Monday, August 27, 2007

New York New York big city of dreams...

Whomever provides the city of New York with its scaffolding must be a very wealthy person. Somewhere in the Bronx there must be warehouses with miles and miles of the stuff; it seemed there wasn't a block or building facade in all of Manhattan without several tiers of it, either for some construction project or maybe just to provide shade for street pedestrians.
New York City is overwhelming, an immense, neverending stream of spectacle and humanity, noise and color, artifice and resilient pockets (or hordes) of nature, human, other, metaphysical. Coming down by bus from Boston, I was very quickly relieved of all illusions of Boston as any kind of pretender to the urban crown that New York certainly wears - long before we crossed into Manhattan we traveled past endless rows of tall, square brick residential buildings, sprouting air conditioners and hanging clothes from their windows. These were massive compounds, truly reminding me of those science fiction novels of the seventies where all of Earth's surface is covered by mile high buildings (except for the plankton farms of the open ocean) crammed with humanity, utopian or dystopian (which usually amounts to the same thing).
And then to arrive in Manhattan! This city would eat me alive, no doubt; just the pressing weight of the unending corridors of skyscrapers would flatten me in a matter of weeks, I think. Even in a short two days, the memorable sights and encounters were too many to completely list. The sweeping views from halfway across the Brooklyn bridge were a highlight, taking in the relatively modest hills and greenery of Brooklyn, the barges and pleasure boats moving through the swirling, turgid East River, the polyphony of Manhattan to the west, the stalwart edifice of the bridge itself, the many shapes and sizes of tourists (and a few locals certainly) moving with me across the span. A more mysterious encounter also somehow seems indigenous to New York - friends and I were heading back to our hotel through Battery Park late at night when a hunched, shuffling man stepped out of the dark space between to shrubs with a piece of rope from which hung the head and upper torso of a large catfish.
I was there for the wedding of my good friend Jay and his beautiful new bride Aileen, and he had gathered a small assortment of friends from my days at Earlham College, a couple of whom I had not seen in well over a decade. There is something about the bonds you make at that age: though subsequent changes and travels might be severe, though you might not stay in touch with any regularity (I am particularly poor at that), though you might have completely different conceptions of the world and its mechanics - you tend to pick off right where you left off without skipping a beat, quickly moving through the requisite reminiscing and updating into a rhythm of interaction which seems as natural as breathing. This seemed surprising in one way, as most of these people I only really spent significant time with over the course of two to four years, yet not surprising in another, because those are the years that I can remember almost minute to minute twenty years later. There are many, many single days or nights whose events I can recall with greater precision and import than the total history of subsequent years or even half-decades. These are the times where coming across a plain black pipe stretching across a gully as you wander around the woods aimlessly discussing the guitar solos of Jimmy Page can somehow come to symbolize the workings of the universe, when a few hours socializing and playing ping-pong in a basement rec room can somehow form and root the way you look at everything, the way you laugh at things, the way you make sense of things.
Okay, but back to New York - actually, what more can I say? I had a few hours to myself where I wandered and took in some requisite sights and neighborhoods. Chinatown's seafood markets bristled with whole fish of every size and shape, assaulting my senses as they lay on beds of ice in the damp heat and sun. Central Park was thronged with probably three million separate digital cameras. I sometimes wonder how much of the world, what percentage, is contained in photographic images? I'm sure there's not a single inch of Central Park that has escaped notice several times over.
I went to the MoMA, and was suitably impressed and exhausted by their collection there. I spent the most time and was most taken with the Jackson Pollock room. Recently viewing Ed Harris' biographical film about Pollock gave me a new lease on appreciating his work, and I saw more variety of expression and form in his painting than I had ever seen before. Even just sticking with the 'splatter' paintings of his most famous period, I found some that relaxed me, some that jumped out from every corner, exploding just behind and beyond my retinas, some seemed to be tugging at me, trying to tell me something very specific yet unanswerable. One in particular that I don't remember the title of had a series of angular hieroglyphics in red embedded beneath the more naturalistic and arching swirls and drips, pulsing with meaning. How pretentious it all seems, sometimes, yet how essential that it's there to ponder. The world is a silly place, but the silliest things give us the greatest succor sometimes.
For my last night there we were lucky enough to be taken to a humble yet exquisite Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown for an incredible meal - nothing fancy, just perfectly prepared, delicious food, from sizzling, slightly sweet pork chops to tender chunks of beef infused with lime and scallion. There was also tender shrimp with a light, clear brown sauce that had a toasted, smoky flavor, and plain, unadorned chinese celery, one of my favorite vegetables, the perfect sop for the leavings of all the other dishes. This restaurant was called Nha Trang, at 87 Baxter Street, behind the Manhattan Criminal Court building, and I highly recommend it.
I had other good meals, of course. There was the wedding meal of course, which was superb. For lunch one day I had a remarkable taco from a place on Kenmare Street called La Esquina of chorizo, potato and cactus paddle garnished with lime, crunchy cabbage and salsa verde. Lunch my second day consisted of a hot dog (a New York tradition no doubt but a little disappointing) and later on a perfect little pie of lamb kibbeh (can't remember the name of this place, it was in the financial district). A lot of meat was eaten this weekend! I may have to spend a few days roughing it with roughage to atone (I'm not a vegetarian but I like to keep my intake down).
This is all I'll say for now. Enjoy the rest of your summer, everybody!

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