Friday, July 18, 2008
I don't really know how it happened. I'm sure that I was on the uptown platform when the train pulled in. I was rushing to jump onto the train, and I guess I wasn't paying very much attention. I probably would have figured out that I was headed downtown if I hadn't completely zoned out for the next ten minutes. But, alas, I was thinking about a certain coastal city, and didn't see or hear anything until all of a sudden, everyone left the train and I found myself mysteriously at South Ferry. I automatically got up and left the train, then turned around and got back on the train to head back uptown, and then thought better of it and got off the train again.
Afterall, I'd never been to the bottom of the island.
So I left the station to go explore.
The Financial District is unlike anything I've ever seen. It looks exactly the way I've always assumed it would look and yet never really thought was possible. I had a movie version in my head, the New York of Batman, of stock brokers and playboys, of winding streets and powerful business - sleek, imposing, mysterious. In the blinding afternoon sunlight, the broad tourist ways were jammed with people and movement, everyone looking up or looking ahead and going somewhere. Then I'd duck into a darker alley, and I'd walk for blocks as lone business men on cell phones passed me individually. It didn't seem possible that this small area could hold such contradictions - even the building themselves were either bright and tall modern mirrors, or small and sturdy brick colonials. And it all existed simultaneously, but nothing seemed out of place - it all just served to heighten the reality of the neighborhood itself.
I stepped into Battery Park and walked to the water. I looked out over the heavy sunlight to Liberty Island, and thought, as I always do, that it's a real pity that the Statue of Liberty has so much land behind it - it should be water out to the horizon! But no. I walked around the park, listened to a man doing a old-New-York-vaudevillian "I'm a stah!" song and dance for some people in lawn chairs, and then watched what looked like a very easy and amiable citizen's arrest, complete with handcuffs.
I decided to try to find Wall Street, and consulted my trusty NFT guide. Unfortunately, it ended up doing little for me because once I ventured into the cavernous side streets, I was hopeless lost. I must have checked my guide eight or nine times, and got completely turned around when I realized there are two Pearl Streets and two Broad Streets. All the business men and women gave me a knowing look, and smirked as they passed. But I didn't care - I was unabashedly staring around me in wonder. The buildings and the crooked streets make you feel impossibly small. I've never been inside a canyon, but it has got to feel something like that - a kind of awesome power infusing the air. I walked past a row of bars catering to the afterwork crowd, and thought about the fact that I will probably never go into any of them. Delis were shutting down, and everyone had somewhere to be. But it is not frenetic, the energy, like it is in Times or Union Square. It isn't explosive - it's highly directed and clear. There's no room for the energy to go, and there are no bright lights or blaring horns - the momentum is totally pedestrian, which is what makes the whole place so darkly mysterious. It's kind of wonderful and kind of terrifying.
I finally found Wall Street. I was not as impressed as I thought I would be, but that's in the context of being generally awed, so take it with a grain of salt. I stared at the stock exchange, and thought about the name Exchange Alley and wondered what it must be like to work there every day. I'd always thought of Midtown as the center for all things business - the Financial District seemed so far away, and my father works on Park so Grand Central Station was always the beginning and the end of the center of New York, center of the world.
Boy was I wrong.
Monday, July 14, 2008
One of the first things I noticed when I came back to New York was how overwhelmingly efficient and totally abundant the MTA is. After the wasteland that was SF Muni transit, even the little things seemed totally remarkable, like being able to buy a 30-day monthly pass anytime I wanted (instead of having to wait for the first three days of the month) with my credit card (instead of needing to have $40 in cash) at any subway station anywhere in the city (instead of waiting on line at one of the three or four designated Muni-pass kiosks, which are all located in one area of the city). So imagine the sheer joy the first time I took the subway, and heard the robotic MTA voice call out:
“This is forty-second street. Transfer is available to the 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, N, Q, R, W trains. Transfer is available to the Port Authority bus terminal.”
My eyes glazed over. Holy shit, I thought. I could go anywhere.
Which is why, I believe, New Yorkers are so eager to give directions to confused tourists. There are simply so many ways of getting somewhere, that the very path you follow becomes a matter of deep interest and aggressive debate.
Like this morning, for example. On my way down to work (a straight shot on the 1, unless I’m running late in which case I walk to 96th and take the express to 14th street, then transfer over – even simple routes have multiple options), I sat reading while two girls stood over me, chatting. I wasn’t paying particular attention, until I noticed that they had gone quiet and were looking around nervously. Then one of them whipped out a map. They started talking in hushed tones. Ah, tourists, I thought. I was not alone.
“Hey, where are you trying to get to?” said the man across the aisle.
“Oh, um... well, we’re trying to get to South Ferry,” said the girl, looking worried.
“Oh yeah. Well, yeah you’re on the right train but you gotta be in the first five cars.”
“Yeah, it don’t work otherwise.”
“Um, excuse me? We have to be in the first five cars?” said another group of tourist sitting across from me.
“Yeah. You’re in the second to last car right now. You gotta go up in front of the conductor.”
All the tourists look perplexed, and nervously consult their various subway maps.
“Does this train even stop at South Ferry?” the one girl said to her companion.
“Oh yeah” chimed in a man to their left. “You just have to get out at Chambers street and walk down to the first five cars.”
“Yeah,” said man #1. “Then you’ll be right near the World Trade Center Site.”
“Yes, that’s where we want to go,” said the girl.
“Yeah, you just walk out of the station, turn right, then you’re gonna want to walk a few blocks but its right there. You’re on the right train.”
“Oh ok. So... Chambers street.”
“Yeah,” both men agreed.
The other group of tourists still looked perplexed, but comforted by the fact that there would at least be an entire entourage getting off at Chambers street to travel down the platform towards the front of the train. And the girls were busy ticking off stops.
“What is this? Oh, Christian Street.”
“No, Christopher Street.”
“Right OK. Next up is Houston.”
We’re not in Texas, I thought, but I figured they’d already gotten enough advice for the day.
And I did miss that. How to get from A-B is important; it’s part of it the whole event. If New Yorkers didn’t care about the journey itself, we’d all ride around in cars. But the ride (or the walk) is what makes the city interesting. You make smart and stupid decisions en route every day, like transferring to the express, or deciding to take a different train when the usual isn’t running, and the whole process requires enough savvy and consideration that it almost makes the morning commute into an art form.
But giving directions is definitely an event – you usually find out where the tourist is from, the exact address where they’re going, not to mention three or four different ways to get to the destination, and various opinions on all of the above. In the end, the tourists are probably more confused than they were before, but it has inevitably enlivened the subway ride for everyone in their vicinity.
Friday, July 11, 2008
When you feel loved, you can do no wrong. You wake up every morning and no matter how shitty the day is, ultimately you find yourself charming, kind, smart, beautiful - nothing brings you down. When in love, you glow.
I knew no one in San Francisco, and yet I was totally at ease. I was calm, but still quirky; smart, but not elitist; savvy, but kind. I had removed all pressure - I wasn't performing. It didn't matter what anyone else thought of me because it was just me and my city, and I was content enough with that. There you have it: best version of myself.
I struggle occasionally in New York with a kind of regurgitated version of SF Lillian. She speaks the same words, but they no longer sound alive. I feel almost robotic - repeating phrases I picked up on the West Coast, which suddenly feel like cotton in my mouth. "I mean, I don't know, I feel lucky to have been there and now I'm excited to be here" to which my brain promptly responds "Shut up you stupid hippy." I will talk, but my mind is somewhere else (with the sun over the Pacific, maybe?).
I always become withdrawn after I lose love. I forget the person I was when I was in love, and I auto-pilot my way through daily interactions. It is difficult, I think, because I am so eternally shaped by my affairs that in the aftermath of the break up, or departure in this case, I have to relearn how to exist in my own body.
The New Yorker in me says "Fuck that. Let's go let's go let's go! Stay busy, start exploring, DO SOMETHING. Fake it til you make it, baby. Now MOVE."
The San Franciscan says "Be here now. There's nothing else you can do. It's all part of the journey."
And strangely enough, this is all the same advice.
The benefit of break ups, of heart ache, of home sickness, is that through that broken confusion, you find something better.
It just takes time. And patience. And plenty of alcohol.
Friday, July 4, 2008
When I was growing up, the neighborhood had a real character. Dangerous, yes, with drug dealers at every corner, and junkies stumbling back to the abandoned building on 88th and Amsterdam while my father and I waited for the morning carpool. But it, like so many other areas of the city, was defined by a long cultural history. Saying that you were from the Upper West Side meant something - it meant you were an intellectual, an artist (or at the very least, a person who deeply appreciated the arts). It meant you were not from the Upper East Side (a distinction which is becoming less and less defined). It meant you probably wore long skirts and schmatas and shopped at Liberty House. It meant you were part of a neighborhood, that you knew everyone on your hall, you chatted in elevators, you didn't go on Amsterdam Avenue at night, you went to Zabars before it was really cool to go to Zabars. It probably meant you were Jewish - my mother told me that she was talking to a Jewish friend of hers and without even thinking she said "Well, the Upper West Side Jews like us" which her friend found highly amusing (we are not, in fact, Jewish, and really no one but my mother actually feels like we are - but her point is that when you live on the UWS for 30 years as my family has, the culture is so powerful, and the association with the neighborhood so important, that in many ways you come to see yourself and the world from the standpoint of your friends and neighbors). It meant something.
I could tell you all about the evolution of my area. The Red Apple, a really kind of dirty super market, was replaced with Sloan's, another dirty supermarket, was replaced with Boston Market during Giuliani, was replaced with an awful toy store, was replaced with Duane Reed. Actually, Duane Reed replaced the toy store and the little bank on the corner, which became the huge bank on another corner, while the wonderful movie rental place with the great oldies section became a TMobile (there's another one three blocks away, and another one five blocks from that). The Gap and Banana Republic have been there for at least ten years, as has the Club Monaco, but the Deli on 86th turned into an Aldo in the last few years. The most upsetting was the really cool clothing store on my walk home which is now a Starbucks. Boulevard, the great restaurant/bar of my youth (best french fries, and crayons on the table) became a swanky place called Aix which is now empty. Murder Ink, the bookstore that my father loved, is closed. Now there is only Barnes and Noble.
But the main problem is the banks. The fucking banks. There is a Bank of America five blocks from... another Bank of America. There is an HSBC bank which takes up half the block. The size of these places is totally absurd. And it's not like they've added more ATMs, they're just taking up more space. It's disgusting, really, all the energy wasted in those places, the poor economization of space, the completely anonymous feeling of walking into these huge and empty areas. I walked in once, and there was air conditioning coming from a vent above me, and heat pumped in through a vent beneath my feet. Really. When we asked about it, they said they couldn't do anything about it because it was being regulated by some control center in some other part of the country. Ultimately, I just find it so disheartening and bizarre. I mean, you can get money out, but there's nothing to buy because there are no stores left. There's no small business.
And with the small business goes the neighborhood. The yuppies have moved in. The buildings (like mine) are going condo. The last place that sold flowing hippie skirts just closed. Hot and Crusty has gone from dark and shabby to sleek and shiny, and now the pizza sucks. A lot.
Worst of all, my deli is gone. My deli is gone. If all you want is milk and a chocolate bar, you have to go to Food Emporium. I stood on the corner and almost cried the day I saw that it was empty. It breaks my heart.
If it becomes a bank, don't be surprised if one night I happen to accidentally hurl a brick through its shiny neutral exterior.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
The opening riffs blasted at me while I waited for Lani, my new friend over at NYC transit. I was calling to find out the price ranges for a one month advertising campaign, the first assignment of my new job. They told me at my preliminary meeting (which was intimidating as fuck) not to bring the name of the theater into the conversation - I was just doing some preliminary research.
So, I prepared myself to be vague and coy. The answer to "What company are you with?" was "I'm with a theater company, we're just doing some preliminary research." That line had worked in San Francisco. I was ready and professional. I had forgotten that New Yorkers don't take bullshit for an answer - and my buddy Lani is a New Yorker of the first degree.
Lani: So, what's your company.
Lillian: Oh, it's a theater company. I'm just doing some preliminary research.
Lillian: Yeah. Like art. I'm just doing some preliminary research.
Lani: What's the company?
Lillian: ...it's a theater company
Lani: Which one?
Lillian: Off Off Broadway
Lani: uh huh
Lani: Which company?
Lillian: .... (fuck)
What I love is that it was aggressive, but friendly. He was genuinely interested, and wasn't going to take no for an answer. He was open and forceful in the way that born and bred New Yorkers can be kind and pushy, giving you directions as though the very method of getting somewhere were a matter of opinion.
Lani: OK great, what's your name?
Lillian: ... Lillian
Lani: That's a beautiful name, Lillian.
Lillian: ...Oh. Thanks!
Lani: OK, and what's your number?
Lillian: I'm really just doing preliminary...
He said he'd be in touch with me. I got flustered and laughed and told him I really didn't know anything, that I had just started there. He laughed, told me they did a lot of work with Broadway and Film and did I know the New York Film Academy? I did. Then I said I'd be in touch. He said, great, talk to you soon. And I hung up, generally discombobulated.