New York

When I first got off the train in Paris at Gare de Lyon five years ago, I felt like I was home. It was the sort of place that was immediately familiar, even though I’d never been there before. I’m firmly convinced this was the product of a childhood steeped in French culture. It was like that in London, too, and for the same reasons: when you have these great cities as the touchstones of your literature and your movies, the sheer volume of media makes the geography real. New York was exactly the same way, except that it might have been even more real, in the sense that for my entire life I’ve been watching TV shows and movies set in New York City, and so much of what happens in those shows somehow seeps out into the wider culture — I think I knew, on an academic level, how much this was true, but I didn’t really understand it until I was riding up the approach to the Queens Midtown tunnel on a Friday night, looking out over the East River, and I realized that I wasn’t really going to encounter anything that was truly strange or dislocating.

The oddity and familiarity with the place only got worse after we came home. There I was, trying to write up this blog entry while K. was watching the premier of the remake of “Prime Suspect” on the PVR, and it was all I could do to not gawk at the scenery. The scenery, incidentally, really messed with my brain: ordinarily I don’t have to work very hard to take interesting or pretty photographs, but New York is probably one of the most photographed places in all of history. Every time I brought a camera up to my face, I felt like I was ripping off someone else. (Uh, or making an homage. Yeah, that’s it.) The artistic frustration was not helped by the high overcast that dominated most of our trip that rendered a very flat, very uninteresting light over the city.

So I ran most of the pictures I actually liked through a desaturation filter, and things turned out slightly better. New York seems to want black and white. I had, actually, toyed with the idea of leaving the DSLR at home and taking a film body and a big stack of Tri-X instead, and maybe I should have done that. But then I thought about how hard it was to get B&W film processed and scanned without spending a million dollars, and then I couldn’t find a 2CR5 battery, so that idea pretty much got abandoned shortly after it came into my head.

(I should also mention that, while I was playing with this idea, another one surfaced: “I know, I’ll take medium format gear to New York!” The logic being, apparently, that if you’re going to shoot film in the big city you might as well do it right. Um, yeah. See aforementioned comments about the cost of processing and scanning film, then double the projected numbers. Never mind the part where I don’t even have a transparency scanner anymore.)

Eventually I’m going to do some more post-processing on the raw files and see if I can’t create a Tri-X-ey look to some of the stuff, but I came home with some kind of virus that has made it difficult for me to stay upright for more than 20 minutes at a time, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, this post is really an excuse to put a plug in for the gallery, and tell a couple of stories about the trip that folks might find interesting. I wanted to come up with a consistent narrative here, but the virus is kicking my ass and I have to go lie down now.

The Other Other Other Half

We skipped the Staten Island Ferry in favor of a walk around lower Manhattan: the haze and fog made seeing the Statue of Liberty sketchy, and neither of us had through to bring a copy of “Let The River Run” so there wasn’t much point of riding the boat for the sake of riding the boat. Instead we walked up Broadway from Battery Park and found the famous “Charging Bull” statue. This is a bronze statue of, uh, a charging bull, supposed to symbolize the resilience of American capitalism. On this day in September, it was walled off by police barricades and guarded by no fewer than six NYPD officers, as a result of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests a few blocks away. In fact, much of Wall Street is fenced off; Wall Street proper is almost entirely barricaded, and pedestrians are funneled down a narrow sidewalk (that comes equipped with a vehicle barrier at knee height, which really
fucking hurts
when you walk into it), and guarded by the usual contingent of NYPD and NYSE security personnel (all of whom are armed).

The symbolism wasn’t lost on me. And it wasn’t lost on me as I walked through the protestor camp at Zuccotti Park. Normally I’d dismiss these people as the dirty smelly hippies they are — but lately I’ve been rethinking that dimsissal, and coming to think that maybe they might have a point. One sign I saw said that if you were making less than $250,000/year, you probably had more in common with the hippies than with the banksters. And the author of the sign wasn’t wrong: we aren’t hurting for money in any way, shape or form (we did, after all, jet off to New York for the week), but the gap between us and the people who hold most of the money and the vast amount of the power in western society is so big it’s impossible to really understand. The distance, in other words, between me and the guy who hasn’t had a bath in a week and a half is a lot smaller than the distance between me and Jamie Dimon.

(I could make some joke here about being more concerned about being robbed while we were in Lower Manhattan than anywhere else we went in Manhattan, but that’s rather stale.)

Going into the Century 21 department store sank the final nail into the symbolism coffin for me. Century 21 is one of those great stories from 9/11 — about a department store that had been seriously damaged by the attacks on the World Trade Center (it really is right across the street), but they stayed, they cleaned up, and they re-opened within a year or so. I’d been told by a half-dozen people I needed to go and check it out, because the bargains were so unbelievably good, and they were: designer brand-names at rock-bottom prices! Except…

The day before, we’d walked through Saks Fifth Avenue, and I looked at clothes that cost more than I make in a month before taxes and deductions. I’m aware these things exist in the world, and I certainly don’t begrudge people their ability to buy these things, but what got me was the fact that there is an entire store devoted to selling this kind of stuff, and it’s a store that does really quite well. I know Saks isn’t all about the $6,500 dresses, but it does cost a lot to shop there, and when we walked through in the afternoon, it was relatively quiet — almost an air conditioned oasis away from the craziness of Fifth Avenue.

And then there’s Century 21, with the cast-offs of the fashion designer world — the discontinued, the slightly damaged, the out-of-season. Discounted. And the place was a madhouse — the kind of scene you see around Christmas, where you think you’re going to start slashing at someone with a sharpened Visa card. I don’t mean this as a criticism of C21 — really, I don’t. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is what capitalism looks like in 2011: you have the ultra-rich, and their pleasant, quiet, well-tended shops with the sky-high pricing… and then there’s the mosh pit where the rest of us fight for the cast-offs. For the things the rich don’t want. (On that note, if someone wants to open a shop that sells turbine-driven airplanes that were passed over by the bizjet set, I’ll open a revolving account there.)

I can’t claim this is an air-tight parable. I can’t even claim it’s a wholly original thought. But there was something about what I saw, and the way it made me feel, that was impossible to ignore. Like I said, the protesters were a bunch of people I’d normally not give the time of day to. For some reason, though, I think they have a point, and I think it’s a discussion we have to have sooner rather than later. I’m the last guy to be calling for a class war, but I’m also starting to take the view that we need to think about getting some bricks together to build a wall, and probably sooner rather than later. (As in, “Up against it, motherfucker…”)

Cheap Laughs

K. had applied for tickets to a taping of the David Letterman show, and I’d indulged her on this, because I figured the odds of us ever getting to go were basically non-existent. Yet a couple weeks ago, she got a call from someone in the production office asking if we were still interested, so we set a date and the woman from the show told K. to call a guy for the details and the skill-testing question.

It turns out there’s a trivia question you have to answer in order to score Letterman tickets, but it also turns out that it’s trivial to answer the question if you actually watch the show. Which we don’t. So I spent 10 minutes Googling frantically to find out what other people had been asked, and what the correct answers were. (In our case, “The dude who owns the Hello Deli.” Oh, the question? “Who is Rupert Jee?”) It was a painless process, which is how we came to be standing in a huge lineup in front of the Ed Sullivan theatre on a sweltering afternoon surrounded by… people who are bigger fans of David Letterman than I am.

I’ll spare you the process: there’s a lot of waiting around in lineups. The saving grace is that some of this waiting happens in spaces protected by nuclear-powered air conditioners, so it made the waiting kind of pleasant. There is the requisite trip through the metal detector and search of bags. There are also several reminders of how you need to make sure to laugh at absolutely everything, and clap loudly at all times (it was a bit like being around Republicans during the second Bush administration). Though the logistics are annoying, the show itself is an impressive display of consistency and skill — the warm-up guy comes out, yacks for a little while, introduces various members of the band (including, as a nice surprise for me, Tom Malone), Paul Schaffer comes out, and then Letterman himself comes out and yacks at the audience for a couple of minutes. Then Alan Kalter starts talking, and we’re right into the show.

If you want to see what we saw, you can grab the show for yourself and see if you think it’s any funnier than I did. I wasn’t impressed, but I realize that I’m not Letterman’s target audience. He made a couple of jokes about Rick Perry’s tendency to execute people, that I thought were in bad taste unless he actually followed them through to their logical conclusions, which he didn’t. It’s unfortunate, too, because the jokes weren’t actually that funny, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Colbert might have done with that material given his audience.

Then again, there’s probably a reason why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are on cable, and not CBS. Letterman and his staff have to walk a very fine line between offending too many people and not being funny. So, like Leno, they try to split the difference. You don’t make jokes about Rick Perry being cruel and presiding over a system that kills innocent people; you make jokes about the fact that he’s an inarticulate rambly guy. Anyone you’re likely to offend with that kind of joke probably won’t be able to hold the thought together long enough to get a complaint letter drafted, let alone organize a boycott, so you’re probably safe. Go too far after the Republican party’s core values (war, hating gays, tax cuts for the rich, and killin’ people) and you’re likely to alienate a large and noisy segment of your audience.

On the gripping hand, there’s something respectable about Dave and his staff. The guy goes out there five times a week, 40+ weeks of the year, and tries, mostly successfully, to project this aura of Daveness, a kind of warm humor that is blandly acceptable to most people. And, as I say, for the most part it works. I know it’s not easy to come up with that kind of material over and over and over again, and so I have to give some grudging amount of props to the guy for pulling it off. God knows I couldn’t do it, but that’s probably why I have a blog with eight readers, and Dave Letterman has a building with his name on it on Broadway.

(Memo to Seth Rogan: we get it. You’re a pothead. Move on, please. Also, Poppy Montgomery, you don’t have to hide the accent. We know you’re not American. We don’t mind. See: Laurie, Hugh.)

The Letting Go

The next day, we came back down to Lower Manhattan to the 9/11 memorial. You have to pre-order tickets. I heard tourists at various sites complaining about their inability to get in to see this memorial. You’re probably aware that the thing just opened a couple of weeks ago. You may also be aware that getting in is, like many other things in New York, a process of lining up, getting searched, having your bag x-rayed, and going through a metal detector (see also, Empire State Building and David Letterman). Why, I can’t say exactly. But I have a theory.

The memorial itself is well done. I am not an architecture critic by any stretch of the imagination, but I found the whole space to be soothing, the security and nearly omnipresent police notwithstanding. It is not, to my mind, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam
memorial in Washington, which seemed to set the bar so high for this sort of thing. (One thing in particular about the Wall that provokes all kinds of tears is the proliferation of stuff around the Wall, left by family and friends of the departed. This hasn’t happened at the 9/11 memorial, yet, but I suspect it will in time, and maybe it will have more emotional resonance
for me.)

But the tenth anniversary of the attacks, and the scenery around the memorial, makes me think of something else: people don’t want to forget, and they don’t want to let go. The memory of the events, a decade ago, provides some kind of justification for… something. I don’t know what. It’s probably different for everyone who holds this belief, and I suspect that most don’t really understand it. But it’s there. The politicization of 9/11 was decried almost from the moment the towers fell, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and isn’t still happening.

I’m convinced the security theatre surrounding the memorial — you walk along 12th Avenue to get in, after screening, with the only thing separating you from the unscreened masses being a chain-link fence and a few Jersey barriers — is intended to evoke some kind of residual paranoia: “they’re out to get us.” Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting this was a cynical decision by any stretch of the imagination. But the way that “security” as a concept has been woven into every day life in the United States, the way in which concerns about terrorism have wormed their way into almost ever decision that gets made, is insidious.

That level of paranoia needs to be there, all the time, in order to continue justifying various decisions and various policies that dovetail neatly with the existing needs and wants of the kyriarchy. It is, in its basest form, a method of distracting people
from the real problems out there: income inequality, wildly disproportionate power levels in society, an endless series of wars in far-away corners of the earth (being fought, naturally, by the powerless), a foreign policy that invites further blowback, and a government that seems committed to abolishing the rule of law for the powerful and cloaking itself in secrecy so as to avoid accountability at all costs.

I know how crazy that sounds. But I also know how crazy the last decade has been, and I can’t remmeber a time in my life when I felt so disconnected and so mistrustful of the government — or, really, of anyone in any position of power. I used to entertain myself by reading Abbie Hoffman’s writings and laughing at his paranoia, but I’m starting to ask myself whether we’re not living through the same kind of thing, and whether he might have had a point (or eight). The Yippies were easy to laugh at, sure, but given the confluence of big business and big government, and how willing they are to fuck over the rest of us, were they really wrong?

Matt Stoller wrote an article about Occupy Wall Street as a church of dissent rather than a protest, and I think he’s broadly right. We’re seeing the beginnings of a movement, in a direction that isn’t immediately clear, and it seems right that it should spring up in Lower Manhattan. The Great Ungluing had a lot to do with what’s happened in the last ten
years, but the truth is we’ve been heading down this path for a while. 9/11 drew a big red circle around a lot of other stuff, though, and that helped to crystalize a lot of emotions. And now I find myself feeling a bit like Lewis Black in his more angry moments, and that maybe the hippies are right, and this is a really strange thing to realize.

At the same time, the thing they don’t tell you about the 9/11 memorial, and the World Trade Center site in general — and the reason why you have to walk along 12th Avenue — is that the whole thing is basically one big construction project. And I sat there in the shadow of the Freedom Tower (well, not exactly, given the way the sunlight falls on the site), in the metaphorical shadow of that terrible day a decade ago, and all around me was the rebirth of a neighborhood. In time, the World Trade Center site will be surrounded once more by office buildings and people living their lives, and that somehow seems like a fitting way to remember the loss and honor it. A part of me would like to think that, when everyone calms down and the x-ray machines and the metal detectors go away, the 9/11 memorial itself will become a place for the next generation of Lower Manhattan workers and residents to come and have lunch on a nice sunny day, aware of the past but not haunted by it, and not governed by the memory.