Monthly Archives: September 2007

Greetings from Elizabeth, N.J.

Last week I took a bus from Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street to Elizabeth, New Jersey. This may seem an insignificant event to some of you. After all, many people make this or similar journeys every day. But for me it was the first time I had left New York, ventured beyond the city, and set foot on real American soil (or at least asphalt). The reason for this trip, you will be disappointed to learn, was that I needed to pick up some house essentials from IKEA, a truth which I recognize completely dispels any romantic notion of the occasion I may have had. I certainly didn’t expect my first visit to another state to be caused by the urgent need for cheap lamps and coat-hangers. Instead I had always imagined taking a bus down the Jersey shore, hanging in them dusty arcades and chasing the factory girls underneath the boardwalk. But from what I’ve heard a Swedish furniture store is as good a reason as any to visit Elizabeth, and so off I went. It was a huge thrill to take in those Manhattan views as we crossed the Turnpike, and my head suddenly became filled with Springsteen lyrics and Sopranos images.

Manhattan as viewed from New Jersey

On Friday morning I achieved a lifelong ambition as New Jersey came to New York, in the form of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. Bruce and the boys were appearing on NBC’s Today Show in Rockefeller Plaza, and I had to be there. Hillary had arrived from Italy the previous evening, but I left her in bed to make my way up to Midtown at seven in the morning. From a young age Bruce’s music has influenced my perception of and fascination for American East Coast life perhaps more than any other artist. The characters that colour his earlier albums with their romantic optimism and almost naïve aspirations richly evoke a world where a girl, a car — or maybe just a guitar — are all you need to go out and make it. The band’s heavy influence of ’60s soul bands, it eccentric, jazz-tinged playing, and Bruce’s mysterious allusions at passionate street crime lead me to forever associate that music with a hot and gritty New York City, despite the group’s inexorable links to New Jersey. Now suddenly here I was, feet away from these Jersey boys, the same men (almost) who posed barefoot on the back cover of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle over three decades ago.

I never expected to one day see the same guys performing outside a Dean & Deluca on daytime television, nor did I ever imagine witnessing a concert before breakfast, but it seemed both were happening right now. Through the crowd I could make out drummer Max Weinberg’s Late Night quiff, and before I knew it Bruce was on stage — the same trademark beat-up Telecaster slung over one shoulder — as the band broke into a perfect rendition of “The Promised Land.” They then performed several tracks from the new album, Magic, including ubiquitous single “Radio Nowhere” and “Livin’ In The Future”, which Bruce introduced with one of his typical rambles:

“There’s a lot of things we love about America. Cheeseburgers, transfats, motorcycles, divorce, and cheating on your spouse. But over the past six years, we’ve had to add another picture. Therapy, medication, counseling, catholicism, HIV tests, anti-depressants, sleeping in barns, and botox. These are things happening today that we never thought possible.”

Between songs Bruce cracked jokes at Today Show host Matt Lauer’s expense, gave hugs to Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, and even found time to speak his mind on the state of the nation. Springsteen is one of few people left in the entertainment world whose political opinions aren’t greeted with derision. The crowd was then treated to “Night” from Born To Run and an extremely moving “My Hometown.”

An overcast morning had now given way to bright sunshine as Bruce sang repeatedly: “This is your hometown, this is youurrrr hometown…” I’d been in New York just two weeks, but I couldn’t help think and hope and feel that there could be something prophetic in the man’s words.

Dedicated to the memory of Danny Federici, 1950-2008.

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MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd Street.

It was little over a month ago when I learned I’d be spending the fall of 2007 working at The Museum of Modern Art. I had long dreamed of the opportunity to live in New York City, yet never imagined it would arrive in the form of an internship at arguably the world’s finest Modern Art museum. A heavy application process (including three essays) had ended with a carefully coordinated trans-atlantic telephone interview with a certain Larissa Bailiff, MoMA’s internship coordinator. I was extremely nervous before the interview, and spent that morning researching extensively the museum’s current and upcoming exhibitions. Fortunately, Ms. Bailiff immediately put me at ease, and we settled into a breezy chat which lasted over 45 minutes. I like to think my British charm and wit over the phone was what secured me the position of marketing intern, as less than a week later, back in England, I received confirmation that I’d be spending the next three months stateside. I barely had time to obtain my visa and update my iPod before I was jetting off across the Atlantic to confront a healthy mix of the familiar and the unknown.

Having spent the last four years livin’ la dolce vita in Italy, how would I cope when suddenly tossed into the ultimate modern metropolis that is Manhattan? As it turned out, quite well: all those years spent studying the city combined with intensive previous visits had earned me something of an honorary self-taught degree in Newyorkology, and I felt confidently able in dodging such infamous New York pratfalls as subway navigation, the delicate art of tipping, and the correct pronunciation of Houston Street.

It seemed like an eternity before I finally had to go to MoMA on Monday morning. In my eagerness I had arrived spectacularly early, and spent almost an hour reading in Central Park before I was due to meet Ms. Bailiff and the other interns. When I arrived at the entrance to the Cullman Building on 54th Street I was informed by the receptionist that the other interns had elected to go to Starbucks. Putting aside my usual boycott of the Seattle-based coffee giant I walked over to Sixth Avenue where I met three other interns — from Connecticut, Los Angeles and Paris. I was surprised to discover such an international bunch — something had told me I’d be the sole Brit. Instead nearly all of North America and Europe was represented. I was relieved to find all the interns smart and instantly likeable, yet I felt a bit like a reality show contestant meeting my competition rivals. I suppose this would make Larissa Heidi Klum. Larissa in person was as I had found her to be on the phone: warm, friendly and a very entertaining speaker, to the extent that a side career in stand-up comedy would not be out of the question.

After our welcoming talk and initial introduction I met my supervisor Julie Welch, who immediately struck me as bearing an uncanny resemblance to the actress Annette Bening. Julie gave me an extensive behind-the-scenes tour of the museum before introducing me to the rest of the marketing team. She then showed me where I’d be working: a tiny cubicle the size of a phone booth (but without the windows). When Peter told Julie I’d go crazy in there she gave me the option of sharing the back office with three other interns. But for some reason I chose to stick with the private cubicle, despite its lack of space. I took off my jacket and got down to work.

My first task as a MoMA employee was to input survey results from MoMA@Nite, a series of summer parties held at the museum’s newly-renovated sculpture garden. As I spent the next week typing the zip codes and annual salaries of around 1500 New Yorkers (plus about six people from other states) into an Excel sheet from my tiny cubicle on the sixth floor of a Midtown office, I realised what had happened. I had become Chandler Bing.

Welcome To The Future

It was a humid evening when I arrived in New York last Friday night. Aching and weary having spent most of the day aboard a Lufthansa jet, I was immediately awoken by the series of advertisements which greeted me at JFK Airport. As I made my way through the endless maze of corridors leading to immigration, my eyes were bombarded with the repeated image of what appeared to be a sort of executive Etch-a-Sketch, but which upon closer inspection was in fact a device they’re calling the Sony Reader. Some very clever people in Japan had figured out a way to compress multiple hardback books into one small tablet of brushed metal, allowing an author’s life’s work to be slotted into a holiday-maker’s carry-on luggage.

Upon learning of this revolutionary product for the first time, two thoughts immediately struck me. 1) If the Reader is a success – which means within a year or two we will be adding it to that cluster of gadgets we all believe we can’t leave the house without – what will it mean for the future of the printed page? Will books become obsolete? It certainly won’t help reverse the youngest generation’s already concerning preference for electronic screens over pens and paper (though could go some way to correcting posture among schoolchildren). 2) How long had I been on that plane?

I first came to New York City as a wide-eyed, highly impressionable 20 year-old. It was the sweltering summer of 1999, and I was achieving an ambition which had stood firm since childhood and throughout my teens, one which for some reason I had never imagined possible. As a boy, New York City may as well have been another planet, so remote seemed the possibility of ever visiting. The few people I met who said they had been left me in awe. Though apparently unattainable in reality, thanks to television New York was accessible daily. What I saw was a tough, gleaming city crammed with the tallest buildings and coolest people, where danger, excitement or something else entirely lurked on every street corner, and where the traffic and the music never stopped. I become all too aware of it, and the attraction was something not even my overworked imagination could fathom. It was the city for me.

Armed with a pocket fold-out map and my Pentax K1000, I spent every waking minute of that week absorbing the city like a sponge, memorizing every detail, taking in (and photographing extensively) every skyscraper, monument, museum, hot-dog stand and fire hydrant along the way. And I walked everywhere (though there’s nothing quite like the thrill of hailing your first yellow cab). I stayed in a hotel on the Upper West Side, and the greatest feeling of all was simply being on the street, strolling up and down Broadway, eating pizza by the slice, chatting with strangers and briefly living a life that could only ever be make believe. I went home with a case of NY-emblazoned merchandise and eleven rolls of exposed film, a changed man.

A lot had happened in the relatively short period which had ensued. Some would say the world had changed, but had New York? For better and for worse, it had, and it was a different kind of breathlessness which overcame me as Manhattan’s skyline rose into view from my taxi window. Reports claimed that crime had been declining since the nineties, when Giuliani began cracking down on the most minor offences, a trend which was supposedly continuing under Mayor Bloomberg. Meanwhile, the spectacular success of certain businesses had begun to monopolize retail space in Manhattan, resulting in a noticeable effect on the city’s physical appearance. There now seemed to be a Starbucks on every block, even in the traditionally less commercial neighbourhoods. In the Theater District, the vast billboards and blinking neon of Times Square had given way to Disney animation and state-of-the-art video graphics, which succeed in rendering even the Coca-Cola logo unrecognizable.

On the city’s not-so-mean streets, the NYPD’s azure blue Chevrolets, once immortalized by television cop shows, had been traded in for a fleet of nondescript white Fords. Those bouncing Taxi-era checkered cabs were long gone – now yellow minivans with electric doors drove tourists from airport to hotel. I read that all NYC taxis will be hybrid 4x4s by 2012. What next, floral cabs? (Oh, right.) Even more horrifying was that in response to its increasingly international population, every last one of New York’s iconic WALK/DON’T WALK lights had been replaced with a universal walking man/red hand. Now whether crossing Delancey Street or Abbey Road, the experience had become (almost) identical.

Practical types will say that change is inevitable, that cities must continue to evolve in order to survive and stay vital, and I’m sure many locals would have not noticed or cared about such relatively minor alterations to their city. But for reasons however superficial, I was becoming slightly disillusioned. Here I was, finally living in Manhattan, the pop-culture lover’s ultimate paradise, and not a DON’T WALK sign in sight. I began to wonder if even the humble pretzel vendor’s days were numbered. It was as if the New York I had always imagined, the city I’d inhabited in adolescent fantasies, was suddenly being transformed and taken away. I couldn’t help but feel I’d arrived too late. But it’s like when you meet people who say, “You should’ve seen this place twenty years ago.” What am I supposed to do about that now?

Still a little jet-lagged, I woke up early the next morning and crossed Second Avenue (upon orders from the walking man) to the coffee shop opposite. From the other side of the street the Chrysler Building was clearly visible several blocks in the distance, its soaring concrete and chrome piercing the cloud-filled sky like a needle. It wasn’t quite daylight, but inside the diner people were already tucking into breakfasts of eggs and bacon and pancakes. I took a seat at the counter and ordered coffee. Turning to face the window, I stared out and watched as the yellow cabs glided silently through the Saturday morning drizzle. Had I been foolish in clinging to a New York that is no more (or never was)? Maybe it doesn’t matter if NYC ’07 isn’t exactly the city I’d been exalting all these years. What I enjoy most about it hasn’t changed a bit, and what drew me to this place as a child can still be found everyday. Steam rises from manholes, water towers and fire escapes adorn every building, and people really do read The New York Times on the subway. And while there’s space enough in people’s lives for the printed page, there’ll be a place in mine for New York City.

Newyorkology

Hello!

Welcome to Newyorkology. Without wanting to come off sounding like some pretentious, self-absorbed internet blogger, the purpose of this blog is to record some of my experiences, thoughts, impressions, musings or whatever you might call them of this remarkable city we call New York. As the title suggests, you may call it the study of New York City. This town never fails to stimulate, surprise or inspire each time I leave the apartment. Hope you enjoy what I write, feel free to leave comments, and happy reading!

James Taylor

New York, September 2007