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Concrete Jungle

Letter From Manhattan

Nobody slides, my friend – Willie Nelson

March 12, 2004

I’m at the top of the Empire State Building Saturday night with a group of Belgian tourists. We’ve tried the Rainbow Room, but been rejected by an elevator girl who refuses us once, then double-checks with her manager and refuses us again. One member of our party is wearing jeans, and this isn’t allowed atop Rockefeller Center, so we opt for King Kong and Fay Wray’s old stomping grounds instead. I play no part in the decision, as all deliberation is done in French. For all I know they’re scheming to leave me pantless in an alley so their denim-clad comrade can clear inspection. But thankfully the plan is less devious and we end up at New York’s tallest, if not most sophisticated building.

Growing up, the Empire State Building was the standard reference for all tall structures. Legend had it that a penny tossed from the top would embed itself two feet in the concrete below. But my first exposure as an adult leaves a mixed impression. Waiting to buy a ticket for the observation deck, I’m struck by the schlock-factor. Walls are painted bright yellow with a taxi cab theme throughout, and for twelve bucks you can buy the audio tour offering headphone narration by a “streetwise New York cabby.” On the eightieth floor between the two elevator rides to the top, flash photographs are taken against a cheap skyline mural painted on concrete, and prints are later offered for fifteen dollars a pop. Several of the staff resemble extras from the set of Deliverance.

I knew someone in San Francisco who told me that she preferred the Bay Bridge to its more famous and striking counterpart, the Golden Gate. When I asked why, she replied “because you can see the Golden Gate Bridge from it.” This same stellar logic can be aptly applied to this skyscraper. Despite every effort to cheapen the experience, they can’t cancel two facts: this building goes a long way up, and this city is a knockout. Braving gale-force winds at the summit, I take in a view that offers a rare sense of appreciation and awe. Getting this perspective on New York after months of covering every corner on foot feels appropriate. From above, it all appears bathed in gray-green and glows with electric vibration. A few nights later, in conversation with a native, I confess that though I like this city, I’m overwhelmed by its sprawl and have yet to determine where its “heart” is located. She tells me she hates New York, but in the same matter of fact tone adds: “It’s all heart.”

***

On the Uptown 4, I stand to offer a woman in her sixties my seat. “Sit down,” she tells me, pointing to the empty space beside me. “I don’t take up that much room.” She’s carrying a program from a dance performance and we get into a conversation about the Tango. “It’s from Argentina,” she points out, “and it’s a real ‘how do you do.’ None of that phony ballet pretense; just straight out of the fields and ready for action.” She tells me that she always thought she’d be good at it, but lacked a partner. “It takes two,” I say, and she gives a slight eye roll and asks if I came up with that myself. I’m quick to smile, occasionally appreciating a woman who can call me on my shit.

Later in the week there’s a more noticeable police presence around the park and at the subway stations, following a well-coordinated series of terrorist train bombings in Madrid. New York’s terror alert status remains at “orange” regardless of where the rest of the country resides. But the city maintains its normal pace and nobody seems particularly affected. I continue to be impressed with the general level of congeniality. Of course it is still a big city, and there will always be those less-evolved members of the animal kingdom, but I am struck by the number of times I see doors held open for strangers and the frequency with which “thank you” and “you’re welcome” is offered.

***

A year ago I was preparing to move here but still had an apartment and girlfriend in California. There were dinners and breakfasts and drives up the coast, all with the prospect of new things in the future. These may be the best times in life, the in-betweens with the promise of what might come and the comfort of what’s already there. I was overdue change, like congealed paint in a can begging disruption, and New York City is a paint-shaking machine. You strap yourself in and it moves you violently, mixing chemistry and perspective. If you attempt to open your lid for inspection it will splatter you on the walls. There is no off switch and you’re either in or out. Appreciating the new blend is something for later, and for somewhere else.

I overheard the term “citylogged” used in a conversation about Manhattan the other day. It was meant in the same sense as “waterlogged” and referred to the sensation of being saturated with concrete or consumed by tall buildings. I understood perfectly and have in fact felt the same way myself on occasion. No place possessing this brand of energy could be without drawback. I’m still wondering, though, about that strange glow I detected looking down from atop the Empire State Building. Somewhere underneath it all, a beat goes on.

2004 Rick Monaco All Rights

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