New York serenade

Pico Iyer returns to the Big Apple for five days -- and finds that attitude has its charms.

By Pico Iyer
Published January 13, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

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D A Y__O N E

A cold winter's day: I fly into La Guardia. You need a ticket, I find, just to enter the baggage claim area. A large sign on every carousel warns, "Keep an Eye on Your Bags." Another sign on the wall advises, "For Your Safety -- Don't Accept Unsolicited Ride Offers." Next to it, a poster showing some friendly, welcoming faces says, "Don't Ride With Them. They're Breaking the Law." The messages go oddly with the bright framed prints saying, "New York Is Art," "New York Is Dance," "New York Is Heritage."

Outside, in the chill, a Trinidadian helps me into his cab, and, taking instant note of my complexion, jams some Hindi film music into his tape system. What brought him to New York?

"Greener pastures," he says, catching my eye with an ironic glint in the rearview mirror.

"Do you still think the pastures are greener here ?"

"Now I don't know, man. You know how it is. My ex-wife's here with my kids, and I don't want to be too far from them."

Being a New Yorker (and of Indian origin, to boot), he proceeds to discourse on the difference between Hindus and Muslims, on the work of V.S. Naipaul, and on the joys of being held up at gunpoint twice in his cab and finding caches of abandoned drugs in the back seat. As we pass through Guyanatown, FDR Drive, the area around the United Nations, he discourses on cricket, the joys of aloo roti, the ghazals he plays on his harmonium. He quizzes me about my books, delivers a sociological lecture on Surinam, informs me that the Indian population of his native island is 42 percent. By the time we arrive at my hotel -- and it's not a long drive -- he's cranking out "chutney" -- Trinidad-flavored Indian music -- from his car, and I'm catching, above the crash of Indian instruments, an island voice singing, liltingly, prettily, "Everybody dancin' -- windin' up de place!"

A couple of hours later, I make my way to Brooklyn, in the dusk, to see snow drifting across deserted streets. One could almost be in some tattered sepia version of Henry James' New York, I think, in this muffled light, with not a trace of cars or noise, and no buildings higher than two stories. Not even a shadow stirs in the gently falling snow. The signs around me, as so often here, recite words I've never heard before: "Paczki: Maskie-Lotnicze. Katalogwe."

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D A Y__T W O

"I'll be 85 May 5th," says an old guy in a Nathan's Hot Dog restaurant near Times Square, holding court before two other codgers and signing autographs for a trio of polite, standing Guardian Angels. "You know, I wrote that song for Elvis?" he asks them. "'I Wish I Knew it Was Christmas.' Now I wish I'd written, 'I Wish I'd Made a Million Dollars.'"

The Angels go off, and he resumes. "You see this picture of me and Giuliani," he says, naming the mayor in his creaky, Damon Runyon Broadway whisper, and pulling a worn snapshot out from his pocket. "That's me. You see those guys? They're bodyguards. That's me. Me saying, 'Ladies and gentlemen, meet the next president of the United States.'

"You see that? That's me. That's the bodyguards. See, I'm saying ..." As he talks, a tired black man slouches past, the red apron covering his body advertising the "Bare Elegance" topless lounge. "There is a 20-minute limit at each table," say the signs along the walls and, elsewhere, "Customers only will be buzzed into the rest-rooms." Inside these forbidden sanctuaries, rolls of toilet paper are suspended in creaking black slings made of garbage bags. Undeterred by the 20-minute limit, the former king of comedy keeps talking about the 1,150 hours of the videos of himself he has at home and all the TV shows he once graced.

At a fancy bookstore on Fifth Avenue, a middle-aged man in a suit pushes aside an old woman in a hat. "You know, there's a line back there," he barks at her. She steps to the side, stunned, not sure how to respond. "Hey, don't touch me," he shouts at her as she gently taps at his arm.

Outside the bookstore's doors, a woman in a mink lectures her tiny children. "If one of you guys loses a foot" -- they've been misbehaving in a revolving door -- "I want you to pay me a million dollars." Behind them, an absurdly cheese-shaped, wedge-thin truck cruises down the street, blasting out James Taylor songs to get people's attention. On its side, in block capitals, a sign says, "DO NOT PATRONIZE CITIBANK." Patronizing us instead, I think.

I walk past an ambulance in the Diamond District, surrounded by black-hatted Hassidim, that says, "Hatzolah." I pass the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery. I see Angry Monk Tibetan restaurant, Polish Kilbasy, "Buddy Booths" advertised on what is called, with touching hopefulness, the "New 42nd Street."

Outside a bank, two tough white blonds (with a dog) are facing off four black guys (whom the dog has apparently harassed), screaming profanities at each other.

"Everything's black," spits one woman in disgust.

"I ain't gonna be no gigolo," counters the man she's harassing.

In your face, as they say round here; out of my expletive way.

D A Y__T H R E E

In my chic, post-modern hotel, the Paramount, 20-cent stamps cost 30 cents, and trendy postcards go for $1.50. People sit over pear ginger muffins reading scripts, and every other word I hear is "show." Everyone here looks like a cable star from the Continent, or someone auditioning for a sitcom.

Yet even the hotel observes the New York creed of making sure you don't mistake it for anything, or anywhere, else. At the tiny concession stand in the lobby, among copies of the Guardian and the Financial Times, they sell massage oils, candles, peach-scented lotions and other luxurious appurtenances of romance. The main books on sale behind the counter are "Erotica Universalis," "The Nude," a collection of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, and a large volume titled "Erotic Art." Every room comes equipped with a reproduction of a Vermeer and a video machine on which you can watch such classics (from the hotel's video library) as "Dyke," "Studio of Lust" and "Steele Butt."

The Paramount has its own Playroom ("styled by renowned artist Gary Porter") on the mezzanine, and its own Fitness Center. To use the latter, however, you have to sign a form absolving the hotel of all legal responsibility for your body, and to learn a five-digit code to open the door. In the deliberately penumbral anti-light of the lobby, crew-cut girls and earringed boys float around like art designers and designed.

Yet the place also contains, in New York's wonderfully unedited fashion, five or six aged residents from another era who refused to move out when the hotel bought up their apartment block. You see them often, with canes and shabby coats, hobbling past Miyake models and Berlin cinéastes, and throwing into question which is art and which is life.

I go to the nearest branch of the library and find an "installation" (great New York word, like "loft" or "sublet") called "Entre Chien et Loup," a fine name for the city (though a sign explains that "Between Dog and Wolf" is the French term for "twilight"). The people gathered outside the restrooms here (both of them festooned with huge signs saying "OUT OF ORDER") are carrying books called "The Job-Getter's Bible," "The Psychology of Hope" and "Slam Dunk Resumes."

I make pilgrimages to the places I've always loved here: the Gotham Book Mart, the Tibetan Kitchen restaurant, the streets around Gramercy Park. At a Buddhist magazine I visit (barricaded behind two locked doors in a warehouse), I am greeted by a yapping dachshund. "The thing about the Village," a filmmaker told me the previous night, "is, they don't freak out when you take your dog into the store."

At a lavish, mock-colonial restaurant, a friend tells me about her 4-year-old's interviews for kindergarten. A teacher at the city's most prestigious school tells her, "This is a girl's school -- not a girlie's school. We don't believe in teaching manners, or how to dress like a woman." There are 40 places for 800 candidates.

Back in my hotel I stop to buy a paper. "Piercing, schmiercing," says one of the buttons on sale. "I'm holding out for amputation."
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D A Y__F O U R

After only a few days in Manhattan, I find I'm wired, as they say, energized, speaking in the rapid-fire, swallowed, Cantonese-in-simultaneous-translation lingo of the true New Yorker, ready to take on (if not in) the whole swaggering metropolis. I'm waking up at 5:30 every morning, not from jet lag or insomnia, but just because I've picked up New York's forward-tilting strut, its impatience to be mixing it up with the world outside. After a while, I find, I'm negotiating my way through conversations like the kamikaze bicycle messengers who weave their way in and out of honking taxis and the turbanned cabbies who've learned all their skills from P.J. O'Rourke's "Third World Driving Hints and Tips." After a while, in fact, I start to think everything is sarcastic, and to take every compliment as an insult with a kicker.

New York is a great downsizing mechanism, bringing you down to earth, and size, and refusing to put anyone on a pedestal, not even itself. This is one city that sells postcards, in stark black-and-white, of policemen performing arrests and homeless souls holding up heart-rending placards.

I go into a photo store to have a passport picture taken.

"Thank you," I say when the man stops clicking.

"Don't thank me," he replies. "You haven't seen how they turned out." The accent is American, though the tone is common to every quick-witted operator from Bombay to Beirut.

A pretty, leopard-skin-clad girl puts two rolls of film on the counter. "This one I just found on the street," she says. "I don't know what's in it."

"Uh-huh," says the man after she leaves. "She just found it on the street!"

"And it just happened to show her in full police gear," says his partner.

"And her boyfriend in the altogether."

"Just happened to find it on the street."

The sign on the shop I enter says, "Egress" on its back, and the posters advertise open-mike poetry readings at KGB and Limbo. The ad on the subway says, "The official souvenir of the city that never sleeps," and features a photo of a condom. In the East Village, burly men are burning sticks of incense and selling Hindu gods along the sidewalk, as if they were priests in a cathedral of doubt, a Durbar Square of the Ungodly.

Nearby there are bars with sofas where you can recline, and pasta restaurants with candles that seem designed to conjure ghoulish spirits from the dark. Back in my black-light lobby, where lamps wear rainbow-colored hats, a large man with a ponytail is engrossed in a book called "A Dog's Mind."
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D A Y__F I V E

New York is just attitude in block capitals, I think, as I get ready to fly back to bleary California; a city with a sense of humor, too, and enough irreverence to undercut (and validate) its strut. New York is a city on speed, a whole metropolis with a kind of gay -- or at least Madonna-tinged -- sensibility: quick, witty, sardonic, always on the brink of shouting, "So what's your problem?" "Give me a break" or "I don't have time for this" are its mantras. The "Have a Great Day" I see on a license plate feels nearly confrontational.

New York is a comedy routine, a place of nonstop chatter, a city with its feet decidedly on the ground. "There's something democratic about it," says a thoughtful editor who's fled here from Toronto. "Everyone yelling at everyone else all the time." New York is egalitarian in the sense of everyone being in the same sinking ship, survivors of some Boschian inferno, exchanging friendly cracks with an edge.

When I lived here, many years ago, I found it was too harsh to separate myself from the city, to live apart from its diminishing values. New York is a crash course in humility, and a noisy refutation of the very notion of a meditative life. To me it was all too easy to recall what Lorca wrote more than 60 years ago, when he called it "Senegal with machines." In New York, he wrote, they "believe that man is the most important thing in the world," and on Wall Street there is "a total absence of the spirit ... And the terrible thing is that the crowd that fills this street believes that the world will always be the same, and that it is their duty to keep that huge world running, day and night, forever."

In New York, I felt, I could not be myself.

But now, after a few years in California, I see something bracing and tonic in New York's violence, its closeness to reality, its acceptance of everything human and its embrace of the same truths known in all the difficult ancient cities of the world. New York is the Human Comedy writ large, and it does not give you the space to live inside your head. Where California waters you down, New York sharpens you up, a hip-hop, abrasive refresher course in truth. New York is a celebration, after all, of "smarts" -- the quick-on-its-feet, worldly wisdom that fuels Hong Kong and Calcutta.

And as I drive back out of the city, noting the Trump Luxury Hotel and Towers in Columbus Circle, calling itself -- of course -- "THE MOST IMPORTANT NEW ADDRESS IN THE WORLD," and passing strikers everywhere we turn, huddled up in layers and babbling in Spanish outside the Marriott, around Washington Square, in Midtown, and taking in the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School for International Careers and the names of airlines I've never heard before (Ryan Int'l, Rich Int'l, Air Ukraine and Servivensa), I realize that nothing energizes and stimulates me like New York, and nothing gives me such a blast of vital, raw intelligence.

My life takes me often these days to London, Los Angeles and Tokyo, but New York is the only regular stop that leaves me hungry, awake and full of every sign of human life.

Pico Iyer

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Pico Iyer is the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the Monk," "Falling off the Map," "Cuba and the Night" and "Tropical Classical."


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