Friday, July 16, 2010
Tom's New York: Empire, State of Mind
The central metaphor of New York City is also the most cliched, obvious "you are now in New York" visual cue. New York is a city in which everything is sculpted from light, and in which light itself becomes visual language for human effort and prosperity and liberty; which is to say, if you want to imagine New York, imagine a proud, beautiful human, with rays of luminous promise streaming from her very noggin.
At midnight, downtown Manhattan is lit up damn near bright as day with neon and glowing LCDs and moving billboards, the crowds so dense it might as well be midday anywhere else. Times Square becomes the glowing center of the world, pulling life into its orbit like an anti-black hole. It's hard not to feel a little uneasy when the very light by which you see is paid for and delivered by huge mindshare-devouring multinational conglomerates, but hello, there's a reason they call it Times Square: it's because it's Times fucking Square.
In the daytime, New York becomes a monument to commerce and capitalism and 1920s pluck and luck and gumption and all those things that we enlightened folks know to be gilded promises, but damn if it doesn't nearly carry it off. Just as the rays of Liberty are mirrored in the Chrysler building's art-deco crown, so every towering shard of commerce and promise lining Park Avenue reflects every other, the light refracting and mingling until the effect is that of walking through a swimming soup of luminosity.
While Rockefeller Center's ridiculously overblown gold-everything can be processed only by its presence in 30 Rock's title sequence, placing the whole experience solidly in unreality (pity the poor folks who had to try and factor it into empirically existent phenomena!), directly underground lies a terrible cavern of ebon marble and light-sucking art-deco black majesty, like strolling through Ayn Rand's memory palace. Twenty minutes north is the 5th Avenue parkside, whose huge brownstone monoliths anchor Manhattan outside time itself.
When you destroy a part of New York City, light spouts from the wound, and when you bandage the gash up, New Yorkers, unable to stand in the shadow of the severed digit, develop split, twin shadows. The cretinous assholes who attacked New York city nine years ago died not realizing that, by hitting America where she keeps her New York, they weren't even making the right kind of point. America may contain its share of bigots or Eloi or bloated Orwellian drones, and certainly New York can't be without them, but the message of New York is only everything that is right about the American doctrine. To attack America on the basis of New York is like dissing rock music on the basis of Gimme Shelter, or saying poetry sucks because The Waste Land is too monumental. It's assaulting what you see as a fatally flawed entity based only on its most transcendentally correct elements. What a bunch of morons.
On Summer evenings, the sun slots perfectly into Manhattan's east-west groove, a thick syrup of golden light washing across the island before the neon takes over, fire escapes and entranceways becoming prisms and zoetropes, windows glinting, colors all set alight, a little sacred play of light to end the day. Is there a word that's the opposite of "lyrical"? May I perhaps nominate the name for this phenomenon, "Manhattanhenge"? A rare miss for the usually sparkling Neil deGrasse Tyson, who coined the term. Anyhow, to walk Central park or Chinatown or the East Village during this time is to know deeply and surely everything that is right about living in the Urban West, which is a fine way to build up an appetite for dinner.
After two weeks in New York - riding the subway to the wrong stop and emerging into air thick with sweet eastern spices and Mosque chants from tinny speakers, failing to decipher Cyrillic street signs in Little Russia (which is much more like The Living Daylights than Grand Theft Auto IV lets on), enjoying New York's New York pizza for its surprising lack of superiority to anywhere else's New York pizza - it's impossible not to remember that a thick layer of New York's gleaming patina comes at the cost of harsh mistreatment of vagrants and disenfranchised minorities and hardline enforcement of some fairly unsavory policies. It's spectacle, like a Broadway show or a dodgy comedy club or the M&Ms store; and the bit-players are compensated harshly for their fleeting traffic. Being in New York is hard work, and all the harder for the people without anything to do. The play and the venue aren't the same thing, of course, but this is why New York's so great, even at its worst: not only is it the world's grandest theater, but it puts on a hell of a show.