Friday, August 06, 2004

A day in New York in a time of “Orange Terror”

It feels like a stinking hot Brisbane summer morning. Lying on the soft foam mattress in the hostel, my skin is sticky with sweat, the sounds of the street drift in through the window. I had no idea New York could be this hot.

Out on the street, you can feel the pulse of the city. Harlem is alive. Traffic honking like there’s no tomorrow. Commuters streaming into the subway. The start of a new day in the biggest, craziest city in the world.

I venture underground into the famed subway system – vaguely thinking about all the movies I’ve seen about muggings in the New York subway. Don’t be stupid, I say to myself as I awkwardly try slip my credit card into my shoe.

The subway is insane. Worms couldn’t have devised a more elaborate subterranean system.

I catch the blue line down to the World Trade Centre. How could I come to New York and not visit ‘ground zero’? But when I get there it just looks like a big ugly parking lot. There are some peeling billboards with the partly obscured names of people who died on September 11, others showing the history of the site and how amazing the buildings were.

I expected to feel something…inspired, hopeful, depressed, guilty, moved? something? anything? But mostly it just feels like unproductive urban space. A work in progress. A momentary lapse amidst the swirling commerce.

There were signs saying ‘no selling of merchandise allowed’, and occasionally passers by would tell the people selling merchandise to stop. You could tell they were half-hearted though. The spirit of capitalism is strong here.

Next stop - the Statue of Liberty. I can vaguely make out it’s shape across the smoggy Hudson Bay, but can’t be bothered spending 10 bucks and 2 hours on the ferry trip out there. Looking at it does make me wonder why nobody talked about sending the statue back to France at the height of the ‘Freedom Fries’ incident. Maybe people forgot that’s where it came from?

As I get off the subway at Wall Street, outside the New York Stock Exchange, I glance at a newsstand…”New York on Terror Alert”. Apparently plans had just been uncovered that showed Al Quaeda were planning to attack the Stock Exchange and other prominent New York landmarks. The Terror alert had been increased from ‘Orange’ to ‘Rose Magenta’ (or some other colour more serious than orange) and many people had deliberated about whether or not to come to work today.

I can see the next headline in my mind…’Dumb Australian Tourist Stumbles into Terror Attack’. Brilliant! If only my mum could see me now.

I quickly fumble around in my pocket. Damn! I knew I should have brought John Howard’s anti-terror fridge magnet. (They were sent to every Australian household to help ward off terror attacks) It was probably stuck on the fridge back home, and here I was, in the midst of a terror zone. I repeate the mantra silently under my breath – stay alert but not alarmed.

I amble up to the stock exchange and proceeded to walk towards the entrance. The whole area is cordoned off. There was a row of black mirror windowed vehicles and police carrying automatic weapons. Somehow I think that all of this isn’t relevant to me, so I keep on heading for the door until one of the security dudes steps in front of me. “Where do you think you’re going’, he grunts.

I said, “Hi, I’m from Australia and I’m only in New York for the day, and I’m keen to see the inside of the stock exchange”…silence….”That’s the entrance over there isn’t it?”… more silence …”Can I go in?”…”Not today” was the terse reply. This crack operative isn’t about to be disarmed by my naievete.

I hang around for while, taking photos, waiting to see if anything interesting will happen. Mainly just serious looking men wearing black and carrying guns, standing around chatting to each other and smoking cigarettes.

I get a copy of the paper. It turns out today’s ‘terror alert’ was triggered by some guy getting caught in Pakistan with copies of plans of various New York buildings. My irreverence towards the whole thing remained intact. As if this had any connection to anything TODAY? The politics of terror are clear enough. The need to be seen to respond greatly outweighs any rational response.

The only other thing in the paper was the ongoing reporting on the upcoming election - ever percolating in the background like bad American coffee. Weak, tepid, indescribably bland…leaving a slight bitter taste in your mouth. Nobody bothers reporting about the actual issues. All you ever hear about is the campaign - kind of like a ‘meta’ election. The shrill voice of the CNN ‘face’ droning on and on…”And today in the campaign, Bush said blah in reponse to Kerry responding to Bush’s response to Kerry saying blah blah” …zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…hmphh..zzzz. You could be excused for nodding off if the future of the planet wasn’t at stake. But then it’s hard to get excited in a contest between between Brand X right wing fundamentalist and Brand Y right wing ideologue, both of whom want to increase military spending.

I’d had enough of politics and high finance. Time for some Art.

The Guggenheim Museum has both kinds of Art. Flat and lumpy. I normally prefer lumpy art – but flat art can be good too sometimes. There was an exhibition by some European guy, I can’t remember his name. He claimed to be inspired by nature. “Fair enough”, I thought to myself. I can relate to that.

There were a couple of great sculptures. And some good photos. And paintings too. But then there was all of this weird stuff. There was a painting that obviously had been inspired by the wall of my flat back home. A plain white canvas no less. When I looked closer, I saw that it’s inclusion in the exhibition had been sponsored by such and such a foundation. “I wonder if they knew what they were paying for?” I thought to myself. Oh. Well. Whatever. At least it doesn’t kill people.

When I get back to Harlem, ‘the hood’ is buzzing. People are hanging out on the streets, kids running around like mad, old folk sitting in deck chairs chatting with their neighbours, homeboys hangin out. There’s something about having so many people living so close together that creates an amazing sense of community. I feel tempted to just hang out on the street in Harlem, soaking up the vibe of the street. But I was am of place - an outsider with a digital camera and wearing hiking boots. Safer to head back to the anonymity of the city.

I get out of the subway at 42nd Street near Broadway, and feel like I’ve stumbled onto the set of Blade-Runner, except the cars are still on the ground. It was then that I realize Sydney is actually a small, boring country town. Rockhampton, where I grew up, is off the scale.

I joine the throng of people just hanging out in the street…taking digital photos of people taking digital photos of people…taking digital photos. What is this obsession with photos anyway?

I head for the most gawdy and offensive advertising sign I could see. Toys R Us! I don’t have kids, but I’m interested in the future, and toy shops are a great place to learn about it.

Our kids will shape the future. And our Kids are shaped (at least to some extent) by the toys that they grow up with. In a bizarre self referential twist, toys, in turn, are shaped by some marketing executives idea of the future, or what they think kids think the future will be. So, the latest generation of toys often ends up being a pretty good window into what our future will be like. Ok, maybe not an accurate window – but at least an interesting one.

Walking into Toys R US!, I’m greeted by a full size fairis wheel inside a 4 storey toy shop, complete with a life size, robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex that, had I been 4 years old, would have scared the life out of me.

The ‘Nano building system’ display, alongside the ‘Bionicle’ creatures makes me wonder if I’ve been reading the right books. I’ve just finished reading a report by the ETC Group into the convergence of Nano and Bio technologies and what it means in terms of democracy and environmental risk. But it didn’t mention any of this stuff!

I’m lured to a salesperson touting the amazing capacity of “ROBOSAPIEN!”. The websites I’ve been browsing about cybernetics and genetic engineering in humans didn’t mention anything about this either. Maybe I should hang out in toyshops more often?

I lie to the salesperson about having a son, and asked how “ROBOSAPIEN!” could be used as a learning tool. “It’s easy”, he said. “You just press this button and it does a karate move. Or you press that button and it does a little dance.” “Yes, but I’m really looking for a toy that is also useful as a learning tool?”. “Well, it’s not really a toy”, he replied. “It’s actually a robot using the same technology as NASA and Microsoft use. And it’s got 67 different routines!”. Yes, but how do kids learn anything, or actually engage with this toy? “It’s got 67 different routines, and…blah blah blah”. I began to wonder if there wasn’t a 2nd model of ‘ROBOSAPIEN!’ out on the shop floor that evening.

After a quick spin around Times square on an 6 seater bicycle (an octagonal bike with 6 people facing inwards – all geared together), I head down to Union Square. I could only live in the shadow of a 50 metre high flashing image of David Beckham for so long.

It seems like Union square is the place to hang out if you like hanging out in the city but aren’t obsessed with taking digital photos. It’s an eclectic collection of people skating, skipping (with two ropes!), busking, reading, watching, just hanging out breathing…breathing life into the city.

There’s a circle of guys doing a rap thing. I remember in highschool in Rockhampton in the 1980’s we used to call it ‘breakdancing’. I wonder if they still call it that? These guys are really good - like they could have been in some hip hop or gangster rap video clip. I often wonder how people get to be good at things like hopping up and down on one hand in time to music.

Just for a joke, I go into a café and ask if they have anything that fits with the Atkins diet. They take me seriously. As a vegetarian I am offended by my own sense of the ridiculous.

I wander into an internet café and do a search for “new york poetry slam monday”. Sure enough, there is a slam going down at club 13 just around the corner.

The $8 entrance goes towards a prison activist group who for some reason are concerned about why 1/3 of all black American men end up in jail at some point in their life and in some states there are more black men in jail than in college. I’d met a guy in Minnesota who is the food director for one of the state prisons there. He said that it costs the government $88,000 to keep a person in jail for a year. They could create jobs for half the price. As usual, ‘rational’ or ‘fair’ obviously don’t play much of a role in policy making.

The poems come slick and fast…emotionally potent tirades about life, love, politics and prisons. How can there be so many amazing poets in one place? I said the same in San Francisco. I wonder if Sydney would reveal a similar poetic genius if there was an outlet? Or Brisbane? Or Rockhampton even?

Around midnight I head back down into the subway – feeling like New York is bigger, faster, stranger and more exciting place than I could ever have imagined it to be.

The guy standing accross to me on the train leans over out of the blue and says, “You know what? You gotta learn from your mistakes brother. People who don’t learn from their mistakes are stupid!”

I thought about prisons. I thought about ROBOSAPIEN!. I thought about George Bush. And I thought about John Howard and the fridge magnet.

“You’re spot on brother”, I said. “You’re spot on”.


rachel said...

Ya know, the unofficial election campaign started in Australia before you left... so we've got double election zzzzzz's happening back here.
During the last Australia Federal election campaign the New Yorker or the New York Times (can't remember which) published the best election quote (in my opinion) ever.
The campaign got some international press because of the racism underpinning a lot of the refugee and border security issues that dominated politics at the time.
The leader of the Greens Party, Bob Brown, said of the Labor Opposition leader and his Coalition counterpart:
"It's like a race between OMO and Coldpower - who can come out whitest in the wash".
Well that wasn't the exact quote.. I can't remember it exaclty... but it was something like that...
It was one pithy sentence that made me laugh and cry simultaneously (sans the hysteria that usually evokes such emotional reactions).
We need more Bob Browns don't you think? Maybe you could sell Bob Brown dolls on the streets of New York (well more likely your next big city), educate Americans about the Tarkine and raise money for the wilderness all at the same time....
In fact you could make it out of recycled, gmo free, toxic refuse... ok, ok... stopping now :)

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