The City… My ‘The City’

25 April, 1999 at 11:37 pm (uncategorized)

“The City… My ‘The City’”: Opportunities Within The Northeast’s Cultural Mecca

Everyone knows that you have to go to The City in order to have a good time. This is common knowledge, which is perhaps why I — in my capacity as uncommon denominator — have never found it to be true. I found out long ago that the life of the mind is the only life truly worth living, and the gratuitous mental pleasures were not all that hard to come by. My library card is free, even if my weekly comic book subscription is not.

I have visited New York City four times now. Once as a child of eight, I was at a craft fair at NYU. Over the course of a weekend I purchased a DC Comics Shazam matchbox car for far too much money, watched the Munsters for the first time, ate peanut butter ice cream and got the chicken pox.

Time number two, I was 18, looking at Columbia. I rode in my first cab, had Belgian waffles with a pretty girl at Tom’s Diner, was offered drinks by adults who had forgotten that the drinking age had been raised to 21 some years earlier, read a book by Uma Thurman’s dad, and got turned down by Columbia. No one had told me it was an Ivy League school.

When I was 20, my family and I did all the tourista stuff: we took the Ferry, shopped on 5th Avenue, peered into the window at Tiffany’s, ate dinner in Chinatown, rode up and down the elevators in both the Empire State and FAO Schwartz, gawked at Trump Plaza, and climbed the Statue of Liberty.

And I looked at the huddled masses, on street corners, in subways, yearning to breathe free — or at least breathe something akin to fresh air. And I wondered why this hollow-eyed stretch of tar and exhaust was the shimmering jewel in the crown of the Northeast. I wondered why so many Skidmore students couldn’t wait to head down to the city where they could find some Life.

A friend of a friend visited Boston recently, driving west from The City to visit for a few days. She was stultified by Boston: “It has no pulse,” she said.

(Let me point out here that Boston, when I was growing up in New Hampshire, was “the City.” After prolonged beatings I no longer refer to it as such.)

I have asked many people what she meant by that. A city is not a living thing. I like it when a city is organic, personally. Boston, being built on old roads and wagon paths, has a jumbled bedlam quality, with nooks and crannies and secrets for those who seek them. Cities that have been built up over a period of time have a character in their physiognomy. I look at maps of places like Chicago, and am afraid of the city planners who build their roads using a sheet of graph paper as the guide. No human should live in a grid; it’s unnatural. But while a city may be organic, it is not alive. What is the pulse of a city? One friend offered that perhaps it is the traffic, to which I countered that I had then run into many clots driving in. But other people told me that the energy of its inhabitants provides a feeling of life, of activity that gives the city a driving beat, a pulse. Political activity, clubs open until… well, forever, theatre, constant revolving exhibits of culture and fascination.

And I would buy that if I had seen a single person who was smiling. The only toothy grins were on the grimy faces of children younger than 10, too young to be preoccupied. Even groups of friends that I passed were weighted down, their “happy” conversations muffled by leaden skies and overpopulation. As a tourist, I was rubbernecking, alive to everything, and all that I saw in response was blunted fatigue.

Some observations:

  • Even jaded, “nothing can surprise us anymore” New Yorkers gave me odd looks as I passed by in my black trenchcoat. Colorado on my mind.
  • $9.50 for a movie ticket?!?! People around where I am got uptight when prices were raised to $7.25. But if people will still go to the cinema — and they do. Huge, stadium style amphitheatres with nosebleed seats sell out nightly, so advance sales outlets are all the rage — and pay such ludicrous prices, suburban theaters know that they can safely inflate fees. Very sad. I saw “Rushmore” for the second time. Still really, really good.
  • The current exhibit at the MoMA on Alfred Hitchcock’s films is a must-see for classic film aficionados. With some elegantly painted storyboards from The Birds and North By Northwest on display, a constantly running documentary on Hitch himself, a gallery of his trademark cameo appearances, set designs for the apartment in Rope, vintage posters, and personal letters on display, the exhibit is a masterpiece. Fun, well-organized, it merely begs whether is has been housed appropriately. Hitchcock is a great director, certainly… meticulous, crafty. But is it art? His films are, yes, but does a display of paraphernalia really belong in MoMA? The current main floor exhibit displaying artists examining the concept of the museum is brilliant and appropriate, however.
  • The New York City Public Library has recently had some refurbishing going on, and construction is completed. The restored reading room is a delight to behold, and it makes one feel good to know that such a glorious waste of space from an earlier age can be preserved in an area that is desperately overcrowded. Saratoga should have preserved more of its ancient storefronts and hotels, and Broadway suffers from their loss. The vaulting ceilings and stately staircases of the Library have a magnificence that makes a visitor feel good about just being there. Currently on display are a collection of letters, documents, and first editions belonging to Vladimir Nabokov. Including the famous chintzy heart-shaped sunglasses worn by Lolita, Nabokov’s lecture notes on Ulysses (and a map tracing Bloom’s route from pub to pub to pub) to students at Cornell, many of his infamous notecards from Speak, Memory, and an amazing collection of first editions, the exhibit is fascinating. A particular joy is a copy of collected stories from “The New Yorker”, where Nabokov has graded each short story in the margins of the table of contents. Besides his own stories, only J.D. Salinger and Shirley Jackson receive A’s.

So I tried to press my fingers to the wrist of The City and take its pulse, and I think I felt a faint flutter. But the truth is it is only easier to find or even trip over great happenings and opportunities in The City. Fascinating things happen nearby wherever you are, but you have to work to find them. Concerts, small original plays, a new fish and chips joint, and a science fiction opera have all been available to be experienced in my hometown over the last month, but they weren’t presented to me on a platter. If that is truly all The City offers: a more user-friendly menu, then I think I prefer to stay home in my municipal hamlet, and become aware of what’s going on around me. This small-C city could be an active community as well, if people didn’t sell it short, and abandon it for neon pastures.

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