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Wed, May. 6th, 2009 08:25 am
The lapidary new New York

It's almost worth staying away from a city you love just to get the raw rush of impressions it gives you when you come back. The two cities I love most are New York and Tokyo, and I spend most of my time staying away from them, getting used to other places. Then I return and let them rush into me like water into a dry sponge. Here's what that water-rush (a particularly wet one this week) has felt like this time.



The experience of getting from JFK to Manhattan is incredibly shocking to someone who's been in Europe for a while. You'd expect some kind of fast, convenient rail service. Instead, it can feel like playing Resident Evil. On Saturday evening I arrived at the Delta terminal -- a place so devoid of basic services it doesn't even have an ATM -- and followed the signs up a grim concrete ramp to another Delta terminal, which did have an ATM, then followed directions to the Air Train. Getting there involved walking along some crumbling semblance of a sidewalk next to a battered crash ramp. Surely this isn't how an airport in "the capital of the world" should be?

The elevated Air Train would be great if it ran right into central Manhattan. Instead, all it does is circle the terminals and connect them to the parking lots and the subway. At Howard Beach I can't find the main entrance, and am ushered onto the system free by some burly men guarding a side door. There's a constant procession of people passing along the platform. I don't know where they're coming from or going to, and all I can imagine is "hell", so Hieronymous Bosch-ishly deformed do they look. Some are stunted, many wear skulls and skeleton bones on their jackets, most are talking to themselves.



It takes ages for a train to come, and when one does, it's labelled "NOT IN SERVICE". The humans on the platform ignore this, and some of the train's doors are forced open. We all rush into the carriages to escape the chilly night. Inside a toothless woman is talking into a cellphone which is obviously fake, the mere objective correlative of her mental illness. "I'm at the airport. Wait for me! I love ya, Mike!" she says. When I change at Broadway Junction she's still having this conversation with "Mike". I can't help imagining that Mike is someone who died some time ago.

A European forgets just how extreme the gap between the rich and the poor -- or between Brooklyn and Manhattan -- is. The first thing I think, experiencing the subway (and I do still prefer taking it than bouncing over potholed roads in a spongy service car or yellow cab, and experiencing the aggression of road traffic) is: "The recession is hitting the poor in America particularly hard. The poor are poorer than ever."

There's a noticeable change in mood when the L train gets to the Jefferson stop. Previously the passengers have been glum, wary, crazy, slightly menacing. Now young white "chattering class" types get on. They're in couples or groups, and they won't stop talking. For them life is clearly much easier. They're going out on a Saturday night, spending money, enjoying themselves. As the L train approaches Manhattan, more and more of these effervescent young white people get on, and the volume levels increase.

Finally we're in Manhattan itself, and the subway starts to feel like an elevator, shuttling up and down the thin "skyscraper" of the island. Now it's a world city. There are rich people in camelhair coats, elderly Jews who look like New Yorker cartoons, rotund Mexicans, slim black career women, Japanese with faces of utter neutrality, avoiding all contact, red-faced Bridge and Tunnel people. The adverts are about learning English, or getting plastic surgery, or getting arrested and calling a lawyer (1-800-INNOCENT).



At this point another New York begins, the New York where I am an incredibly spoilt performance artist with people being nice to me, where my British accent sounds exotic and charming, where I feel famous just walking past the famous buildings. Now I can make trivial, incremental observations. There are almost no record stores left in this New York: the Virgin Megastore on Union Square is having its final sale before closing down, Kim's on St Mark's Place has vanished, Tower of course is long gone, Other Music soldiers on but looks a bit faded.

Vanessa Weng has expanded her original dumpling place on Eldridge (I'm a bit sad the old zinc hot sauce hole-in-the-wall has gone) and given it a semi-chic interior. Now yuppies sit beside her original Chinatown clientele. The Kinokuniya at the Rockerfeller Center has closed down, but has relocated to a three-storey store at nearby Bryant Park, expanding to include books about the whole of Asia. UNIQLO does roaring trade on Broadway, and Kiosk gives Spring Street a touch of the third world design chic Berliners know from OK Versand. Cheap is obviously the thing to be right now.



The New Museum is fantastic but completely anomalous, a luminous bubble of Tokyo in New York. More typical of the new face of New York are the opalesque mini-towers cropping up all over: Moby's hotel and the blue building in the Lower East Side, a yellow one going up nearby, some Gehry apartment buildings in Chelsea, a new Cooper Union building opposite the Village Voice office. These modestly-scaled lapidary bevelled mirror-clad buildings appear to be the current face of affluent New York; there are few new buildings on the scale -- or with the personality -- of the 20th century titans. For Manhattan, the 21st century so far is slightly bathetic; it isn't even trying to rival the 20th. Leave that to Shanghai, I guess.



At street level, though, the city hasn't lost its edge of affable craziness, nor its capacity to quicken your pace and charge you up with some of its energy. New York is the only city I know that moves as fast as the internet. I love walking around it -- even in the rain (which, this week, has never let up). There's something incredibly exciting about seeing clouds engulf the tops of the Kafkaesque skyscrapers of midtown.

33CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 12:53 pm (UTC)

these first impressions on arrival in a city are some of my favorite entries of yours to read. i take to making them myself when i arrive in new places now and i find that they are the best journal entries to look back on at a later time.

also, for future reference, just take the LIRR to/from Jamaica Station as a link between Manhattan and JFK. it takes about 15 minutes maximum and is much more comfortable. not nearly as good for people-watching, though, unless you get stuck in a carriage with drunken, rowdy long islanders on their way to or from the city. then you'll have a real idea of hell.


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dabroots
dabroots
dabroots
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC)

Excellent observations about the JFK Airport environment, and the process of getting to, and from it. Even New Yorkers hate it, although many know anything different if they happen to have particular destinations with flights available only from that airport. LaGuardia is somewhat better, but still maddening.

From your time living on the Lower East Side, you probably remember St. Mark's Records a bit further up in the East Village, and it was still there as recently as last November, and you can find some real gems at J&R Records, down near City Hall and toward the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Edited at 2009-05-06 01:11 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks

Just to congratulate you for this post... it was a very nice reading moment!!! Thanks

Pedro Félix


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krskrft
krskrft
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 01:23 pm (UTC)

You're so right about JFK. One of the most miserable, pathetic airports I've ever set foot in (aside from the one in Orlando, FL). I had a similar problem navigating JFK, only I was trying to get from one terminal to another (Delta to Korean Air, I think). And oddly, I had to go outside, which I thought was a really strange design feature.

Hearing your description, though, it strikes me that that version of America is so absolutely foreign and exceptional. I think it's tempting to feel that the Big Apple houses the distilled essence of the "American experience" at any given moment, but it really is the urban equivalent of Texas, another country unto itself.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 02:05 pm (UTC)

I'd recommend the music show at Highline Ballroom on 26th May.

Edited at 2009-05-06 02:06 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 01:55 pm (UTC)

Well, at least New York City has some semblance of airport-to-city public transportation (though the other two cities I know best, Boston and Chicago have better systems for the most part). As you no doubt know already, just try getting from Podunk to Nowheresville without your own wheels or at least a good hitch-hiker's thumb almost anywhere else in the Grand Union. Amtrak and Grayhound are nice if you have all the time in the world and don't mind the grunge.

D_ D_

PS Could we now have a moratorium on the adjective "Kafkaesque"? I am willing to go with "Ballardian" for a while longer.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)

Well, but there's a pre-1925 feel to some of the most mysterious bits of Manhattan that only Kafkaesque really captures (I'm thinking of the Stoker chapter of Amerika).

I might settle for Chirico-esque, though. Skyscrapers have a pittura metafisica feel for me.


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cityramica
cityramica
cityramica
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)

since there seems to be a break in the rain today, i'm riding out to Coney Island. I circle around Manhattan every day, so I'm beginning to taking train lines to the ends of the earth, or maybe today straight into the ocean.

i was very sad when kim's on st marks closed. &they shipped all their rental videos to Sicily for that neverending festival.


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vogdoid
vogdoid
vogdoid
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)

this is kind of how I felt in NYC last fall. I'm going to Tokyo tomorrow for the first time since 2004...so excited that I haven't planned at all.


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nickneyland
nickneyland
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)

Kim's is still around, just in a smaller store. It's on 1st Ave between 7th and 8th now.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC)

Yeah, they told me that at Other Music. I said "Are there any record stores left in this city?" And they directed me to Kim's, after being unable to provide any Martin Rev CDs themselves.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 06:10 pm (UTC)

I've been sequestered in my Brooklyn Apartment for the past 3 days. Thank you for reminding me of how jaw-droppingly amazing New York City is. I'm grabbing the next train into Manhattan.
Thanks.


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uberdionysus
uberdionysus
Troy Swain: Black Box Miasma
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)

Dead on. I feel the same impressions, but on a guttural level.

And Vanessa's still has the good hot sauce behind the counter. It's out of sight and only for those who know it is there (i.e., the old customers).


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)

Felt I needed to add my appreciation for a very nice piece of writing. Sometimes, the more straight-forward entries are your best but then I am a sucker for your observational pieces . Actually, 20th Century Momus songs were a little like this too.

Good luck with the show.

Richard


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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC)



one of my fave django bates' reworkings, intercut in this rather poin`tless clip.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
New York POV


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 11:00 pm (UTC)

“Fried to perfection in giant cast-iron skillets, their charred, crispy bottoms and perfectly cooked tops yield a treasure trove of succulent pork and scallions within. A smattering of soy sauce and a dash of hot sauce and a perfect snack awaits your gullet.

“If dumplings are not your preferred snack, order one of the sesame pancakes with beef. A sandwich made of the bread like sesame pancake, anise flavored beef, cilantro, carrots and various sauces, the taste is unlike anything you've ever tried- unless you've been to Beijing.”

Oh man did this make me drool. We used to walk down to Chinatown every Sunday morning for dim sum.





Edited at 2009-05-06 11:01 pm (UTC)


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Wed, May. 6th, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC)


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