I was at the Palm Restaurant in lower Manhattan when it all became terrifyingly clear. It was the culminating dinner of the leadership program that I had traveled to New York City for. This is significant in three ways:
1. There was a large group of us there from around the country
2. It was a free meal
3. The fact that anyone still thinks of me and “leadership” in the same sentence means that clearly not enough people are reading this blog. Must revisit our Marketing Plan (Step One: Siri, what’s a Marketing Plan? Siri? Siri???? SIRI!!!!!! TALK TO ME!!!!! Oh wait, right, this is a Blackberry. Crud.)
Anyhoo, there were four items on the menu Salmon, Steak, Roast Chicken in Something Something Sauce and Token Vegetarian Slop. When I looked at the menu, I remember thinking “hmmm..steak feels kind of heavy- I think I’ll get the fish” and I ordered accordingly without thinking more of it. Well, after a few minutes, the waiter arrived in white jacket and tie and began dealing out steaks to everyone at my table like sizzling, delicious blackjack cards. On every plate was a huge, juicy lump of meat – manly and thick like an offensive lineman who blocks arteries instead of linebackers. And on my plate- there was a pale, anemic, flaky piece of fish that was probably terrified of dodgeball when it was alive and almost certainly allergic to peanuts. I looked around my table and saw my colleagues shoveling spoonfulls of creamed spinach from steaming tureens and building enormous Druid burial mounds out of sliced mushrooms to honor the dead cows on their plates. While on my plate was a cold little iridescent yellow dab of bland corn relish- not so much a compliment to my entrée as a snide remark- a sarcastic little “Nice fish. Whatsa matter? Can’t chew beef cause your vagina hurts?” of an asshole side dish on my plate. And, it was at this point, I realized that the unthinkable had happened- I had turned into the sort of person who ordered fish at a steakhouse- AND I WASN’T EVEN PAYING FOR IT. I had become, and there’s no nice way of putting this, a Californian. New York may have changed a lot in twelve years- but evidently I had changed even more. At least I didn’t get the Token Vegetarian Slop- I would have had to light myself on fire to protest my douchebaggery- which would have been totally at odds with my raw foods diet. Thank God I moved to LA not to Portland.
So….New York. Yeah. My relationship with New York is like my relationship with Saturday Night Live- I discovered it when I was young, was really into it for a while, got kind of sick of it and left before it got lame and now there’s no way I could possibly stay awake late enough to enjoy it. This is actually a common phenomenon which psychiatrists refer to as the “Belushi Curve” – which, depending on how old you are, can also be referred to as the “Piscopo Parabola”, “Farley Bulge”, “Fallon / Fey Update” and the “Samberg….uhm….Whatever is applicable to Andy Samberg” – Andy Samberg- that’s a thing right? Google- what’s Andy Samberg? Google…GOOGLE!!!! Oh, right, this is a banana. Crap.
My New York era was the mid – late 90’s. Good years, if not great- the equivalent in SnL terms let’s say to the Dennis Miller, Hans & Franz, Church Lady era. Everything was changing in the City- Bill Bratton was working hard to lower the crime rate and Giuliani was working hard to take credit for it and as a result the City was edgy but not really dangerous. Like Green Day, I suppose, if we lived in some magical world where Green Day didn’t totally suck- so, maybe like The Offspring- but Self Esteem Offspring- not Pretty Fly for a White Guy Offspring. Wow, this is getting weirdly specific. Ok, let’s just say it was still very much a Lou Reed kind of town- only he was Waiting for the Man at the Starbucks on 79th St. Sure, there were still heroin dealers on Avenue B, but they seemed more quaint than menacing, more like animatronic pirates than possible killers. CBGB’s was still open as a photo op for German tourists in their unstylish jeans and absurdly stylish eyeglasses (are they compensating for the red jeans with the glasses? If so- not working.) . It was getting harder to find an apartment below 96th Street, but also getting harder to be murdered there. And if you did find yourself living in Brooklyn, you would do the honorable thing and make excuses for it. (“Yeah, I know- but it’s a totally amazing apartment. Two bedrooms, big kitchen, laundry in the building- and it’s just, like $1250 a month. And if I take the N to the F to the B train, it’s just 37 minutes to midtown. My parents are totally freaking out about it but I’m, like, relax, it’s Park Slope. It’s totally safe- there’s Starbucks here, for God’s sake. It’s not like I’m living in Williamsburg. Can you imagine?”) For a year or so, I was one of these Brooklyn apologists, but then I wound up like so many Suburban Expats in the Upper Upper Upper East Side – or SoSpa as we called it (South of Spanish Harlem) in a world of white paint, white shirts and white people. We lived in a box up four flights of stairs with panoramic views of an Airless Shaft and Some Guy’s Kitchen- landmarks familiar to many New Yorkers, and we desperately held on to this overheated little neo-tenement like a the roof of a car in a hurricane of gentrification until we were finally worn out and requested an airlift to California where it was warm and safe and dry and boring.
That was 12 years ago, and I hadn’t been to New York since until this past week. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about returning. Living in New York, for me, you see was a hard habit to break- almost as hard as it will be to get that fucking Chicago song out of my head now that I’ve used that phrase. Damn it! This is almost as bad as when Stacy introduced me to her mother who, I’m sad to say, had almost nothing going on. Anyhow, I was hopelessly addicted to the relentless energy of the City- the lights, the sound, the throbbing crowds always pushing forward and the sparkling promise of something amazing just out of reach. It was like living in a casino where I gambled with time- just one more day, one more month, one more year- if I can just get up at this club, nail this audition, direct this play, get this agent, meet this manager and go go go go go go drink this, eat this, smoke this, take this go go go go go- up at 8, work at 9, rehearsal at 5, stand up at 9, rehearsal at midnight, drinks at 2, diner at 4, crash at 5, up at 8, work at 9, puke at 10 and go go go go go go just one more year, things are just starting to change, just starting to happen, just starting to cook for me I’m gonna be big, I’m gonna be huge- just one more month, one more day, one more year until, at 28, I looked around, counted the days I had lost and got the hell out.
I was married by then and had started to slow down, anyhow, and I realized that I could find anything I could possibly ever want in New York except a semblance of normalcy and a dishwasher. Cause living in the City warped my perspective. Sure, I could casually walk by a one legged trannie debating the merits of rim jobs with a midget with no nose and not bat an eye, but take me to a Target in the suburbs and I would stare agape with wonder like a child at the North Pole at the unbelievable variety of stuff I could just buy in one brightly lit enchanting place- and the space! Aisles so wide you can roll two carts down them! A whole aisle devoted to picture frames! PICTURE FRAMES! Produce that isn’t actually rotten, yet! Paper towels sold in unimaginable quantities- a 24 pack of Brawny???? No one could possibly store that many paper towels in their home- it’s unthinkable!! What kind of castles do these people live in? Donald Trump couldn’t store more than a 12 pack into his kitchen, and that includes the space above the fridge. And yet, outside the City- all things were possible. I remember weeping unabashedly, like an Israelite by the rivers of Babylon, as I watched my sister do laundry in her house without quarters. It was clearly time to go.
So, yeah, I was ready to leave the City when I did- but I still worried that it would be hard to come back. I afraid that I would catch a whiff of that City smell- that intoxicating blend of food cooking everywhere, stale tunnel air shoved up through subway grates by passing trains and faint, unmistakable traces of urine and it would like plunking down an open bottle of Sambuca in front of a long sober alcoholic- I may not fall off the wagon, but the horse would sure as hell buck and it would be a long, bumpy ride before he settles down again. But, instead….I felt nothing. Well, that’s not totally true- not exactly nothing- there was kind of a bemused curiosity tinged with nostalgia and the ghosts of affection- like having coffee with an Ex years after you broke up. I was glad to see the old place, genuinely happy that she was doing so well for herself, a little taken aback, at how different she looked and mostly just astonished that we were ever able to stay together for so long.
OK- just to be clear- this is my perspective on the situation. New York, for her part, could have given a shit. She took my money, posed for some photos and watched me go without saying a word. That bitch! I can’t believe we lived together for six years.
So, yeah, in some ways, like not giving a crap if I live or die, New York hadn’t changed one bit. In others, though- well…here’s what I saw last week:
I used to go into the City from Albany every once in a while with my Dad. We’d park at Port Authority and as we took the bus east on 42nd St, he’d look over to me and joke “wanna see a movie?” and I would smile knowingly and laugh, cause I knew just what he was referring to. All down 42nd St was an endless assortment of 25 cent porno theaters (I know right- 25 cents- can you believe it? Imagine having to pay for porn! #lifebeforebroadband.) And, in between the porno theaters, a wide range of sex shops with more appliances than Maytag (my favorite – a dildo that a man can strap to his chin called “The Accommodator”. Just in case any of you gentlemen are looking for an alternative to the Pandora charm bracelet this Christmas. Remember not EVERY kiss begins with KAY.) Outside on the streets, little dark men in orange vests, who came to New York for a better life, were barking for sex clubs in heavily accented English (strictly speaking, this actually was a better life for them than the one they left behind- but that’s more a commentary on the unbelievably horrible world we live in rather than proof of the veracity of the American Dream. ) and, of course, hookers in all shapes, sizes and gender identifications. For a kid from a one whore town like Albany, this was mesmerizing. To me, this was what the City was all about- gritty and raunchy and thrilling and raw- with a level of depravity that I could never experience at home- not even if I drove to Troy. Never mind the fact that we didn’t actually get off the bus in Times Square (are you out of your fucking mind?) and that we actually spent the day at Zabar’s, Tower Records and the Museum of Modern Art- just the fact that we had to get to those places by running the gauntlet of smut on 42nd Street made even the most routine trip to the City a crazy adventure. Plus – cold cuts from Zabar’s- that’s it’s own kind of porn.
Now, the old, smutty Times Square was already long gone by the time I left New York. After all, I was living there in the 90’s when Giuliani partnered with Disney to transform the neighborhood. I wasn’t ready, though for how much Bloomberg had further transformed Times Square from “Rudyland” to “Mike’s Vegas”. There were enormous screens and LED’s blaring from every building façade, pedestrian walkways and outdoor seating areas and millions of tourists from around the world- it’s just like a parallel universe Vegas – like Vegas with a goatee, only it’s lame rather than evil because instead of casinos there’s a Toy’s R’ Us and an M & M store, the weather is lousy and the only drink you can walk around with is a goddamn latte. Thanks Bloomberg! You transformed an iconic neighborhood in the greatest city on earth to a family friendly knock off of fucking Reno. Well done! This is truly the heart of the Bloom York, a safer New York, a cleaner New York- a New York that would be totally livable if anyone could afford to live there. But, then again, Bloom York isn’t a City for the dirty old residents. They just make things complicated with their rent control and their affordable housing and their social services. Who needs em? No- Bloom York is tourist Manhattan. It’s Venice with subway tunnels instead of canals (Venice, Italy- not Venice Beach. Venice Beach, thank god, is still a shithole- Whole Foods and home prices be damned.) The streets are still vibrant and packed with people- but look closely and you’ll see that everyone is walking around with a camera and a map and a tear in their eye from the Ground Zero Memorial. Come to Bloom York- see a show, take a picture, buy a hat. It’s OK to stare- just please don’t feed the homeless. They think they’re people.
All that being said-the transformation is something to behold. Whole sections of Broadway blocked off to cars with tables & chairs and coffee carts selling pastries. Kids oohing and aaahing at the lights, while their parents stand beside them amazed that they are actually bringing children to Times Square at night. It’s a true example of redevelopment through public / private partnership- I just hope there are some New Yorkers who are still left to enjoy it.
So, when I started going into the City on my own or with friends in college, we would spend most of our time in the Village. First stop- a cappuccino at Dante’s or Figaro’s. Keep in mind- this is when you could only get espresso drinks at 3 places in America and the espresso had to be brewed in massive, elaborate copper domed contraptions – not so much coffee makers as Mussolini era memorials to Italian grandeur with knobs, wands and dials like a futuristic factory in a silent movie and a copper eagle perched on top staring at you like “Don’t ask me, dude. I don’t know why I’m up here either. Fuckin’ nuts, these Italians. They make tanks this way too. No wonder they lost the war.” Then after paying $5 for 2 oz of coffee and feeling like intellectuals for doing it, we’d hit Washington Square Park for a dime bag of tree trimmings that we would all tacitly agree to pretend was weed when we smoked it so as to not feel like saps (Ha! Tree! Sap! I’ve got a million of them! No, wait, that was it. Thank God.) This may be the reason it was so hard to crack down on the drug dealers in Washington Square Park- none of them were selling any actual drugs, and not even Bill Bratton could justify tickets for “selling yard waste without a permit”.
Anyhow, from Washington Square Park, we’d head east towards Saint Marks for a little bong browsing- maybe a quick falafel at Mamoun’s or cabbage soup at Veselka or cheap Indian food on 6th St at that place which had a Grand Opening special for 12 consecutive years before transitioning to a Going Out of Business Sale (crap, I’m getting hungry now. Is there any of that Manischewitz brined turkey still left in the fridge?) and then we’d hit the bars on Avenue A- where the drinks were cheap, the vibe was cool and the only ID they needed had a picture of Andrew Jackson on it (that’s a $20 – don’t feel bad- I had to look it up, too. SIRI!!!!! Oh, right. That’s a turkey leg.) and if we were feeling particularly bold, we’d do a little junkie spotting in Tompkins Square Park and wind up at Save the Robots on Avenue B spending $35 on pills that we all tacitly agreed to pretend were actually Ecstasy. “Dude- I can totally feel it- can you?” “Oh….yeah….sure…I’m…uhm…. totally tripping right now”.
With my one free day in the City, I decided to follow this path, more or less- like a scavenger hunt for the younger me. And what did I discover? Well:
- My internal NYC compass is completely fucked. As a result, 90% of the time I was walking west when I thought I was walking east and walking north when I thought I was walking south. This meant I was regularly staring at street signs, screaming profanity and going around in circles. On the bright side, I fit in quite well in the Village.
- At some point over the last 12 years, Body Snatchers must have snuck in and replaced all the regular age NYU students with 8 year olds in NYU t-shirts cause there’s no other possible way to explain how fucking young everyone looked.
- New York is still the only place in America where I can order an egg and cheese on a roll and actually get an egg and cheese on a roll- no lettuce, no tomato, no Siriracha sauce, no bullshit. This alone may be sufficient reason to consider moving back.
- Nobody offered me a dime bag in Washington Square Park. This is either the result of more effective policing, urban redevelopment, or the fact that I look like a fat old lame-ass. I’m sticking with the first two options and la la la la la la la la I can’t hear you I can’t hear you.
- There are playgrounds full of children in Tompkins Square Park, and magnificent trees aglow with orange and gold fall foliage. It’s like fucking Vermont with more old Chinese ladies and a couple of lost hippies wondering when they lost and why nobody told them. So, yeah, sure, it was beautiful, but there’s nothing more surreal than leaf peeping in Junkie Central.
- As I took the bus west on 14th Street to the High Line, I saw a crotchety old Jew get on carrying two Trader Joe’s wine totes bulging with 2 Buck Chuck. Mind goes boom. This may have been the craziest thing I saw when I was there. Who ever thought TJ’s would take over Manhattan? Sigh. I really loved that D’Agostino’s – loved that Dag, Dag Bag.
- The High Line. Amazing. There’ s nothing I can say to crap all over this- they took a disused old rail line and created a beautiful and welcoming elevated park overlooking the Hudson River for everyone to enjoy. It’s seriously great. Leave it to Bloomberg to come up with the coolest possible way to see Jersey. It’s like he’s saying “Hey, paupers- look over there? Nice, right. And just imagine the size of apartment you could get- two bedroom, big kitchen, laundry in the building. And if you take the PATH train, it’s just 37 minutes from midtown. All you’ve gotta do is give up that rent controlled apartment that your family has had for generations and this could all be MINE!!! Uhm, I mean – yours.” Hey- how about that? I managed to crap all over it after all. And you were worried. And yes, I do know Bloomberg isn’t the mayor anymore- but who the hell knows anything about this new guy? All I know is that Carlos Danger lost because New York wasn’t ready for a Latino mayor.
Even though the High-Line wasn’t around when I was in New York, this is where I saw my younger self. I mean- comfortable seating, great views, clean bathrooms- New York Eric would have been all over this shit. It would have been my office, dining room, rest stop and cheap date destination all wrapped up in one. Damn it! I knew I should have stayed just one more year.
So- the Village still mostly kinda looked like New York to me- but it was still disturbingly safe and clean. Was there no part of the City that was just as I remembered it? Well…
On the flight to JFK, I got into a conversation with the poor, suffering individual who was squeezed into the seat next to me about whether Joan Rivers was sitting in First Class. We were pretty sure it was her, but she had so much work done that her face was barely recognizable. Sure the skin was smooth and the lips were plumped- but everything had been so pulled and tugged and shot with Botox that any identifiable facial features had been entirely eradicated and replaced with the generic cat-mask of the aging rich. There would be no way to tell for sure if it was her unless we heard her voice. Some things, a person can’t change.
This is what it was like being in the City- it was sort of the same, but there had been so much work done that I kept looking for that one unmistakable thing that couldn’t be changed. Well, I found it on the subway. The cracked tiles, useless PA, rats on the track, approaching lights, deafening clang, and rush of air as the train blows by like a beer can on its side with two hard plastic benches. And inside the train- no one makes eye contact. Necks cranked unnaturally in a million different positions like a painting by a Dutch Master (“Girl with Cracked iPhone”) so that nobody accidentally looks anyone else in the eye. And, of course, the smell- the Dorito smell of the homeless, piss that can never be cleaned and, best of all, vomit. Ahhh. There you are New York. Nice to see you again. You haven’t changed that much- still have surprisingly drinkable tap-water, street vendors that all call me Boss (they must have known I was there for a Leadership program), oily pizza for a buck that’s better than any other pizza anywhere else in the known universe fuck you Chicago. I’m sure the new wave of young people who are just discovering you still think you’re the greatest place in the world- just like they think the Jason Sudekis cast was the greatest- and who am I to tell them they’re wrong? (Although they are clearly wrong. Three words for you, kids- “I’m Gumby Damnit”. Hulu that shit.)
I thought about how much the City had changed as I was flying home. I guess the thing that surprised me the most (though it really shouldn’t have) was all the Normalcy I encountered. I saw old friends, made faces at their kids, had dinner in their homes and drank beer on their couch. It was just like being any other place- I think they may have even had a dishwasher, though I don’t want to spread crazy rumors and start a riot. Who knew that was there all the time? Maybe it wasn’t New York that was so crazy in the 90’s, maybe it was just me. It’s a moot point now though, I’ve got my tiny house in Palms with its halfway decent yard. Got a dog and a mosaic tile backsplash and I haven’t paid for laundry since, I think, 2004. I’ve turned into the sort of person who says “Hi there!” to the pizza guy instead of “yo, lemme get a slice” and when somebody smiles and says hello to me while I’m walking down the street, I no longer glare at them like I’m going to stab them in the eye. I thought about all of that as I was descending into LA. I saw the endless sprawl of lights spiderwebbing like cracks on a frozen pond out in all directions. As we got closer, the lines of light formed themselves into columns of cars going up and down, east and west- endlessly somewhere in both directions. I started to see signs poking out of the mist- Ralph’s, Shell, In & Out (POETIC LICENSE WARNING: I have no fucking clue what signs I actually saw. Gimme a break.) I felt the energy building up inside me like the Santa Anna’s coming down the mountains and sweeping through town. The plane touched down. I was waiting on the runway. It seemed to take forever to get to the gate. All I could do was sit back, take a deep breath, and go…..