Thursday, February 13, 2020

New York, New York!

By Madeleine Kando

I have no business writing about New York. Not only do I not live in New York, worse, I live in Boston, which in the eyes of most New Yorkers, is the most stupid thing one can do. They have as low an opinion of Boston as the Dutch have of Belgians. Why be Belgian if you can be Dutch? Why live in Boston if you can live in New York?

I completely disagree of course. Being Dutch myself, I am guilty of an unwarranted sense of superiority over the Belgians, but Boston is perfectly fine. I like living in the Hub, Beantown, the Athens of America. I’ll take the Patriots over the Giants any day. I mean, look at Tom Brady! What’s there not to like?

But since the Dutch closed down their consulate in my hometown, thinking that New England was no longer important enough to spend consulate euros on, my husband and I had to travel to New York to extend our Dutch passports, a good excuse, we thought, to spend a few days in the Big Apple.

Entering the heart of Manhattan from the West side is like boarding a vast ship over one of its gangways. We followed 56thStreet and were immediately swallowed up by a stream of cars, limousines, yellow cabs and trucks, honking their horns, swerving from lane to lane, trying to gain a few inches at traffic lights. We were surrounded by an ocean of enormous, shiny skyscrapers, all competing for the tallest spot in the firmament. As we approached Columbus Circle, the smell of manure preceded the appearance of a row of sad looking horses hitched to colorful carriages.

Three days are not enough to do justice to this incredible city, but just being there, inhaling the perfect mix of car fumes and the smell of the subway already made it an exciting experience. Having grown up in Paris, that smell spells home for me, like the smell of hay for someone who grew up on a farm.

We were staying on the 36th floor of one of the hotels looking down on Central Park, with a skating rink in the middle and the MET in the distance. The entire park is surrounded by a battery of skyscrapers standing guard, and at night everything lights up like a Christmas tree.

After we unpacked our bags, we strolled down 7thAvenue towards Times Square. Who needs the elegant architecture of a Notre Dame or a Sacré Coeur, the cute canals of Amsterdam or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, when you are immersed in an ocean of neon signs reaching up to the star studded sky? I don’t know about you, but just because Times Square is so ‘cliché’, avoided at all cost by locals, it doesn’t take away from its magic. The raunchiness of the past has been replaced by the absurd, oversized display of extreme capitalism on giant neon billboards.

A petite Minnie Mouse walked up to me, her smile baked into her oversized head. She approached me with open arms, as if I were an old friend she hadn’t seen in ages, ready to give me a big hug. After I gave her a $20 bill , I asked Minnie if she liked her job. She said she was a student at NYU, majoring in anthropology and was trying to make a few extra dollars to pay the rent.

Before long, it wasn’t just Minnie Mouse vying for my attention. A muscled Batman with his cape spread out approached me, ready to take me in his arms and fly off to the rooftops. This is the notorious Time Square tradition that the NYPD is trying to do away with, or at least regulate, with no results in sight.

The painted ladies weren’t there that night. Did they get the boot from the Mayor? What does it feel like to bare your ass in the most visited place on planet earth? If I was younger, I would even pay money to have that experience. Go out there, with a red, white and blue painted on my boobs, and the letters NYC on my butt. When it comes to performing, there is no city in the world that can outshine New York, especially the hustlers on Times Square. The crassness of it all is so much part of it.

The pulse of Manhattan was everything that a suburban housewife from Boston could wish for. We became part of the millions of tourists that locals trip over on their way to work. So what? We enjoyed blending into the throng of out of towners, flashing their cell phones, getting neck cramps from looking up, proudly contributing to the city’s revenue.

It’s still the most fascinating city I have ever gone to. It beats Paris, Amsterdam, London, San Francisco and Madrid. Those are the only major cities I know, so my opinion is a bit subjective, but the lights, the crowd, the traffic.. The city’s dynamism is oozing up through the subway vents, emanating from the plumes of steam rising from manholes and woven through the constant flow of pedestrians.

New York is about NYPD cops on every street corner, chaining off crosswalks when lights turn red, standing guard in riot gear and machine guns by the entrance of important buildings and congregating on Times Square, to make sure that the Minnies and other assorted Disney characters don’t abuse the tourists.

New York is about the smell of good food and your heels getting caught in subway vents. But, above all, it is about skyscrapers. Surrounded mostly by water, construction in the city can only go up. It has the largest and most varied collection of skyscrapers in the world. The solid and proportionally pleasing older skyscrapers in the shape of wedding cakes and gothic cathedrals, now have to compete with the super-tall pencils with just one condo unit per floor.

Located haphazardly and often blocking the view to long established landmarks like the Empire State building, they are like tall skinny children that have grown too fast. The tallest building in Manhattan as of today, is one of those pencil affairs, with 95 floors. The penthouse goes for $95 million dollars.

We went to a Broadway show, one of the hundreds that make your heart race, bursting with talent and vitality. We had to pay top dollar of course. Soon Broadway shows will be unaffordable for the majority of people. Like many other things in this city, it will be a luxury for the few by the few. What happened to the good old days, when theatre used to be the opiate of the masses?

We also went to the MET, rated as one of the best museums in the world. We walked through the Ancient Roman and Greek section and I kept wondering if one day, an elderly couple would walk through a future museum, looking at artifacts of ‘Ancient 21st Century American Civilization’ and be impressed but semi-indifferent. Why? It probably wouldn’t matter that much to these future visitors. It’s just one of those things: civilizations come and go…

The next morning we walked down 3rd Avenue in search of breakfast. High above us, a long cable whose end disappeared in the clouds, was lifting a collection of steel beams. It looked like God had ordered some construction. How is it possible to keep the millions of tons of hardware from falling on top of us?

New York City’s answer is the dreaded construction scaffolding sheds. It is a way of life in this city, people planning their route to work on rainy days, so they won’t get wet. Some sections were built over a decade ago and never removed, since it is cheaper to pay for the scaffolding than to do the repairs on the buildings. It is truly an eye sore, hiding the most beautiful parts of buildings and making it difficult for pedestrians not to bump into each other or crash into the metal posts.

From Battery Park one has a view of the Hudson Bay, with the Statue of Liberty shimmering in the sun. Next to it is Ellis Island, where millions arrived on these shores, to either sink or swim. New York is and always has been a place without pity, a place that epitomizes the incredible callousness of big-time capitalism, the rat race.

Still, this brief visit made me reconsider my daily sense of gloom and doom. It brought back the feeling of excitement that I felt when I first moved to the US. The feeling that I lost only recently. The feeling that I like this country, despite its extremes and its Trumps.

But we shouldn’t forget that there is a battle going on. The people who lived and enjoyed Berlin during the pre-war years must have had similar thoughts that I have now. ‘How could something so evil come our way when there is so much talent and creativity going on in our city?’ But evil did come. Will history repeat itself? leave comment here