Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Eternal Genius of New York

It catches you by surprise.  Although your paths through the streets may be so well internalized that your mind-map of the place trumps Google's, and while your attitudes may shift from antipathy to the well-worn affection of a familiar, it still has the capacity to surprise.  To be new.  To always be new, within what is archetypal.

My office is in Midtown on 36th Street and 8th Avenue, which I like to refer to as the last of the New York that Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore were describing in Watchmen.  Every time I climb the stairs from the A or E onto the corner of 35th and 8th, I'm immediately confronted with a vulgar, boiling huddle of every type of human being from anywhere you can fathom jockeying past each other down a sidewalk that shouldn't seem so narrow.

My heavy backpack and my keen desire to get out of this waddling, driven tangle leads me to appreciate the rushing lineman looking for a lane to make it to the the next set of downs.  I move fast, twisting through narrow openings, often overwhelmed with the desire to throttle the oblivious person strolling at a turtle's pace like Ray Lewis would do to an opposing quarterback. Stopped at a light when the cars zoom by, it's like waiting for a snap.  And whether the light is with you or not, if there is an opening in the traffic, we all bolt ahead.

In the three to five minutes it takes to get from the train to my office, I'll have encountered something like 400 people, all weaving past me as I am them.  All of us the lead in our own fast-paced drama in a city that's the biggest stage in human history.

I can get down on it quite often.  I frequently think of New York as a city of nine million people jammed together and ignoring one another to survive.  The eye contact, the empathy that characterizes your smaller towns, or your Southern climes, is anathema here.  It's an easy place to feel alone.  And the kind of alone that can make you go mad.

And yet there are those rare, occasional moments where there is no option but to be jolted out of the bubble of self-protected anonymity, and where the city's simultaneously beautiful and fetid diversity must be taken in as a true expression of the sublime.  And when you're not the only one that sees it, and you can't help but make knowing eye contact with your neighbor who sees it too.


Walking to pick up lunch at 2 in the afternoon.  You pay on Seamless to avoid having to wait in an order line, but go out to appreciate the cool, deep blue splendor of the not quite autumn day.  The kind of day that says we survived the summer: bright clear sky and air that passes for fresh because we forgot what crisp air is.

From 36th to 40th along 8th Avenue is a strip of bodegas, bars, porno shops, shoe stores, sushi joints, chinese take-out, cosmetics shops, storefronts selling kung-fu DVDs and discount sex toys, wholesalers of off the rack fashion, hardware suppliers, a storage closet selling belts and backpacks, a 7-11, a Subway, White Castle, cheap electronics, stripper supply shops, a liquor store, barber shops, halal carts, discount department stores that carry everything you'd never want, and the ubiquitous dollar slice shops that have vanquished the hot dog as the dominant spare change food.

Some guy fresh from 1983 is hovering by a phone booth muttering: "Newport, Newport, Marlboro, Newport," the way they used to advertise some stronger smoke.  A psychic is sitting on a stool outside a store thrusting her hand with a card out into the pedestrian traffic.  A tall black guy in a bulky and flamboyant jacket wearing a soft blue and red striped top hat, big sunglasses, and a crooked, but confident gait patrols the stretch between 39th and 40th.  Walking back from picking up your sandwich he's in the face of a passing tourist shooting the scene with his camera phone.  "Hey, what's up, Steven Spielberg," he growls. 

It jolts you out of internal space, pops that bubble.  It catches you by surprise.  Suddenly you see that this is the real life version of the cantina scene from Star Wars, and why wouldn't you want to be just another weirdo alien here anyway? 

Look.  See: 

A beautiful pale young lady in a black leather spiked jacket, combat boots, blonde hair, studs pierced onto the top of her nose somehow tastefully complementing the ferocious green eye makeup that mirrors the green of her intricate breast plate tattoo.

A Latin boy with angular hair, one side shaved, with a grid of foreign characters that could be Sanskrit or Klingon tattooed into his scalp, wearing a shiny vest with shoulder pads that wouldn't be out of place in a 1990s X-Force comic.

Sporty ladies on the way from the gym, every single one of them takes your breath away.

A pudgy man in a wrinkled gray suit, greasy scalp going bald from worry but still accompanying Lady Gaga in his headphones.  "I want your love, and all your love is revenge, you and me could write a bad romance." 

Back at the desk, taking a bite of the sandwich that you'd immediately declare Bahn-Mediocre, you think back on the street.  Fuckin' New York, you sigh, both appreciative and amused.


After work, and after the gym, I get to be on the list for Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra's gig at Webster Hall.  When I get there, the place is packed.  At the bar, I discover they're selling iced coffee.  Genius!  I climb the stairs and onto the VIP balcony, trying not to feel like an imposter.

Ronald Reagan takes the stage.  Not a reanimated version of the GOP's messiah, but a 2-piece 80's pop saxophone group from Boston.  They belt out "Don't Stop Believing" and suddenly the young crowd bursts into spontaneous accompaniment.  At once I'm awed and horrified.  If F. Scott Fitzgerald had his Lost Generation, and Richard Hell was part of the Blank Generation, am I now looking at the Reconstituted Generation?  One where all of human history and culture is accessible, and beauty can be found in equal, possibly indiscriminate measure in both Beethoven and the Bee Gees?  There's nicer ways to say it and there's shittier ways to say it.  But either way, it's a hell of a thing to see a room full of people reciting by heart the words to a song that was old when they were conceived, and to do it with sincere force.

Reconfiguring, recontextualizing, and reclaiming the past, there's a lot of that going on tonight.  I had the best spot in the house, just above the front of the stage, where I could look down on the performers and look out at the audience, and the crew.  And so I was perfectly perched to see the fog machines billow a perfumed cloud into the hall while the front rows of devotees clutched white roses in anticipation of Amanda's arrival.  And when she emerged in her kimono, the roses flew to her feet.  But before Herself's performance came a surprise -- cabaret performer Meow Meow emerged in a crimson gown with a wreath of black feathers arching out from her back like a scrawny peacock's tail. She pulled a boy from the crowd onto the stage to kneel beneath her and hold her microphone while she rested her armpit on the crown of his head, leaned in, told him to hug her and then belted out a performance of knowing feminine dominance.  It's an echo of a dream of Weimar decadence.  It continues after the cabaret interlude.

Meow Meow has now gone up to the balcony and is perched over the crowd with a white megaphone to announce the arrival of Amanda Palmer.  Palmer is perched upon the shoulders of a man in a white tuxedo who carries her through the parting crowd and onto the stage amid the blast of big drums, big horns, and big guitars.

This was a transcendent performance by any measure.  The Grand Theft Orchestra brought a heavy rock grounding that was well complimented by carefully-deployed horn and string sections.  The content of the performance was an ascension of successive catharses.  An elegant sequence on loss opened with Palmer reading anonymous confessions that audience members had put in a box.  As each jarring recollection was made public, she became an avatar of vulnerability, and after reading the last painful scrap of memory, the stage was bathed in fiery orange light and an explosive, angry rendition of "Astronaut" brought a visceral sense of painful cleansing.  Later, the tempo of the songs having built as high as it seemed they could go, she dived into the crowd and they guided her, wearing a train the size of a parachute, in a full revolution of the hall.  In what seemed like it should have been the closing encore, Ronald Reagan came out to lead a rendition of "Careless Whisper" which started as Kraft Singles but wound up as imported Brie, with camera & video tech Sarah Lasley being offered the mic to perform the money shot of the song.  And somehow there was still another emotional bank to climb, leading into a wrenching version of "The Bed Song" and culminating in a "worry for the structural integrity of the building" foot-stomping audience-as-instrument rendition of "Leeds United."

The show was a triumph not merely because of Palmer's showmanship, but because it reflected extraordinary teamwork between the band, the crew and the management whose unity of vision developed a unique and substantial performance.  And, in one aside, Palmer pointed out that part of the intensity is the city itself, and all of the talented people who are here and who came to share her stage, and the emotional radiance of the crowd.

And I think a key part of that intensity is that we were a group of New Yorkers who, eleven years on from an indelible morning are starting to wake up on the eleventh day of September and absently remember, at some point in the day, what the day means.

"Hey, what's up, Steven Spielberg?"  Indeed.


After the show I met and congratulated Sarah Lasley who introduced me to Vickie Starr, Eric Sussman and Super Kate from Girlie Action, Amanda's management team.  I congratulated them as well -- their hard work was apparent and the result was superb.  In the after-show crew & VIP bar I was talking to Lauren Diamond, a musician who was standing next to me for the whole show and was awestruck the entire time.  In the middle of our conversation a grubby but pretty, thoroughly hammered young guy walked up to her and said, "I just want to say I'm drunk, and you're beautiful, and I really want to get your number."  She flustered entirely, and gave him her phone to enter his number, then accidentally called him when taking her phone back.

Later, I'd see him again on the L train back to Brooklyn.  He was still wearing his All Access sticker and cradling a giant plastic bag.  Another lady from the show with an All Access sticker was sitting across from me and they said "hey" across the train.  She asked what was in the bag.

"Beer!" he answered.  "I've got like fifty beers, they were giving them away.  Shit, does anybody want a beer?" he cried out to the half full train.  "Would anybody on this train like a beer?"

A middle aged guy with a strong Brooklyn accent and a salt and pepper crew cut in a royal blue polo shirt and khakis asked, "Are they cold?"

"Fuck yeah, they're cold.  Right out of the bucket.  You want one?"

"Yeah, I want one."

"Well, come on over and get it!"

So he walked over and got a can of Corona.  "Anyone else want a beer?"  Another lady raised her hand.  "Come on over!"  So she did too and they both cracked them open.  Those three downed their beers as the train shot through the tunnel.  A few folks got off at Bedford and a few more got on.  Again the question was raised, and this time, as we neared the last stop, the train was much less restrained.  Almost everyone got in on the offer and walked onto the platform with an open container.

I stepped out the Emergency Exit gate at Lorimer and held the door for a lady coming up from the same car on the train.  "Best late night train ride I've had in a long time," she laughed.  We shared our mutual amusement as we climbed the stairs, then wished each other a good night before turning our different ways.

Fuckin' New York.

It catches you by surprise.

It makes you look your neighbors in the eye and realize that sometimes that ain't so bad.

It's the city's eternal genius.

It's the city's immortal strength.

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