Saturday, July 07, 2007

Travel Journal (1)--Hanging Out in New York City

I stopped off in NYC for a few days before going overseas. While not particularly representative of the nation as a whole, the city nevertheless maintains a unique relationship to the rest of the country. One either loves the place or hates it. I find the city to be endlessly intriguing. I walked the streets and neighborhoods from East Village to the Upper West Side. I mastered the subways. I lost myself wandering through Central Park and the Met. I took in a play.

Despite our various local prejudices, New Yorkers are as friendly as anyone else. (We Southerners have been known to scoff at this notion, but what passes for friendliness down here is often just a cover for nosiness). People are much the same all over--the same basic worries, concerns, hopes and aspiriations, the same bundle of anxieties.

And while NYC is one of the great cities of the world--one that sets out to awe and enlighten--I would not classify it is an "easy" city. By and large, its public places do not lend themselves to the simple pleasure of merely "hanging out." But then, it has never pretended to be that kind of place.

I did manage, however, to just hang out a bit in Manhattan. One favorite spot was a little gem; a 24-hour French bistro, disguised as a diner, located in the Meatpacking District. The other was the city's great treasure, Central Park. Florent is easy to miss, a narrow diner hidden behind tinted glass, tucked between two dark warehouses. A popular nightclub down the street sucks up all of the attention on the block. Only after you have already stumbled onto the place do you see the small sign above the building. Laid out in typical diner style, with stools along the counter, booths along the wall and lots of chrome, the friendly staff and notices on an overhead bulletin board give it a neighborly feel. The food is exceptional (I recommend the crabcake sandwich), with a good selection of European beers. But for the tourist, the main attraction is the clientele. From my perspective, the eccentric and eclectic regulars at Florent offer a genuine sampling of what New York is all about. All in all, the diner is as good a people-watching perch as I have found.

Central Park is the ultimate place to linger in the City. 50 blocks long, this vast natural preserve is the great priceless treasure of the city. Without it, Manhattan would be dim and soulless. Woods and meadows, hills and fields, towers and lakes, rocky crags and trails, hidden places and wide open spaces--it is all here. While the young sought out the sun, I opted for the grassy shade, underneath a giant oak. I think I had the better idea.

Lying there, gazing up at the pricey penthouses along 5th Avenue on the east, and the toney San Remo digs of Bono, Steven Spielberg and the like on the west--put me in mind of my favorite New York movie; Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Some may remember this as the film which launched the movie career of Will Smith. Yet, it was Stockard Channing's show all the way. She is a great favorite of mine; no doubt I could sit rapturously listening to her read names from the phone book. She is that good. Channing and Donald Sutherland played Louisa and Flanders Kittredge, residents of a swank penthouse on the 800th block of 5th Avenue, overlooking the park. High-end international art brokers who move easily within the rarified air of the upper-crust Manhattan intelligentsia, their lives are up-ended by the Will Smith character (Paul), a seriously delusional gay hustler who pretends (or believes?) to be the illigetimate son of Sidney Poitier. To Louisa, he becomes a mirror into the vacuousness of their own lives, revealing that they are no less hustlers than he. Paul enables the Kittredges to clinch a deal with a South African investor. Unbeknownst to anyone other than Flanders, the transaction saves them from financial ruin. For their lifestyle, their very existence, is a mere house of cards.
Flan: Oh God!
Louisa: I don't want to lose our life here. I don't want our debts to pile up and crush us.
Flan: It won't. We're safe.
For now.
We almost lost it, Ouis.
The movie has aged well. It is still a damning indictment, not just of effete residents of the Upper East Side, but of our entire money-mad Western culture.

A final line from the movie:

Paul: To face ourselves - that's the hard thing. The imagination...that's God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.

Louisa: Well...Indeed.

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