Big Easy in the Big Apple
I’ve just returned from a trip to New York. I love that city. I hadn’t been there in years. It’s so…New York. And so…challenging. Particularly if you are from New Orleans. It’s our Easy to their Apple.
Simon & Garfunkel recorded a great song about this, “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Parts of it go like this:
Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where
We don’t know where
Here I am
The only living boy in New York
Hey, I’ve got nothing to do today but smile.
Here’s the song if you want to hear it:
New York can indeed make you feel a little isolated, a little lonely, a little only. New York is so loaded with cliches, stereotypes and caricatures – more than New Orleans, L.A., Kansas, Peoria or anywhere else.
Everyone in a hurry. Hurrying in a thousand languages and dialects. Everyone hustling, one way or another, in every meaning of the term. Sprawling, in every meaning of the term. Majestic, overwhelming, confusing, welcoming and alienating at the same time, familiar and alien at the same time. In short, a bracing, infusing, intoxicating and energizing experience. Especially if you look up.
Unlike most cities – particularly New Orleans – the visual and architectural wonders are twenty stories up. Or more. The filigree, design, details, masonry, artisanry and craftsmanship that decorate and define the rooftops – cupolas, dormers, gables, cornices, crestings, balustrades, entablatures and parapets – quite simply, blow the mind.
That’s enough fancy architectural lexicon to tie you up on Google for hours but suffice it to say: They just don’t make them like that anymore.
Weird thing is – and somewhat disconcerting – most everyone there seems to be looking down. Into their devices, earbuds firmly embedded. They block you, bump you, jostle and juke you. Ingress, egress and progress prove a constant source of impediment and impasse.
Here’s how you can identify the folks who don’t live there: They make eye contact. Sometimes they even say hello back.
It can all be discombobulating for a New Orleanian used to greeting every passerby, chatting up strangers in a crowd, in a grocery line, waiting in a deli, boarding a train. Gregariousness seems a kryptonite of sorts here in the bright lights, big city.
Well, except for the hustlers. They’re all too eager to make eye contact and talk to a stranger. But then, living and working in the French Quarter prepares you for such encounters.
After trying to ask a guy in Central Park where he had procured his bottle of water – thirst and dehydration comprising universal needs during the recent heat wave – he shrugged and mumbled in a foreign dialect. I pointed at the bottle, made a look-around gesture and then the universal shrug that says “where?”
He then shrugged back, sputtered some more incomprehensible language of which I understood two words: “No English.”
So that’s what I adopted as my default mode thereafter when approached on the street by hustlers and interlopers wanting money, cigarettes, sex or any other antidote for their troubles, deficits or desires. “No English.”
It works. Americans seem to have grown wary of people who don’t speak their language these days. Example:
I ask the guy at the deli counter around the corner from my hotel for directions to Hudson Yards, the city’s latest, largest much heralded – and maligned – crystal city, a $50 gazillion development along former rail yards along the Hudson River where investors seem to be racing to see who can build the tallest, ugliest structures on the island.
After much negotiation in faux Spanglish and Arabic, I divine that he has told me to walk up to 34th Street and take a left. “You mean, where the miracle was?” I ask, immediately regretting my engagement. He shrugs.
This is a city of shruggers.
“Yes, where the miracle was,” the woman behind me insists. She wants her coffee. The guy at the counter wants me gone. I head for 34th Street and turn right. But I found Hudson Yards anyway.
I love this city. Miracles abound.
Later, down on the south end of the city – down by Wall Street, the 9/11 memorials and Battery Park, with it’s magnificent view of the Statue of Liberty – my companion and I are feeling directionally challenged. We wander aimlessly. Finally, I approach a man walking his tiny dog in front of his apartment building.
“Excuse me?” I say to his back turned to me. “Excuse me?” I repeat. He slowly walks away from me. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you,” I say to the back of his head. “I’m wondering if you could point me in the direction of Midtown, SOHO, the West Village? Anywhere in that direction?” He lives here. He should know that, right?
Well-versed in the art of ignoring strangers, he finally breaks down, turns to me and asks, “Where are you going?”
I tell him, in the general direction of Midtown. “Say, Madison Square Garden?” He says, “You can’t get there from here.” I respond, “But we got here from there.”
The idea of someone actually traversing the length of Manhattan by foot is clearly an alien, or possibly suspicious, notion to him. He wants none of this foolishness.
“Look in your phone,” he tells me.
“I don’t have my phone,” I say, and I don’t, mostly because I am traversing Manhattan on foot and don’t feel like having loaded pockets.
“It figures,” he says and tells me, “Take the Subway.” Then he walks away.
I love this city.
I got back to New Orleans Monday morning. Picked up my luggage and walked out to hail a cab. I got in and gave my address to the driver and received a blank stare in return.
I live on a famous street. She’d never heard of it. I gave her some landmarks to orient her – City Park, the Fairgrounds? Nothing.
“Tell me how to get there,” she said in a dialect I could not immediately identify but would likely sound familiar on the sidewalks of New York City.
I felt like telling her, “Look in your phone.” But I was really eager to get home. So I told her how to get there, every turn, every lane, every mile. We made it to my place without incident.
I paid her, gathered my bags and headed for my front door. I made it about six feet before a guy walking up the sidewalk asked me for some spare change. Home, home again.
I love this city.
And this one: