I went to New York once when I was 15 and once when I was 21. Then I didn’t go for a long time. I went back in May 2011 for work and wrote up some ramblings about it all in an email to a friend. I randomly stumbled across it today and liked it so, with some slight editing, here it is.
I landed in New York at 8AM. A gypsy cab driver tried to intercept me before I made the cab stand:
“You go to the city?” He asked, attempting to take my suitcase from my hand.
“Yeah, how much?” I said, wondering what the gouge-rate was or, if possible, if I could save a buck by helping him break the law.
A regular cab costs around $30 to where I was going. I can’t even begin to understand the business model for the gypsy cab driver who wants to charge more than the Yellows. I guess he’s hoping to get someone in the car and get moving before they ask how much it is. Then I wonder what about me made me seem like an obvious mark. I was wearing smart business clothes and carried a decent business-style bag. Who knows? At this point I have no hope of knowing. I am so of Ohio and the Midwest that I’m sure I’m oblivious to what makes me stick out like a rube. Maybe it’s because most of the flights to the U.S. Airways terminal are from places like Columbus and Indianapolis and Pittsburgh and other towns where honest, wholesome, easily-duped people reside. Oh well. I got into a real cab and to the hotel, dumped my stuff and then made my way to the train station.
Grand Central Station is wonderful. Trains are wonderful. I wish there more of them. In my mind I’ve created an alternate universe which, as a shorthand, I’ve decided to call “those perfect two weeks in 1948 after WWII misery had subsided a bit before Cold War Paranoia had fully set in.” It never really existed in history, but I’ve decided that, say, October 1948 is where it best fits. I’ve thought about it for a good ten years and I’ve terraformed this fantasy city in my mind, mostly in absent moments while waiting for something or otherwise killing time.
It’s a mashup of Edward Hopper paintings, cyber punk and the movie “Dark City.” Well, it’s less sinister than that, but the upshot is a mid-century aesthetic and scale with modern technology grafted over it. The tech is subtle and more integrated than it is today. The iPads would be carried in clunky 1948 leather satchels, for example, and the computer terminals would be embedded in large metal or wooden cases. There would be automats. Human-scale apartment buildings clustered in neighborhood pods separated by green spaces big enough allow people to breathe but small enough to keep everything walkable. Art Deco signage. Shops rather than megastores. A lot of WPA-style art. Movie houses. Blues, browns, grays and blacks. Hats and ties for everyone. Hotel detectives and house phones. City hub structures separated by trains travelling between stations that look a lot like the fascist-era Ferrovia in Venice but, you know, without the baggage. A world that would be the wet dream of forward-thinking urban planners but which, in reality, could only be created by a supreme dictator and could only avoid being a hellscape if that dictator were truly benevolent. In short: an impossibility.
One can walk through New York and find the essential elements of my neo-noir utopia, but the place is so big and so packed that it never existed in real life outside of quick scenes in movies and my beloved pulp novels. A coffee shop here. A newsstand there. A park two blocks over. That nice set of brownstones. Grand Central Station. Alas, there is too much else one encounters while walking between those things preventing the fantasy from taking hold even in New York. Damn International-style buildings. And while I’m thinking about it, skyscrapers don’t fit into it either no matter what their aesthetic. Maybe it’s more of a mid-sized city in my mind with a building height law, not New York, even if New York makes me think of it most strongly. If I’m ever truly lost in thought, though, you can bet that I’m in that city. Probably working for a newspaper.
I made it to my train and up to Stamford where I had my meetings. Then I went to lunch with my boss. We went to a Mitchell’s Fish Market, which is the chain that was built off Cameron’ Mitchell’s Fish Market here in Columbus, before it was sold off to the Ruth’s Chris people and taken nationwide. I explained to my boss that we were eating in a restaurant with Columbus roots. He asked how a quasi-upscale seafood chain got started in Ohio. I told him I had no idea. Ohio is full of mysteries like that.
I was back down to New York by 6 PM where I met some baseball writers/Internet friends for drinks. It’s always strange interacting with people I have only previously known online, but that’s life for me now. Apart from my wife and kids my whole world exists online. I’ve never met my coworkers, for crying out loud. One of the crowd there told me he was pleased to meet me. Then he said it again. Then he said it again and then fell on the floor of the bar and appeared to be unconscious. Seems he had been drinking since 3 PM. Another of the group put him in a cab but he couldn’t make his mouth function to tell the driver where he was going, so the guy who walked him out rode home to Brooklyn in the cab with him. When his companion returned to the bar nearly two hours later he told us the guy threw up, after which an argument with the cabbie and a police officer ensued. At some point a car service car got involved and between paying the cabbie to make him happy and getting the car to and from Brooklyn the whole ordeal cost $120. I have no idea, really. All I know is that if that all happened here in Ohio someone would have likely driven home drunk, so viva New York.
I left the bar at about 11 or so and walked back uptown with another writer who lives a bit more uptown past where I was going. During the walk we realized that neither of had really eaten, and it was then that the beauty of New York dawned on me: everything is open late. Just before midnight we stopped at Brasserie and ordered fries. And tuna tartare. And the best spinach I’ve ever had anywhere. And a martini because it seemed like the right thing to do. Besides us the place was packed with people eating steak and fish as if it were the dinner hour. All at a time which the only thing still open in Columbus are actual bars. Everyone always seems in a hurry in New York, but it’s the one city I’ve been to where time matters very little.
Saturday I was up early, ate breakfast and took a winding walk through Central Park. When I was 15 we visited the little area outside the Dakota and saw all of the tacky John Lennon tributes and souvenir stands. Back then I thought it was cool because I didn’t know anything. This time I was fairly appalled. I understand that Yoko Ono still lives in the building. I’m guessing she doesn’t venture across the street to that place ever, but just knowing it was there probably creeps her out. Though, now that I think about it, it can’t creep her out any more than walking past the place where her husband was murdered everyday does.
Back across the park, up the park, down the park simultaneously enjoying it while standing amused that, for most people in New York, this is what passes for nature. Which is kind of sad, even if it is a nice park.
The Whitney Museum. After hearing about my fantasy 1948 world it’s probably no surprise that I’m a sucker for 20th century American realism. Hopper. Bellows, Those guys. There’s a lot of that there, so it made my day. The more modern stuff on upper floors was hit and miss. I like a good deal of modern art but I failed to grasp the import and artistic merit of mere printed slogans on white canvas. If that makes me a philistine, so be it. Overall the Whitney gets a solid A-, with that grade mostly owing to Hopper and Bellows and their Ashcan friends.
Inspired, I made it over to the subway and took it down to Greenwich Village where I decided that it was important that I find Edward Hopper’s house. He lived right off Washington Square from 1913 until he died in the late 1960s and painted most everything he ever did that mattered there. Now NYU owns the building – they seem to own every building down there, turning what I imagine was once a nice neighborhood into a playland for rich college students – and there isn’t a sign or anything. The south-facing windows of his top floor studio which allowed in all the fabulous sunlight he painted were closed tight with shades. What a waste.
Back across the Village for a canoli, cappuccino and busker-watching. I watched two guys sing southern gothic murder ballads. They were 25 year-old hipsters, likely NYU dropouts, who will one day conveniently forget that they spent a couple of years pretending that they were from some swamp in Tennessee.
I took the subway back uptown to my hotel and laid down for a nap. I woke up just as the sun was going down. I used to do that a lot but hadn’t for years. It’s the most disorienting yet strangely refreshing thing. A lot like a 60 hour trip to New York.
But no more than that. I’m just a rube and I sort of like it. I will visit New York a lot in my life, I imagine. But I don’t think I want to do more than visit.