Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer I Love New York

By Paul Gerald

JULY 31, 2000:  Just about any time you say "New York City" to somebody, they respond with the Saying. You know the Saying: "New York is a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

I'd move to New York in a heartbeat, given two circumstances: enough money and not too much time. My version of the Saying is: "New York is a great place to live, but I wouldn't want to spend my life there."

Not that I got off to a good start in the City. The first time I went I was young and alone, flying in from London. The flight was late, so the airport shuttle bus didn't get to the Port Authority bus terminal until almost midnight.

Now, when you say "Port Authority" and "almost midnight" to New Yorkers, even they shudder. If you ever thought the Memphis station is unpleasant, imagine it with more than 400 gates. It's filled with shadows. And shadowpeople. I went to make a phone call and wondered why there were little pieces of metal next to the dial pad -- wondered until I saw three of these shadowpeople looming behind me trying to catch my calling-card numbers. Welcome to the City.

It's this underbelly that most people are talking about when they utter the Saying. Living with it on a daily basis would almost certainly drive you insane. I had a good friend from college, a sweet and kind woman from Kansas City, who had a good job in New York but had to leave after three years. The underbelly got to her. She was on a subway one night with somebody holding a knife in her face, demanding her wallet. "Go ahead and cut me," she yelled. "I don't care anymore! Just go ahead and cut me, goddammit!" The guy didn't cut her, but the next day she started packing her things.

Every place has a downside. But no city, certainly not in America, has the upside New York has. I would live here just to eat here -- to sit, eat, and watch the City go by. On my last trip, we started at a Ukrainian place in Greenwich Village, where a group of kids speaking some Balkan language were kicking around a soccer ball across the street while we dug into our brunch of blintzes and borscht. For lunch, we were in Little Italy, where we nibbled cannoli and sipped cappuccino next to a table full of old men with shirts unbuttoned to the waist. We had a late-afternoon snack at a Portuguese bakery with a view of the Empire State Building. Dinner was pan-Asian just east of Central Park, surrounded by beautiful young people comparing notes on shows they'd seen in the Theater District.

It's like this every moment you're in the City. One resident told me it's "complete sensory overload."

"After a while, you don't even look," she said. "It's too much." As she said this, I watched a woman walk across the street wearing a dress that could have been an Oscar night castoff and heels so high the balls of her feet were not on the ground. A limo from the Danish embassy went by, followed by a truck with huge letters reading "G.O.D. -- General Overnight Delivery -- 1-800-DIAL-GOD."

I commented on the attractive little church across the street. I said it looked like a country place, totally out of place in the middle of the city. How charming, I thought. She finished a bite of custard and said, utterly without irony, "Actually, it's not a church anymore. It's a gay S&M sex club."

I think it's exactly the sensory overload that is the key to my desire to live in New York. There is a certain anonymity, space where everybody can go and disappear, start over, be who they want to be. I think of living in New York as a rite of passage, a continuation of man's transformation from a rural animal to an urban one. We all, eventually and in some way, live in the City.

The last thing I did was walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. After all these years, it's still awesome.

They put a walkway right in the middle of the bridge, above the level of traffic. When you get about halfway across the East River, there's a wide spot with a view of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Coney Island, and out toward the sea. You can get a little perspective on the city from there, a wide view of this tremendous accomplishment that is New York City. The buildings are immense, but the beauty, as well as the underbelly, is in the details. Humans might not be the best thing that ever happened to the planet, but when we put our minds to it, we do some amazing stuff. Among many other things, we build cities, and among the ones we've built, New York is truly, simply the City.

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