Sunday, October 28, 2007

Gotham and the Ghost Town

After five days navigating the electric anthill of New York City, a lunchtime errand through New Orleans' Central Business District seemed like a walk through a ghost town. I vaguely remember a more vigorous CBD, the midday sidewalks full of people moving perhaps more slowly as the climate demands but as purposefully as the people of midtown Manhattan. Those crowds are gone now, like the outdoor clock at the D.H. Homes department store on Canal where people once met on a vibrant Canal Street. I can't be certain how much of the loss was the gradual erosion of downtown as the oil business drifted off to Houston, and how much is due to the diaspora that followed the Federal Flood.

New Orleans is many things, but neither vigorous nor invigorating come to mind. As much as we might enjoy the languor of our warm syrup bath and the inclination to the easy, these are not the hallmarks of centers of industry and commerce. We can't really blame our ghostly downtown on the flood. As corporations feast like cannibals one upon the other in a race to the bottom line, places like New Orleans--where Mammon hides itself discretely behind the doors of private clubs--are left to suck thin soup from the castoff bones the centers of power toss us.

Which is not to say I didn't enjoy New York, or that I blame the pin-stripped masters of the universe for our fate. If anything, my journey through the teeming streets was precisely the tonic I needed. As Orleanians wound their way through the days from 8-29 through to the tail end of hurricane season, the same dim miasma that engulfed the city the same time last year began to overwhelm us all once again. We didn't even have the Saints to cheer us. New York was just the ticket: at once relaxing as a Sunday stroll through Central Park to the museum, and as invigorating as only a plunge into the rush hour subway or Monday morning, breakfast time bagel shop could be.

New York is, along with San Francisco, one of the places Orleanians say they can live outside of the Crescent City without regret. While Manhattan and New Orleans couldn't be more different, I think from my brief visits to NYC and the place that prefers to call itself The City, there is a sense in all of these of a uniqueness, of a pride in their city above all, a loyalty to the polis ahead of any vague concepts such as nationality. The citizens of these cities consider themselves self-sufficient in everything that matters and merely tolerant of whatever is required of the outside world. These cities are also stages where people choose to go to act out lives not possible elsewhere, a place where eccentricities are common place if not celebrated, and there remains a strong sense of belonging not just to the polis, but to one's own tribe within it as well.

All of these cities are places where you might encounter someone as odd as Ruthie the Duck Lady, or the fellow in the pink body suit and unicycle I saw peddling around San Francisco, or the self-proclaimed Mayor of Strawberry fields. Even more fun than the self-consciously odd was the thoroughly modern monk--head shaved and clad in a full saffron-and-purple robe--I saw ducking into the Olive Garden restaurant at Times Square heavily burdened with shopping bags, an Old Navy bag outermost.

In each of these places one can turn a corner and be confronted with a city-defining vista. In San Francisco, I remember walking down the steps from Coit Tower onto Montgomery Street and turning down the hill toward the Transamerica pyramid, or the view my daughter stopped to capture with our camera of a piece of a piece of the east side skyline over the Lake in Central Park, postcard perfect moments that stop you in mid-step and make you remember: I am somewhere special and other.

As a person who lives in a profoundly stereotyped place, I have to say that one of the accepted truisms of New York is patently false. Our experience of New Yorkers was almost universally pleasant. The one man who yelled at my wife when she couldn't quite figure out how to swipe her subway fare card in just the right way was quickly replaced by another who not only helped her, he ultimately just swiped his own card and sent her through the turnstile. While there was no chance the cashier at the neighborhood deli was going to ask after my mom'n'em, there was nothing overbearing or dude, just a brisk and cheerful efficiency that to an Orleanians is as remarkable as any of the landmarks of New York.

My daughter remarked that no one made eye contact, but I am an incorrigible gawker who looks at everyone coming down the street, who can sit endlessly at a table and observe the people around me. Men in New York tended to avoid returning eye contact, but women seemed more likely to glance back, perhaps to smile. I probably flatter myself to think it was something essential to the propagation of the species that made women more likely to return a glance, and occasionally smile; more likely they were thinking to themselves "who's that middle-aged rube in the beret?"

Coming back to the low, green vistas of New Orleans after those few days in the iron gray canyons of Manhattan was like slumping down on a bench in the sauna after a vigorous afternoon at the gym, experiencing a pleasant and refreshed exhaustion. Our provincial downtown seemed as quiet to me as my midweek ramble across Central Park from Natural History to the Met. I have to console myself with noticing that, as we pass 300,00 in the city itself and close to 90% of the metro population returned, Carrollton Avenue on Friday night is as busy as I ever remember it, that as languorous as New Orleans fancies itself, there will be the excitement of dressing for Carnival and the invigorating experience of marching in Krewe du Vieux.

I had once thought I would like to live in New York, when I was young and fancied I might become a writer. Lacking the discipline of either the artist or the scholar, I drifted into journalism instead. At fifty, I don't know that I could now adjust to the hustle and flow of New York on a 365 day a year basis any more than I could cheerfully climb the hills of S.F. day-in and day-out. New Orleans has its own hidden excitements, and in just enough measure to suit my nature and my age.

Still, I find I am secretly rooting for my daughter, who has had the New York bug since junior high where among here best friends were a who wanted to study film at NYU, and an aspiring fashion designer. She dragged me to NYU and Columbia to check the lay of the land, even as her mother reminded here of all of the advantages of universities in less challenging (and expensive) places. If she were to make it into either place, I think I would just have to hock the rest of my living days just so I would have an excuse to return more often to New York.

New York is one hard, electric anthill (LOVE that!) to try to conquer. The rewards of doing so, however, are so great that people will live in closets that cost loads of dough to try to get at the goodies.

Glad you had a good time there! All the real, rude Nu Yawkers are in Florida or out on the Left Coast, by the way. My mother-in-law in San Jose complains about 'em all the time.
You wear a beret. How precious.

And how disappointingly predictable.
Ok, two asshole New Yorkers. Still, out of how many million people, my experience was pretty good.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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