The city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo—Desmond Morris, British anthropologist
In my New York house-kept hotel bed, I have a dream.
My brother and I house-sit for a couple we’ve never met. The dwelling is covered in advertisements. A pelican-type bird stands outside, guarding the entrance. Its head is not visible unless it opens its gigantic beak, revealing its distended neck which stretches from beneath rows of razor sharp teeth.
We need petrol so we drive over to New York City on a bridge of burning electricity. I see the hairpin but my arms don’t listen and I fall through clouds. My brother reaches a hand through the veil, and my fingers brush his wrist. I fold and twist toward the ground, then find myself in a manse, drinking tequila; school-yard friends are now nuns undressing, stewardesses refill my cup as I cement the road by myself. I breathe in my dream as I do in sleep, and the chipped concrete invades my lungs, setting fast.
I tell my friends I’m going back to America tomorrow. I tell my friends I’m in Australia for a day.
I smell Times Square, and it smells of burnt technicolour and progress.
A tourist learns to fear the subway by association—television, literature, film. With nudists and sadists, Seinfeld and the gang experience the highs and lows of the track; Elaine comparing the crushing force of commuters with concentration camps. Paul Theroux ends his Subterranean Gothic pleading that the subway ought to be fixed—and soon. Subway Stories, an HBO produced anthology, gives us ten cautionary tales, each more horrific than the last, and each one of them true. They would have us believe that it is a dark place—a dangerous place—unclean, unsafe, untrustworthy. Rheumy-eyed veterans, their heads still lost in the miasma of their nation’s shared dream, find their sleep on benches. People leap to be consumed by the maw of oncoming monstrosities, and sleep on rails. It is a hall of the dead stewarded by rats and the homeless. And it is the heart of New York City.
I close my eyes and I hear that heart, struggling to pump coagulated blood through well-worn veins.
We’re riding the Downtown R, early morning, anticipating cheap Broadway tickets as the train throttles us towards the South Street Seaport. My partner and I wear leather gloves and earmuffs—cashmere necessary like it has never been before in the coldest of south-eastern Australian winters. Nothing moves inside or outside the train car; statues stand ready at stations, waiting for the doors to open so they can join the unmoving within.
The train is one of those old ones, creaking as it moves, and it lacks automated messages. Like a Lovecraftian horror it screams around corners as echoes bounce off concrete tunnel walls; an orchestra. Its sunburst orange-red chairs are garish, frightening, and full. The other passengers stare at the floor, averting their eyes in embarrassment, all of them wrapped in silence—all but the beggar.
Brother Can You Spare a Dime has become the new national anthem. Almost everywhere I go in New York the homeless are surely there, asking for money or jobs. I see one man outside a 6th Avenue KFC; every day that I walk past, he stands and pleads.
‘Lookin’ for a job, anything’ll do. Please, I just need the work.’
His voice is confident, he is above asking for money, yet he stands there each day, wearing the same worn woollen gloves. People give him money, and he thanks them, but they never give him what he needs.
People find other ways of making money though. The halls of the underground 34th St Station are often filled with sound; jazz ensembles squawk to audiences of many; an opera singer’s interpretation of I Could Have Danced All Night pierces through commuters rushing to their livelihoods. It is always a cacophony; there is always something or someone to listen to.
The beggar on the Downtown R wrings his hands, sweat slicked on this cold morning, though the air in the train car is stale. His clothing was white once; now his plastic bomber-jacket is a mess of holes, dirt and scratches. His Nike sneakers are damp. He looks lost in his middle-age —this city has devoured him, and all that’s left in his pocket is the money for a metro card. ‘We’re serious about safety—your safety’ the back of the card states in italics. Roughly 4.5% of New York’s suicides happen below the ground, yet the NYPD lists the causes of death as ‘unknown’. ‘Living on the edge? Just make sure it’s not the platform edge.’
He stands and looks at his fellow passengers from the front of the carriage, gathering whatever courage he has left, and raises his hands in supplication. He is one of tens of thousands, his former life misplaced.
‘I don’t normally do things like this’, his New Jersey accent twangs, ‘but I’m in real trouble here.’
You shield your eyes from the low-winter sun as you ascend from a hole in the ground.
The air up here is cleaner, crisper—Christopher Street, The Village. Trees slumber on the footpath, and there is a whisper of snowflakes and magic in the clouds. You walk Washington Place quite slowly, taking in what you see along the way: multi-coloured awnings; stoops leading to austere white doors; brick buildings faced by rust-red fire escapes; post-boxes colourful with graffiti. It’s as if you’ve walked into a Woody Allen movie. This is the New York you’ve seen before.
The street ends at a park, yet the street does not truly end at all. Spiked black gates stand sentry around its edges, keeping park-goers inside like animals. You walk past a lamp-post topped by a lantern and take the path to the left. You are greeted by elderly gentlemen playing chess; black and white alike stake kingdoms on false moves and age old strategy. The boards are permanent, concrete plinths placed in-between benches and chairs, and the pieces seem to appear from air. One man, his lips curled around a mouth full of splintered teeth, challenges a young boy to a match, but the boy’s mother refuses for him. The man places his cap on his head and tries to find another opponent.
The path splits, and you begin walking towards the heart of the park, the cherry-grey February trees leading you inward. There is a woman on a bench surrounded by bags and pigeons. Her hair is a nest, gunmetal grey and splitting. “There’s another computer chip you have to investigate!” she shrieks as you pass.
A squirrel blocks the path, his black eyes bold and twitchy. He scratches his head, moves, scratches, jumps onto a bench, scratches, twitches, rests. You have just enough time to snap a photo of him on your phone, before he rushes, running, twitching, scratching, runs to a dying tree. So far he has been the friendliest local, yet everyone ignores him as if he were not there.
Finally, you reach the centre of the park. The concreted ground leads to a large concave dome; a fountain, in days of high summer, reduced to an empty husk now. Black lamp-posts, each topped with five scoops-of-vanilla light-globes, stand vigil. Beneath one of them a group has gathered for an impromptu jamboree. Banjos, bongos and guitars permit sweet sounds into the afternoon air.
The Washington Arch rises triumphant to your right—New York’s own Arc de Triomphe. You can see Fifth Avenue stretching toward the horizon through the arch, as peoples of all climes take photos—posing overlong in anticipation of a flash. George Washington himself watches over the avenue—its sides lined by consumer culture—relieved in war and peace. He has had his fair share of it here: the ground you stand on has been drenched in the blood of bohemians, beatniks, and rioters; myriad joints and cigarettes have been extinguished by hippies, folksingers, and their returning veterans; thousands came to see their first black leader campaign. You walk towards the arch, pass beneath it, and look up at the sculpted marble. Imposing, it blocks the sun from your view, and you are left in the shadow.
They raised a standard to which the wise and honest could repair, yet their god was replaced.
You continue on down Fifth Avenue.
A dead man’s heart dripped on a canvas. ‘It’s a Pollock,’ my brother tells me. It is chaos.
With the other tourists shuffling through, we move clockwise on polished floorboards. The monotony of walking is highlighted by pinpricks of the sublime, but it is the names that jump out at me: Warhol, Picasso, van Gogh—whether the art itself is good or bad, history has shaped us to revere it, and we all do. Tourist shoe cramp and scuff as white space made by white white walls makes up the majority of the exhibit. They have their Monet money made; made on memories that I will lose.
Post-modernist text dominates the classics, art becoming an expression of interpretation rather than realism. ‘A wall pitted by a single air rifle shot’ stretches in bold black stencil and people look for the hole unsuccessfully. A section of the wall is missing in one room, the interior of the building exposed and naked, 36” x 36” removed. A chair and table defy gravity, as does the crockery and cutlery made up for no one. I stand beneath the table and look up; modern art. Black text on white—cats in bag, bags in river.
Minimalism meets feminism as scrotums made from panty hose and sand sag from the ceiling and walls, filling an entire room with their dangling; confusing most, enlightening some. There is a fish tank with three basketballs floating in it. An exhibit is made from high fashion photographs, American models posing unrealistically for Kleins and Laurens, paired with quotes from victimised Eastern-European women, but we don’t have time for it. A Kahlo self-portrait is dominated by her infamous mono-brow. van Gogh’s Starry Night is photographed extensively, as people stand awkward next to something they’ve only ever seen falsely. We walk through it all, seldom talking, but taking in what rich thoughts and ideas we can on our last day in America.
The polished floor in one room is covered with silver wrapped candies, untitled placebo. I seize one, unwrap it, as others have before me, and eat the candy. It will be infinitely replenished. Jokes disguised as long hand poetry are scribbled on browning paper enclosed beneath a glass case—disguised as art. A black square and a red square is a boy with a knapsack on canvas; a bronzed statue lacking a head is modernism’s obsession with speed; a pregnant gaze follows us on every floor, as Lady Rosa of Luxembourg rests on her plinth in the centre of the museum. I can’t remember what the candy tasted like.
I enter a room with numerous televisions in it, I don’t know how many, set up on organised scaffolding. VCRs hooked up to each one show the last year of a man’s life. His cancer has already killed him, yet each hour of each day of his last three-hundred and sixty-five is filmed. The content is jarring. He continues working throughout; so many of the TVs show him in an office, writing, creating, and living true art. Occasionally he will freeze on the screens, and static will horizontally block my view. Then he goes to black, and the tape rewinds.
‘Happy Wednesday everybody!’ he yells from the back of the train car. He and his companions then break into a pitch-perfect version of Let it Shine, complete with harmonies. With my back turned towards them I listen, trying to turn my head. Other passengers remain how they were; mute and uninterested.
As they get closer to me, I hold out a dollar bill, and one of them takes it with a sing-song ‘thank-you sir’, still in harmony—learn to love thy neighbour. They run out of verses conveniently at the next station, and I see them exit our car, only to enter the next one.
‘Happy Wednesday everybody!’ is the last thing I hear before the doors close, and the beast awakens once more.
We’re on another line, late at night, and a man fills the space with his voice. He is loquaciousness personified in a camel-brown jacket, his pocked face framed by glasses, greying hair. His attaché grips the tips of leather gloves as he anchors his feet to the shifting black floor.
‘I know I’m getting old when nothin’ works, and I realise it.’ This is gospel from a subterranean saint, sharing cynical wisdom. Others around him, cramped beneath the gaudy advertisements and lights, do not acknowledge his sage counsel; their ears are blocked, their eyes kindled, their arses cold on chilled blue benches.
‘It works though man, it’s just changing,’ laughs his temporary companion, who may as well be Samuel L. Jackson doing research for a role, his face and voice the spitting image. He is dressed in the sombre blue of a Metropolitan Transport Authority worker, one cog in the machine of six thousand, a beanie worn to reject the evening crispness. He comes and goes from a room at the end of the train car, his voice accented authority as he tells us to stand clear of closing doors please. The two men compare notes, one-upping each other; every stop-and-start transition of the train is a new topic, a fresh gripe.
‘People outside Macy’s, they got a sitting arcade there? I mean, on one of the busiest streets of the city? Who’d wanna sit outside Macy’s?’
‘People sit there!’
‘I know they sit there, I sit there myself!’
Each time we get to a stop, the conductor disappears through his door, and we hear his voice, tinny and cold. Then he reappears, and their conversation begins again, and so does the train, winding up through sound. Starting small, it builds slowly, finally reaching a crescendo of white-churned waves clashing against a cape. Jagged stones are the screech and scrape of metal wheels on over 900 kilometres of track. It is deafening, definitive. Their conversation is interrupted by it, enhanced by it, made by it.
‘I grew up here.’1
‘I grew up here too.’2
‘So did I!’3
Their conversation ends for us when we arrive at our stop, the terminal the end of the illusion. Someone says goodbye, but not to us. As the train screams into life again, we’re left in a tiled monastery, patronised by a single rat, waiting for a train by the yellow line, near the edge. Another train promptly rushes in on the track opposite, and the rat is made monstrous by the floodlights, dark pillar silhouettes his kingdom. We pass through the metal gates and turnstiles for the last time, as people waiting behind them snort and huff their breath into the air, looking for all the world the caged, animal denizens of civilisation’s biggest zoo. The final words of the two men echo off concrete walls.
‘They don’t care ‘bout us, they don’t care ‘bout nobody.’
I’m driving through suburban Geelong after missing the 29th of February. The phenomenon of missing a day by means of travel is usual, but missing a day which only comes once every four years has thrown me off kilter. I haven’t driven in two weeks, and I’m thoroughly jetlagged, but I make it to the local shopping centre without incident. People walk around in shorts and singlets, relishing the last of the summer sun with the arrival of autumn, and everyone’s accent is so…Australian.
The shopping centre is a squat brick building, filled to the brim with lower to middle class suburbanites, and I realise that I yearn for America already. It feels like everyone in the centre is looking at me, but I’m being paranoid. In fact, I am the one looking at them.
I get my ‘I heart New York’ Zippo filled up, and tell the woman behind the counter that I left from John F. Kennedy airport this morning, which was actually two days ago. In a taxi with its boot to New York City I listen to a band from Chicago on a Californian designed iPod (made in China) and I don’t want to leave.
Looking back on Manhattan, I see a combination of past, present and future; dreams and desires in equal parts fulfilled and crushed while races and cultures jigsaw between Ginsberg’s granite cocks and two oceans. I see myself walking its streets, sampling its wares, eating its burgers and fries, drinking its terrible coffee. I see myself walking into Times Square for the first time.
We arrived at our hotel late on a rain-choked night, the hour long drive from J.F.K. torturous, as our Jamaican taxi driver decided to have his heater on full blast while we three—my girlfriend, brother and I— near suffocated, squished into the back seat in silence. We quickly checked in to our 34th St hotel, put our bags in our room, and caught our first glimpse of the Empire State Building through the window, its tip lit up red, white and blue for the upcoming President’s day weekend, piercing the clouds around it. We decided to explore.
While walking down Broadway’s reflective, rain soaked footpath, we began to smell something burning; electricity, or the scent of an overused model-car track, became more obvious as we kept strolling. We smelt Times Square before we saw it—all one-hundred and eight years of it. Our surrounds got brighter and brighter as we neared, until it was as if the afternoon sun was out. Conglomerates and franchises lit up the footpath as hundreds of people—mostly tourists—crammed onto the street, all of them with hands in pockets. Traffic masquerading as cars clogged the streets we ran to cross; yellow taxis everywhere. ‘I heart New York’ was plastered ubiquitously—as was Lady Liberty herself—and Elmos, Marios, and Naked Cowboys roamed the night. Colours pierced as the sounds all around us turned to a static mush. It was auditory overload incarnate. It was where civilisation and capitalism had dragged us screaming.
It was a bug lamp for humankind, and it had attracted new victims.
‘No one likes Times Square,’ a bearded hipster working at a waffle truck in Bryant Park tells us, ‘not the locals anyway. Red Hook is the place to go.’
We went to Red Hook, subsequently got lost, and wandered through a ghetto; housing projects seen for the first time in real life took on a sinister edge. The only refuge we could find was in that most Swedish of franchises; IKEA.
So we became Times Square junkies; its closeness to our hotel half the appeal, the other half being the myriad worlds we visited in the theatres that lined it. I never saw the night sky stars in New York City, but I did see them on the stage. The restaurants were terrific too on the back of a strong Australian dollar, and once we got past the gargantuan serving sizes, we ended up frequenting some of them often. It is a carnival ride on the highest setting, sweeping to and fro, but safely enough that tourists can board it. Anthony Bourdain, apparently renowned New York chef and writer, laments the loss of its hard edge; when one could buy an ounce of whatever-their-poison and take in a sex show all on the strip. And I’ll admit that what I saw had changed from his New York, but not in as many ways as he thinks.
Our experiences in the Square changed every day. A young black man collecting for the homeless outside the Hershey’s store named upwards of thirty Australian cities for us once he learned where we were from, and I stood there enraptured as he named towns even I didn’t know. He had endeavoured to learn the origins of every person who had ever given him a donation. A Puerto Rican jokingly insulted our ‘white people’ names before inviting us to a comedy club. We subsequently evaded him and made an escape. A Jewish couple cut in front of us at a felafel fast-food chain, the man grieving his lost dollar as he had to pay for extra hummus. A woman in KFC cautioned my girlfriend on her handbag placement, warning that people would not be loath to steal it from beside her chair, before giving us a god bless. Almost every person we talked to thanked us for the weather, as the late winter temperature had not lowered to its usual standard. No matter their race or creed, each one was a proud American, and each one had a story.
Yet each day that brought us there, more and more we understood why the locals avoided Times Square.
On the final day of our two-week stint in America we decide to visit one last time—to capture in our memory the definitive New York City. Walking past stores we have seen but never patronised, we make last minute purchases for ourselves and family. We go to stores we have been to before, just to look around and obtain the most visual of recollections.
Outside the Disney store, in broad daylight, we are confronted.
Five men saunter over with an affectation of limping, their hands clutching blank CD cases. My girlfriend, none-the-wiser, keeps on walking as they cut off my younger brother and I.
‘Hey guys, CDs for ten dollars! We’ll even sign them for ya.’
They all shout variations, but the message is the same—we want your money. We try to um and ah our way out of it, but they press in, puffy coats scratching against others as they close in on us; pack mentality. Two focus me, and I tell them I don’t have any cash on me, patting my pockets in an effort to get them off the scent. They badger me for a bit before finally giving up and, relieved, I turn to find my brother with his wallet out, twenty dollars in the hand of the man in front of him.
‘Don’t have a ten huh? Signatures bump’em up to twenty,’ they seem to say in unison, as the others claw the air, asking where their share is. One scribbles on a CD case without even looking, smudging the black marker, and shoves it towards my brother’s chest, before they give up asking for their money and limp off. I try to talk to my brother, console him, but am left with the back of his head as he stalks off down Broadway.
I didn’t ask him he what he did with the CD until two weeks later, when we were back in Australia, but I already knew the answer.
By: Jonathon Lawrence