April 13, 2009
New York, at the moment
Last Sunday, April 4, Spring came to New York City. Sixty-two degrees it was, and calm in the bright sun of a cloudless sky. The city had been waiting.
The winter seemed unusually brutal and long. As late as March we got mugged by the winds Chicago-style – sucker-punched from the northeast, a roundhouse kick to the southwest quadrant, then a blow to the kidneys and thrown into traffic. The winter was long. But the city was waiting.
Rites were given: the cruellest month, 1968. No, the City said, the greatest respect that can now be paid is called celebration, and forward. Miniskirts and boots, scarves sun-yellow and lollypop red, out the door on the long stroll and the City was again a New Thing.
In the East Village, across 3rd Avenue from the regal brown bulk of the Cooper Union on Astor Place (where Lincoln and Rushdie have spoken) a new extension of Arts and Sciences is rising: titanium cladding on the north, glass-frame on the south, and a delicious titanium wave cascading down four storeys: its form says, We'll surf this. It adds a dangerous excitement to the new skyline of the Bowery, where a white sail of a condo rises. Behind it, the textured white boxes of the New Museum totter like blocks stacked by Modernism's gargantuan infant.
At Lincoln Center, the new Alice Tully Hall is a clean, white, graceful dagger of 21st-century elegance, angling its excellence to a fine point: the classical performing arts yet have a home in this new era; "In this silicon world, art remains organic," the Alice Tully Hall says with its soaring wood interiors. Is it unfortunate, or symbolically meaningful, that its broad, 30-foot-tall windows look out upon, and reflect, ugly '70s tower blocks and bland '80s condos? What does it say about this Temple of the Performing Arts erected on a razed block of Puerto-Rican tenements where West Side Story was sourced?
Yes, the East Village as you've known it is almost all gone: Kim's Video AboveGround on St. Mark's – where it moved after being rent-wrested from its subterranean West Village haunt – is boarded up. The greatest pillar of eccentric, curatorially-defined, independent video/music emporia is no more. The Holiday Cocktail Lounge, one of New York's classic dive bars, is on its last legs, with owner Stefan Lutak in his 90s and suffering from health problems. I don't know how much longer I'll be able to nurse a beer in a darkened corner booth, on cushions held together with duct tape, while reading Walter Benjamin to the purple light of neon beer ads, overhearing a punk-rock guitarist debate politics with an art-history professor.
Love Saves the Day, on 2nd Avenue, known as the place where Madonna goes to trade in her jacket in "Desperately Seeking Susan," closed in January. It fills me with heartbreak. It was a happy bedlam of kitsch, pop culture, antique clothes and old Playboy magazines – a retail archive of American popular culture, and a total playground for anyone who was a kid between 1950 and 1995. Star Wars figurines and The Simpsons family, Barbies primping astride a herd of My Little Ponies and a starting-line of Matchbox and HotWheels cars – fake poop, Mexican finger traps, crenoline ballgowns from the '50s, leather jackets from the '70s, jester hats, fedoras, Garbage Pail Kids, and vintage copies of Penthouse all razzed each other from parts of the shambly scrum.
Even when the New York City winters were a-bleedin' me, I knew what to do: head down 2nd Avenue, overcoat collar turned up against the snow, and look ahead: right there, in Day-Glo '60s bubble-letters, was the sign beaming out in the dun sky, the sign you need to read, comforting you that yes, Love Saves the Day.
Hey, New York: fill 'er up, please, and check under the hood. While you're at it, can you you make sure the headlights are aimed properly? We need both high- and low-beams if we're going to drive this dark twisty wood of middle-life; the potholes are hell. I know that we're all lined up in the Self-Service lane, but buddy– can you spare a technician or two?
Prophets may be scrawling underground, but the visionaries are scattered from the lowest tunnels to the highest billboards. POST NO BILLS? What are we, Communists? Savvy New Yorkers know the City is a Language – its accents, dialects and mannerisms voiced not just from a billionaire Bloomberg and a bodega cashier but by the names of the stores and the advertisements everywhere. The ancients had tea leaves; we have construction sites, plywood walls and restaurant façades to tell our futures. But you have to know where to look.
In October and November, 2008, Microsoft bought up the entirety of the Grand Central subway corridor leading to the Times Square Shuttle, and plastered its walls and columns with Windows logos and a green gallery of unsung heroes all creating a chorus of "I'm a PC!" in a weird fanfare for the common man, voiced in the weary shuffles and trudges of the office-bound. But then you'd step in the Times Square Shuttle: and you were transported – back to a grand 1950's office lobby with marble floors, wood accents, and Modernist chandeliers with brass sconces – in an omnidirectional promotion for HBO's "Mad Men" that encompassed the complete interior of each subway car.
You could read something in that.
In deepest, darkest January, I shlepped that path again. This time – BAM! A sunburst of yellow, a tunnel of smiling light, advertising (of all things) Western Union. They'd called up the 411: gone was their legendary "crisis" advertising. Instead they concentrated on your sense of empowerment and relief when you got the money you wired for. Two-dozen sun-yellow poster-ads, half of them scoped from your right eye, half from your left, exclaiming YES! YES! YES! all the way to the train. Molly Bloom couldn't have thunk it better.
Inside the Shuttle car, Pepsi had taken over. That leaked (and faked?) PDF for Pepsi's redesigned logo, in its orgy of metaphysical and quantum-mechanical hokum, seemed designed to throw the wool-eyes over a simple headsmack fact: its circle was merely a funked-up volley off Obama's campaign logo, turning that frown upside down.
"Optimism," the candy-colored strips of blue, yellow, red, and orange sang out above your transiting head, "Yes you can!" "Together," "One for all," "Let's refresh America."
Now you and I, as savvy mental travelers in New York's neurons, will not get off at Times Square, where the great Maw of America threatens to devour us in a sea of Red Lobsters, a zone of ESPNs, an industrial farm of old McDonald's, an angry hive of Applebee's and an epileptic blizzard of LEDs. Sure, you may think you can read the news here, but the Zipper will leave you huddling naked with fear, only to be unctuously bling'd by big boxes that put you in small ones.
No, let's go to Union Square, where some smart slender boxes are going up on the western face. Here's where we fear, with Circuit City gone and the Virgin Megastore bailing in June, that all will head south if Wal-Mart's Great Eye is focused upon that block, as we suspect. But we're okay for the moment – cutting through the park I spy Mr. Wendel, grizzled and toothless, who's puttin' on the Ritz with a silver top-hat, mirror-shades, a yellow-and-gold sequined dress, and a black tuxedo vest with beer-tab brocade.
"I want money for that," he growls as I snap his photo.
"Well, I can give you fame," I say.
"To hell with fame," he says, "I want some money."
He's surprised I recognize his name. I tell him I'm three feet high and rising, too.
"Ev'rybody asks me why I dress like this," he says. "People got no sense of fashion any more. Th'girls're practically naked."
I tell him I'm all right with that.
"Trees are getting their clothes on," he says, looking up to the budding branches. I smile.
Down in the Union Square plaza, on the north end, a European-style café will soon occupy the arch where amblers rested and skateboards skipped. I suppose that isn't too bad, with the weekend green market creating a nice fluidity of purpose. On the southern end, the artists, man, they're getting down to some serious work. A year ago, nothing but commercial tat and tourist trophies. Now look.
There's even a guy making three-string guitars out of lacquered and polished cigarette boxes.
On the way across the street, we catch the conversation between two men in khakis and striped button-downs. "Yeah, he was saying that only poor people use debit cards." There it goes again: the black dog panting, the cymbal crash, the culture clash, the ripping threads.
"Oh Oracles of Madison Avenue," we genuflect northward, "Suns of the south have given us heatstroke. Bring us a breeze, o thou cool heads of Mad Men." We wander through the East Village. To
Oh yeah. We're grooving on the Matrix, jockeying that code. Yeah, we're thirsty for it. So we head down to the Lower East Side, and Clinton Street. First colonized by WD-50, that pod of molecular gastronomy, Clinton Street is now after a fashion. A lot of them, in fact. Japanese threads are lining the way, with Madame Killer, a terrific shop of Japanglish get-ups and deck-outs. In another, more upscale boutique, the managers apparently realized that their wares were so choice, their ambience so exquisite, that poorer-than-thine-pricetag sorts would want to embrace their brand too. So I bought this book at the counter.
That's an independently published book of poetry and collage (I note influences of Eliot, Ferlinghetti and e.e. cummings in the verse). Here are two important things that bring us passion right now: text || image; renewed language || mashed-up culture. It's a rare find, a limited edition, and all of $12. Less than half the cost of a glossy next-new-thing at Borders, and better, too, because it hasn't been hounded to death by editors and marketers. I'm broke, but there are some things you just can't resist.
On the corner of Clinton and Stanton, I was sad to note the departure of the scruffy coffee/bar Lotus, with its bookshelves and cheap Pabst. In its place, though, stands Donnybrook, a smart-looking pub that represents the new, modern Dublin: crisp slabs of marble for the bar top, lime-green leather accents upholstered with brass, rough-hewn wood tables – the ideal fusion of contemporary and traditional, without resorting to the clichés of the Irish Pub Company that have been boring our urban centers for 18 years now.
It's empty this afternoon, with a guy in the corner tapping on a laptop; on the t.v., Abruzzo quietly misses a goal. "We need a hangover cure," I say to the barmaid, "and not a Bloody Mary: something clear and light."
"I've got just the thing for you," she says with a brogue.
"What's in it?" I ask.
"Trade secret. All I can say is that it has bitters and soda."
It's fizzy and coral-colored, it's lightly sweet and slightly floral, like Spring. The hangover's gone in five sips. So we opt for some greater complexity at Schiller's Liquor Bar. This mural's across the street:
Yes, New York is of the moment. No, Pollyanna ain't my wife; I'm broke, folks, circling the drain. Shuysters, hucksters, flakes and fiends are curdling in the alleys. At a recent Midtown wedding, I learned that the bride had just been laid off. Back in my South Bronx 'hood, we pass by two Hispanic guys in their forties outside a bodega. One's saying to the other, "Seventeen theaters just closed. There's nothing out there, man, nothing." But then we walk down Alexander Avenue, where a few antique stores hold on by their fingernails. We stop at one, shyly named The Antique, and stare with amazement.
In the window, there's an antique map representing the very first days of New Amsterdam colony on Mannahatta. At that moment, the shutters roll up and a door is opened. Inside, it's like the Library of Alexandria's been rebuilt in a studio apartment. All the archaic centuries, from every corner of the globe, are represented. Infinite riches in a little room? Hey Dr. Faustus, try this on for size. The owner can't be stopped – he's purling out his entire catalogue in a fluid, rolling baritone. There's a vast, 18th-century lithograph imagining the Temple of Solomon, a Life of Wellington published in 1814, a coffee-table book on the Medicis the size of a coffee table, a Victorian compendium of Byron, African histories, a 1769 edition of Plutarch's Lives, a Life magazine with the March on Selma. "I've got a stall outside Columbia every Tuesday and Thursday," he says.
"You know," I remark, "I've walked down this street a dozen times. I never knew there was a bookstore here; 'The Antique' makes me think this is just furniture and bric-a-brac."
He says, "You're right. We're going to get someone in here to change the sign next week."
That was Sunday. On Monday, the weather turned round: gusty Novemberish, rainy, and a baROOM of thunder.
The thunder said: your sun day was my gift to you, o Visionaries. It is a vision of a future that does not yet exist. It is but to whet your appetite. Build it, and it will come. Give, sympathize, control.
This wasn't just another manic Monday. Yes, some lingered, grutching the theft of their robins. But for the rest, it was as if the entire city raised its voice, and in a hundred-fifty languages gave a rousing toast: "To work!" The spirit of the City is back, its relentless competitive drive aroused to experimentation, quality, distinctiveness. Get the customer, keep the customer. Even the sandwich-makers are making tastier sandwiches. Calls for marketers and writers streamed over CraigsList – the competition's Hobbesian brutal, no doubt, as veteran journalists outnumber each ad 10-to-1, but as the papers fold, businesses insist, "We need Information! Analysis! Someone please tell us what's going on!" Marvin Gaye can only ask the question, and the grapevine's fermenting piss and vinegar.
Doctored a press release. Jammed out for data entry and strategy session with a filmmaker. Stopped into a lush lounge called Simone for a white russian to calm my nerves. Overheard a PR girl talking manically to a filmmaking guy about collaborations. 6 Train home with the rustlings of the Doom Times, drop into the bodega looking beat, there's an immense thug with a full-on Mr. T mohawk, bling scarved around his linebacker neck, black Enyce jacket thrown over a chest as wide as a Mack Truck grille.
"Man, it's rough out there," I say, grabbing a Campbell's Chunky for dinner.
"What's your game?" the thug asks.
"I'm a writer," I say.
"Man, we gotta talk. I rap, I act, I'm a comedian. Here's my card." Long Run Entertainment, it reads. Stay Fresh Productions. Caviar Dreams, CEO.
Oh yeah, man.
"Damn, I like this place," Caviar says to the Iranian behind the counter, "You got a good shop here. Lots of good people in here."
I return home, to a postcard on my wall.
This is a sampler box of my Information. This is my gift to you, Gotham. But as Derrida wrote in Given Time: Counterfeit Money, the gift "is an impossibility" – any day now, the moral obligation or monetary bill will come due. O city city, unreal city, don't default on the credit I've given you. There's one Chairman of the Board who knew what he was talking about. He said, start spreading the news. And then he said,
It's up to you,
Posted by David Schneider at 12:10 AM | Permalink