reaching as to bring together Kathie Lee and Comic Book Guy, they get my respect.
6:30 PM –
Downtown Dallas, waitin’ for my third train of the day. By day’s end, I will have been on 3 trains, 1 plane, and 4 buses. And very soon, one blessed bed. Traveling is hard work, yo. Seeing two cities in one day is very cool, actually. Especially when you realize that as big as they are, they are only a fraction of the number of major cities in the U.S. alone. The world is a damned big place, and I ain’t seen the half of it. It would seem that despite the world being as connected as it is, there is still room for wonder and surprise. Particularly in the tiny places, the blocks between the well-trafficked paths. You still never know what you’ll find when you open a strange door on a strange street. My creative mission at the moment involves finding tiny places, strange doors, and untrafficked paths, the ones that make all the difference, as the old poet said. As cliché as it may be, those discoveries really do happen in the most ordinary places. Good to see you, New York. You too, Dallas. We should hang out more often.
As for the Letter From NYC, I once again lay it down to rest, though I can’t be held responsible if one day it decides to rise again. If anyone gets nostalgic, though, it’s never far.
8:00 PM –
Oh, and getting an ecstatic, squealing hug from a toddler who’s missed you all week: Worth the price of admission.