Sunday, June 8, 2008

New York is Open. New York is Closed. (3/14/08)

Current mood: thawing out

Let’s start with an easy one. New York is Open. I mean that in not just the 24/7 diner kind of way, although it is most certainly that: last weekend I went to dinner and the out of town couple I went with, the guy in the couple, wanted to get some lemon meringue pie at the shiny diner we passed on the way to the kickass italian place where we’d be eating. So we went. And a greek guy with a post-stroke looking bobble head nod took our order and tried to write it down and I ate the most neon alien green key lime pie I’d ever seen. And my friend, Brian, who wanted to be there drank about fifteen cups of no doubt nasty coffee, and we sat and talked in the too bright lights, the mirrors, and the steel walls. Everytime the bobblehead came to refill the bowled out cup with the saucer to catch the sloshy brown spill he assured us to take our time, they were open 24 hours. No rush. That’s what they offered: a warm place, clean and well-lit, with the worst food you’ll ever get a welcome to eat. Convenient, available. Big doors with big handles that never lock.

But I mean more than that. There is a real vibe of accessibility here, some weird egalitarian spirit of everyone’s involved, everyone’s allowed. The public library is not only an architectural masterpiece, it’s a place where you can get books. It’s a functioning frigging research library, one of the better ones in the country and far and away the best public one we have. All the big museums at least have a free night a week, or a free weekend once a month--normally at some stupid ass time, but still--and the Met, the real hulking monster, the megalith of the bunch deep in the heart of park avenue richy rich town new york, hugged up against the trees of central park, oakleaves tickling the ivories of massive white marble columns and cornices and the whole bit--this place is donation only. I know a girl who grew up here and now lives in Queens, a painter, who gave the cashier--when you go in they ACT like you have to pay, to get donations--the change contents of her pocket, in effect placing the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the same level as a homeless beggar. Nice. She smiled when she got her little pin of admission to wear, and bubbled out a "thanks!" as she strode in, just owning the place.

And even the stuff that costs money isn’t all that cost prohibitive. maybe it’s because i’m not intimidated by the whole bit, but me and olivia have managed to see ballet, concerts, shakespeare...for free....outside (do WHAT now?). There it is, the perfect example of what I’m talking about here: Shakespeare in the Park. Every summer they do at least one, usually two, plays outside, six nights a week. The only thing tickets cost is time: you have to line up in the morning for them, on the sidewalk, outside one of two designated places, for a limited number of free tickets. EVERYONE does. Everyone who wants to go that night has to sit there, with blankets and chairs or doing like I did making a cushion on the concrete of yesterday’s new york times, thanking God yesterday was Sunday. When I did it I was wedged between a mousy quiet thirty something lady with sharp glasses who offered to get me some tea if I held her spot while she got some for herself around the corner and an old savvy lady who had no less than eight giant moles on her face and sat cozy as could be in her blue plaid patterned foldout beach chair, chatting up this hipper than thou skinny jeans black chucks wearing motherfucker who did NOT have sharp glasses, just dull black big framed stooooopid with like fifteen o’s glasses, and was from either Wisconsin or Illinois, can’t remember--one of those places that instantly makes you insecure to identify as your origin and so results in you painting on the super cool clothes once you get to the "big city". that sort of thing. what was cool, though, what was really fairy dust tinkerbell’s wand bewitched lady sniggling her nose alladin’s lamp genie magic is how this old jewish lady who no doubt lived maybe fifteen blocks from where she was born--she said how many, I can’t remember the number but it was close--was completely disarming this dude, how she was making a grandma out of herself by just talking and telling stories and remembering her husband and missing him. And even this most guarded of fellas--I remembering sitting down and trying to catch his eye and him looking away and two minutes later nervously shaking out an American Spirit, walking stiff legged (those jeans won’t let you do much else) to the curb to smoke nervously, trying to keep the smoke out of all our eyes (later grandma beach chair told him she didn’t mind, she used to smoke herself), trying to do it right, here, in this place he couldn’t understand or know but somehow found himself drawn to, this place that would make him somebody. And this woman telling him without fear or hesitation who she was, telling him she wanted to hear who his somebody was, that THAT was the real trick to being here. And him slowly, cautiously, like she could turn into one of those snide turds who will criticize your every honest move, opening up to her, getting comfortable, in the windy morning air as we waited for the man with the little lockbox to tell us it was indeed 1:30, and that we were on the right side of the line after he counted out the number of people lined up against the number of tickets he had that day. That night I sat next to the tea lady with the sharp glasses, wondering at my wonder that this was happen, since she picked up the ticket just behind mine. Just shaking my head at this place, confused, wondering how and why I hadn’t found a way to have a conversation with her so I wouldn’t feel so weird at this unanticipated reconnection. Somewhere the young man with his tight pants still on was shuffling them together as his date yakked up with an old lady in a funny visor blocking the last light of the summer evening, her telling his date what a nice young man he is, nudging her and winking, telling the girl "he’s a keeper" and the girl blushing.

Part 2 of previous post.

I almost don’t want to do this part, as the last one made me so happy to right. I just need to remember it ain’t spring YET.

But then New York is closed. I can’t TELL You the number of times that I was the guy in the black chucks and the tight pants, figuratively if not fashion-wise, feeling like I was doing it wrong, having no idea how I fit here. It happened mostly when I first moved here, but it ain’t quit even going on my third year. I was just telling someone a few weeks ago this place would always feel foreign to me.

There’s a rhythm and series of unspoken rules to this place, and they hum and wriggle at a pitch and frequency that’s nearly subterranean and entirely insinuated. Tipping is a fun one. Doormen. Cab drivers. Fucking hotel front DESK attendants. All need a tip. Fancy restaurants have separate people handing things for you, each needing a tip: recently I had three people, first the maitre’d, who also took my coat once we established my reservation, then the, ahem, umbrella chick, for lack of a better term, who took said item, then, of course, the bartender, who the maitre’d introduced to me by name as Mr. So and so.

Now I have a favorite saying that comes from black folks that I stole: You may think you’re brown, but you’re really green. The world above with the handlers above is not a world I inhabit very often, let me tell you, although it’s fun as hell to think you’re a fat cat; it feels like vegas without the hollow all my gambling money’s gone and i’m just a hollow shell in a skin of soused by free drinks, without the sad eyed stopping over the slots gambling maniacs who are just desperate to win so they can quit, man, and get that bus ticket to RIDE. This is different; this is entirely exclusive. And you stick out when you don’t belong. When that hostess--let’s call a spade a spade here, although the French maitre’d sure does elevate it, like drooping a tarp that says Hilton over the Motel 6 logo--introduced me to Mr. Billowbags or whatever the barkeep’s name was, I just beamed at him, leaned over that rolltop walnut bar, and extended my hand, repeating his name in an almost shout of familiarity, of an old friend returned: "Mr. Billowbags." And he, stunned for a second, took my hand and smiled shyly back before knowing the score and regaining the upper hand of inside knowledge power, curling his lip a little and saying politely that we could settle up on the dinner check. Damn skippy--there’s a REASON double jeopardy’s illegal, sucka!

So there’s a taste. You walk into one section of this world and you’re surrounded by simpering insects of handling, everyone wanting to flit about you and do things for you, like those parasitic ramuras that hang on a shark’s gills, cleaning them so they can get a meal. But this shit ain’t mutualism, there’s no symbiotic, commensalist system going on here. They take your money and smile they’re big red lipped smiles and if you’re lucky you don’t think too much about the whole exchange, because if you do you realize you’re just another mark, just another john.. And you will be until you can’t pay anymore, at which point you’ll be nobody.

Then there’s NYAC. NYAC is the New York Athletic Club, on Central Park west around 57th st. between either 5th and 6th avenues or 5th and Broadway, can’t remember. I think it’s right off Broadway. Whatever. NYAC’s claim to fame is that they recently starting accepting, wait for it, Jews into their membership. What classy guys. And in a city with, I dunno, about six million Jewish folks. A city known for Woody Allen and corned beef, a city where you can routinely see paias and tzitzits and enormous Menorahs in december, fabrications that dwarf the christmas trees into druidic shrubs.

I recently met the professor I work for, a new york jew living in southern california, at NYAC. He has a friend who has a friend, that sort of thing. SO he was staying there while in town. He made it very clear I had to wear a jacket--no tie, no suit--but definitely a jacket, for them to let me in. Let me be clear here, absolutely clear: we were meeting for breakfast. I had ham and eggs--on a HUGE plate--but that’s later. Anyway, I borrow a jacket that’s too small for me and head out one morning, groggy and annoyed that THIS is where business is happening. But I’m happy to say that they didn’t pat me down upon entrance, that everyone there was nice and accomodating and didn’t even make me shave my enormous Henry David Thoreau beard before they’d let me go up to my boss’s room.

And after we sat down to eat I could see why. The place is impressive in that old fashioned wood everywhere, we’re old and we like it, here are plaque with dead white man names and portraits of dead white men and red upholstery with bronze buttons on the chairs and couches kind of way. But it’s really no more impressive than lots of parts of new york, the parts that look like Batman could be living there. But anyway, breakfast--don’t even get me started. I ordered from a cushioned menu, also red upholstered, in like nougahyde or something, the size of my upper torso, with calligraphic items printed on what felt like resume weight papyrus. I got the NYAC breakfast, which as I already hinted at, was ham and eggs. And a little glass of what tasted like tropicana--you know the tropicana bottle of orange juice you can get in the vendiing machines at a mall or someplace? This is what they were protecting. What’s that emperor wearing again?

Then there’s the whole subway rules of etiquette that I alluded to in a previous post. Even the place where anyone’s allowed aboard provided they can put up two bucks for a ticket has its rules, and they’re the rules endemic to a place, a city, that runs like no other place in America. It’s America, but damn if it ain’t new york first. And you need a damn scoresheet, or an America to New York translator book, to figure it out sometimes.

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