Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Spectacle of New York City

The first time I ever met a New Yorker was about two years ago. I was at American University, during my semester-long sabbatical from the College of Wooster. I sat down at a random table one crisp fall morning, chatted up a group of people, and presently was asked where I hailed from. “Wisconsin,” I said. One of the girls, heavily daubed with eyeliner and sporting dyed reddish-black hair, deigned to say “Oh, I’m sorry.” “Oh,” I replied, “You must be from New York!” Needless to say, she was. True story.

That was my first impression of New York City, albeit separated by two years in time and a hundred miles in space from the city itself. Having been here for less than a month , I of course cannot claim any kind of coherent opinion about the city itself, nor its residents (although the vast majority of people I’ve met on the job have been kind, understanding and insanely patient given the circumstances). However, having the other day made it to downtown Manhattan—“the nice part”, as Joe described it—I can claim an opinion on that part from a tourist’s perspective. In brief: whoa.

Times Square is… whoa. I have no idea if being in a massive snowstorm—the only reason we had a day off was because of the impending winter storm, at least to hear our leaders tell it—made it more impressive or less, this being my first time, but it was a hell of a sight. At some point during our visit to a Toys ‘R Us, where roaring robot tyrannosaurs and a ‘life’-size replica of Superman stopping a pickup truck shared space with miniature helicopters and salesmen doing magic tricks, I leaned over and said to my friend Abid, “So this is that ‘future’ I’ve heard so much about”. The place was unbelievably opulent, positively glowing with technology and demanding that visitors open their bank accounts and surrender to the wave of coolness surrounding them.

And that was just one store. Outside in the snowstorm, in the heart of Times Square, advertising reigned supreme. I saw a billboard for The Hobbit, featuring all thirteen dwarves, that could probably have covered the house I grew up in. There were seemingly dozens of gigantic TV screens flashing huge advertisements at my group, and every perfume or clothing brand I’d only vaguely heard of made its presence known at the level of a shout. Everything was flashing neon, shiny and brightly colored. It was impossible to stand there and not be impressed. And when the snow deigned not to splatter into your eyes, it only made the place more impressive.

I imagine this would be a fantastic place to spend the day if I had a capacious bank account (which living in Manhattan apparently requires) that would allow me to see Broadway shows, eat at Tad’s Steak and buy every awesome gizmo in sight. File that away on the things-to-do list for a future life.

For now, I did the tourist thing with a will. My friends and I mugged shamelessly for photos in Grand Central Terminal, walked through Rockefeller Center, ate Greek food from a sidewalk vendor (six dollars for the lamb gyro was a bargain; that was delicious) and just generally lolled around in fantastically expensive-looking places for most of the afternoon. Michella and I got epically lost on the subway shortly thereafter, since we’d both had enough of tramping the sodden streets, but that too is part of the experience (as was the ensuing snowball fight). True story—we made it back to the bus stop at roughly the same time as our compatriots, despite leaving probably an hour and a half earlier.

Like I said, there’s no way to judge New York after one time. I certainly understand the tourist appeal, though. This city is filled with things that have been hyped up in American culture for decades if not a full century or two, and at least so far, they’ve come disturbingly close to living up to all the hype.

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