(This was written before September 11, 2001. Back in 1998, I took a trip to New York — the second of my life — and these were my impressions. The New York I visited a week after 9/11 was very different, and the New York I visited years later was much friendlier — but here’s what happened when I visited the Apple in 1998)
Recently I had the opportunity to venture to the Apple on business and explore a small chunk of the great metropolis that is New York City. It’s an amazing place; a perpetually buzzing and moving hive of frenzied, swarming activity. Yet with eight million people inhabiting a very small chunk of real estate, things feel extremely crowded and claustrophobic.
I braved crossing a jammed intersection and approached a Bell Atlantic worker who was staring into a manhole. This lanky gentleman who sported a ponytail and spoke in the nasal “New Yawk” accent was very friendly, and gave me precise directors to the Statue of Liberty. He would be the only person that entire day who even approached kindness.
I started driving. New York drivers are universally hailed as the worst in the United States, and apologies to any Foxborians who are former New Yorkers, but the reputation is well warranted. Good Lord! Crossing any street is an obvious death wish. Parking is non-existent, the horn and the middle finger are the chief means of communication between drivers, and if you pause for longer than a nanosecond someone beeps at you.
Driving in New York City is much like riding on a roller coaster, but the chances of violent death are much higher. The blarings of the horns are constant, there doesn’t seem to be a square inch of road not containing a motor vehicle, and turn signals are clearly a sign of weakness. On the highway, 75 MPH seems to be a leisurely cruising speed.
Then there are the people — I thought jay-walking in Boston was bad. People in New York City not only walk against traffic, they walk right into it. Green means go, yellow means go, red means go. As they walk against red lights and DON’T WALKS, they come so close to you that they actually bump right into your car, and then give YOU the dirty look. There are traffic signs everywhere, telling you not to beep your horn, and not to commit other various driving offenses. Most threaten not only high fines but bad driver’s points.
Surviving the driving experience, I made it alive to Battery Park, but unfortunately just missed the last ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Undaunted, I decided to hang around and see what went on here. The area had a few kiosks selling the traditional postcards, T-shirts and other items (I picked up a very cool statue of Liberty magnet) and there were also food vendors and several people selling Rolexes and sunglasses out of attaché cases. Two mimes dancing to Enigma’s “Innocence” put on a great show for an appreciative crowd.
Battery park also houses a very impressive monument that honors over 5000 men who died in service to America. A black marble American Eagle perches in front of a set of large granite walls with rows and rows of names. I read some of them, and thought about Jack Authelet’s recent Memorial Day column about how we must never forget those who died for our freedom. I wondered how many of tourists snatching up New York ashtrays took a moment to reflect on the sacrifice of these good people.
Continuing the driving experience, I passed the massive and very beautiful Central Park. People were everywhere — walking, roller blading, sunbathing. So many people. Too many people.
From there I headed into Times Square. It is exactly like you’ve seen on TV, only much more so. There’s the huge TV screens and news headlines and stocks flashing across the buildings, but what’s most noticeable are the ads: A large image of Antonio Sabato reclines in Calvin Cline underwear. Bugs Bunny, Superman and other Warner Brother’s characters, also larger than life, occupy a huge wall of a building. A gigantic box of Oreos is near the 42nd Street subway (mmmm… Oreos!) An enormous cup of soup above the Times Square TV actually steams. A colossal spoon sits atop a glowing box of JELL-O. There’s a three-story tall bottle of Budweiser. A large British Airways jet mock up looks like it’s taking off from the roof of a building. A 10-story tall billboard for “Quest for Camelot” fills an entire side of a building. Everything is like Las Vegas — glittery, blinking, fast, exciting. Times Square hums and buzzes with excitement.
Yet Times Square is very much like Las Vegas in that beneath all the glitter and sparkle, it’s all really nothing. Sure, it’s tremendously exciting to walk the streets were so many TV shows and movies have been filmed, to actually see the studios were David Letterman hosts his show, to see the famous Broadway theaters and 42nd Street. So many fictitious moments have been set here that you feel like you know the place — you half expect to bump into Paul and Jamie from “Mad About You,” to see Jerry Seinfeld walking down the street, or (if you’re odd like me) see Superman flying above.
“It’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there” never seemed more on-target. Walk just a few blocks off Broadway and you’re going through areas that look a little unsafe, and as you head a little further away you realize that many of the people living here are not benefiting from all the wealth and money just around the corner, and probably can’t afford the Broadway shows, clothes and products advertised on the gigantic billboards a few blocks away.
And while I certainly don’t speak for the countless people living across New York state, the people of New York City are downright mean. First there was the guy who tried to grab my camcorder bag, and the person who put her hand right in my pocket to try to steal my wallet. People don’t look at you, they look through you. Everyone is terse. Everyone moves fast, but where are they going in such a hurry?
Then there was the salesman. You might remember that the news program DATELINE exposed many of these Broadway store owners who lie to tourists to get their money. (For example, they exposed one vendor who sold a cordless phone to a foreign tourist, claiming that it contained a miniature satellite dish.) Well, the guy at the souvenir store did his best to sell me a lens from my camcorder. That went like this:
Sales guy: “That’s a really nice camcorder.”
Me: “Thanks. It’s not mine, actually, but I like it.”
Sales guy: “A Sony?”
Me: “Uh huh.”
Sales guy: “Oh, it’s a great camcorder, all right. But you need a telephoto and wide angle lens.”
He proceeds to take out a little box marked “$799.00” and shows me what is obviously a lens for a 35mm camera (in other words, the only way this thing could attach to my camcorder is with duct tape).
Sales guy: “Special for you today, $150.”
Me: “Thanks, but the camcorder isn’t mine, so I can’t modify it.”
Sales guy: “$125.00.”
I decided another approach is in order: “Look, I’m broke. Thanks anyway.” That brings a shrug, and a frown, and I am obviously dismissed.
From there I head to a little pizza place next to the movie theater with the $9.00 tickets. The guy running the place is yelling at everyone who enters, herding them like cattle. I opt for a salad and a drink that is alleged to be Coca-Cola and purchase it from a cashier who never once looks at me.
As night approaches, Broadway becomes even more alive; al
l the lights are on now but the crowds haven’t lessened. Every storefront — including the strip joints — is beckoning paying customers. Everyone is rushing everywhere. The air is charged with excitement.
I’m not impressed. New York City for me is a paradox — bright lights in the big city, excitement, and the eerie familiarity from countless TV shows set in New York — but a sense of nothing underneath.
I wonder how people survive in such an unfriendly, hostile environment?
To be fair, my experience was limited to one day in the Apple, and is obviously in no way representative of the State of New York itself. New York is huge and has suburbs, country areas, and countless beautiful places to live. My beef is with the Apple itself — I just can’t understand how anyone would survive living in New York City — It’s just too noisy. Too loud. Too unfriendly. Too crowded. Too frenzied. This is a city that would crush the weak like a bug.
For so many it’s the most exciting place on Earth, a place to seek out dreams, land the big acting role, advance the political career, work at the top law firm, or actually be a part of the Wall Street excitement.
For me, I’m glad to be home. And I’ll take Boston and the Big Dig any day over “the city that never sleeps.”