Meanwhile, at the next table over, a neo-Africanist black man has sat down, all bedecked in the finest reds, yellows, blacks, and greens, with a gargantuan portrait of Malcolm X on the back of his woven Kenyan jacket (with matching cap). He raises his bespectacled eyes from the thick book in front of him and denies the previous statement, insisting that the Black Man is the originator of civilization and all other races flow from His fertile loins. At this point my eyes go bug-o and I look at the other black man in the restaurant, an obvious student in t-shirt and blue jeans, and his are doing likewise. We have just witnessed a white guy from Brooklyn espousing racial equality while a black man proclaims he is of the über-menschen. What strange world is this? I retreat to the street while my compadre in amusement tries to talk the Nubian Prince down to a more universal viewpoint.
I'm in a Greek cafe at 65th and 2nd Ave on the Upper East Side. It's a fairly normal diner situation, heavy on the club sandwiches, with a bar on the side. The man working the counter is the physical embodiment of anger. His beady black eyes, surmounted by a furrowed brow, bracket a Roman Polanski nose that stabs in accusation. His dark hair is combed in a slick crust from ear to ear over his shiny scalp. His speech, emanating from a mouth rendered immobile by clenched jaw muscles, is a blur of growling points, counterpoints, and snide questions. He stands tense, arms at the ready, his movements a staccato machination of stabs and thrusts punctuated by the occasional pounding of his fist on the counter. He pulls out a foil to-go tray, dumps some food in it -- BAM -- slaps the plastic lid on, violently crimps the foil around the edges -- BAM -- snaps a paper bag open, rapidly thrusts the carton in, hitting bottom with a resounding crump, wraps the paper bag shut around its contents in one arcing hand motion, and -- BAM -- slams it onto the table with -- SHICK BAM -- the receipt underneath.
A woman enters the cafe: an older black woman, possibly homeless, carrying a small bag and limping but dressed fairly nicely. She sits at the counter, lights a cigarette and asks for a cup of coffee in a sweet and distant voice. The waiter, no more obviously perturbed than usual, tells her in his roundabout, vaguely insulting way that there is a $5 minimum at dinner time. I look down at the single chocolate malt in front of me. She seems to ignore him, and before he brings her coffee he yells at her for smoking in the no-smoking section. She, becoming angry herself, asks him where the smoking section is and he tells her it's in the bar, where there is a $15 minimum. She shuffles off in that direction and they eventually usher her out the door, she looking rather pissed. Very soon afterwards a man sits down in her seat and starts puffing away on a king- size, completely without retribution. I look around and notice two or three other people smoking.
I'm at the Old City Hospital on Roosevelt Island. It's been abandoned and fenced off for at least 30 years, and the remains of the building sprout up along with the weeds. The Neo-Gothic stone walls rise four stories around atriums of splintered wood, collapsed flooring, and burnt timbers. The ground inside is covered with debris, dirt, and garbage, with the occasional art graffiti or gang tag. The stairs are wrought iron and are still usable up to those floors that are made of slate. It's a paradise for the Urban Adventurer, a rich agar for the imagination, and a visual cornucopia for the photographer. The sun comes out for the first time in a week and I'm in heaven.
As I exit the building through the overgrown main entrance, I trip over a piece of metal, making a loud noise. I turn to look up at the building behind me and a head pops out of a third story window, flinches back in, and re-emerges. The man and I greet each other and he, noticing the camera around my neck, asks if I'm here taking pictures. I respond yes and ask him what he's doing here. "Ummm...," he says, "...I'm taking pictures too." Art is an excuse I've often used myself, and I'm not going to deny him it. We say good-bye, and as I'm walking away I look back and see a blond-haired woman in the room with him. We wave at each other.
I'm with Stacy in the Trinity Church near Wall Street. She's never been here in all her years in Manhattan. While walking around the pews, we come to a slotted box with prayer slips on top. Each slip has a number of blank spaces for the names of those sick or dying or simply in need. Stacy peels one off the stack and writes "Magic Johnson" in one of the "sick" spaces, then slips it into the box.
I'm on the subway again, riding from somewhere to somewhere else. About ten feet down the car are two young men sitting opposite each other. One is very tall and thin, with an extremely elongated face shrouded in a great volume of long, frizzy hair and extended by a shaggy goatee drawing his chin even further towards the floor. His companion is shorter and stockier, wearing black and white pinstriped long johns under his ratty shorts and Pedro Lopez top. His hair, separated into hundreds of tiny braids, explodes from the top of his head and cascades down to his shoulders. The two are fervently discussing an old Rush album, the tall one emphasizing his point by recreating, in a modified style, the bass line: his muscles suddenly tense, his arms and legs flailing, air-bass below his knees, and his mouth spitting out the distorted notes through his tangled teeth and vicious sneer.
I'm riding on the subway back from the old World's Fair Grounds in Queens. Next to me is a middle-aged woman reading a small booklet. It appears to be some sort of collection of daily inspirational writings: each page is dated and contains quotes from the Bible and something called "The Science of Mind". The text is mostly about finding beauty through the God in You and how, through this beauty, to become a stronger person. The cover is a nice, clean aerial view of the Golden Gate Bridge -- the connection escapes me. It's all very self-help and looks like it might be connected with the Crutch of Scientology.
The woman, her pale and flaccid skin encrusted with make-up, cocooned tightly in a thick overcoat, is flipping around back and forth across the pages centered around the current date. She turns the page to a date somewhat in the future, and as I read over her shoulder one particular phrase leaps off the page and stuns me into a slack-jawed stare out the window to the passing cityscape: "As someone once noted, 'Wherever I go, there I am.'"
I'm at the Columbia University Reality Fest, a local collegiate variation on the Acid Test. Hundreds of drugged coeds swarm around me. The party spans a number of floors of a University building, with five or six rooms devoted to bands and poetry and a half-dozen more occupied by art installations. The students are being typically unconcerned about their chemical intake and many are obviously over-cooked. I see one person vomit on the floor and another taken out on a stretcher. They pretty much ignore me, probably assuming I'm a professor.
Many of the musical acts are derived from the student body and display a refreshing lack of stylistic compromise. One band, dressed all in regulation black, is playing hard-drivin' neo-folk: a forlorn (and totally serious) song that seems to be called "Give Me a Lobotomy to Stop the Pain."
There is also a sticky and desperate sexuality to the event that combines with the all-pervasive anxiousness of New York City to form a very non-subtle and sleazy urgency. One room, pounding funk, is covered with sheetless and stained mattresses, the walls bedecked with crude blacklight illustrations of various sexual positions -- a sort of Disco Kama Sutra Love Den.
In another room there is a band on stage -- though they are completely eclipsed by the erotic dancers to the sides: three topless women in g-strings, painted day-glo, grinding into each other, the band members, and various inanimate objects. The music is bass-heavy hardcore punk, the electronic drums pegging the meters and my tympanic membranes. The crowd is loving it up and a thrash pit quickly forms, bodies flying about beneath the dripping sexuality. The sight is fascinating, obscene, and completely alien to my aesthetics. Between two songs, the lead singer screams something about how this isn't the 60s retro anymore, asshole, this is the 90s, and they launch into a frenzied and thundering version of "The Theme from Get Smart". I look more closely at the singer and bass player. They're the music enthusiasts from the subway car the night before.
In a city of 6 million, I am recognizing strangers. I must leave town.
No Simple Highway:
New York City, NY
Last modified: Tue Jun 7 11:14:57 2005
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