Monday, July 23, 2012

America: An Anthropological Study Part II

New York

Everything about New York hits your senses the moment you step off the subway. The experience is more or less the same as I imagine meeting Mickey Rooney in a small space would be: intimately overwhelming. Some dude is hitting a bunch of pots and pans and upturned water bottles in a rhythmic dance, and though he’s very skilled, it’s slightly…shattering. And everybody’s walking into you and over you and through you and you don’t know that you have to walk on the right down the tunnel, it’s one of those unwritten rules, and the ticket machine only takes dollar bills but you only have a twenty and everybody speaks some sort of indecipherable version of English and all you want to do is go home, curl up into the foetal position and hope it all goes away. But of course you can’t, you’re going to have to face it and figure it out and find out how the fuck you get to Brooklyn. Luckily, Tasman is all very good at this sort of thing when he gets going, and we get to our apartment and crawl up the stairs and breathe again.
Manhattan is like every cliché in the book. It’s like, literally, walking through a Woody Allen film, or living out Jerry Seinfeld’s paradigm, because everybody shouts in nasal intonations and beeps car horns and bustles past you like they’re really too busy for any of your shit, but you know they’re probably just on their way to Starbucks to use the WiFi. In fact, watching Seinfeld just isn’t funny in New York, it’s just grating, because everybody is a Jerry, and far too many people are a Kramer.
We arrive in the middle of a heatwave. Ninety degree heat in New York is unbearable. It works you down and pulls you back and dips you in a jar of tar and rolls you on the sidewalk. When we first go into Manhattan, getting out at Rockefeller Plaza because we like 30 Rock, we walk a while and hit Times Square. We almost go straight through it, and it’s only because of the tourists oohing and aahing and taking snaps of Coca Cola billboards that we realise that actually, this is virtually a monument. A bizarre, glowing, facile monument where, actually, nothing is monumental, except the TV screen is pretty big. And the M&Ms store has a surprising four stories of inspired merchandise. The tourists are the fuckers here, which of course means us as much as anyone. Always stopping and starting in the middle of the sidewalk and clogging up the streets while angry cab drivers beep them and threaten to run them down. New York is a city in which you constantly look up, because that’s where all the action is - all those perilously tall buildings and attention seeking billboards and ridiculously big bridges - but really people should be looking straight, because it’s next to them and around them and in between them that the real buzz is, in short, the New Yorkers. They’re funny and loud and can be horribly aggressive and impolite and also quite nice and gracious when it comes upon them. They’ll not be afraid of talking shit, but not like Canadians (who are so self aware and constant nice guys that they don’t really have much to talk about except the weather and Macys and anything that is unlikely to offend anyone). New Yorkers will talk shit all day, but they’re terribly funny.
Brooklyn is another matter from Manhattan. It’s a community in Brooklyn. It’s still, thankfully, a real stoop culture, and with the heatwave everybody sits out of their stuffy little apartments at every chance, and talk to neighbours and walk dogs and watch the world passing. It’s slower and Suburban and there’s not many chain shops, just a bunch of liquor stores and bagel shops and grocers and newsagents. The nearby park is filled with families playing after work and school and shooting one another with waterguns rather than Glocks, and kids are jumping under fire hydrants. There’s a real mix too, of Jews and Hispanics and blacks and whites, hipsters and grandmas and Mexicanos and Rabbis. There’s Queens and Harlem too, and of course The Bronx, which every good kid knows, that under no circumstances should they venture there alone, or even at all.
Of course, Manhattan is where all the action is, where all the kapow and tinsel and fireworks are, and we head there almost daily. Central Park is enormous and lovely and awfully unusual for something so big and green and violently peaceful to be smack-bang in the middle of such a large concrete labyrinth. And there are roads!! Roads through the park, with joggers and cyclists and skateboarders screaming down them in their hundreds, on one big exercise marathon. But even in such a big park there is the constant whir of cars and voices and car horns and marching bands and refrigerators and televisions and cyclists and scooters. The buzz, I suppose, of the modern world turning round. Perhaps two hundred years ago there would have been something closer to silence, where you might hear your own footsteps. But in modern New York you will never hear yourself…you walk and breathe and sometimes you even talk, but you may as well be miming, because the din will overwhelm and smother whatever you do. And in the end, you realise that New York is like those perpetual motion toys that executives have on mahogany desks to suggest intelligence, those four little silver balls that will hit one another forever, in one endless cycle. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack. Probably those little silver balls are desperately wishing it would all stop, that somehow there would be a break and one of them can make roll for it, but it’s always going to be perpetual motion. Equal and opposite reactions are what New York is all about.

Lucy Campbell

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