Omni on the World Trade Center
Total Destruction and then Transcendence September 2001
The Transcendence Continues November 2001
The Transcendence Explodes I March 2002
The Transcendence Explodes II March 2002
The Transcendence Explodes III March 2002
Appendix To The Transcendence: "Bin Laden On The Keyboards, Bin Laden" July 2002
Post-Transcendence: Surfin' USA November 2002
Five Years After The Transcendence January 2007
The Transcendence Explodes
by Adam Sobolak
The Transcendence Explodes III, March 2002
I couldn't stop. I followed it with a second (albeit brisk) circuit of Ground
Zero, richer under the night sky and no less intense, especially with the glaring
spotlights turning it all into a mammoth surgical table. (And catching Trinity's
6:00 bells was fun.)
And the momentum kept going northward; I verged north on Church, walking,
walking, onto Sixth Av, onto Sullivan skirting Soho (with St. Anthony of
Padua suggesting rich Christmas Eve services within) and past the soon-to-close
Fantasticks into the heart of Greenwich Village, as a contentedly lonesome
soul allowing a NYC Xmas Eve to guide my path. It's uncanny; bundled up in
my black winter jacket, I felt like a New Yorker in winter, defensively,
determinedly wandering and watching, dancing with urbanity, and in my
darts and dashes and dodges even beating New Yorkers at their own game,
oopsy daisy. Perhaps it's a shame I had no purpose other than the
threadbare-existential --even the cafés and venues and their
denizens felt like background staffage to my rapid-fire trajectory.
Even the AIA Guide tucked into my jacket felt like background staffage.
Finally I dodged the junkies traversing Washington Square 7ish, and
grabbed a bus in front of Jefferson Market Library which took me to
Herald Square in time for me to check in at 7:30 --and two hours of
unwinding later, I was back out, restless, going the other way,
to Times Square…and Christmas Eve cannot tame Times Square. Whose
consumer-culture psychic dazzle and overload, by the way, surpassed
my expectations; only the 42nd St redevelopments truly tilted into
overcalculated theme-park sterility. And then, after Times Square,
over to Rockefeller Center, skaters, tree, kids, crowds, snapshotty
tourists, nothing unworthy of witness. Didn't get back to the hotel
for a good night's sleep until approaching 11:30.
Wired, but drained and malnourished --particularly with the recognition of how pricey
NYC was and my own quotas blowing. Considered investing in a left-field Xmas Eve dinner
at the Times Sq Howard Johnson's, but given the prices, all I settled for was a package
of oatmeal cookies from the Duane Reade across from Port Authority. And hoping to make
up for this tomorrow. I couldn't even bear to pick up a deli tray somewhere --I felt
too weary for "complicated" food. (Worse still, I discovered a mysterious chipped molar
upon turning my back on Prometheus. Had it fixed a couple of weeks after returning home.)
So I didn't let the day finish with settling upon Ground
Zero; in fact, a whole swath of Manhattan going up to the
real ostensible tourist zone of Times-Rocky was more than
enough to counteract Ground Zero. Even while it was being
transfigured by Ground Zero --or the fact it was Christmas
Eve. And what a time to absorb the (pre-Sep 11) heartland
of Giuliani's NYC, i.e. the whole Times Square zone, a
different kind of total-envelopment situation from what
one got way down in Lower Manhattan --and when you're by
your lonesome, it really really envelops you,
indeed. Believe me; the planners and stakeholders scored a
psychedelic bullseye with the last decade of Times Square
"experience", and you can't just catch it on TV --you have
to be there, to stand there and be bulldozed by it, from
the painted Chock Full'O'Nuts lyrics to the Britney Pepsi
billboards to the Schlossbergian extravaganzas for Reuters
to just plain everything. Come to think of it, it
sounds a lot like what a lot of people went to Ground
Zero for --in fact, Times Square is the Ground Zero they
really wanted. And like September 11, the real-worldness
of Times Square surpasses anything you'd get on Sony
Playstation, or in the cinema, even in IMAX surround
sound. Most intriguing to me was evidently the newest
addition --so new it didn't appear to be open yet: the
KPF skyscraper at 7th and 49th. Which was apart from
the most hyperactive Times fray --in fact, more of an
architectural nexus between wild Timesturf and sedate
Rockyturf. And thus, it appeared as a paragon of
high-style late-Modern propriety…whose podium, on the
other hand, appeared as if attacked and consumed by an
indecipherable digital-LED whirlwind, like Lever House
on LSD. And all seemingly less for advertising purposes
than for sheer effect. Millennial Times Squareisms reduced
to the most abstract terms. Brooks Brothers collides with
Super Mario Brothers.
One Christmas Eve, two dreamscapes: sweet dreams. And the
Martinique's still got that intriguing ex-flophouse crampedness.
The rest of the trip was a happy post-consummation postlude
--my free-form coalescing profile of New York in the age of
Ground Zero. I've tried to be relatively diagrammatic --but
note the word "relatively".
Bland, chilly Christmas morning --so wired I woke up before 6,
didn't leave until after the Today Show (in home turf, yet)
started. Went west to my old standby, the Cheyenne Diner --evidently
closed for Xmas. How delightfully, even redeemingly (in a touchingly
displaced Middle-American kind of way: New York as Kalamazoo),
apropos that the tackiest skyscraper in NYC (1 Penn Plaza) now
has Big Kmart in the ground floor. And the industrial buzziness
of the rear reaches of the great Penn Station Post Office had an
appropriate touch of Santa's Workshop about it.
Settled for the dummy's choice of the Diner On The Square
beneath the Martinique --a no-nonsense, everyday breakfast
for Christmas. The happy, sloppy, intriguing deadsville that was
Herald Square on Xmas morn did wonders to highlight how clapped-out
the Manhattan Mall across the way appeared: ex-Gimbels, ex-A&S,
anchor now in flux, and with all its neon tubes and quoits
appearing due for a big overhaul to rid it of its aesthetic
Flashdancery. Didn't set foot in it once on this visit.
8:45: gleaming Christmas morning sky staring straight up at
Empire State, half a block from where I was staying. Ramrod
straight up 5th Av (very touching: Manufacturers Hanover's
now one big Miesian Stars & Stripes along 5th Av) to catch
the tail end of whatever Today Show action remained --probably
as good a time as any to catch Rockefeller Plaza in action,
before the tourist crowds made it impassable. Into St. Patrick's
quickly to catch a morning service in action --and out again.
Up 5th; along Central Park S; felt oddly forlorn --Christmas
morning is deadsville. Or maybe I was still finding my sea legs.
Or maybe I would've been better off sleeping in, though I'm
congenitally incapable of sleeping in. But the banality of my
existence kind of allowed me to blend in. It's probably a banal
time for the silent majority of New Yorkers, too. Why do people
make more of them than they are…
One gastronomic ritual I've abided by since 1979: a bag of pork rinds from the zigzag podium of Mayer & Whittlesey's moderne apartment masterpiece at 240 CPS. But in my drained state, them rinds really gave me that hacking-cough feeling. And Times Square on any morning, let alone Christmas morning, is a wet blanket in spite of itself and its 24hr Zipperphonic LEDrama.
Maybe I should have gone to a real neighbourhood instead, perhaps Greenwich Village or something --trouble is, that's on the Ground Zero flank and I wanted to give Ground Zero a break. Besides, I felt fatigued. So went back to the hotel, rested a little, and was out again to the noontime bells of Stuff & Guff; took the red #3 train to 72nd (old IRT entrance still operating!) an Xmas lunch at Gray's Papaya and a stroll east to…well, where else ought a first-time Christmas visitor to NYC be during a happy, sunny noon hour? Strawberry Fields, where else? (Especially with two dead Beatles now.) At least to shaddap-already the war-is-over-if-you-want-it brain-mantra that's the seasonal local answer to "It's A Small World After All". Moderately well-inhabited by the usual pilgrims and everyday Central Park gambolers, but just a swivel joint en route to St John The Divine, which was the other recent big fire scene in New York…
…bus up to Douglass Circle (love that MetroCard) and a short stroll to St JTD --unfortunately, the big Xmas service was on Xmas eve, and anything Xmas day was shunted to subsidiary buildings. But could see how scorched the N transept was --still, I found the grey winter rooftops of Harlem more stirring, and the parks dept's current largesse to be impressive. And very Giulianian, it appeared disconcertingly safe…
…and Columbia U and its environs so disconcertingly normal, I'd have sworn it was an average placid Sunday rather than Christmas…
…on the whole, the Columbia/Upper Upper West Side area might be the closest thing to "my" fits-like-a-glove turf, given that I stayed at the nearby Int'l Youth Hostel in '92. The whole Bloomingdale-bend-and-north-of-the-Thalia part of Broadway always gave me warm'n'fuzzies, and for it to be so rapturously business-as-usual mid-afternoon lively finally made this New York Christmas feel as it should. In frugal seasonal spirit, I got a bag of whole cranberries from Gristedes and that became my snack headed downtown. Went to Riverside Dr --happy memories of bitterly cold February mornings in '92-- and took the #5 bus south; noticed in passing that the "forgotten" Firemen's Memorial wasn't so forgotten as to not bear its own wreaths and memorials…
…kept going on #5 until the 5th Ave ped traffic around Rock Ctr-St Pats became such a bottleneck, it was useless to continue. So disembarked, found out how impossibly obnoxious Rockefeller Plaza can be as I uncouthly kept noshing on my cranberries-out-of-the-bag, went west to Times Square (more profane, hence less Xmas-bottlenecked), took #10 to Penn Station, walked past Fashion Institute until #20 came…and finally finished the discontinuous bus journey 4:30ish. This time the traffic bottleneck was... Ground Zero.
That ancient metal rocking bench in front of the antique/curio shop just east of Duane Park is such a wonderful public service. And now, naturally, Ground Zero was starting to seem routine. But I basically slid right past; it was just a whatever way-station to where my Christmas karma was taking me; which was, all the way down Broadway, as evening coolness thoroughly enveloped me. All the way to the Battery…past gay little Asian tourists laughing and snapping pics at Bowling Green…to the Staten Island Ferry. Just after 5. I was to spend Christmas supper hour in Staten Island.
Lay blame, perhaps, on the fact that the ferry's now free, but after 30ish hours of touristy-gentrified Manhattan, the SI Ferry waiting room was a delightful shock to behold --if the word "dreadful" can be used as a positive superlative, it was dreadful, spectacularly dreadful indeed, flophouse-dreadful, Ellis-Island-immigrant dreadful, lobby-of-the-Chelsea dreadful, the most dreadful place to be at 5:30 PM on Christmas day. The AIA Guide calls it "the world's most banal portal of joy" and "a public rest room en route to Mecca" --and that's what made it great: the banality, plus the public. Motley, listless hoods and schlubs, B-boys and fly-girls, students and commuters: the unwashed, the unapologetic proletariat, plus myself and what was left of my fermenting cranberries. Something far more primal than anything I'd yet experienced on this trip --and yes, that includes the United-We-Stand claptrap a mile to the north. If Ground Zero made Middle America love New York, the SI Ferry Terminal at the Battery was a bracing, and now increasingly rare, reminder of what scares timid Middle Americans away from New York. 24 hours after my St. Paul's Chapel transcendence, I discovered where Jesus really would have been in New York on Christmas Day…
An infinite wait later, the Arbusian tableau shifted its way onto the ferryboat. And this evening cruise of the proletariat even had its own spontaneous hang-loose musical entertainment: a keyboard-and-vocal duo singing 80s R&B. Even Jesus might agree: who needs stale Christmas carols…
Standing with others outside on the upper deck at this Fisherman's Friend time of the year will bring out the intrepid seafarer in anyone --not least with the pinch-me scenery staffage of Lady Liberty, the twinkling Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the darkly beckoning hilly profile of Staten Island, and, oh yeah, the truncated skyline looking the other direction from Staten Island.
Open and enclosed, there's lots of space on the upper deck; so unless they have to go to the WC, that's where the people gravitate --there's nothing like an aerial view. Yet there's also an open lower level --albeit a groaning-machinery unglamorous lower level, really little more than ancillary space around where service vehicles would go. But down there, you really feel yourself gliding along the water --at one with the harbour, getting the worm's eye view of the ferry path, feeling the movement while the twinless Lower Manhattan skyline telescopes away. A lonely place --seldom was there more than 1 or 2 others there. But in an unsung way, the lower zone's poetry may have been deeper, more intense.
So, arrived at the St. George Terminal in time for the
6:00 church bells. Past the come-hithery ranks of Staten Island buses. Up the stairs by Borough Hall, bought a bag of Utz BBQ corn chips from N8 in AIA (Xmas dinner?!?), pondered various mysterious anonymous apartment lobbies and who lives there and whether I'd live there (perhaps, probably), got up to the new Brighton Hts Reformed Church and down via the St George "business district" back t/w the ferry, past Siah Armajani's tower…St. George, Staten Island: an ordinary place, it made me feel dreamily serene in my cool wandering Christmas loneliness. An antidote to too much Manhattan? There was some mysterious, perhaps even mystical, reason for my suppertime wander here; I possessed it, it possessed me…
…the 6:30 ferry back; I spent virtually the whole time on the lower deck, watching Lower Manhattan telescope towards me and my lonely St. George, Staten Island soul. To stare at that skyline in its slow zoom inward is tantamount to tackling urban bereavement by the horns --symbolized by the left-of-centre mid-distance floodlit glare in front of red-veiled NY Tel. It all appeared more placid than it was obligated to be. Especially on Christmas.
Thence it was thru the Battery, around the Whitehall Building's heroic hulk and up West St --at times, along the utility gangways I perhaps shouldn't have been on on the BPC side (but nobody's complaining, and nobody expects tourists there anyway). Spent plenty of time in those empty mystery streets south of Ground Zero, and due to some Freudian-cum-40s-traffic-engineering reason was fixated upon the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel's urban interplay. (Or maybe because there's a particularly brutal, bracing punk-urbanist monoxide+urban-grime anti-allure to Manhattan's tunnel-entrance environs. Of course, most urbanists are more genteel than punk…)
8:00: Greenwich & Park Place. For half an hour, I couldn't get away. Ground Zero's G-spot was Ground Zero's C-as-in-Christmas-spot. The volume of cards and gifts and memorials had been appreciably augmented from the day before. There were people coming in vehicles who may or may not have been celebs --not that anyone was paying attention. Seizing the moment, I gave in and contributed my own two bits worth. At the upper right of the north side of the Fiterman Hall hoarding, a conspicuous enough location for people to notice, I wrote, in big letters with a Bic ballpoint, NEW YORK TENDABERRY. It remained for the duration of my NYC stay; sometimes I attempted to "clarify" the letters, I even considered doing it over with felt marker or adding other accoutrements (lyrics? Nyro CDs?), but for it to be so simple and subtle was just as well. To this day, I wonder how many knowing pilgrims were touched by those three words…
9:00 by foot and bus, made it to the Greenwich Village Gray's Papaya (2 Gray's Papayas, 1 Xmas!), and did my take-out digging in on a door stoop on W Washington Place off Sheridan Square. And furthering this anything-goes approach to Christmas, took the #20 bus up Hudson to 23rd, and in an obvious bow to my having stayed here Valentine's 1992, I peeked into the lobby of the Chelsea. And noticing the absence of transvestites and presence of a yuppieish couple in the lobby, I left, without really lingering, feeling a little bit sad.
And that was my denouement to Christmas --no beads of sweat; I walked north on 7th, got to the Martinique at 10:30, and called it a day.
Boxing Day: sluggish after two intense days, I didn't get out until 9AM, but headed straight for the Cheyenne Diner --which was open, and magically unchanged--other than prices, of course-- from 1992. (And the perfect place to read the NY Daily News.) If it's a "gentrified" destination, it's only in spite of itself. Enrique Iglesias sings "Hero" on Regis & Kelly; Regis dons Enrique's woolen hat to audience whoops. Even the Latina waitress serving me was whooping along…
Late morning east to Morgan Library, Grand Central, Citicorp (now dubbing itself Citigroup Center; will it stick?), Lever'n'Seagram (Lever being in a tangibly fascinating state of restoration/rehabilitation), and still felt kind of bland. Then a bus W on 42nd to my primary noontime goal for Boxing Day: the Circle Line. Superficially what cynics might dub the dumb tourist's 40-buck version of the Staten Island Ferry. But I had a pre-planned purpose, another means of transcending the Ground Zeroness of this journey --to reconnect with a trip my mother, her mother and aunts took around 1954, when they took the Circle Line. (And my grandparents had the souvenir book to prove it --which, 20 years later, I took to browsing, just another of those pre-pubescent items to fuel my long Gotham love affair…)
In fact, the Circle Line's too rich to be a mere tourist trap, and not just because it's a New York institution that's been around for an eternity --actually, its eternity should logically have ended long ago when New York and tourist habits started to go to heck in a handbasket. Around Manhattan in a boat? Either yawn, or bleah. Of course, most obviously take it for the skyline and bridge and Statue of Liberty views (and, since September 11, for something else). But the Circle Line's real present-day-and-age sleeper novelty is in how it brazenly violates a cardinal rule of tourist shilling; that is, it neither covers up nor brushes away the ugly. And face it; given the nature of the waterways' historical usage, you get to see an awful lot of the ugly, the brutal, the forlorn and melancholy --it's Manhattan's back door, you know. (And that includes what's on the water; garbage scows up close, maybe garbage itself up close.) And it's unapologetic about it --as any New Yorker'd tell you, even ugliness has its lore.
In this, the Circle Line is a very no-bones Modern experience, but also curiously age-old; a throwback to an era when icons of "ugliness" --mighty factories, massive hospitals, bustling port facilities, modern superhighways; in a sense, New York itself-- inspired awe rather than revulsion. It was the necessary "ugliness" of progress and prosperity itself --and no, it wasn't mere Corbu-Gropius architectural conceit. (In fact, it may explain the non-utilitarian care in design that went into these ostensibly "ugly" factories, hospitals, et al.) Perhaps the dream today is tarnished, the piers fallen, the factories shuttered, the "modern" highways deemed eyesores along with so much else --but in a way, our continued capacity for confronting, whether through reuse or reflection or constructive revulsion, is or ought to be a worthy successor to that old spirit. Maybe it came easier when poetry and the classics were a less elite, more universally held vocabulary --once, even the most ordinary of souls unwittingly comprehended the quintessence of sublimity. The oft-maligned heroes of Modernist thought were only the tip of a wide-spreading cultural iceberg. Those of old were more modern than us.
No wonder the Circle Line procession was yet another taken-for-granted New York institution transfigured by September 11 --indeed, from reports, it was transfigured right away, taking on an dutifully otherworldly cinema verite quality, treating the scene as unflinchingly and matter-of-factly yet gracefully as could be. New York was presented, through the immediacy of death and tragedy, as a remarkable living being.
The Circle Line is a key to the city in the guise of a tourist cruise; properly digested, it turns the insipid amongst us into the intrepid. Especially when one chooses to sit on an open deck in the open water at the end of December: three hours of what true love and rusty Harlem River swing bridge undersides are all about.
Oh so perfectly for the fine balance between New York insiderdom (appropriate refs to and bons mots re everyone from Martha Stewart to Donna Hanover) and tourist non-intimidation, our Circle Line guide's intonations were those of a three-hour Dan Ingram show on the water, a visual Top 40 hit parade. We passed by Ground Zero in silence, preceded by the caveat that it was not a theme park, it was a mass murder scene --yet we all knew what most of us took this trip for. But it was just one incident, albeit one very very important and immeasurably poignant incident, among a remarkable, repeatedly counterbalancing sequence of aspects, in conjunction, in succession, everywhere one looked.
Something was smiling upon me, exalting me. Before you board Circle Line, they take pictures of you; at the end of the trip, they post the pictures for you to purchase for up to 20 bucks. For some eerie reason, on that numbered wall of pictures, mine was #1. As a consequence, I couldn't resist making this 40-buck tour into a 60-buck tour…
A walk back downtown along 42nd; picked up a new Village Voice from an unwrapped bundle haphazardly dropped around Alicia Keys territory. Back to the hotel; then north. Bryant Park at 5PM Boxing Day: I feel like I'm in a B&W photo in fashionable living colour. For the one time on this trip, really bathing myself in Koolhaasian NYC post-Y2K mode: retail overload. Purchasing nothing more than a MoMA datebook for my mother from the MoMA shop, but reveling in the Boxing Day retail-overload public spectacle in an agile 3-hour ped whirlwind taking me to Saks, Tiffany's, Ritz Tower Borders, Bloomie's, the Plaza (the name Trump ruins anything it's emblazoned upon, even the GM Tower), 57th St (in its desolate post-Planet Hollywood mode, so aggressively September 10th it's practically pre-Y2K-hysteria), Colony Music (no Nyro sheet music, shame), etc. My stagiest gesture: for 15 minutes or so, standing against the George M Cohan statue, nonchalantly witnessing the Times Square spectacle while eating a tube full of Belgian frites and mustard. And no pith-helmeted flatfoot came to shoo me away. Cheez, I thought that from all reports NYC was supposed to be a police state now…
Then back to the hotel again --and half an hour later
a #6 bus down Broadway to Bleecker and a bit of a lazy 9PM postcard
search. A bottle of Cel-Ray from the Archives D'Agostinos, before
going to say hi to what I had read about in the Times that morning:
at the end of Christopher St, the last of the ranks of placard-waving
greeters that once lined West St's procession of Ground Zero-bound
vehicles. (Ah, only at Christopher St.) A moving, meandering stroll,
and given a lot of the streets and their "service industries" surely
at risk of life and limb, south into Tribeca…said a happy hi to a cop
by a burning trashbin at Washington and Canal…
Tragic Tribeca. A funny place whose ultimate nuclear shadow stretches
north via the Westernmost West Village to just about the Gansevoort
Market, the land of lofted vastness and cobbled sideeet mystery
centering about the Holland Tunnel slash'n'gash effect which qualifies
as the arch-fulfillment of one's most profanely, portentously depraved
White Light/White Heat fantasies of primaevally tortured New York urbanity.
By the dot-com 90s this was the art-brut glam domain to inspire the cyberpunk
F. Scotts --stars, supermodel parties, style and zeitgeist aplenty, the
next-and-already gentrifying "it" place after the Village and Soho. But
now, humbled by the wound at its tip, Tribeca appeared to be the most
eerily, immeasurably poignant neighbourhood in New York, if not in
North America --ever. Once so highfalutin', it suddenly felt small,
intimate, delicate --New York's own. Less like nearby boiled-over
Soho or Greenwich Village than like the apotheosis of the Corktowns
and Laclede's Landings in humbler municipalities. Immortalized by
being the neighbourhood at Ground Zero's doorstep, trendy Tribeca
--now borderline "pedestrianized" by its trauma, a horrible godsend
to anti-car urban activists-- finally fulfils something of the second-Camelot
promise that the passing of JFK Jr and Carolyn Bessette couldn't quite spark.
By proxy, Tribeca's existence has become one big living September 11 memorial,
in a more stirringly natural contrapposto than what could ever exist within
Ground Zero. It's still the urban sublime --if anything, raw sublimity's
reclaimed Tribeca after its stint in the celebrity limelight-- but for
once, maybe for the first time ever, sublimity cries.
And it all funnels down to the G Spot at Greenwich and the
full-frontal of Bankers Trust's vagina stigmata organ. Touched
down at 10ish, glad to see Tendaberry was still there, doubled
back on the 6th Ave bus and called it an evening.
Finally, a non-holiday in NYC. And yet another excuse to crane
a neck around Ground Zero --Giuliani's farewell address at St.
Paul's Chapel around 11 or noonish.
Dec 27 Cheyenne breakfast not as good as Dec 26. Took a morning
wander t/w Stuyvesant and Gramercy; the 69th Reg. Armory shows
little evidence of its post-9-11 role. Then, the 103 bus to
City Hall Park. As crowds slowly built hoping for a peek, I
went for ol' rot-gut at I Liberty Starbucks and chose my
spot across from St. Paul's, under the arcade of that
mysterious verticallyiped Treg Brown-looking high-rise
just below where Park Row veers off from Broadway. (Nobody
ever talks about it…even as an urban eyesore. It's just
"there". What gives?) Good choice --why get arbitrarily
hemmed on the St. Paul's side? The group I was with tried
to start a "Ru-dy! Ru-dy!" chant --but the overall tenor was
more that of suspended animation, because nobody knew where
he was. Once the word went around that he was already
inside and giving his address, the crowds started to clear.
By about noon, I was gone as well --Starbucks-wired,
vaguely delirious from several days of poor eating, and
dying for a urinal. Ultimately, I chose the Federal Hall
Memorial as a curiously picturesque excuse for relieving
myself --complete with exhibits and Greek Revival tectonics
for enrichment en route to relieving myself. (And as Federal
park property at the heart of Wall Street and so close to
Ground Zero, the metal detectors and armed inspectors marked
an added element of the picturesque.) It was my first "work
day" in Lower Manhattan --and still, it felt surreally
moribund at noon hour, even around Wall Street. For all
its artifice, South Street Seaport seemed to be settling
in like an old shoe --or rather, the Gap at the corner of
the Fulton Market Building signals that the SSS is evolving
from festival-marketplace self-consciousness into a more
organic component of Lower Manhattan. (Funny how the Gap
can be as reassuring a vulgar-world presence today as
Kresge-Woolworth retail used to be.) Ungentrifiably
wholesale Fulton-Fishy activity still very evident along
South Street; a downtown satellite of Strand Books noticeable,
for better or worse; back at St. Paul's 1PM, and Rudy's long
gone. Too bad due to circumstances and circumstances, we may
never see a ticker-tape parade in
this town ever again…
Rudy-futility (and yet another token Ground Zero circuit) really knocked my day off kilter; I'd intended a major Brooklyn venture, maybe even to the Brooklyn Museum to catch a 50s design exhibition. But didn't get to crossing the Brooklyn Bridge until about 2PM, by which time a deceivingly threatening sky, time, geographical/sociological uncertainty and my own physio-digestive state caused me to scale back. In fact, it turned out to be a trip without any gallery or museum visits whatsoever. I'd anticipated one or two (including the Brooklyn, which I'd never been to before), as part of this search for New York normalcy, but nada (unless Federal Hall counts). Perhaps gallery-going was too neurotically insulated and rarefied an idiom for this trip --a gated micronormalcy within macro-meta-omni-normalcy. A little too escapist --and for a trip like this, obtrusively so-- for its own good. Nowadays, New York's its own best gallery.
With more time, or at a different time, maybe I'd have gone to galleries. Or walked across a bridge that wasn't the Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry are truly birds of a feather; for visitors, what it leads to doesn't figure. Highway spaghetti, urine-trap-looking stairways, all portending something kind of grimy and gloomy and blah only underlined by the brown New York Xmas season. Once you get out and go sorta straight ahead, you emerge upon the bleakly ill-defined Cadman Plaza more-brown-than-greensward, more than likely totally disoriented and wondering what the heck you're doing here. You're officially out of chic Giulianiville, into someplace that seems more a Dinkins-Koch-era flashback, maybe, or perhaps more like those lesser metropoli where you gotta watch where you walk lest the cracked-out boogie man gonna gitcha. And true, there's new developments like Metrotech, while diverse Brooklyn neighbourhoods have gained increasing cachet as cheap and less putting-on-airs alternatives to Manhattan --but whether it's a smokescreen or not, the initial aspect just gets gloomier by the year, a gloom as stubborn as a bad cough. Even Brooklyn Heights, the prototypical case of Brooklyn gentrification, is compromised by the smothering, spreading-virusy presence of Jehovah's Witnesses (and more recent Islamic sects as well). It's architecturally rich all right --and White & Willensky, erstwhile residents they, do Brooklyn more than justice-- but with each passing moment, it seems as if Brooklyn slips further into the "Crooklyn" of myth. A caveat, though: it may be on purpose. Maybe that's why I'm piqued and tempted even as I'm "depressed" by Crooklyn.
Nor did it alleviate my feeling of time pressing that my stomach felt as if I'd eaten a box of All-Bran, leaving me puzzling over where to relieve myself in this hostile turf before choosing a displaced and surprisingly welcoming suburban-family-type restaurant at a corner of the Cadman Plaza North apartment complex. By the time that was over, it was pressing on 3, and with Crooklyn making me feel like a useless buzz-off outsider, I had to move briskly not knowing what the heck I was doing except in general geographic terms. Even dipping into Crooklyn Hts via Clinton and out via State --maybe it's the J.Wits karma, but Crooklyn Heights feels mustily decadent as historic districts go, the Greenwich Village of Allen Ginsberg gone Southern a la Tennessee Williams. And in B-U-T-ful downtown Crooklyn, it seems as if Fulton St gets more and more nigga-fun, definitely active, except that it underlines my (and Gage & Tollner's) curious displacement. The place didn't feel alien so much as I felt alien --and it ain't just a skin tincture thing. All this L'il Kim retail, the shops tumbling out of their buildings with bargain sneakers and pants and regalia in horror vacuii --it's exciting at first blush, but queasily so. We're talking tacky; at a skyscraper-architecture level, this is 1 Penn Plaza turf, not Seagram or Lever House.
Crooklyn's a test of stamina; I couldn't stop, though I often wondered if I should. I followed the huge Flatbush Ave brownsward t/w that most tempting yet offputting of skyscraper landmarks --offputting because one almost expects it to be abandoned a la Detroit: Williamsburgh Savings Bank. (Hardly abandoned, and in fact quite invitingly magnificent inside. Even the now-obligatory elevator lobby guards were a welcome sign of life, as were those workers/visitors who passed through their gauntlet before my eyes.) And I still couldn't stop, going into Fort Greene, i.e. Spike Lee buppie territory. But by now, feeling like an alien being was draining me --especially with the dangerously close advent of sunset, and my having no clear idea of bus routes, no real desire for in-depth AIA-Guiding (including into neighbouring Clinton Hill) here at the moment, and no leisure for trying out cafés or streetlife (and to be honest, Fort Greene felt deader than I expected). While mulling over possibly soaking up the sunset in Park Slope, I instead chose a westbound bus on De Kalb to pick up a 4:00 Q train back into Manhattan. (And even the subway stations in Crooklyn seem murkier, dingier, more precarious affairs than Manhattan's by far.)
Rumbling across the Manhattan Bridge with all the prole straphangers, I disembarked at Canal St and immediately, fuelled by kamikaze adrenalin, mentally lost myself in the magnificent Chinatown-becoming-Little Italy retail mêlée. Just floating along in a happy cloud. Not knowing what to buy, what food to buy, whether I should buy. Oh, I did finally buy a few postcards on Mulberry St. But I shoulda got food. Starvation/anorexia/ undernourishment is the best, the cheapest natural drug. Let the mere sight of food stimulate you in this red-light district of gastronomic erotica. All the streets felt like churning linear rooms, churning from the waves and ripples of retail and its patrons. I churned through it like digested food product through an intestinal system. Churn, churn. It was like September 11 once again, except that the dust and debris was substituted by huge slabs of beef, tubs of floppy fish, weighty balls of bulging cheese, and the people were happy and free. I felt happy and free, joyous, heading for the Lower East Side. And saddened and bemused by the closure of Stanny White's Bowery Savings Bank (which was open and oh so proud when I last visited in '92; oh how vulnerable a bank branch is). And delighted to bumble onto Lower East Side Tenement Museum, relieving myself in its happily (archaeologically?) miserable giftshop WC. I almost forgot we were so close to Ground Zero --undepressed, unrecessionary, this was probably as close as one could physically exist while paying it no mind. New York lives --how it lives. This whole swath is one place where "September 10th" is not a sneering metaphor. Life really was bliss then --so timelessly blissful, that it still is.
As the key turns for sunset, Delancey St turns all the churning into
Klezmerian symphony --bargain store and Burger King alike, it's an
eruption of healthy, hearty retail laughter and joy. Though it would
be more so were Schwartz's Deli still around. And the Essex Market
didn't really seem to beckon me gastronomically, nor did I feel like
the utilitarian fast-food option. But still couldn't stop; walked west
to Bowery, and up Bowery past all the restaurant supply stores upon
restaurant supply stores upon restaurant supply stores plus CBGBs, as
well as an intriguing electronic-music retailer and so on and so forth…
finally decided upon a Ray's Pizza joint across from Cooper Union,
lingering there a bit around 5:30…then north on 3rd, west on 14th,
wound up at the Union Sq Food Emporium at 6…in New York, even major
supermarket prices are outrageous, especially at the exchange rates…
returned to the hotel and using coffeemaker, boiled water, made myself
a Knorr black bean cup-o-soup.
That's what the parsimony's come to; all the things to do,
places to go, things to eat in New York, and I settle for a
supermarket-bought cup-o-soup. But maybe that makes me more,
not less of a New Yorker at heart…
Me, stop? 7:00 back to the streets --considered Empire
State, but lines and potential waits and security hassles
too obnoxious; leave it for now even if the poignancy of
going up was tempting. Up Madison to 48th and then E; I
was in a UN-district mood. Noticed the William Lescaze
house was for sale --announced by a big vertical banner
upon its projecting party wall. (That "anti-urban"
gesture of a projecting Modernist townhouse thus
given a purpose. Perhaps an Ellen DeGeneres or Chaz
Bono or Melissa Etheridge could have bought it, thus
earning it the name "Lez Casa", guffaw, guffaw,
bleccch.) Medium-sized groceries where, given the
neighbourhood, diplomats and their like must have
been shopping; as I think of it, given world events,
a bombing could occur around here someday --hey, it's
fun living in this wacky changed world of ours. But on
the whole, the UN zone felt coolly, serenely,
appropriately somnolent; and btw/the dog-walkers
and the East River views off Sutton Place for the
Woody Allen or Paul Simon in all of us, it was a
fine place to be alone. After the Lower East Side
in overdrive, I had virtually no more use for
Times-Rocky Midtown overdrive. Now it was time
for me to shimmy up to those more serene if not
necessarily more humble pockets of New
York "being itself."
The Bridgemarket Food Emporium epitomized plenty. For all
the red-taped hoopla over using the ample Guastavino'd vaults
beneath the Queensboro approach for retail purposes, the result's
quite banally unpretentious --a contemporary slumming-yuppie
supermarket under tile vaulting. It felt as "Euro" as New York
can get --but my kind of Euro: the secret, non-rose-coloured
Euro of hypermarkets along the Parisian Peripherique where the
stylish ordinary go. Tourists, though, only go there with
resident relatives, if at all. If an ultra-Euro retail
corporation like Spar makes American inroads, this
is where it'll light.
8:30: bought slices of Muenster cheese at Bridgemarket and
headed N via foot and bus into yuppie heaven: the most easterly
Upper East Side. The chosen Muensterry pivot point: the Premier,
one of my fave 60s apartment blocks. In a way, I prefer it to its
more familiar same-architect contemporary, Butterfield House in
Greenwich Village --and it's probably because the setting's much
more ingenuous: the Mary Anne Back to the UES's Queen Anne Front,
TGI Friday territory, the land of 60s whitebrick and 80s sliver,
of secretaries and medical students and swinging singles, New
York's answer to Toronto's Yonge & Eglinton. And the Premier's
across from Emery Roth's sweet little Magyar Reformed Church, a
relic from when this was the place for
Austro-Hungarian-Germanic-Scandinavians to settle. Then,
after some walking past Manhattan House clones and such,
sought more fast-tracked diversity by hopping onto a #66
bus east across Central Park to Lincoln Center, easy as pie,
trotted happily across Lincoln Center's plaza down Broadway
to Columbus Circle, subway to Herald Square. Then I still
felt too much adrenalin so I took another subway up a stop
to 42nd (ah, the MetroCard for one-stoppers), and took in the
Algonquin-vs-Royalton lobby counterpoint on 44th. (Spotted the
Algonquin cat right away and petted it and fussed over it on the
spot as if it was anybody's cat.) And finally, a bus south on
5th to Empire State and…I still wasn't done; just felt
like an arbitrary partial stroll to the 30s-ultra-modernistic
Spear & Company building next door to Empire State (Q29 in AIA).
In contrast to Empire State, you can go into its lobby without
security harassment, even at 10PM-though there's nothing stylish to
see, just a strangely violatory
ambience of permeability...
That was it for the day. What I didn't know at all, and
only found about the following morning, was that I was
two blocks away from my very own Disaster In New York
--at 5:00 evening rush two blocks to the north, a truck
plowed into a crowd of crossing pedestrians, killing
several and injuring a lot more. In part because of
where it was, it made headlines worldwide --a reminder,
in case I forgot, of how important New York was in the
total world scheme of things --and apparently it turned
the Herald Square Macy's intersection upside down for
hours. But my own trajectories avoided it completely,
and other than a siren I didn't notice anything overly
unusual around the environs. And I guess almost all was
cleaned up by the time I obscenely popped by/into the
Spear & Co building half a block away. And just think:
this is the day, the evening, I came closest to going
up Empire State --and from there, I would have gotten
an aerial view of the post-accident Herald Square
melée! Still, having got to know this zone from
a ped-level, I sort of "identified" --it's always more
interesting when you're in and around the centre of
the action. This was my turf. This was my disaster.
And knowing that put a little added survivor's
spring in my step. Life works that way.
Friday Dec 28: my last full day in NYC. Went out first
thing after the news to get a paper and see what's
happening in Herald Square; other than token cops
and a camera truck or two, zilch.
"When in Rome"…I really started my active day at 8:00 with, well, a morning commute downtown.
Somehow can't recall the exact sequence of lines and transfers --orange and then blue (Mingus?)
at 4th, or straight on the red line from Penn Station, or what? --but I wound up exiting at the
Fulton -Broadway/Nassau stop in any event, through all the underground mess (and New York subway
transfer points are almost invariably an underground mess) and emerging at what turned out to
be the NW corner of Fulton and Nassau beneath that magnificent hulk of luscious pink divinity
in c19 cast iron, the Bennett Building. Purchased a package of cheese'n'crackers at the CVS
across Nassau, lining up with all the morning workers and secretarial staff, before heading
for Broadway. Reason for coming here: I heard the observation deck was slated for opening.
(And I had an inkling it was opening sometime around my visit even before the trip. Why, I
even heard abortive rumours that the Twin Beacons were to be switched on by New Year's.)
I stuck around the area, taking Park Row-to-Wall St walkabouts 'til well after 9. (And
the area's still rather weekendy hushed and somnolent --though in a fascinating
series-of-urban-rooms way, especially on medieval arteries like Stone St.) And
still: no opening. Police said: later today, perhaps this afternoon. One happily
heretical sign of Ground Zero-zone Broadway reverting to normalcy: a smiling guy
giving out glossy cards advertising FlashDancers: N.Y.Dolls, 59 Murray St, Wall
St Area's Hottest Topless Bar, 75 Dancers Daily, No Cover, etc. Now, that
kind of nose-thumbing, solemnity-subverting irony-lives gall is a part of the
healing process I can appreciate.
Maybe that psychic bath in Chinatown/Little Italy late the
previous afternoon WD-40'd my knotted-up Gotham-coexistence
joints a little, but Lowermost Manhattan was resting more
easily on my shoulders now --and promised to rest more and
more easily each day, providing I had the days to spare.
Which, unfortunately, I didn't. Anyway, took a WC break in
the far rear corner of Trinity Church (an unsung urban benefit…shhhh),
and then went downhill a block to the Rector St subway station to
go back uptown…via the closed, shored-up yellow-line Cortlandt St
station, the only unreopened Ground Zero station left that you
could see from underground. Deliberate decision, of course-though
the fact that I was bonding with the dreaded NYC subway as
a means of going anywhere, anytime, was another signal of urban
mastery on my part. Who needs simple sightseeing when you can
manipulate a city for your purposes; a MetroCard symphony augmenting
the endless bittersweet symphony…if I had a month in New York, I'd be
maxing out the MetroCard from Van Cortlandt to Far Rockaway…
Alighted Broadway 72nd for a Gray's Papaya Recession-Special "breakfast"
and, at 10:15, caught the #7 bus north to 125th St in Harlem. Yes, Harlem.
The cheap excuse for this visit, which I'd sort of planned before coming to
NYC, was to verify where Bill Clinton's law office was (a glass 60s modern
"highrise" on 125th, believe it or not --no memorabilia, unfortunately, and
you'll bet lobby security is securitizin'). But such things are seldom so
cheap and simple --they're but dots that connect the lines and emit the
radiating circles that create the ever-elaborate overall picture. I'd never
really "penetrated" Harlem on my own --too much other NYC, and besides,
Harlem was typecast as the Domain of Dangerous Darkies. But btw/buppies
and Giuliani, things had supposedly changed. Can't say it was much so much
more inviting, though --though you can't blame it all on race; once the bus
crossed 110th, everything took a bleached grey-brown appearance, wide
gridiron streets, stolid apartment blocks and brownstones, oppressively
unyielding (if not always decayed per se) urbanity to a fault. One
understands from the appearance of Harlem, never mind the skin
tones, why (white) c20 urbanites were drawn to greenery-enveloped
As to 125th, it was like Fulton St in Crooklyn at a Haussman scale
(the street, more than the buildings), and equally plagued by
Aaliyah-funeralesque retail tackiness (though the new Studio
Museum provides radical counterpoint). It was inevitable that
such an arbitrary Harlem visit would prove so oppressively
insular --for now; but being here now means mean I'll probably
never feel so alienated again. If one considers the initial
oppressive feeling less "racial" and more akin to the reflex
my mother felt as a child going shopping with her mother on
Queen St W in Parkdale, perhaps one hits the key to the
Harlem/Crooklyn problem --less racial per se, than one of
class. (Which in turn is kind of intertwined with race.
Poor niggers, poor Polacks, hard working, but, you know.)
Nevertheless, the big broad streets, the defining western
bluff of Morningside and Hamilton Heights, and the presence
of the Apollo, the Theresa, etc alluringly counteracts the
oppression, elevates it into real grandeur, defiant of its
own faded melancholia. (I can picture tweedy, wire-rimmed,
watch-chained scholars of the Harlem Renaissance sauntering
along 125th calmly, confidently.) In fact, it's probably
Harlem, more than anything I can pretentiously apply to
Ground Zero, that really recalls my Poland of the 1970s,
physically, socially, culturally, in good and in bad ways,
transfixing me through its grey marginalization and oppression
--and likewise, the memory's less depressing than the raw
undeveloped experience of the place, it grows richer and more
visceral by the moment. At least, it should. I was only
in there less than an hour.
Anyway, after a 125th back-forth, I briefly perambulated the
bupscale safe-zone Mt Morris Park blocks, then at the edge of
Mt Morris grabbed a #1 bus down at 11:15. Contrary to H39 in
AIA, 1-9 Mt Morris Pk W is being restored; contrary to H27 in
AIA, the former Brewster Apts are now gone.
Disembarked at Carnegie Hill --Woody Allen territory near the
top of the Upper East Side, an appropriate place to be on a New
York Noontime, except that its more-upscale-than-yupscale cornucopia
weighed me down. Less exhilarating than Harlem, even, the zone in its
evident quality and enlightenment felt weightily blank and avoidable
--thus I spent more time hewing to the edge of Central Park than
penetrating the townhouse blocks and Madison Av retail. And my
wisdom was confirmed by the obnoxiously long lineup encircling the
Guggenheim. This was the Giulianian nightmare of New York Tourist
Central, as much as the Times'n'Rocky district I had also by now
taken to avoiding. As the "honorary local", I already felt I knew
it well enough to avoid it like the plague. So I took the eastbound
#86 from north of the Met and headed for Gracie Mansion. Having
dipped my toe into the "fashionable" Upper East Side, that was
enough for me on this trip; take me to where it's less fashionable.
Less Woody, more Rachel. Or something.
Knowing that Gracie Mansion's function was presently a little
ironic --Giuliani's place de jure, Donna Hanover's place de facto
--it wasn't Ground Zero sentimentality that drew me there (and besides,
Gracie Mansion's as cordoned-off as a post-9-11 NYC governmental
residence can hope to be), but rather, that this district was a
cherished part of middle-class NYC that was so far off on its why-bother
geographical lonesome, it was unlikely to be trammelled by tourists
and the usual suspects. Nice New York. And oh, that eternal lesson
in great Robert Moses-era urban design in the non-oxymoronic sense,
Carl Schurz Park with its Esplanade, was here. (I'm probably one of
New York's few archi-urban pilgrims to not resort to a taxi
or the company of a local in getting to Carl Schurz Park.)
Serene. Joggers, dogollers, park maintenance workers. East River breezes at 1PM,
looking out upon Astoria. Sometimes, at the proper time of day, sparing public activity's
more urbane than bustle and overspill. The ultimate proof, perhaps: for some reason,
I took to imagining Carl Schurz as the ideal Tweety & Sylvester tableau.
Urban equilibrium liveth here. Call it an imponderable, but the Carl Schurz/Gracie
Mansion environs had the most equilibrium of anyplace I'd experienced on this New
York trip. It's a New Yorker's New York to the utmost. Even if not always conforming
to popular views of New Yorkness --the apartments along Finley Walk, for instance,
inadvertently take on an almost tropical stance: an East River Riviera. And even
if it's an upscaleish pocket of NYC (remember: the anti-tourist's typical reflex
is to slum, rather than to mix with the stuck-ups). To deliberately if ad hocly
place this in the same physical/temporal sequence as Harlem was evidence enough
of how I sought to configure my quest for a comprehensively "real" New York…
#79 bus to 2nd; #15 bus south to the UN, simply because I hadn't yet seen up
close how this participant in the world stage was participating on the
NYC stage. And needless to say, you couldn't get up close; to the proles,
it was like NYC's other sealed-off Ground Zero, without an eighth of the
transcendent energy. Next, I ascended the stairs and proceeded down 43rd
(incidentally, they removed that glassy greenhouse-restaurant that used to
occupy the end of 43rd facing the UN), only to discover the tragic confirmation
of what I'd feared: Kevin Roche's Ford Foundation atrium was no longer a public
amenity, at least as a through passage. War stinx.
On to Grand Central and the Lexington IRT south…stopping at Union Square for more Food Emporium
goods, including a bottle of Canada Dry Collins Mixer (why don't they sell it in Canada anymore?),
hopped back on the line and I'd forgotten: this Lex #6 is the train that loops at
the end of the line through the old, abandoned City Hall subway station. The one
eternally recommended to New York's archi-urban tourists. Luckily, I caught on
in time to take the loop --not knowing whether I'd be chased out by transit cops,
or be stuck for an excruciatingly long time, or what. Nothing happened; all by my
lonesome, with nothing but subway ads for Britney-in-Vegas et al around me, I
did see the sealed-tomb exotica as the train curved. And exited the present-day
City Hall station via the northbound platform, at 2:30, and headed down
Park Row…Ground Zero platform still not open. (But hey; it takes urban
elan to combine Ground Zero voyeurism with 1904 City
Hall Station voyeurism.)
Bored, I went to 1 Liberty one last time for ol' rot-gut and rambled on,
stoned on caffeine, through the Financial District's alleys and rivulets,
past the formidable Fed Reserve and spilling coffee dribs through 100
William's schisty slice, back to GZ once more to see if platform's open,
fugeddaboutit, so descended into the Fulton-Broadway-Nassau subway maze at
3:30 to grab the first train I could verify was headed into Crooklyn --a real
roulette game, that. But since all were headed to within blocks of each other
in downtown Crooklyn, I had no chance of losing that roulette game --especially
w/my MetroCard. Just got off at Court St/Borough Hall and walked the little
ways to the Jay St/Borough Hall entrance beneath the eternally intriguing
plain-Jane postwar-rationalist Transit Authority HQ. Destination, via the
orange F line: Coney Island.
Departure for Coney Island, on a December 28 --December 28,
2001, no less --at 4PM. (I wasn't even certain of how much
daylight there'd be, or when it'd disappear.) In searches
for New York soul, it speaks for itself.
(Though as with the Circle Line, my reasoning was a flash
back to my mother's first New York trip. Apparently,
Coney Island was where she first felt
"beautiful" --whatever that means.)
I chose the F line, as it was the one with the high-level Gowanus
Canal crossing --to sit on a commuter train with those malleably
oblique 360-degree NYC skyline views under the waning sun is
indescribable, normalcy raised to the highest plane. Then after
a dip underground, it's overground again --the elevated line,
over the rooftops of Borough Park and Bensonhurst, where the
Brooklyn you never see except in a Saturday Night Fever fantasy
is laid out for witness. I was overcome by a Friday Night Fever.
My quest for New York normalcy was galvanized --like galvanized
metal. The garages and tarred rooftops and graffiti, the kitchen
windows, the shopping arteries straddled by the elevated I was on,
the glowing 24-hour gas outlets, even old Gravesend (I didn't know
we were going through it, but verified it via map and recognition of
an old cemetery). Signs in Italian, in Hebrew and Islamic script.
You can't gentrify it. It'd actually be a little bleak for a sensitive
soul to live there, I suspect. But it's monumental --it spreads all
around you, tract after tract of well-worn Brooklyn normalcy, the
stuff which locals take for granted, but which really cannot be
equaled anyplace else. Things come together differently in New York
--even the "monotonous" sprawl. If my quest was to experience a
comprehensive NYC as an extension of self --the way my grandparents
travelled, the way I travelled with my grandparents-- this was the
grand, confirmatory near-finale. I'd conquered New York; New York
had conquered me. It could have been Warsaw or Krakow or Wroclaw
or even Nowy Sacz. Instead of looking t/w the Verrazano Bridge
twinkling over Tony Manero's Bay Ridge, I could have been looking
plaintively across the Dunajec in Nowy Sacz, westward to the setting
sun and paths unknown. But it was New York. The city as religion.
Humble religion; melodramatic religion; all kinds of religion.
Hallelujah, or Allah Akbar, or Gabba Gabba Hey, or
whatever the case may be…
…just 2 or 3 stops away from the end of the line at Coney,
the train mostly emptied out, and a couple of loud raucous
B-girls came on board, getting off the stop before the end
of the line; one of them was wearing a strapped-down
cleavage-revealing top that was totally absurd for
December 28, and she evidently didn't care. They looked
like a real pair of, er, ho's --so much so, I'd believe
it if they weren't, if they were just going out together
for the evening, laughing, hanging, teasing boys, having
good profane fun. For that matter, as a teen my mother,
in perhaps an analogous spirit for her time, had fun
"flirting" with streetcar conductors together with a
school friend. Remember: she awakened to her teenage
attractiveness at Coney Island. I may have connected
with the update of
her formative spirit here…
The end of the line, and Coney's bleak and blasted,
but I was ready for that, having been here by car
in spring '97. (A simple knowing visit's enough
to inoculate one against the most woebegone
tableau.) Via MTA, it's a much more grittily
intimate experience --but really. At a quarter
to five on December 28, the sun just about fading
out of sight, here at this blighted shadow of this
out-of-season seaside resort, this felt like the
eerie precipice of our traumatized planet. Except
for Nathan's Famous, just about everything was
closed (and with Nathan's having no WC, I had to
relieve myself against a blank wall behind the
Nathan's block). A subsequent NY Times piece
referred to Coney Island off-season as "winter's
greatest tribute to melancholy" --I'd vouch for
that. Desolate as it was, it wasn't deserted.
There were people fishing and/or gallivanting
out upon Steeplechase Pier; others along the
beach, dodging the surf; I took a stroll in the
sand out to the surf, to the edge of the water,
to the edge of the world…it belonged to me, this
sand of generations of proletariat, I felt
strangely serene, at ease, as the sun shut
itself down upon New York's
great backyard beach.
With more time and initiative I could have headed for, say,
the Parachute Jump --though that may have been too euphemistically
"sublime" to take at close range here and now. Inspecting some of
Coney's buildings, the former shops and places of accommodation,
I sensed extreme left-field, ideal-world promise out of this
detritus of a too-faded past…so extreme as to be impossibly
wishful thinking. But then, who knows. I came to Coney Island
in part as an antidote to too much Ground Zero --yet more
obliquely, abstractly, Ground Zero was what led me to Coney
Island. The reflex of urban discovery…and rediscovery.
Ground Zero was Coney Island's own exaltation…which may
lead it to be reclaimed…and to recover, gracefully, indigenously,
appropriated by urban positivism. Perhaps I saw a new beginning
in utero --and before it was seeded, even.
Nathan's Famous was the biggest disappointment --if only because a hot dog w/everything now cost as much as 2 dogs + a papaya at Gray's Papaya. Nostalgic tourist and quick-visitor bait, that is. Still, I had my ritual dog…and left, this time for the W train back to Manhattan.
As the terminus for 3 lines, the Coney Island station's a remarkable legerdemain of steel and wood and level after level of elevated platform after signal box after access bridge with offices and facilities mounted in the oddest aeries --a raw, unapologetically irrational and non-purist mass of ancient urban-transport engineering, of the sort long banished from Manhattan itself. Piranesi goes punk, perhaps. To the unfamiliarized, it may appear as something out of the Old World-more redolent of London or Paris, Vienna, Dortmund, Mestre…but not mythic modern-day New York, at least that which makes it into the tourist literature. Certainly, it's incompletely celebrated for the aesthetics of its end-of-the-lines elaborations…especially now, as 5:15's all-but-full darkness enshrouded it in a cocoon of sublimity. Thus it appeared, literally and figuratively, as the transitional zone between the Coney Island Parachute Jump and Ground Zero…
Clacking over the early-evening shopping arteries of Bensonhurst stop after stop where the Italian flavour is clearly evident by the names on the signage, and where the evening illumination betrays a deceptively dynamic buzz in the streets; the trip back was an affirmation of the trip down. It's the other side of Delirious New York: Anonymous New York, more delirious than the delirium.
Then the line sunk snugly into the rail yards toward Sunset Park, before all the bridges over the open cut almost imperceptibly morphed into a tunnel and open air disappeared from sight…until the Manhattan Bridge (two consecutive days across the Manhattan Bridge; imagine that). And at Canal St, disembarked and headed to as far east an exit as I could discern, which happened to be, I guess, on Broadway.
6:00. For the first time on this trip, a few very intermittent snowflakes, palpably token and non-accumulating, were blowing about. Traced a crazed zigzag across the heart of Soho, briskly bounding over the embossed steel plate steps and trap doors underfoot and allowing the gaping glass maws of boutiqued, galleried horror vacuii ripple me along as I finally imbibed in that bottle of Collins Mixer (in Soho, yet). Then once more on into the South Village/Tribeca zone, still trying to comprehend the Holland Tunnel energy forces…the mother of all Tribeca loft buildings, the most White Light White Heatian edifice of all, the gargantuan Holland Plaza Building, S26 in AIA's S Village tour, "16 powerful stories of industrial Art Deco", demanding that I do the pedestrian circuit…
…and what a shocker. The huge, dramatically slashing diagonal of Holland Plaza's south Canal St face, fronted by teeming ranks of trailers on both sides of Canal, housed Nino's Restaurant --since 9-11, open 24-7 exclusively for police, firefighters, utility persons, etc. A restaurant, a community centre --the Ground Zero for Ground Zero workers. Windows still swamped in fading memorials. Tina Wessonish women standing in front, asking passerby for donations to the Nino's fund. The restaurant itself was closed to mere mortals --but what I could see moved me so greatly, I could have volunteered on the spot. Right here, in the bowels of the Colossus of Canal St. I don't know what Nino's was like pre-9-11 --trendy, or ordinary, or both; but this took it, and its premises, onto another plane. And I totally stumbled onto it --the off-site spiritual heart of the action, the spot that embodied Ground Zero's aftermath as a comprehensive community opus, a ballet of local recovery. With all prior reports and coverage, I knew there had to be such a place --didn't realize I'd actually find it, an accident of plain urban perambulation, at a place and time ordinarily unconducive to perambulation. But I loved the building. And the building happened to be where this was…
Unless I was so mad as to venture out here first thing tomorrow morning, this was to be my last encounter with Ground Zero and environs, and I knew it. Each step past the galleries and restaurants and showrooms of this second Camelot known as Tribeca took on extra poignancy as a result. At the bottom of Greenwich…Tendaberry still intact; the light snowflakes briefly return, the gentle signifier of a winter not nuclear.
Made the GZ circuit as per usual …but by the time I reached Battery Park City, my bladder was overstressed, and didn't know the proper place to go, legitimately or furtively. Somewhere in BPC, seemingly a desolate, deserted, haunted place, seemed proper…but it never felt as deserted as it seemed; if it weren't dog-walkers, it was patrollers, sensed if not visually present, as a traffic cop is to the defensive driver. I felt un-free. But aside from the bladder, I felt free --steps away from the Ground Zero circus, the Battery Park Esplanade was as still and serene as its Carl Schurz forebear. Dog-walkers equaled civilization; all who passed through accepted the current circumstances of the neighbourhood; New York survives, and all who continue to use the Esplanade for what it was designed for are the true humble urban heroes.
The Hudson laps up against the seawall, as peacefully as a lake upon a dock in cottage country; lights, including spotlights, reflect upon the water, while the vaporettas buzz to da Joizy side. Descend into North Cove; absolutely nobody down here to watch, so find an inner corner to relieve myself. It dawns on me --absolutely nobody down here. I walk to the end of the spit at the Cove's entrance --nobody. I walk along the bobbing, heaving, yachtless floating steel dock mid-Cove --nobody. I could sit here, write here, but everybody else's been traumatized out of there, or distracted out of there, or guilted out of here, or just off-seasoned out of there. All but me. Privileged twice over --knowing the turf well enough to obtain more reflective mileage out of it than your average pilgrim, yet insufficiently local as to be haunted by twin 110-storey dotted lines where the pinstriped pair used to be. I felt like the most innocent, positive soul there. I was the king of North Cove --the world of, yet a world beyond, Ground Zero. And Battery Park City is but East Joizy City, or something…where was everybody? I was everybody!
I was a child among the ruins…picking flowers…watching caterpillars…skipping stones. When mass innocence is lost, what remains of the child is a rare and precious thing.
Around the cove we go… past Puryear's pylons, other side of the Mercantile Exchange, and what looks like a tented floating tourist café happens to be da ferry toiminal for dem vaporettas ta Joizy…a most unpretentious place, maybe because it floats. Serenely, in the evening, bobbing upon the Hudson. At 7:30ish, a family and other individuals buying their tickets, or sitting down, waiting for their boats to Hoboken, Jersey City, wherever. I went on board the ferry terminal, sat down on a bench, and read a copy of The Battery Park City Broadsheet…feeling as good as local, but aware of the gravity of where I was, aware that these ferries served WTC survivors and escapees, that it was the only way to get off Manhattan on September 11, that here, too, awe-inspiring humble heroism happened. Here, too, was a part of the story. A very local part of the story. It was clean, serene --the antithesis of the riffraffy Staten Island Ferry Terminal. Maybe, like the rest of BPC, a little yuppie-antiseptic, but…
…as it turned out, as I discovered, 9-11 was enough to bring even maligned Battery Park City down to earth, to turn the yuppie dream into a tenderly optimistic dream; it burst the sneery bubble. A "planned" neighbourhood that turned out realler than cynics expect, BPC and its denizens had as much a right to be part of the New York whirl as Bay Ridge or Bensonhurst, Harlem or Gowanus. It was only a few steps beyond the typical Ground Zero walkabout…steps of epiphany. I, too, was a BPCer. I even read, and identified with, the Broadsheet. And I followed this refuge from the hubbub all the way north to Stuyvesant High…and crossed the bowstring across West St (another "star" of the very early footage), along with a local teenage boy-girl pair who were discussing the Ps and Qs of the environs. I discovered that this bridge was a rare, uncelebrated place where one could get an aerialish view (albeit distant) of Ground Zero. What I did not know was that right behind Stuyvesant High and this bridge was the place where the barges for Fresh Kills loaded. Just as well that I didn't know, I guess.
Headed once more for the G-spot at Greenwich, preparing my farewells…and I made a startling discovery. Conspicuously if obliquely visible east down Murray St is the marvelous 75 Murray, an 1850s Bogardus classic, three bays and four storeys of gleaming, glowing cast iron Sansovino --T7 in AIA's Tribeca tour. Historians'll tell you, it was the kind of architectural innovation that ultimately led to the Twin Towers. (Macabre as it may sound, cast iron could even immolate like the WTC --you can tell by early pictures of cast iron warehouses consumed by "great fires". They're like prefigurations of Ground Zero.) It's a textbook artifact of the architectural cast iron age --but that wasn't the double take inducement. What I discovered on my last evening in New York was the lighting. Only 75 Murray's centre bay, and the side bays of its third floor, was illuminated. A Roman cross.
It appears to have gone unmentioned --encountered but by chance. But no WTC architectural tribute can match the poignant simplicity and historic gravitas of the "Bogardus cross" at 75 Murray.
A last moment among the pilgrims…and a walk inexorably away, north on Greenwich, barely looking back. Reflecting on the risky prejudgment nearly forgotten over the passage of a week…"Ground Zero is my Lover".
And I knew then…I was right.
Though the superficial "serenity" in these blocks is deceptive. And a look back at the 9-11 footage indicates so much; not long ago, this was a place of teeming human bustle. And the fright on the spectators' faces was the bustle's reflected glory. This was a place thrown out of kilter.
Thinking back, looking back, it is a reminder of how this was the most magnificent act of urban rape known to humankind.
And yet, Ground Zero was still my lover.
Went back to Nino's, wishing I could stay longer and be a volunteer. Peered over the Holland Tunnel entrance at Broome, and craned neck back to the soaring billboards directed at the motorist. One more time to the Greenwich Village Gray's Papaya; and then to the Stonewall, which is probably the most normal and unpretentious Official Historical Landmark to be seen anywhere on this hemisphere. Arrived back at the hotel at 10, knowing that this trip to NYC really was a lover's dream, after all.
December 29; took my time with coffee, cup-o-soup, Times-puchasing/reading and packing before checking out at 9:30. And right outside the Martinique's doorstep, the PATH line begins. So almost as soon as I checked out, I never set foot above ground in New York again. At least we parted painlessly.
Still, it's hard to resist looking back NY skylineward from the Jersey side --though the raw experience of crossing the Meadowlands is irresistable in its own right. Oh, and then there's that mean black m.f. of an object that, more than anything in the Greater New York region, deserves to be labelled more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace: the Pulaski Skyway. I forgot all about the Pulaski Skyway; I forgot how I adored the Pulaski Skyway. It's civil engineering erotica. And all that bathing in the aura of Ground Zero had led me to this almost instantaneous observation: what Rubik's Snake is to Rubik's Cube, the Pulaski Skyway is to 1 Liberty Plaza…
It's New Jersey, so the Pulaski Skyway's seldom is given its due. Neither is Newark's Union Station, an astonishingly worked-out magnum opus of Classical-Deco intermodal transportation circulation system. From Union Station, caught the happy transit shuttle jitney to Newark Airport one last time before it suspended service a week or so later --happily, Newark Airport was only a quarter hour away, and arrival one hour before my scheduled 12:25 departure wasn't too late. And I kept up the irregular pattern of glimpses upon… Manhattan…
The plane back was worse than the plane down --stuffed with people, and with the guy across from me reading an Aaliyah biography, to boot.
Toronto at 2 PM Saturday. Coming home to family after a week with a lover. Kind of sad…even depressing… but the lover stays with me in spirit.
Dancing about architecture… let's revisit the idea of September 11 sparking a sort of rock'n'roll revolution in architectural criticism and urban commentary. It sure won't come from within rock criticism, if the Village Voice 2001 Pazz & Jop Critic's Poll is any indication --though that may have as much to do with rockcrit being as exhausted as rock itself in the c21. Still, I found myself touched by Rob Sheffield's accompanying essay reminiscing of long riverside walks and WTC plaza lingering with a series of walking mix tapes, most of which had a version of Tom Verlaine/Television's "Marquee Moon". (Now there's another pair of nicknames for the Twin Towers: "Marquee", and "Moon". Fitting, somehow.) And Greg Tate's report on how the homeys of Harlem were distanced from the disaster "like ain't a damn thing changed" --well, not far off from my own happily contrapuntal neo-escape-from-Ground-Zero visits to Harlem, Carl Schurz Park, Coney Island, even the BPC Esplanade, and other places…
Still, eternally, so much more could have been done, or done differently. Or reported differently; a lot was concealed in my telling, including a lot that was architectural. May I be honest: it's a paltry, awkward, clipped-to-the-cuticle allusive skeleton of a travelogue. And when it comes to urbanity, experiencing shall always surpass reporting. But no single experience is definitive, because they all are.
After over three months of engagement and endless fascination, I got to see Ground Zero for myself-and refused to let it or anything disappoint me. I succeeded…but the trip ended with a whimper, somehow. Toronto's emptiness seemed unworthy.
It appeared as if a symbolic postscript was required before the year was through. Besides, a slogan like "Ground Zero is my lover" can paralyze a person. There had to be a real-life manifestation --a "safe" one, sparing the innocent.
If there's a vague or not-so-vague eroticism to my reflections upon September 11 and all that followed, that may be because sexuality and eroticism is the ultimate transgression, the most viscerally transcendent violation there is. At best, a positive violation, mind you; it's what literally creates us. But we need to be ever aware of its violatory, taboo, guilt-ridden qualities; otherwise it becomes cheap and insipid and not worthy of our time or anybody's.
And its abstraction --its purest, most hazardous essentials-- is made clear through the "world's oldest profession".
On December 31, 2001, I booked time for 5:00PM through an ad in an alt-weekly's "business personal" pages. If anything, it was in a dabbling "George Plimpton" spirit --I'm woefully uncomfortable with stereotypical "erotic" rituals, sex talk, etc. And I didn't know what to expect, other than the physical and locational and monetary superficialities offered in the ad and over the phone. She was 19, sounded personable, and there was above all a dynamism to her location, in the outermost reaches of Scarborough, a short drive from the Rouge Valley and the Metro Zoo --in Toronto terms, practically geographically catercorner to where I was. As with Coney Island, getting there was half the fun.
As it turned out, she was what I'd consider a willowy all-Canadian "sensitive blonde", wavy shoulder-length hair, happily normal and natural --but thin. Very thin, almost A-cup thin, but in a way that was more physiological than an explicit signal of anything seriously wrong. Myself, I was giddy and rapturous more through the extended New York hangover than as a reflection of what was about to happen --in fact, I was in "inspirational" mode, knowing that this was in all likelihood to be mutually our last time in this horrific year. Thus, it had to be special --and I sought to pursue that end, at a level beyond the perfectly normal imperfections of the physical act. My spirit was positive --ecstatically positive-- and I was more than happy to share.
She was sweet; but there was a languid sadness about her. She had tattoos --which, in 2001, no longer signified very much. She seemed to indicate having a child --although she had the antithesis of a child-bearing physique. And she was sleepy-tired, and concerned over whether she'd endure going out for New Year's with a girlfriend; if I felt guilty about anything, it was that last point.
And then there was her slenderness --although, again, I had
no sense of anything like morbid drug or anorexia problems.
In fact, I probably felt a bit of self-identification, not
only for having the kind of pared-to-basics physique and
restrained dietary habits that've disturbed many an overzealous
Polish aunt, but because I'd just been on a trip marked by
Grays-Papaya-and-cup-o-soup malnourishment. (Intense travel
does that to me. In Toledo, Spain in January 1987, staying
in a cold and drafty pensione, sucking on bouillon cubes
purchased from a cheese-odoury corner Spar store outside
the town walls, desperately bundling up in the evening while
listening to the Fifth Dimension's "Stoned Soul Picnic"
on the radio and pondering those Plateresque sculpted
escutcheons about town, really brought out the gaunt El
Greco in me.) Furthermore, I've sometimes pondered if
as a quick'n'easy no-experience-necessary desperation-tactic
way to make money, courier work is practically the male
equivalent to escort work. All about good, efficient
service, satisfying clientele, positive work ethic,
et al. And maybe, at worst, a little bit of a
humiliating dead end…
But there was an additional landmark factor that took things into
eerie, breathtakingly disturbing immediacy and a tragically reflective
dimension --if her age is what it was, she was almost precisely half my
age. May 1982, as a matter of fact --the same month that Musicradio
WABC died. I practically remember as though it was yesterday what I
was doing when she was born --in fact, for all I know, she may have
a parent or parents who are younger than myself. Here, as partners,
we were equals; yet she was of the next generation.
I observed the protocol of the transaction; anything else would be
stalking. I shared my thoughts, perhaps inspired her --and then went
away; a mysterious masked man. She, too, the fascinating mystery.
As was proper, and safe. The soul of the moment; I would not want
it any other way. It was less grotesque than anything deeper and
more "genuinely" intimate with a person in her
position would have been.
Nevertheless, her melancholia and, above all, her physique
haunts me --and keep in mind, it's a physique which I
experienced at close range. I couldn't consider it to be
in any unappetizing danger zone; and besides, true to the
archi-urban polymath, my inclinations are egalitarian. But
it appeared brittle --very brittle.
Brittle as a twig.
Brittle as the shimmering, shattered mullions of the World
Trade Center --images now enshrined in photographic imagery,
ideograms for eternity, familiar to all.
December 31, 2001, right after the last daylight of the year
had waned. For a timespan just about equal to that between
the fall of the Twin Towers, we were unlikely metaphors for
the year that was.
January 1, 2002, I started writing this essay. I missed
the March 11 final finish deadline by two days. (Not
that it mattered, given how the memorializing's increasingly
resembled high-level sentimental bunkum. And those wan twin
beacons actually manage to be upstaged by the Woolworth
Building's floodlit top…maybe
that's kind of good…)
And I finished the proofing and everything on the Ides
of March. Beware.
Appendix To The Transcendence: "Bin Laden On The Keyboards, Bin Laden" July 2002