Saturday, November 15, 2008

Guest writer of the year.

The next post is written by my dear boyfriend who visited New York for six full days and nights this week. Text is his, photos and captions mine. Enjoy!

I Feel Safe In New York City

The following is a collection of notes and tidbits from my brief stay at NYC, New York as requested by my gracious hostess. Since I am a pretentious ponce, I think I shall call them Vignettes of America.

1. I Have Nothing To Declare Except That I Am Awesome

Are you tired of waiting for an eternal damnation in Hell? Fear not, you can simulate your future in the Netherworld at the John F. Kennedy Airport immigration queue. A cramped cattle drive of tourists carrying their screaming offspring, the line that moves approximately a yard in minute, just long enough that you want to put your bags down, but just short enough that you must pick them right up to drag along a step or two. The room is heated but not air-conditioned and naturally the people standing before me at the queue have filled their Visa Waivers wrong and thus my block entry into the land of the free for an extra five minutes.

Once I get to give my fingerprints to the Department of Homeland Security, the immigration officer takes an interest in my sex life.

He looks my Visa Waiver over and over and leafs through my passport. Is he looking at my Chinese visa?, I think. Did I cross “yes” on the Waiver form's query about collaborating with Nazi war criminals during 1933 – 1945? Shit; busted.

Although I have a face only a mother could love with a suit to match, I rarely have trouble at airports. At JFK, it seems, they don't let just any vagrant in.

“What's the purpose of your visit?”, the officer asks.
“Tourism, sir.”
“Who's this person whose address you've put on the form?”
“A friend. I am visiting her.”
“How do you know this person?”
“I, uh, I am in a relationship with her, sir.”
“In a relationship. Where did you meet?”
“Finland. She's Finnish, working here. At the U.N. With a working Visa.”
“How long have you been seeing her?”, he continues. What. The. Hell, I think. He thinks I'm fishing for a Green Card, with a made-up American girlfriend waiting to tie the knot with me!
“Almost three years now.”
“Three years. Right. How much money are you carrying with you?”
“Around, uh, around eight hundred? 800 dollars, sir.”

That is apparently enough a contribution to the failing economy. I am finally let through to the U.S of A.

“Welcome to America”, he says when I pass through.

Otto and an eagle at the General Grant's Memorial near Riverside Park.

2. Teacher, What Was Crack?

At the Bronx Museum of Art an exhibition showcases street art and photography from the fifties to present, focusing mostly on New York. A class of what I presume to be inner city school kids, around eleven years old or so, are on a tour of the exhibition with a teacher that looks vaguely like an aging hipster. When I pass them, they are at a set of photographs of seventies New York streets. I stop behind the group to eavesdrop.

“Okay. What do we know about crack?”, the teacher asks the kids. They hesitate. Someone lifts a hand.
“It's white.”
“It's white, right. What else?” Another hand is raised.
“It gets you high.”
“Okay, it gets you high. Before the crack epidemic started, New York was a different place. The worst thing that could happen was that someone hits you with a knife. Not anymore.”

I don't know about you, but I think getting stabbed is a bit of a bummer, but I suppose it's all about perspective. I didn't stay to listen if the teacher detailed the alternatives. Maybe during the worst crack years, many people were gnawed to death by rabid, crack-addicted wolverines?

The disneyfication of America has reached New York, probably has done so years ago, perhaps with Guiliani's term as mayor back in the day. New York in 2008 is not a Spike Lee joint or a seventies Scorcese epic about a city ready to explode. Travis Bickle would be lost here trying to find a target for his peculiar brand of vigilante justice, cruising around Times Square in his cab: “You talkin' to me?” “Yeah! I have scalped tickets for Billy Elliot: The Musical, sir!”

Perhaps it's just a misplaced sense of security, but I feel safe walking around NYC, whether it was day or night, Bronx or Brooklyn. It all seems like a big theme park more than a crime-ridden sewer it was in the fiction of my youth. And statistically, NYC is apparently the safest large city in the U.S. Not that I'm disappointed, mind you.

3. The Obamania Is Running Wild

This is not mine, but I'll use it anyway: “Change has really come to America. Even the less well-off notice it. Why, even the other day a homeless man was asking me about 'change'.”

The news in the Land of Hope! and Change! are all about the President Elect. What will his cabinet be like? What will be his first priorities as Commander-in-Chief be? Can he make good on all his promises? What kind of puppy will Mr. Obama buy for his children? MY GOD, WHAT WILL THIS PUPPY BE LIKE? WILL THE PUPPY SAVE THE ECONOMY?! OH, PUPPY!

The papers are bending over backwards to coin new Obama-related phrases. The man's popularity has been described as “Obamamania” (did someone add an extra “ma”?). January's inauguration ceremony was called by Metro, I shit you not, an “Obamapalooza”, with over a million people going to D.C to see the New Boss replacing the Old Boss. (A curious aside, there will be designated “free speech zones” set up for the possible protestors. Probably somewhere upstate.)

A million people hanging about as the first African-American President swears himself into office? Dear Secret Service, do not fuck this up, please, pretty please. Love, the rest of the world.

Gloomy New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street.

4. Five Boroughs in Five Days in Five Sentences

You can't find a bar that's open during working hours from the Bronx, but otherwise it feels you've somehow ended up in Mexico.

If you try to describe Manhattan in a sentence, you are insane or love really long sentences.

Brooklyn has a posh side and a less polished side and a totally sweet bridge.

Everything is old and small in Staten island, from the wooden houses to the corner bar that has stood there for fifty years, with the salt-of-the-earth bartender guy.

Fuhgettabout Queens, there's nothing there but the airport.

The cute (and long) Brooklyn Bridge.


5. The City as a Machine: A Mangled Analogy

A city is a mechanism for facilitating people. Helsinki, for example, is a small but functioning apparatus, whereas Espoo would be an unwieldy device that only a specialist could use or appreciate. New York, despite its size, is a functioning whole that can be easily savored even by a rube like myself, who would have trouble navigating out of a wet paper bag.

The instruction manual for The New York City Machine is the subway map. With it you can see where you are, where you were and where you are going: more essential information in a single image than a person usually has in his whole lifetime.

I most likely spent more time sitting in the NYC subway during my visit than doing anything else. The subway is, I suppose, the quintessential NYC experience. In a single subway car you can see the whole world: different Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, Caucasians, the rich, the poor, all headed somewhere.

Does everyone have a New York Guy? Someone you seem to see every once in a while, a person you don't know, or maybe not a person at all but some sort of an archetype come flesh? To me it was the ubiquitous MTA man: an African-American dude in his fifties, stocky build and a permanent, resigned frown on his face, sitting on the subway, standing at a street corner, hanging at the station in his orange vest with his hard hat on his lap, having seen everything so that now he isn't even looking, a maintenance man for the great City Machine. I swear I saw my New York Guy like three times in six days.

6. The Real American Experience?

Americana is an odd thing. When you see something that isn't like it was when you saw it in the movies, a diner or a burger or a yellow cab, you think that it is not a “real” American thing. Then when you see something that you immediately recognize from all the pop culture you've been soaked in, like blueberry pancakes for breakfast, it does not seem quite real. (Tasty enough, though.)

New York is a city of fiction, as real as it is not. It's a city that has more stories, songs, comics or movies written about it than any other. To exaggerate only a little, every other story I have ever read is set in New York. So can I be blamed for assuming to know the city when I come to see it first time in real life? The Brooklyn Bridge, The Empire State, the Staten ferry: it's all déjà vu all the time.

But once you learn to indulge it, you can enjoy New York as it always was: a story. For European immigrants it was a mythological symbol of freedom. For the kid reading comics, it is the city where Spider-Man and Daredevil hang out next to the water towers over Hell's Kitchen. To the film buff it's the surreal, bustling collection of eccentrics as seen in Woody Allen's movies.

No matter what your fictional New York is like, I guess everyone gets at least a glimpse of the city of stories that was previously only in their heads beneath the daily grind of the metropolis. They stop and turn and look and say “just like in the movies!”. That's New York, baby.

Otto Sinisalo is a freelance critic and a columnist. He is currently working on his first novel, Fictionopolis, to be published in 2009 by no one in particular.


Anonymous said...

Hi Otto (and Riikka) it seems that you found the most central things of New Youk,,, the city is contradictionary, but you just can't stop loving it....all the people, music, shows, house of pancakes, and not to mention the NY cheesecakes...ENJOY..

Ann & Kjell

Laura said...

"Otto Sinisalo is a freelance critic and a columnist." Aww, just like Carrie Bradshaw!

Love your little post here and looking forward to the Fictionopolis (where's the "no" in the Finnish title??). You're my favorite writer!

Enjoy the rest of your NYC, Riikka, and see you around!

Oblomov said...

My cousin apparently has some problems with Italian names. It's Giuliani. Still, what a magnificent bastard, I wish I could write like that.