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Friday, March 31, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant
NEW YORK – Immediately, the Californian notices that all surrounding surfaces feel, sound and look exotic. In New York City, the world is made of brick, steel, granite, glass and pavement – all of which provide more diversity than one might think.
The mighty brown blocks of Fifth Ave. apartment towers stand as if eternally flawless, while centuries of renovations and patched holes sketch weird variations in the crumbling red brick buildings that line the canyons farther downtown.
Quickly, one learns orientation – both within the massive city itself and the similar, though more fluid, forests of people that stand, walk, shuffle, smoke cigars, holler on cell phones, size up and break down on all streets everywhere at any time (except very early in the morning, when we spring break hedonists are drearily retracing sober steps to shelter and sleep.)
It could have been sunny Mexico, or damp Costa Rica, or free San Diego – but instead I ended up here, in (as I quickly ceded) the capital of the world, where I learn more walking around for 12 hours a day than I do in many UCSD classes.
So much, in fact, that I can’t yet affect any expertise regarding this city, or even my activities in it. I walk around in circles and only realize it half the time. I cut people off on the sidewalk and do not notice. I often can’t slide my subway card through the slot at the proper speed. But the dedicated New York student is rewarded with a richness of gratification – and observation – that no well-signed, automatic-transmission, lawsuit-safe stucco-land can provide.
The first step is grasping the Manhattan grid. The numbered streets make it easy, except that interrupting all the helpful digits are strange alleys and avenues that distress the uninitiated. And adding greatly to the whole confusing mess are defiant ‘hoods like Greenwich Village, which is too punk rock to put all its streets along one grid.
Then you have to figure out what to call things. The subway, I’ve heard, is locally referred to as “the train.” Of unequaled importance is a single dialectic: Uptown or Downtown (thankfully, that’s not so hard to gather.) But then you have to know what letter or number – not color, although all the subway lines are drawn in different hues – for which to wait. Get on the wrong letter and (like many transit systems) you’ll see your stop fly by the window. Confuse yellow and orange (which is easy, trust me) and you’ll end up on the wrong side of the island, or even off the island.
Exit the station, and the hardened cityscape of brick, glass and pavement provides few landmarks by which to navigate. Even if you theoretically know where you’re going, figuring out exactly which way to walk is another story entirely. The Empire State building is a useful (and, in red and green and purple, a beautifully lit) compass, if you can see it. So is Central Park, if you’re lucky. But most deposits offer only brick, stone, pavement and glass in all directions, leaving me to verify street names in the back of a now-embarrassingly dog-eared guidebook.
The consistency of New York’s materials belies the diversity of nearly everything else. With 8.1 million people, the city offers staggering diversity, yet much fun is to be had classifying the various species of streetwalkers and subway riders.
Some of my favorites are the brutally well dressed young businessmen, shuffling along 42nd street in blue and black pinstripe suits that look like they cost more than my car (which wouldn’t be that much of a feat). In the face of each one I see today’s Nick Carraway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, sighing in advance of the long train ride home, or the short subway jaunt to a lonely, half-million dollar (one bedroom) apartment.
But it’s SoHo, the hip loft neighborhood (from where I’m writing this) in lower Manhattan, which offers the best parrots for these green eyes to gawk at. Olive-skinned artistes raid the cozy coffeehouses midday, jeans stained with a thousand hopeful oil hues. The real strugglers tape their unframed canvasses to the outside of buildings on popular streets, nursing lukewarm coffee all day while the New York masses progress by, uncaring and offering no cash for color.
And then there are the boutique birds, who in the SoHo-as-fahion-district era click-clank over the ancient cobblestone in strappy, sharp-toed heels, at once hopelessly vulnerable and hopelessly invincible – and wholly unattainable. Anyone who thinks Los Angeles has the country’s monopoly on beautiful people hasn’t seen a salad-groomed trunk in $400 (perfectly ripped) jeans level a whole city block of males with a single stride, then disappear into the emerald glow of a subway station.
I guess all the above zeal testifies better to my inexperience than any disclaimer. Yet of all the aspects of New York that I find surprising, the greatest is how quickly one becomes jaded to the entire beautiful collision. Arriving the first night I found every dusty street pipe endlessly poetic, every brownstone staircase irresistible, every dimly lit corner pub intensely thirst-generating.
Three days later I wake up and forget to notice the cobblestone, the noise, the art-chic and the potential confusion of the ancient subway system. The skyscrapers have become just another backdrop, and the acutely juxtaposed wealth and squalor just another condition of life in the capital of the world.
Even now, I always have to check the map when we get of the subway. I still want either a hotdog or a fat slice (nee “pizza”) on the hour. And I never tire of the street (or tunnel) musicians.
New York, I am getting it. Your surfaces may be relentless, but in between their consistencies lies a palette of colors this Californian has never known.
Send your own tips about San Diego’s curious public spaces to Ian Port at