My three sons and I went to the New York International Auto Show. I’m not sure how “international” it was—the most exotic thing I saw was the family from Union City, New Jersey whose Nike sneakers were made in Southeast Asia.
But it was indeed an auto show: there were lots and lots and lots of autos. Red ones, blue ones, silver ones, black ones, white ones, yellow ones—many, many colors like these. And there were large cars, small cars, cars in the middle somewhere. They all had black tires, and most ran on gas. Most of them seated between two and seven people, but there was a big black one that could seat twelve, plus three magnums of champagne, six egos, and four sets of spike heels.
The show cost $5 for kids and $15 for adults, which was very affordable, especially in light of the NYC museum option at $20 a pop, which most people don’t realize is an option and not a requirement. But of course, the price of a ticket to the auto sale—I mean show—didn’t include admission to adulthood in the form of a new car when your suburban kids turn 16, insurance for a teenager, or the cost of several thousand gallons of American blood seeping into Iraqi sand.
As you enter the Javits Center, to the left of the New York Post subscription tent, are a couple of black limousines. You must be at least 5’9” to see them, however, for a vast group of tall and wide men—somewhere between 25 and three hundred individuals—is clotted in front and mostly blocking the view. Most of the men are pretending to look at the limousines and not at the two women in red dresses who are standing in front of the vehicles. Of course, the limousines don’t move much, and the women occasionally do. (The women are real, by the way.) These women have bodies that have been carefully crafted by the best car designers over the years—designers with names like Ferrari, Porsche, and Kia. Their lines, curves, and headlights are the mood and imagination and temperament of the driver drawn, molded, and cast by these famous designers. These two women embody what men want most. They want to go fast, with Van Halen playing, and they want their friends (and enemies) to see them doing it. And fortunately for these men, the old model at home—when it wears out or needs more maintenance than it’s worth, when it makes too many loud noises that grate on the nerves, when its parts start coming loose, when it embarrasses him in front of the neighbors, when it frankly gets to be too much damn trouble to do anything with but abandon the motherfucker along the Pulaski Skyway—well, in that case they can pick up a nice, new, shiny red one at a dealership off I-95.
Just like the one they’re pretending not to look at.
Because, let’s face it: none of these men will ever ride in one of the limos.
The other cool thing about the New York International Auto Show was the people themselves. There were people of all shapes and sizes who drove in from at least thirty—maybe even forty—miles outside Manhattan. Traversing the Hudson or East River, they each paid bridge and tunnel tolls to use structures that were built in the 20th Century with bond financing and the promise that once the structures had recouped their cost they’d be free. But when you’re a municipality and your drug is nickels and dimes in the ‘50s and quarters and dollars now, it’s hard to go cold turkey.
Well, back to people.
What was really neato about all of them was that each man in a grey sweatshirt who drove in by himself, or each young couple—man with bejeweled arm around woman’s neck—or each family, kids not gawking at the city but at vehicles that they saw thirty miles earlier in front of an I-95 dealership but which were displayed so much more nicely here—each individual or group didn’t bother anyone else. They obediently followed the carpet around each of the four levels and stuck to themselves—didn’t bother anyone and didn’t much look at anyone else. They were very civil. Model citizens. They talked among themselves, laughed among themselves, and even went over to the many different food carts and bought salty pretzels or Häagen Dazs bars and ate among themselves. They were good neighbors: they had good walls.
It was time for Teak and me to go home. His two brothers stayed with friends who were also there.
We walked outside, into sunshine. A couple with an elderly parent and their 5-year-old son were also leaving. The father said to the boy, “We’re in New York City, Joey! We can hop in a cab and do anything! Wanna go to The Lego Store? Toys R Us?”
We walked through the exit—signs explained, “You are now exiting the Auto Show, no re-entry.”
Teak said, “Dad, can I sleep on the subway?”
“Yes. Of course.”
But there was no easy way to get to the subway. The Javits Center is road-locked by the river to the west, Port Authority to the northeast, cars and tunnels and cars and parking lots and cars racing down 11th Avenue all around us. I looked around and honestly did not know how best to get my sleepy child home.
Finally a nice man in a yellow car offered to give us a ride.
When we arrived at our apartment, I paid him handsomely, and Teak and I walked upstairs.
photo: Flickr Commons
Filed under: city | Leave a Comment
Tags: car, consumerism, NYC, transit, urbanism
Still working my way through Robert Caro’s tome on Robert Moses, The Power Broker. We’re at the section—in the 1950s and ’60s—where Moses is “hacking his way” “with a meat ax” through neighborhoods to make room for superhighways that are 200+ feet across. Caro is describing East Tremont in the Bronx, the kind of place that most of us starry-eyed urbanists only dream of living in (to hear Caro’s sympathetic portrait of it).
It’s easy for a reader like myself, who loves the idea of the city (sometimes more than the city itself) and the experience of it, to be wistful as he hears about the vibrancy of yesterday’s neighborhoods and also to be envious as he considers what painstaking research Caro must have been able not just to endure but also to enjoy in order to word-paint such portraits of them. Going through Moses’ old Triborough Bridge Authority records on Randalls Island or in a Chambers Street archive or held at the NYPL (wherever they keep them) thrills some of us—writers who like to be alone with people and things of the past who change only when our keystrokes change them. And interviewing people who were “there” can be both invigorating and saddening.
When reading about the city—both the city of the past and the city that “could be” that we see in blogs about sustainable cities, walkable cities, the City of God and the city of man—it’s never about being “present” in the city around you. Reading about the city is about making sense of things.
For presence, I walk.
Sometimes things make sense, sometimes they don’t. But I often don’t have time to make sense of them; I try—in my best moments—to just let them happen around me as an observer.
Walking the sidewalks removes me from Armchair City Adoration and places me into a state that Tony Hiss (author of The Experience of Place) calls “simultaneous perception,” an almost zen-like movement through physical space where one is calm and experiencing the things and people nearby in an unhurried and very aware state. Holly Whyte, in City: Rediscovering the Center, wrote earlier and similarly about walking in New York City:
The pedestrian is a social being: he is also a transportation unit. …He moves forward with a field of vision about 100 degrees wide, further widening this with back-and-forth scanning movements to almost 180 degrees. He monitors a host of equations: two crossing patterns at left front, 290 feet a minute, three on the right, angle on the cars 30 degrees and closing, a pair abreast dead ahead, a traffic light starting to flash DON’T WALK. In fractions of a second he responds with course shifts, accelerations and retards, and he signals to others that he is doing so. Think of the orders and computers it would take to match him! Transportation engineers are spending millions on developing automated people-mover systems. But the best, by far, is a person.
We move through city space in Whyte’s way—autonomously aware of others’ vector changes—and in Hiss’s as well: we are aware of fellow walkers’ facial and fashion details and of aspects of buildings and street-level stores.
In this way, I can walk even familiar territory on the Upper West Side and enjoy simultaneous perception: getting off the train at 86th and Broadway (having known exactly which car on the northbound #1 to get onto so that I can easily get to the turnstiles at my stop); ascending the staircase with seemingly hundreds of others—a sudden burst of urban blood bursting through a narrow capillary that was barely widened by MTA workers last spring, a capillary that, when shut down during work, caused almost a stoppage in flow on the alternate staircase and underground heart attack—only to emerge and call Karen (“I’m off the train; want anything at the store?”); crossing Broadway with many of those others even though we pedestrians have the red hand (formerly “Don’t Walk” in a literate society) sign, knowing how long northbound taxis and other vehicles will take to reach us before we reach the median; passing Euclid Hall seniors and disabled, whose presence is ubiquitous enough in Mama’s Famous Pizza next door and in front of their own building to appear even on the street view in Google maps; getting then to Broadway Farm for a gallon of milk and grimacing at the prices we pay (we vow to switch to Key Foods one block out of our way) but reveling almost unaware at buying from a place that employs a Moroccan, several Dominicans, Pakistanis and a Caribbean Islander all under one roof consistently between Olympic Games; then back outside deciding to navigate either in front of the Victoria Secret windows and their Amazon-tall flesh-posters or past the Jewish restaurant that has always intrigued me but never appealed to me to dine in; deciding for Broadway and walking past the Origins store—pumping enticing cologne at us from vents—Baked By Melissa, and Coach; turning the corner to see the local homeless man defecating between cars on the south side of 84th Street in front of Ouest’s service entrance; then finding my body move into a steady rhythm as I walk downhill to West End Avenue, to our block, and then the final approach to our building. A stiff Hudson River-born wind blows up the bluff in Riverside Park, over the Promenade and then leaps the schist wall on Riverside Drive to meet me as I walk westward. I notice the white-wire holiday lights on the stoop of one brownstone. The scaffolding (“sidewalk sheds,” they call them) across the street on the south moves along the block from building to building like a worm’s sheath, fertilizing each townhouse and making it more marketable.
A few feet from our stoop, the temperature drops about ten degrees.
I reach our building and pause inside the vestibule to dig in my right front pocket for my keys. I am almost sad—glad to be home but missing already the intimate connection with the city I’ve had for the past seven to ten minutes.
It’s been a daytime romance.
It now becomes only an idea while I rest at home.
I write in sentences and carriage returns instead of think in paragraphs.
Filed under: city, placemaking, public-space, walkability | 1 Comment
9-year-old son, Teak, wrote this poem for school, in honor of upcoming MLK Jr. Day:
freedom for all
standing up tall
as he thought
and fought and fought
he had a dream
that a day would
come for the riot to
stop, then he was
shot, his message did
stay but I still know
although the crimes
continue it will stop
in a new place by some one
great exactly like who?…
Martin Luther King
Filed under: Africa, MLKJr., poetry | Leave a Comment
“Oh! Africa, my native land,
When shall I see thee, meekly stand,
Beneath the banner of my God,
And governed by His Holy word?
When shall I see the oppressor’s rod
Plucked from his hand, my gracious God?
Oh! when shall I my brethren see,
Enjoy the sweets of LIBERTY?”
— Benin-born slave, then Christian evangelist and lecturer, Mahommah Baquaqua.
Baquaqua wrote about New York City, “The first words of English that my two companions and myself ever learned was F-r-e-e; we were taught it by an Englishman on board [the ship], and oh! how many times did I repeat it, over and over again. This same man told me a great deal about New York City…We all had learned, that at New York there was no slavery; that it was a free country and that if we once got there we had nothing to dread from our cruel slave masters, and we were all most anxious to get there…[After we arrived], that was that the happiest time in my life, even now my heart thrills with joyous delight when I think of that voyage, and believe that the God of all mercies ordered all for my good; how thankful was I.”
Filed under: Africa, slavery | Leave a Comment
It’s silent now, even though I’ve been keeping my ears peeled for it, but the first thing I noticed when I came into the living room and sat down was a bird chirping.
It was probably a sparrow, which I consider so commonplace, yet in the Bible—at least in some English translations—this diminutive brown bird is referred to by name by Jesus himself. The peacock boasts no such attention.
But it’s quiet now, except for the typing of my keyboard. The bird(s)—for there are blue jays, robins, an occasional red-tailed hawk to our delight, and towhees in our courtyard—have settled into their Saturday morning activities, and so have I. Soon, our middle son will come down (or, rather, I will rouse him and then he will come down), and he will shuffle to the couch, fall/roll onto it, and grab a throw-blanket from the headrest and pull it over him like a collapsed tent, sealing himself off from me and everything around him.
(The bird is back. It sounds like a bluejay, but not its standard “jeer,” as birders might refer to the call.)
My son—all three sons, really—come into the living room like I used to come into the kitchen in the mornings growing up. They never come into a quiet room, where sounds outside the room are discernible. Someone is always there first. And even if they did—even as I did then—they are thinking about (1) continuing their sleep, and/or (2) what’s for breakfast. Either fatigue or hunger guides them. Granted, before I heard the bluejay and before I even tried to, my first step was to turn on the kitchen light, drop a Starbucks pod into the Keurig coffee pot (coffee “maker”?…they are not really “pots” anymore), and only then take my Steaming Cup of Morning over to the side-table by my Daddy chair, sit down, and…be open.
The coffee is my throw-blanket, though its effect is much briefer on my senses that its counterpart’s on my son’s.
Last night I returned from a work trip to Florida, where I woke up on three mornings overlooking the beach and ocean. My mornings, with coffee at my side of course, were accompanied by the sound of waves—each wave absolutely different, like snowflakes, or humans—yet all seeming the same and all constituting a whole. The waves were a familiar sound to me, embedded in my waking hours during summers on Fire Island from 1965 to 2002.
I wonder this morning how many New Yorkers are waking up and hearing—at first—the sounds of CNN Headline News, or of yelling in the next room or adjacent apartment, or of a bottle clinking on the sidewalk outside their bedroom window, or of a subway rushing downtown under the metal grate on which they are trying to sleep.
Filed under: birds, homeless | Leave a Comment
Last night, after working a 15-hour day, I made the mistake of reading that the food product “Hot Pockets” sold for $2.6 billion to Nestlé. I didn’t have “The Power Broker” handy in the living room, and it is this that has been my nightly reading for the last 800+ pages and umpteen nights. So instead I picked up Robert Frank’s “Richistan,” which I’ve also been reading at the 3-year-stale recommendation of my friend and peer Patrick Johnson, whose thoughts and work I’ve admired for some time now.
It seemed inconceivable that a company would pay, for instance, the equivalent of nearly 1% of all American charitable giving—1% of the love we show to one another and to people affected by tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes—for foil-wrapped cheese, tomato sauce and bread.
I believe I’ve eaten a Hot Pocket. Maybe. Not sure. Have you? Do you think often about Hot Pockets? Do you tell your friends about Hot Pockets? Are Hot Pockets more important in your community than the local repertory theater, the local soup kitchen, even more important than the larger museums that cater to the rich but increasingly draw in the less well-heeled?
Call me cynical, but somehow I think Nestlé spent less time deciding on spending this money for crap no one should eat—but they do eat it—than they would spend considering whether to give away 0.04 percent ($1 million) of that same amount to charity.
I am cynical.
I must now be a good boy and read my Bible and pray for them and pretend that spending $2.6 billion on a product that yields them more than $2.6 billion—and that’s why they did it, because we all make it possible—isn’t ludicrous and irresponsible.
Because it’s not. In fact, it’s smart business. And it makes me hate the world.
2600 times as costly to buy than a $1 million gift to charity.
And that’s in 1990 dollars.
Filed under: Manhattan | Leave a Comment
Tags: charity, corporations, food, giving
Alleen should have his face on an IMDb or RottenTomatoes thumbnail photograph. Tall, dark-cocoa skin, severe jawbone, handsome and older, and gentle smile—one that could provoke sympathy from an audience. He would be a supporting actor, not the lead. He would not be bagging New York landlords’ trash, as he does for the landlord of our brownstone. He’s been the epitome of kindness but yesterday had seen enough.
“Who did this?!” he demanded of Karen, who was carrying groceries, as he surveyed our kids’ creation. ”We’ll get a $100 fine from the city!”
The three boys had taken discarded Christmas trees from along our block and lined them end to end, smallest to largest, along the sidewalk, extending perhaps thirty or forty feet. They looked like Ukrainian matryoshka nesting dolls.
“Well, the boys did this; they said they were ‘building a forest.’”
“Yes, but who does this?!”
“Kids do! Ones who are having fun.”
“But it’s like taking your trash and putting it in front of someone else’s building.”
“No, Alleen,” Karen said, “it’s like taking someone else’s trash and putting it in front of our building.”
Karen walked into the apartment in a huff, but animated. At least she wasn’t mad at me. After hearing the story, I was glad that the boys were outside the house and not shooting heroin at the same time. In my book, that’s a check in the Win column. She called the City’s we-answer-everything-(though-we-might-not-fix-it)-line, 3-1-1. She described to the city employee the scene with Alleen and asked if our landlord or Alleen himself would get fined. I heard the story rehearsed.
Karen hung up the phone and said to me, “The lady told me that next time the boys see Alleen maybe they should hide in their fort.”
Filed under: Upper West Side | Leave a Comment