the orgiastic future
I am homea few pounds lighter and a couple of hundred dollars poorer, but the trip may nonetheless be judged a success. We experienced food and drinks and music and several social milieux that probably qualify as "scenes," and we are better people for it. "We" means your humble narrator, Joe and Jake from the SF area, and Lauren/Kidchamp, who will be posting her own travelogue shortly. She and I have decided to forgo reading one another's posts beforehandto hell with overlap!so ideally the combination of the two will give a Gospel of Luke/Gospel of John sort of effect. There's not much discernible Jesus in NYC, but there's a hell of a lot of everything else.
The reason I am a few pounds lighter is that despite the inordinate amount of time we spent discussing the types of food we needed to experience, the logistics of getting four people to agree on an eatery are sufficiently difficult that we didn't actually eat much. And when we did eat, I couldn't stomach a very large mealthough the food was uniformly excellentbecause my digestive system is weird anyway and the sheer amount of urban stimulus gave me low-grade anxiety problems for much of the trip. Everything is so large and loud there. Times Square is a hellish twenty-first-century video game; those five-story scrolling stock quotes could eat a man alive. We would spend all day negotiating subways and billboards and taxis and pigeons and sidewalks and bars and street musicians and crosswalks and hipsters and car alarms and schizophrenics, so that by the time I finally lay down to sleep on a friend's friend's floor, it would all bubble back into my subconscious and manifest as episodes of terrified half-consciousness where I was trying to manipulate a subway map of Manhattan in my mind and would die if any junctions were lost.
Fortunately Manhattan is not so difficult to navigate in real life. Its layout is relentlessly Cartesianx-ordinate, y-ordinate, blipand Central Park is a good anchor. Jake also had a working knowledge of local geography; I was no help because I had visited NYC only once before, in the eighth grade, and spent most of the visit running a fever. (Dad: "Look, dinosaur skeletons!" Me: "I need to lie down.") From the air the island resembles nothing so much as a Lego citythe optical illusion is that it is actually taller than it is wideand the rectilinearity continues at street level. This isn't San Francisco, where at least there are hills to remind you that rock strata and petrified vertebrates and the earth's roiling mantle lie beneath the concrete. Here the last vestiges of nature have long since been bulldozed away.
Some people thrive on this. Phil, who drinks an awful lot (as Stewart said) and counts himself lucky because he can actually see the sky from his apartment, seems to have been genetically engineered for NYC. On our first night there he took us to an electronica club with nine-dollar cocktails and began a lengthy disquisition on the merits of the Bombay Sapphire martini. In principle I agree with him, but I have recently become suspicious of worldly trappings and activities, and I ended up staying sober. This made for an odd perspective since, as Phil points out, every social activity in NYC is lubricated by some form of ethanol. As the evening progressed more hipsters began to arrive, crowding us into a complex of corner sofas, and Phil began to talk about the general New York Experience. "Every day when I leave my apartment," he said, "I'm still thrilled to be here. Eight million peopleit's so vital!" Yes, I thought, but I was still harboring suspicions that four million of those people considered me beneath them socially and the other four million wished me bodily harm. I left the couches in search of a bathroom and passed throngs of people lit in dim blue, holding cocktails and cigarettes and amiably bouncing in time with the DJ equipment. Only one of the three bathrooms appeared to be in service, so I waited for a while beside a German man who was shouting into his cell phone, occasionally breaking into English"What about your beautiful girl? What about your beautiful girl?"and I came to imagine that nobody was coming out of the other two bathrooms because people were using them to take drugs, and it seemed that a rattle was coming from the handle of the door nearest meprobably it was only a DJ sound effect, but it sounded like the sort of rattle that would be made by a person dying of a heroin overdose and using his last moments of consciousness to fumble desperately with the latch. Eventually my turn came to use the functioning bathroom, and I peed.
Many of the establishments we visited in NYC were like this: very loud, and patronized by people of magazine-level attractiveness who outclassed us in seven different ways. (We also heard about, but did not visit, a bar called Kokie's, which apparently contains three kinds of people: those waiting in line to buy their cocaine in the back, those waiting in line to snort their cocaine in the bathroom, and those who, having snorted their cocaine, are singing karaoke. However, our source warned us that the cocaine is cut with baby laxatives and hence makes you flatulent.) But I should mention that despite drinking almost nothingthree drinks in five daysI did have several positive experiences in bars. At the White Horse Tavern on 11th and Hudson, where Dylan Thomas had the famous eighteen whiskies that finally killed him, I got to play "Just (You Do It To Yourself)" on the jukebox. Also worth mention is Enid's, situated next to Luke's (our generous host) apartment above a tattoo shop in a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the mornings they play the Cars and serve you granola and omelettes; in the evenings it's Grandmaster Flash and cheap beer. And evenings last until 4 a.m. around these parts.
There were Cultural Experiences, of course. We missed Urinetownwhich all of the taxis were advertising, bizarrelybut the two-evening Magnetic Fields extravaganza filled our theatre RDA well enough. The 69 Love Songs were originally conceived less as an album than a musical revue, and the performance played up that aspect. The duets in particular had a Broadway quality, and Stephin Merritt closed the first evening by wandering the stage and vamping as he sang "Promises of Eternity" to a canned backing track. They relied little on percussion or synths in generalmostly it was piano, cello, and rhythm/lead guitar or banjo or ukulele or whatever. Mr. Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket was also on hand to play the accordion as needed. Most of the time he sat on a couch at the back of the stage with the unoccupied guest vocalists, and everyone read or knitted.
Overall there was little of a pop concert about the production, which I suppose is a natural consequence of the Lincoln Center venue. The acoustics were stellar, a printed program listed all 69 songs in the album order, and the vocals were miked well enough that you could actually understand them. People weren't afraid to laugh at the funny lines, particularly if they hadn't heard the songs before, which seemed to be the case for many. During intermission I wandered the lobby and listened to elderly well-dressed people, presumably season ticket holders, say things like "It's all very foreign to mebut it's good!"
After Saturday's show we located Lauren/Proleptic, who is affable and urbane in person as online, and found the after-party at the Eight of Clubs, a nearby gay bar with well-muscled shirtless bartenders and whimsical penis paintings. I sipped a Pure Pride Spring Water and listened to a fortysomething gentleman, who had attached himself to our group after conceiving a liking for Jake, tell stories about coming down from crystal meth at the Burning Man festival. "I was just dead. I was a dead person. And I was walking very slowly and very carefully, avoiding all of my friends because I didn't want any of them to see me and realize I was a corpse..."
Eventually the band showed up, further crowding the already packed room, and Lauren/K made a couple of attempts to talk to Stephin Merritt but I'm not sure how they went. I contented myself with eating one of the "Thin Mint" Girl Scout cookies that Lemony Snicket was handing out to everyone, and soon Chelsey appeared to introduce me to Claudia and a few friends.
"Oh, Paul," said Claudia (who has been out to Iowa before). "You're the one who everybody thinks is some kind of genius?"
"Er," I said. "Well." And then, "Congratulations on the show."
"Thank you," she said.
Then I met a man who had been Neil Gaiman's publicist for a number of years, and everyone was asking how we knew the band, and the explanations were so complicated and made us feel so peripheral that it seemed best to go back to Brooklyn and reorient. We ended up walking through thirty blocks of rain, which totally destroyed my souvenir program, and my hat was damp for the next two days, but this is what happens when you are unsure of your objectives in NYC.
Now I must speak of museums. How I did love the museums. We made a brief stop at the American Museum of Natural History, where we saw the wonderful Butterfly Conservatory on Chelsey's advice and were chased away from the dinosaurs at closing time, but mostly the museums were all about art. I could have spent a week just looking at paintings. There is something incredibly liberating in experiencing an art form that I have no ambition to practice. It's rather like the pleasure I used to get from reading many years ago, before I knew the first thing about literary craftof course it's naïve, but from certain angles naïveté can scan as purity. Not to mention that I could fall in love with the earnest young art-history grad students who give walking tours of the exhibits. I have a weakness for people involved in non-literary branches of the arts. Like a few months ago I met a composer at a party, and she wasn't intrinsically that hot or anything, but hell, she was a composer. Unfortunately she moved to Vienna three days later.
We got maybe ten percent of the Met in, though I did see enough of my fellow Pauls (Cézanne, Klee) to keep me happy for the rest of the day. (Also this wondrous Degas of a woman with ibises, which I'd never heard of.) The current main attraction is a surrealism exhibit which seemed fairly hit-and-miss; I've largely lost patience with the sort of updated-Sade surrealist art that contorts sexual elements into new and brutal configurations. It's nasty, and it doesn't redeem that nastiness by telling me anything about humanity that rings true. Our bestial side exists, but sex is not the chamber of horrors that some would have us believe. More often it's just misdirected and a little sad. Still, between the horrid jumbled sex dolls and the wedges driven into vulvas there were some first-rate works. Topping the list are the lovely glass-fronted box assemblages of Joseph Cornell, and Francis Picabia did mechanism/sex studies in a way that was more intriguing than crass: Le Fiancé, for example. And Paroxysme de la Douleur did it for me even before I read its title. They also had Dalí's Metamorphosis of Narcissus, which poster decorated my dorm room for a number of years until I noticed the distant figure crawling over the mountains on the right. I couldn't handle that.
Most of the Whitney was closed for the upcoming biennial exhibition, but they did have several Alexander Calder mobiles and another Cornell assemblage on display. There was also an elegant little ink-on-paper Pollock, which I vastly preferred to the larger, multicolored canvases; in art that is so utterly non-objective, restraint is almost always a virtue to my eye. The Museum of Modern Art is inexplicably set up so that they can display only a small fraction of the permanent collection at any given timeso Starry Night and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and a Matisse red room and a Jasper Johns flag and so on were all crowded into a little "highlights" gallery, along with Henri Rousseau's art-naïf The Sleeping Gypsy, which is just not good, my previous remarks on naïveté notwithstanding.
The bulk of the MOMA's space was taken up with the Gerhard Richter exhibit that was written up in the New Yorker and the New York Times magazine last weekand this, this was so good. Many of the paintings took the newspaper photograph as their aesthetic starting point: Richter would paint in monochrome, at photorealistic quality, and then use a variety of blurring and streaking techniques on the wet oils to confuse the matter. The effect was fascinating enough when he was just doing banal journalistic scenes, but it reached its apogee with the fifteen canvases of October 18, 1977, which I couldn't help but compare with Yeats's "Easter, 1916," intentional parallelism or no.
Richter's 15 black-and-white paintings commemorate the day two leaders of the radical German Baader-Meinhof group, disillusioned men and women in their 30s and early 40s whose loyalty to the dogma of the Red Army Faction had led them to commit numerous terrorist acts, were found dead in their prison cells. Gudrun Ensslin appeared to have hung herself. Andreas Baader had been fatally shot. Jan-Carl Raspe was near death from a bullet wound. Two other members of the group had died in prison earlier in the '70s: Holger Meins after a hunger strike; Ulrike Menihof, by hanging. On the Left, there was widespread suspicion the dead had been murdered. Photographs of the Baader-Meinhof members were ubiquitous in newspapers of the day; their images were as familiar to Germans as machine gun-toting Patty "Tania" Hearst was to Americans. Using photographs as models, Richter painted the dead with a subtle techniquea blurring of certain details and an elegiac use of graythat calls into question the murkiness of historical "knowledge" and emphasizes the uneasy mixture of compassion and horror evoked by the group's fate.
There were any number of paintings in other styles, ranging from soft-focus studies of Richter's wife and child to ultra-abstract texture studies in gray paint, and it was remarkable how seldom Richter seemed to misstep throughout these variations. The only pieces I really couldn't admire were a few Day-Glo abstractions that were just too gaudy and too eighties. Overall, it seems that Richter can do just about anything he wants.
The top floor of the MOMA holds the Life of the City photography exhibit, and ordinarily I couldn't have done much with this. I have come to realize that photography is mostly lost on me as an art form, at least at this stage in my lifeI prefer painting for the same reasons that I prefer literature to film and indie rock to electronica, and that's about the best explanation I can give. But in the last few months the MOMA has supplemented its usual art photos with the amateur project Here Is New York, which opened in a SoHo storefront a few weeks after the towers went down. It's really worth clicking through a few of these.
Many of the images are familiar by now: pedestrians covered in white ash, a tea set covered in white ash, fruit covered in white ash, poles and walls covered with "Missing" pictures, vigils, "Have you seen my daddy?" signs, angry and loving messages traced in dust, cranes by night, darkness by day, ruins at all hours, crushed taxicabs, firehouses, firefighters in the black jackets with their yellow stripes, headless mannequins, wreckage, funerals, people looking up on a sunny day, the World Trade Center on fire, the collapse of the towers, the dusty, silent narrow streets.
In the museum gallery it is utterly quiet. For the first time in a long time there are many strollers and wheelchairs in the gallery. It is not the usual museum crowd. The scene is more like a religious ceremony. This is the new New York, the mourning, bewildered city, that people are getting to know.
In general, the WTC aftermath did not impose itself heavily on my perception during our visit. I'm not familiar enough with the Manhattan skyline to notice the absence of the towers, and by now the "street vibe," to the extent that I was able to perceive it, didn't seem qualitatively different from that of any other city. There were smaller reminders. An ad campaign has begun in the subways with the slogan "NEW YORK NEEDS US STRONG": there are reproductions of residents' handwritten notes on how they are coping. "I visit my family." "I cook for my girlfriend." "I make sure to exercise." Less calculated, and really saddening, are the smaller ads for telephone support lines. "Can't sleep? Bad dreams? It helps to talk. We're here to listen. Call 1-800-LIFELINE."
We never made it downtown. Our only view of the Ground Zero area was at night, from the top of the Empire State Building. Other skyscrapers screen off the actual wreckage, but you can see the industrial light seeping upward from the gap, whiter and more sickly than the surrounding city glow, and the giant flag hung alongside. The Statue of Liberty is more distant, a tiny sliver of deep green rising from the water.
"Here's a thought experiment," Phil had said a day or two before. "Take a look at the tallest building you see and stack it on top of itselfmultiply it by three, even. And imagine it coming down."
Sunday afternoon found us at a small Upper East Side bar called Hurricane Island. It was a neighborhood sort of place where most of the regulars seemed to know one another, and soon a well-dressed, sad-faced businessman in his forties drew me and Luke's roommate Matt into conversation. He had recently lost his Internet business. "I have a knack," he said, "for starting ventures that fail. What are you planning to do?"
"Be a writer," I said. "No money in it." (I have had to start adding this qualification, in order to preempt people who think I'm unaware of it.)
"Well now," said the businessman, "Tom Wolfe's made a bundle of money. We know Tom," he called to another man, "don't we?"
"Oh sure," said the other man, "plenty of money. He built that treehouse in his backyard for his kids."
"You should read his latest," the businessman told me, "Hooking Up."
"I've read parts of it."
"That book is great," he said, "because it's all about blowjobs."
I looked at my beer. "Hmm."
"There's this thing" he said "I don't know if it's a generational thing or whatI understand your generation is much more willing with oral sex because of AIDS and everythingbut there is a problem in your generation with women who are perfectly willing to give it, but not receive it. That just seems sad to me. Tell meI don't mean to be graphic, but do you two boys having any problem with giving oral sex to a girl?"
"Errm," I said, flustered, because I am from Iowa and everything. Matt made a similar noise.
He resumed his morose expression and looked at his cocktail. "I tell you," he said, "I have a son in collegewho knows how I'm going to pay for thathe does what he does. But I also have a seventeen-year-old daughter. She goes out and says she has a great time, but I know what she does." He shook his head. "And it just seems so unfair for her."
At this point Matt took up the job of talking about girls, so I looked at my beer some more. "Sweet Caroline" was playing. Eventually the businessman asked what we were doing later.
"Probably going back to Brooklyn," I said. "That's where we're staying."
"Unless you get lucky and go to her place," he said.
"Wrong night for it here," he told me. "You want to go around 82nd and 3rd. Get you laid like that."
At this the vulture of despair, which had been peripherally circling for some time, landed squarely on my sternum. I made some response, but in truth I was sinking.
I am home now. Suddenly I feel much better disposed toward Iowa: the farms and country lanes and utter cluelessness of the place have become endearing and homelike, finally, just as I am about to leave. This is one of the few good things about a wandering existence. Over time more and more cities cease to be points on a map and unfold themselves to you, imprinting their geographies in your soul so that you will carry their landscapes inside you, in miniature, ever after. New York will never be one of those places for me, but it was good to see what I saw. Now I must start to write again. The sun is casting the shadows of trees over the snow. Their bare branches oscillate, just slightly, in the winter air.