Tuesday, June 10, 2003

NY Journal # 2


but before we begin, I should say that many topics below could and maybe should belong in other topical sections below, I may misspell words and I certainly admit to making up words. I am also prone to exaggerations ranging from wild to mild. Sometimes I outright lie for no reason other than it amuses me... At other times, I may actually be jeopardizing National Security by disclosing the classified whereabouts of undercover operatives...but unless I'm going to be graded or arrested, and unless those grades (or lawsuits) translate into fabulous vacations or cash prizes, I'm not going to sweat it. Also... all things expressed below are my subjective opinions and observations. I don't speak on behalf of New York or it's peoples, I am one out of 8 million fish in a very busy sea. (yes, just kidding about the lying and national security issues. Everything else you will read is true. Names have not been changed to protect anyone)

PRELUDE: They're going to be shooting Spiderman II in our neighborhood starting this weekend. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing if Spidey will be flying from rooftop to rooftop or if Peter Parker will be entering and exiting a Leroy Street apartment. Either way, I'll get myself into a shot, watch for me when it comes out. I'll wear my Raider beanie. The other night, they were shooting some other movie on 7th Ave in front of our place, "Raising Helen" or some other movie name-ish movie name... The entire street was lined with production trucks, the sidewalks packed with people and lights and cameras and food tables and wardrobes and somewhere in that mess, I found out later, was Heather Graham. They had completely restylized the exterior of a restaurant to make it look like a hip-happening bar named "Random" - I know... ALSO very movie name-ish, isn't it..? The best part of the whole event was that by midnight, everything and everyone had vanished like it had never happened. The city has very strict rules about when film crews have to be out of a neighborhood.
THE CITY (itself): It's big. A big sea of a city. We've seen only the smallest fraction of the relatively small area of Manhattan below the park, it's kind of ridiculous how little we've seen, actually. Not that we haven't been trying... Every days it seems like we're both coming just short of blisters, leg cramps, outright muscle fatigue, the whole nine yards. You'd think we were avoiding subways and walking everywhere. Judging distance is part of the problem: avenues here are 900 feet long, streets are 100 feet long. To walk from the NY Public Library to the Empire State building for example (42nd St to 34th St), takes roughly the same amount of time as getting from one avenue to the next. It would be a cruel trick to tell people "I'm just the next block over" when you mean "avenue".
THE BUILDINGS (upon buildings, etc): As I flew in to JFK airport four years ago for my first visit here, I likened the look of Manhattan to 60 or more downtown San Francisco's, stacked back to back. I think that still holds. From the ground, (depending on the neighborhood) the effect is not much different. It is a concrete forest, the 'flora' seem as varied as a real forest, the sky is always visible, and there's certainly a lot of shade to be found. Because we're still in tourist-mode, we still look up a lot. New Yorkers we've talked to say they still do that, I'm not sure that ever changes. So long as you're not looking up when you step off a curb, or ONLY looking up, ..it's ok to look up.
THE SUBWAY: Ohhhhh, the subway. There's volumes that could be said about the subway system here. To summarize: it is incredibly efficient, incredibly old, incredibly complicated (until you understand the basics), incredibly bouncy in almost frightening way, incredibly diverse, and incredibly fascinating in how much it is taken for granted. Or maybe it's not taken for granted.... I don't know, I haven't asked everyone here yet, .... I guess until people start shouting "this subway system is AMAZING!" or start looking at everything with the same info-hungry eyes that I have for everything here, I'll assume people are taking it for granted. Maybe it's just in comparison to SF's transit system that I find it so amazing. SF being a city in which public transit is supposed to be a beacon unto... well, the West Coast at least
THE SNOW/weather: Any discussion of the weather should start with mention of the fact that it went from furiously snowing, to small flurries, to rain, to mist, to..... summertime heat... in the span of no more than 4 or 5 days. Yesterday it was 83, today it is 40 degrees cooler. That being said, the snow [ - and people who do not LIKE snow should keep in mind the fact that I have not lived in snow since I was 8 years old] .... was absolutely glorious, transcendently yearned for, like being reunited with a childhood friend after decades of separation. There is a term some people use... I believe it is "sh!t eating grin". Yeah... I had one of those. Uh-huh, a big one. Yeah, the whole time it snowed. Unfortunately... it only actively snowed for one day, three days later it was completely gone from the streets. I have to admit that some of the romance wore off the first time I had to side step yellow snow. Warm weather on the other hand, cause many interesting things to happen. This happens in all cities of course, but in NY it seems they happen quite spontaneously, before you've even left your house. The best part of this weather metamorphosis, or.. "weathermorphosis" as I like to call it (ok, so it probably wont catch on), is that restaurants become 'convertible', their entire street facing facades accordion open as tables and chairs are rolled out and before you know it, entire sidewalks are chattering away with a typical weekend restaurant buzz. This happens in Europe, you say..? Sure... true. NY is a lot closer to you. Decent weather also more accurately shows you just how many people there really are in this city. It is really almost indescribable how many people appear out of nowhere. And yet I will try [see THE MASSES section] Everyone springs into summer clothes, with the emphasis on "shorter" and "less of", which is mostly a good thing. Lord knows, there are droves of beautiful people here, with more perfect skin, bone structure and bodies than you'd find in a glossy fashion magazine. It can however, quickly becomes unpleasant when... hmmm... how does one say this delicately..? certain unsavory and/or unshapely characters display a level of unintentional exhibitionism that causes rapid eye-aversion and in extreme cases, nightmares and the loss of appetite. This unpleasantness is not, like in other cities, limited to parks, the beach or ones backyard. No, this happens on the streets, on subways and in stores. Call it a 'refreshing lack of self-consciousness'. I guess I'm still mildly traumatized by one particular person we saw.
THE MASSES: You may not have heard this, but there are a lot of people here. 8 million is a lot, in my opinion. It seems like a lot, sometimes it feels like a lot... and yet it never really seems to reach "too much". Everyone knows the "street fair" effect with the sideways walking, constant bumping of shoulders, wall to wall people.. At it's very worst, New York seems just short of that, like it would only take another 1/3rd of the people around you in any given area to make you feel somewhat claustrophobic and/or agoraphobic. At it's best, you have whole blocks to yourself. At it's average... well... there's just a lot of people out. This city, I'm sure, weeds out people who cant take it, people who find a steady stream of people uncomfortable, people who feel intimidated by a stranger bumping into them. Walking in the masses, I am always aware of how this Could 'get' to people, and yet I am always detached enough to know that it does not bother me, personally. There is something strangely comforting in being enveloped by a city's people.
THE PEOPLE: Not to insult the people of other cities, but the people here are without question, the nicest people I have ever met. Conversely, there are also thee most charming displays of finely crafted rudeness you will ever see. A dozen or more strangers have started up conversations with us, out of the blue, in the two weeks we've been here. And conversely again, we've also seen a lady curse the smirk off of an escalator slowpoke, followed immediately by seeing an office worker shoulder-bump a lady almost to the ground and keep on going like it didn't happen. Many people confuse the NY no-nonsense, determined, directioned, me-bother-me attitude for rudeness or disinterest in helping people, etc. I've heard it described, or thought of it, a lot of different ways recently... here's a few of my favorites: #1) people will not look you in the eye, they will shove past you for a train without a second thought, they will steal your cab... but ask them directions or to recommend a good restaurant and you will receive more animated, helpful information than you could have ever hoped for. #2) bodies in motion tend to stay in motion: nothing annoys New Yorkers more than people who get in their way while they are walking somewhere. It is a sense of "don't disrupt my life and I wont disrupt yours" that translates to many levels of life here, not just street walking. #3) Everyone's level of not-taking-conflict-personally and not-holding-on-to-momentary-anger is set for a casually restrained, professional functionality that seems almost comical. It is the opposite of road rage.. or perhaps, it's merely a quick verbal venting to deal with the emotions and move on. It may be that people visiting NY see a lot of these moments of 'anger purging' but don't notice that the person has moved on. Again, this is probably a wild generalization, but I think has a lot of truth to it.
PIZZA: There are two types of food in NY. Pizza, and the other crap people eat occasionally. The analogy of 'pizza is to NY what burritos is to SF' is not quite accurate. More accurate is 'pizza is to New Yorkers, what drinking water is to human survival'. If anyone can locate the actual number of pizza places in NY, I will.... ... I'll give you a piece of pizza. Seriously, it's only a matter of time before it becomes currency.
NON-PIZZA FOODS: Coincidentally, there are two types of non-pizza food in NY. Ridiculously expensive and ridiculously cheap. $9.25 for a sandwich is not unheard of. A "poor boy" sandwich, I kid you not, was $6.75 in the dining concourse of Grand Central Station. Conversely, budget choices are available, hot dogs and such, if you eat that sort of thing, which I haven't (yet). Soups, salads, bagels, breakfast places.... all cheap. My favorite so far is Mahmoun's $2 falafels on MacDougal @ Bleeker and of course.... ever present pizza.
HERCULES: Our closest neighborhood liquor store is called Hercules Fancy Groceries. It's owned & operated by (again) a slightly portly man of maybe 50-55... this time Greek (as you may have been able to infer from a name like Hercules). He has one glass eye, has the same gift of gab as Walter, and plays a bouzouki, an instrument that, upon some quick research, I found that both Greeks and Irish play.... go figure. Hercules' store has many many many beers. Almost exclusively beer, in fact. He doesn't carry anything other than beer in fact because it seems that in NY, stores can only get a beer license, hard alcohol license, or wine license, but rarely a combination (if it's even legal to have a combo, I'm not sure). Hercules' history with beer is such: he found a book about beer in the trash outside his store one day. He read it. He began importing beers from around the world (he's credited with importing the first Belgian beer into the US in 1960something) and to this day, "has paid for no advertising", instead reaping the rewards of newspaper articles and reviews written about him and his store. Let's get back to his gift for gab, though. It is truly unbelievable how skillful he is (Walter as well) with weaving different topics together into a finely formed net from which you cannot escape. There are no pauses where you might say "well, ok... we'll see you around then" or even "hey, I've gotta run, talk to you later" ... without seeming rude. Literally, the moments of pause are impossibly brief and through some unknown superpower yet to be properly tapped for the forces of good, they always appear to be right in the middle of making a point.. Truly though, they are very good people with very interesting stories .... upon stories .... upon stories.THE
WORK ENVIRONMENT: We work in the MetLife building, directly behind Grand Central Station (see GRAND CENTRAL STATION section). The 'corporate dress code' is a lot more valued here than in SF, which brings me a fairly consistent level of mild frustration. Cube space is a lot more dense, handfuls of different conversations can be heard all at once, about 2/3rds of them are not work related. The office has a few characters of it's own; there is the lady near me who sounds like she's always on the verge of crying and has conversations about the renovations she's doing to her house which is probably more of a mansion than a house from the sounds of it. There is the guy who sits next to our workmate Fortune, who on Monday and Tuesday, makes calls to friends, gabbing about his weekend, on Wednesday he's fairly silent & then on Thursday and Friday, he's making plans for the upcoming weekend. Then there are the sports fans. Much to my baseball-hating-dismay, I am surrounded by baseball fans who find no end of excuses to gather in one person's cube for a rousing 30 minute conversation about so&so's style of hitting or catching or .... well, at the 2 minute mark, I am bored straight into a coma so I'm not sure what they talk about after that. Then there are the Giants & Jets fans, of which I am looking forward to many spirited conversations involving the phrases "no, [YOUR team] sucks!" or "soooo, how'bout [your team] losing so bad on Sunday????" - (this last phrase, by it's very nature of course, doesn't even HAVE the potential of involving the Raiders, so... well... there you have it.. : ) ((We have yet to get a permanent cubicles, so I haven't been able to display my various Raider related items - I KNOW, how can I pit the whole office against me until I do that?!?! I'm working on it...))
GRAND CENTRAL STATION: Look up the words "massive" and "beautiful" in a thesaurus. Then branch out to each of their related words. Take it five generations out. Gather all the words together and read them. That will begin to do justice to Grand Central Station. People upon people upon shops upon restaurants upon bars upon... oh, right... trains. I sometimes forget that it IS a train station. We walk through the station to work, to lunch and to home. I absolutely can not think of a better ingredient to a daily commute. It awes and humbles me, Every Single Day,.... how lucky we are.
AND SO ENDS Episode 1 - PART 2.... Future episodes will be a lot shorter, I'm sure. Episode 1 had a lot to cover, a lot of initial observations that attempted to cover the entire spectrum of our experience here so far. I'm sure I cheated some sections and overemphasized others. I probably complete forgot to cover certain things which I'll only remember once I hit SEND. Such is life and the nature of journals. I am actually very much looking forward to rereading some of this a year or two from now, to see what ideas have changed and to recapture a bit of the feeling of slack jawed awe we are still feeling so early into our move here. All of our experiences seem to have an intense weight to them, they seem more 'real', concentrated, more in-the-moment... That feeling will surely subside over time, I'm sure. It's incredibly exciting to be living it now though.

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