New York’s Unreal Estate

Peter Wortsman

USA

Illustrated by Marta Munoz

England

“There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs — commerce surrounds it with her surf.[…] Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

A traveller by definition is a person far from home, and as such, is receptive to a never-ending stream of impressions roused by the strange. It started as a lark, a self-assigned challenge to combat boredom. I get antsy sitting around between trips. So I decided to reset my reality, or rather my perception of it, to venture out and rediscover my own city with the eyes, ears and nose of a deliberate stranger.

I was inspired in this empirical experiment by the story of the discovery of the Paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira, in Santillana del Mar, in northern Spain, which I was privileged to visit in 1973 before the cave was permanently closed to the public. A local gentleman, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, an amateur archeologist, decided to take his young daughter, Maria, on a Sunday stroll to give her a richer appreciation of her native clime. Maria brought along her little dog. The animal followed its nose into the mouth of a cave in which the father had previously discovered scattered bones, and the girl trotted in after her pet with a torch. Moments later, the wild-eyed child came running out, crying “Bisons! Bisons!” Signor de Sautuola followed her back in to the spot where the dog stood barking. The man was baffled, seeing nothing but bare rock, until his daughter pointed upwards, revealing the magnificent canopy of prehistoric paintings thought to be between 11,000 and 19,000 years old.

Grownups tend by force of habit to always view the world from the same angle, while children whose wobbly heads are not yet glued in place still crane their necks to take in the unexpected.

Dizzying from close-up, dream-like from afar, New York is a great geometric gorge gouged out of the sky, a towering steel and concrete range teeming with habitation and commerce. It’s an evanescent grid of grit and graffiti, the instant collages of torn advertising posters, conversation shreds, the filthy and oftentimes forgotten architectural flourishes of downtown buildings, and the tiny dramas of individuals jostling for dignity and meaning in the mad dash.

A stranger put it succinctly in a random remark I once overheard in passing: “People ask me why I like New York. It’s not because it’s so great, but because it’s going through its Babylonification.”

The experiment is ongoing. What follows is a log of selected findings.

Unnecessary Noise Prohibited

“Unnecessary noise prohibited!” commands an enigmatic New York street sign. But what noise is necessary? When hearing a siren whining in the night, I both dread and perversely wish the emergency close at hand. To dread it is to send the accident or fire or death as far away as it can go. To wish it adds a morbid lustre to a lacklustre life, embellishing a private sense of insufficiency. Sometimes I fear that if I listen too hard it will draw the siren to me like a magnet and manufacture a tragedy to match. This is foolish, morbid and infantile thinking, but night makes you infantile, especially when you can’t sleep and the darkness itself looks like a bungling indecisive burglar peering in at the window.

Whose Zoo Is It?

Ever since Noah’s ark, zoos have brashly asserted humanity’s edge as the spectator species perched outside the cage ogling the spectacle species within — a distinction somewhat blurred in New York by the proliferation of window guards and the complex ramifications of the burglar-tenant relationship.

We flock to the zoo to feel superior. But cross-sectioned under Plexiglas, the tireless activity of the ant hill in the Central Park Zoo, magnified by a surveillance camera, reveals a parallel reality disturbingly similar to our own. Lugging leaves and twigs instead of laptops, pocketbooks, and attaché cases, stepping over each other to achieve some unattainable end, these micro-managers in three-piece bodies parody human antics to a tee. Or is it the other way around? Do we make like insects — so assiduous, so driven, so ruthless — commuting to our destiny? Who can deny the striking resemblance between an anthill and a skyscraper?

Invasion of Privacy

Having grown up in a private house, I experience a sudden terror at the thought of the ceiling caving in and all the others who live on the floors above me literally dropping by.

What’s Eating You? 

New York apartment houses retain the odours of diverse domesticities; anything roasting, stewing, steaming, or boiling in or on the ovens or the hearths of its inhabitants spills over into the hallway. It is embarrassing to sniff these private smells in passing. You know what your neighbours are eating and what’s eating them.

The Olfactory Lure of French Fries

If cleanliness smells artificial, filth reeks revoltingly sincere. The odour of fried grease, for instance, is far more intoxicating than the scent of the finest French perfume. I imagine myself a modern day Odysseus lashed to the bumper of a bus trying to resist the olfactory lure of French fries.

Urban Bullfighter

Two teenage girls race across a busy intersection, barely eluding a stretch limo. Says one, still giggling, to the other: “At least we’d’ve been run over in style!” The same madness strikes middle-aged men. One moment I’m a bystander and the next moment I’m a bullfighter, boldly beckoning a bus to my right flank with a broken umbrella as I lean to the left and let it rumble by.

Symphony of Steam

I once spent an entire afternoon listening with silent rapture to the performance of a splendid steam symphony for solo radiator. A little like bag pipes, minus the drone, with a hint of snake hiss, pressure cooker sputter, spit dribble, and wordless whisper. Very monotonous, very atonal and strangely soothing, drowning out the racket, a John Cage tour de force accompanied by the Bali shadow puppet play of trees swaying in the wind on the far wall across the courtyard.

Dead Ahead

“You’re not looking for that artist fellah, are you!?” asked a kindly old gentleman with sallow skin and sunken cheeks, seeing me struggling to decipher a rumpled map one Sunday afternoon at the corner of Grape and Sassafras Avenues, at Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn. Watering can in hand, the old man was bent over filling it from a hand pump. “Follow me!” he smiled. “My wife and I are on our way to visit our daughter.”

The Missus said nothing, understandably not inclined to share her grief with a stranger, but the old man was naturally gregarious, even in mourning.

“Here we are,” — he pointed behind a double row of low-standing tombstones on Lot 44603, like a Lilliputian housing development — “the painter’s out back.”

Abutting their daughter’s plot, the grave of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was colourfully littered with broken pencil stubs, scribbled notes and doodles, and a wad of wilted Monopoly money held down by a handful of pebbles, among other offerings.

“What a mess!” the old man shook his head. “How much do you figure one of his pictures is worth today?” he wondered aloud, watering the ivy, while his wife silently, disapprovingly, pruned the weeds.

Knowledgeable in local lore, he told me about the time Basquiat, or “that Basket fellah,” as he called him, went into a delicatessen in Brooklyn to order cold cuts for a party. “Only the way he looked, you know, with his hair poking out in every direction like a porcupine, the deli owner didn’t trust his credit. He recognised that other fellah that was with him, what’s his name, the one with the mop of blond hair.”

“Andy Warhol.”

“Right. That Warthog fellah had to vouch for him, but in the end he got his meat. And now,” the old man made a mental calculation, “I bet one of his pictures is worth more than the whole delicatessen, cold cuts, pickles, walls ‘n all.”

Exiting the cemetery near sunset, I was serenaded by an eerie twitter. Green-Wood, it turns out, is inhabited by a flock of monk parakeets escaped from a crate that broke open upon delivery at Kennedy Airport sometime back in the ‘60s and have been sonorously nesting ever since in the spires of the great brownstone Gothic revival gateway.

Odd Birds

Blocking the path of the Number 2 Uptown Limited bus at the corner of 165th Street and Audubon Avenue, a red-crowned chanticleer escaped from an urban barnyard stood his ground, crowing and refusing to budge.

“Is that really a rooster?!” I asked, incredulous, seated directly behind the driver, with a bird’s eye view of the stand-off.

“Well it sure ain’t Frank Purdue!” the driver shrugged, impatience competing with a grudging admiration.

I spotted the same aviary resolve another time in the crazed gaze of a red tailed hawk a 1,000 miles from its native clime, perched on the topmost branch of the Hangman’s Elm, the tallest tree in Washington Square Park. (The Park had once been the site of a gallows.) I’d witnessed wild turkeys, crows, a cardinal, an owl be born, two sparrows fighting it out to the death, but never a red tailed hawk. Even the ordinarily unflappable chess players interrupted their game to peer upwards in awe at this incarnation of the inconceivable and unattainable, a king weary of the rules, who might at any moment pounce on and dispose of some unlucky pawn.

It’s Safe As Long As You Feed It

“It’s safe as long as you feed it,” a man wearing a live python for a necklace reassured a concerned passerby in the park.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Philippe Petit, the latter-day French Houdini famous for an early morning stroll he took on a high-wire strung between the soaring twin summits of the World Trade Center, was sentenced by a judge with a sense of humour to “perform” community service in the parks.

I watched him walk a slack rope strung between two trees in Washington Square Park. But first the impish little pug-nosed funambulist with the slender build of a jockey and the eyes and balance of an eagle warmed up, riding a unicycle around the rim of a chalk circle prior to mounting the rope. I will never forget the sudden grimace that gripped his beady blue orbs and twisted his thin lips, when, despite his mimed insistence to stand clear, one hapless spectator had the audacity to toe the line, and worse, to drop a cigarette butt inside the chalked perimeter. Perfectly balanced, Petit stopped dead on an invisible dime, as vexation welled into disgust. Singed by the laser-like intensity of that disapproving sneer, with all eyes upon him, the owner of the offending toes retracted them forthwith, stooped to retrieve the cigarette butt, and slunk off, whereupon a smiling funambulist went on with his act.

The second time I saw him, years later, he was walking with a woman I assumed to be his wife, wheeling his offspring, a petit Petit in a pram, a mere mortal making his mundane way along Sixth Avenue, his downcast gaze trying to deflect the woman’s evident displeasure and elude the attention of passersby, apparently in the throes of a domestic spat. How else to explain what happened?

The master who subsequently took his act to Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Louisiana Superdome, the concourse of Grand Central Station, and a wire stretched across the Seine from the Palais de Chaillot to the second story of the Eiffel Tower, in each locale carefully calibrating wind shifts and weather conditions, had somehow miscalculated and proceeded to stumble on a crack, one of those buckled welts endemic to New York sidewalks, and went flying flat on his face.

Fancy Dancer

Slipping, sliding, rhythmically writhing on a scrap of linoleum unfurled beneath Times Square, just beyond the platform where the “S” Shuttle secretes its load of humanity, I witnessed a bone-thin man with jet black, slicked-back hair whisk his willowy partner through a Latin dance routine. Tipping and turning her tightly sheathed torso, he thrust a knee lasciviously between her pliant limbs for a torrid tango, the two of them practically going at it right then and there, when it suddenly dawned on me in an unsettling flash, that the dancer’s partner was a doll, a skilfully stuffed appendage born of old socks and stifled libido.

Unabashed, the artificial duo strutted their stuff for the catcalling crowd. Several questions begged asking. How long have they been an item and an act? Were there earlier incarnations? (Fred Astaire famously tripped the light fantastic on screen with a compliant mop, Gene Kelley waltzed a wet umbrella.) How, where, when was such an astonishing spectacle first conceived and received? Were he/they applauded, taunted, jeered, assaulted in some smoky back room in Buenos Aires? Did a scandalised undercover man of the cloth stride forward and tear the tenuous twosome apart? Did the dancer secretly welcome the attack, not as a violation, but, rather, as a violent affirmation of his art?

Here is my theory. Seeing his sister-self in shreds, he cried and cursed him/them-self/selves at having gone public. But later, years later, in a single-room-occupancy hotel in Spanish Harlem, his partner was reborn, more radiant than ever, red-cheeked, drenched in cheap perfume, a plastic rose planted in her tightly braided hair, henceforth to tour the underground platforms of this world with him — in flagrant duality — and one day, perhaps, if the mood is right, to conceive a dancing heir!

Take the A-Train

Once on an Uptown A-Train, that winged subterranean Pegasus that soars in a single bound from 59th Street and Columbus Circle all the way to 125th Street in Harlem, I was absently whistling the jazz standard “Take the A Train,” when the man seated directly opposite me broke into a smile.

“I love Ellington,” I said.

“It ain’t Ellington,” he protested, “it’s Billy Strayhorn, and I damn well ought to know, ‘cause he was my uncle.”

Restless Metal Steps

In childhood I liked to ride escalators backwards, scaling the downward rush. I have since tried them all, from the historic shuffling wooden clip clop at Macy’s, the first building in the world to be so furnished, in 1902, to my favourite, the restless metal steps clawing their way into the bedrock underground Grand Central Station, linking the platform of the Number 7 Flushing Line to the Lexington Line. The steep diagonal angle of entry confounds the predictable horizontal and vertical coordinates of urban life; roller coaster-like precisely because it confounds and because you know the confusion is short-lived, its draws you into a dreamlike state of dizziness in which individuality dissolves into liquid motion. The escalator does the rushing for you, and so, paradoxically, suspends all haste. Teeth clenched, chafing at the bit, these tireless mechanical pack mules scale and descend the dizzying diagonal bluff day and night without so much as a whinny of complaint. And if you’re lucky you’ll be serenaded, as I was, below by a harpist plucking the theme song from The Godfather.

Attached Twins

WALK!” invites the kindly little white manikin. “DON’T WALK!” commands his malevolent red brother, a menacing right hand held aloft. One the personification of YES, the other NO incarnate. How can they stomach such close confinement without tearing each other to shreds? What unimaginable miseries must they suffer in silence, never, the one or the other, able to completely be himself, boxed unborn in that electric limbo! For what can stopping mean to a homunculus who has never known motion? And how, on the other hand, without ever having taken a single step forward, can his counterpart put himself in the shoes of one impatient to proceed? Never to indulge your deepest desire to let yourself go! Crossed purposes permit them no more than a titillating blink at each alternating turn of the tide. What if the two were actually a Jekyll-Hyde composite of incompatible impulses bottled up in one and the same bosom! Put yourself in their place! What can it cost, in any case, to consider their lot while waiting for the light to change?

Deadhouse

Frenetic hoop shooters dribble and shoot and diehard handball players hammer the walls at the basketball and handball courts on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Third Street. Aficionados flock by to catch class acts at the Blue Note, the all-star jazz club down the block. And depending on the hour, the McDonald’s across the street attracts a steady stream of college students, tourists, junkies, insomniacs, and beggars flush with change. But there is something about the narrow green nook near the corner that deflects attention.

Presently occupied by a nondescript 7-Eleven, it was in previous incarnations an all-day breakfast and bagels place, a pharmacy, and an Italian trattoria before that that swopped its “Grand Opening” banner for an “Under New Management” sign less than six months after opening. The new management never materialised.

I could have told them not to bother! Years ago a woman was murdered on the premises.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but once at the end of a grey, rainy day, round about twilight, I emerged umbrellaless in a sudden downpour from the subway, intending to make a beeline for the abandoned doorway. The rain kept changing direction from a vertical incision to a dizzy diagonal, sounding off like eggs sizzling on the sidewalk. The building was boarded up. As I was about to run for cover I spotted a woman huddling in the doorway with a red silk scarf looped loosely around her neck bending over to pull up a sagging black stocking. Propriety should have compelled me to look away, still I let my gaze linger. And just then a white stretch limousine, one of those elongated lizards that slink around town, drove by and splashed me with filthy water from a curb-side puddle. I wiped my face and when I looked up the woman was gone. Call me a fool, but I don’t think that any enterprise will ever prosper at that spot.

The Emperor of MacDougal Street

The fog belonged to London, not New York. More Limey pea-soup-stained than Manhattan-chowder-red, it descended one warm summer night, spilling unctuously over sidewalk and street, smothering all but the headlights of oncoming cars, turning strident red traffic lights into timid pink reminders of danger ahead, and slowing the ordinarily frenetic pace of downtown life to a dream-like crawl. Prudent pedestrians extended wary appendages like the canes of the blind, shuffling cautiously forward.

And so it came as something of a surprise when, carelessly strolling up MacDougal Street, out of the green-grey haze, an indecipherable ectoplasm advanced, bulbous and bubblegum-coloured, suddenly sprouting arms, limbs and a head. Oblivious to the startled looks of passersby, he wore nothing but a smile. But by the same ineluctable twist that produced this irregular weather condition, public response changed rapidly from hushed amazement to lighthearted amusement, interspersed with titters of laughter, pivoting from tolerant shrugs to scandalised anger on the one hand, and grudging admiration and outright envy on the other — if only I dared follow his lead!

Too late, the anger, envy and longing lingered a while only to be shrugged off as childish shame — by which time, in any case, the emperor in his new clothes had long since been cloaked by the fog.

Wall Street Strollers

There is an undeniable similarity between corporate boardrooms and nursery schools. Both have big tables and easels beset with illustrated large-lettered educational displays designed to placate investors in the first instance and caretakers and parents in the second, both of whom have provided the seed money with high hopes for their investment. The fact that CEOs and chairmen of the board are given to temper tantrums and get driven around like the baby carriage contingent merely proves my point.

Giving the Finger

To the left of the Temple of Dendur, in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a depot of preserved body parts. When the display first opened, I noticed a mummified finger sequestered away on a lower shelf. On a subsequent visit the finger was gone. The number to call for inquiries is 212-879-5500, ext. 3770. Being civically minded — the finger is public property! — I called to report its absence, but have yet to receive a reply. Meanwhile in a nearby cabinet languishes a mummified liver. Actually, according to the label, it’s “an organ, probably a liver,” they’re not exactly sure. You’d think they ought to know by now!

Old Age Benefits

My brother, an artist formerly employed as a graphic designer at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, once left the following message on my telephone answering machine: “I just saw one of the strangest sights of my life: an unwrapped 1,500-year-old mummy, a naked man lying there in the hallway.”

Handle as Luggage

Waiting for a flight out of La Guardia Airport, I was somewhat disconcerted by the spectacle of a passenger stepping off the plane, just in from Houston, clutching a cardboard box marked: HUMAN EYES, with a red sticker marked: HANDLE AS LUGGAGE!

Antique or Junk?

The mint quality Louis XVI bureau on which President Kennedy signed the nuclear test ban treaty with the Russians in 1963 was sold at auction at Sotheby’s some years ago for $1.43 million. A bit expensive, I find, for a piece of furniture on which one man rested his elbow and signed his name a single time. Me too, I’m thinking of getting rid of my old writing table, a vintage Downtown diner Formica counter top, circa 1960, retrieved from the street. The petrified chewing gum wads stuck under it are guaranteed 100% authentic, glued there by cabbies, cashiers, poets, prostitutes, insomniacs of every ilk, desperate and anonymous, stretching a single cup of coffee to slow down the frenetic passage of time. I am willing to accept any reasonable offer, screws and stains included.

The City That Never Sleeps

They call it “the city that never sleeps,” but New York dreams round the clock of a hot tip at the racetrack or breakfast at Tiffany’s! It flashes its assets and almost immediately thereafter erases the lewd revelation. It vaunts its grandeur and spits on the reflection. New York marvels at and mocks itself in the same breath, spray-painting new instalments wherever space permits. Realtors own everything by day. At night the City belongs to the tireless army of muralists, scribblers, and posterers. Next morning the clean-up crew scrape it clean. The murmuring walls are a tabula rasa, a magic slate perpetually revised.

A Last One-Liner

What did the Zen master say to the New York hotdog vendor? “Make me one with everything!”

 

Peter Wortsman is a Contributing Writer for Panorama.