A Dilator In New York / 5 June 1999
By the time I received my bright yellow “New York Taxicab Information” pamphlet, standing in line there outside LaGuardia, New York City had already been assembled for me by 1,000 vocal intonations and 10,000 scraps of paper and 100,000 thirty-five-millimeter images. It, like Los Angeles, is essentially a city that exists entirely within in its own documentation.
This documentation (including the pamphlet) also teaches you how to act when you’re there, so it can be a worthwhile experience plunging yourself into the role.
Looking through the windows of the cab was like simultaneously watching two or three TV cop shows from the 1970s. I was convinced that when the cabbie asked me for the tollbooth fare that he was somehow ripping me off and at first I pretended not to hear him.
I should warn you that the majority of my time in New York was spent with people whose names are often hyperlinked to Web sites. Leslie let me sleep in her bed while she took the air mattress on the floor. “Boy, if this bed could talk,” I said, but not out loud.
BED [softly, resigned]: I never get to go outside.
Leslie has a shower in her kitchen, like smack-dab, as if it had dropped from the sky and crushed something important, like the oven. It made me question the many architectural assumptions that we make on a daily basis.
Leslie had torn her hamstring and was in constant pain and lamented the fact that her neighbor had recently thrown away all of her “painkillers” as part of her new membership in AA. What this means to you and me is that I tended to go out into NYC by myself on various missions and then return to the apartment and report on my findings.
The breasts on that city!
Imagine my sweaty alarm when I went to meet Maura at her office and learned that she works for Delia’s, the clothing catalog for extremely young and nubile women that I had only recently learned about. When I enter an office building, I usually have a number of expectations regarding what I will encounter, you know, like the hot smell of copy machines and the electronic burble of telephones and the Celtic knots of cubicles. So I was caught a little off guard when I stumbled upon a queue of tank-topped teenaged girls, dutifully filling out applications and speaking in frantic, fleshy rhythms.
As Maura and I walked around town I sometimes felt like I was a sailor in a musical, holding my cap atop my head as if it could fly off at any moment due to my astonishment, pointing at all the big buildings and hot dog vendors and wristwatch salesmen, a song with an ABAB rhyme scheme ready to burst from my lips at any moment. My pupils swelled wide to take it in.
We ate Carvel’s ice cream (read: soft-serve) out of miniature plastic Mets hats at Shea Stadium. I thought about the footage I’d seen of the Beatles last concert and how you couldn’t hear them through all the screaming.
Some guy at the game actually yelled, “You bum!” I choose to believe that this was said in a non-ironic manner.
Anything post-1950s in New York seemed really sad to me, and I think the New Yorkers felt the same way. We all have an instinctual understanding of what New York represents, and it’s the Art Deco chrome and pocket handkerchiefs and Old World pronunciations and fire escapes. So the internet stock ticker at the ballgame reminded me to always stick to the documentation, since the real thing is long dead.
The Museum of Natural History sported a wide range of temperatures. “We would probably be dead if it weren’t for spiders.” A young man balanced his camera on the rail in front of a large dinosaur skeleton and then rushed over to his girlfriend and assumed a relaxed, happy appearance just as the flash went off. The fish that live at the bottom of the ocean are unbelievably horrifying.
I spoke with a handful of people that I’d only previously known through their websites—like my longtime idol Todd Levin and those two lovebirds Alexis Massie and Andrew S.—and what’s amazing is how similar their in-person selves were to their online personae. There were very few surprises. Portraying yourself in an accurate fashion with words and images is incredibly difficult for most people (and unpalatable in my case), so it was odd to see so many people there who were able to do it.
Heidi and Leslie and I went on a boat tour around New York, and although many of the sights were obscured by fog and weighed down by our guide who spoke mainly about the outrageous cost of real estate, I was happy to see the city from afar and file away a number of unbelievably famous constructions for future reference.
Every single street name was familiar.
I kept looking at maps and asking people to tell me where I was. I wanted to get a handle on the geography more than anything else because you can’t be fully American without understanding New York City. You need to know what Queens means, and what Manhattan means, and Hollis, and Bed-Stuy, and Coney Island, and SoHo, and Central Park.
New York consumed an obscene portion of American culture, and although it has since lost its authority, brushing up on the basics isn’t a bad idea.
I waved my hand in front of an infrared sensor and a new, sanitized plastic cover rotated onto the toilet seat, there at LaGuardia.