New York. Sometimes affectionately referred to as The Big Apple. Culturally it has long served as the galvanizing catalyst for the United States, as if to somehow represent the absolute best we have to offer as a country. Countless Hollywood movies, video games, fictional literature, music, and live stage plays use New York as a backdrop for one or more subsequent devices. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s flashy, and it moves at lightning speed day and night, never resting for a single moment. For those of us who live outside its boundaries, we look on with awe and wonder at the cascade of imagery that emerges in the press. An itch scratches the back of our minds, causing us to wonder just what the New York Experience is. Some of us will never have an opportunity to immerse ourselves in it, and up until recently I would have counted myself amongst that lot. But the ever emergent circumstances in my life rolled the red carpet out to me and walk down it I did.
Emerging from the depths of the Amtrak Pennsylvania Station at 33rd and 8th, I was immediately taken aback by the sheer volume of people. There could have easily been close to two hundred of them on the block alone. As we walked from the tram station to our hotel, the Marriott Marquis on 45th and 7th, the swarm only seemed to increase in size exponentially. This made sense as we were travelling north on Broadway Ave which runs directly through Times Square, but coming from a far smaller town, one can never really prepare for a shock of this sort. There was no investigation into the current population estimates prior to my departure from Ohio, but I later discovered that there’s roughly nine million people in NYC alone, with nearly 2,750,000 of them being in Manhattan. Of course one doesn’t come into contact with all the residents of Manhattan at once, but it’s not uncommon to do so with a few thousand people a day. To put this into perspective, the town I live in only has a population of 22,500 and you’re hard pressed to see a hundred people a day. Everywhere you look you would find people walking down the street, riding a bike, flagging a taxi or shuttle, or sitting in a shimmed veranda that encroached onto the sidewalks where restaurants took up residence at. They were tucked into nearly every orifice the city had to offer, perhaps even some the city didn’t realize it had. The necessity of the skyline being dotted with skyscraper after skyscraper made so much more sense at that moment. It is quite impossible to facilitate that many people in a horizontal fashion, so the only solution is to go up. You can trust also that every floor of every edifice was occupied by someone. This principal of vertical expansion applied to all sorts of establishments, from small clothiers to bowling alleys where, for example, the third floor hosted a different set of lanes than the fourth. That being said, a recurring proposition in my mind arose when I realized that I was standing in the same exact location of the famous New Year Ball Drop and tried to imagine myself there with all of these people.
The purpose of my trip was relative to my job, as I’m now sure is an entirely common excuse for a visit. However, that didn’t mean that there wasn’t some leeway for tomfoolery and exploration of the touristy kind. Wandering through the streets ended up being a daily occurrence when not involved in something convention related. Prior to my group’s walkabouts, I must confess to professing some trepidation against appearing to be a tourist. They’re incredibly easy to spot, even from within the infinite rabble, and being on foreign soil meant being on guard. All one has to do is look for the extended selfie sticks and angled heads fixated on the towering behemoths that showcase a fruitful marriage of architecture and engineering. Adorning only those closest to the centre of it all were displays that sprawled sometimes the entirety of a single face, constantly cycling one advertisement after another and not a single one of them in tandem with the other to form anything remotely aesthetically pleasing; one was more likely to convulse in epilepsy before they even made it to the shop in the ad. Anyway, this fear of the tabi bito hyōjō was soon proven to be moot once a cardinal rule of navigation was discovered – go with the flow. The sooner one fell in line with the apparent consciousness of the fumbling mass, the sooner one became transparent to even the person rubbing shoulders against you. In this, one could get away with the occasional flick of the phone to grab a photo of something or someone, but if the shutter were ill-equipped to handle motion, every single one would be a guaranteed blur. Amazingly, those who were carting multiple large totes of luggage or, insanely, a stroller housing an infant, were able to occupy space just as comfortably as a single person albeit at the cost of inner-swarm dexterity. Any sign of a shift in the wave would be evident to everyone and, when opened, they would all vie for the ability to move – a sort of material coagulation.
So tourists we were and explore we did. With only five days to spare, it was impossible to see and do everything that Times Square had to offer, but of its many entertainments, we ventured several that stood out. Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum allowed me to pose with Morgan Freeman, launch nuclear weapons while Barack and Michelle Obama smiled ever so casually, fly E.T. through the skies on a bicycle, sit next to Ernest Hemingway, allow Kelly Ripa to experience hosting a daytime talk show with me, get carried away by King Kong, help Indiana Jones take the golden idol, remind Charlie Chaplin of how short he really was, square-up with Fidel Castro, get my hand moulded into wax, experience my first ever so-called 4-D movie, and participate in a full-range virtual reality simulation of Ghostbusters where we were able to battle and catch ghosts. The Minskoff Theatre played host to the Broadway production of The Lion King which, even all these years after its inception, is still an amazing experience. It was very much like watching the movie all over again, which I made a point of seeing the month it was released in 1994, but breathed such new life into what would have otherwise been a stale monument in my distant childhood. Let it be known that no expense was spared when venturing only ten steps into Central Park by Columbus Circle before briskly turning back and heading toward the nearest shopping plaza. A film crew was on location shooting imagery of a concrete sculpture atop which a golden ornament of some kind sat, and it was fascinating to see how nearly everyone was in one of two camps at that moment: acting entirely blasé toward it or contemplating on how to photobomb the camera at points in an attempt to immortalise themselves on film, regardless of what it was about.
Of course, the foodie in us came out and it was not disappointed in the slightest. The Brooklyn Diner on 43rd was incredible. The décor exuded a subway-esque atmosphere that was very alluring. For me, a hamburger and fries. For my girlfriend, a veggie burger and fries. For my boss and his wife, a hot dog and fries. The catch? The hot dog was nearly an entire pound of meat – it was huge. A little pin was even attached to it that read “15-bite dog.” Challenge or no, it was assiduously avoided as the two cut it into comfortable portions between them. Being a beef and potato fanatic myself, passing positive judgement on my dish wasn’t difficult at all. That had been the first time I’d eaten fries served in a cup with rosemary and bay leaf dressing. I hesitate to speak on her behalf, but the veggie burger didn’t fare as well in the satisfaction department. Wrapping this venture up, to give yet another example of distributable portions in this establishment, a woman seated next to us who no sooner remarked on the size of the hot dog we’d received got a chicken pot pie she’d ordered and it was nothing less of a whopper. Considering the pan and height of the crust, it had to have stood a whole eight to nine inches from the table and easily more than seven inches in diameter. Something tells me she had a distinct amount of leftovers the following day. Next came the desire to have an authentic New York pizza. Despite my near complete lactose intolerance, I was hell-bent on making this happen. Fortunately, a recommendation made to my boss during the first day of the convention lead a crew of us to Don Giovannis. Now I certainly don’t have my finger on the pulse of the city regarding it in relation to others, of which I’m sure invites a war of religious proportions, but I can say with unabated conviction that the pepperoni pizza here is the best that I’ve ever had. Supplanting my long-time local favourite, Victorios, is no minor feat, make no mistake. After consuming three large pizzas and a few beers, a sort of childish depression kicked in understanding that there is no comparable pie in Ohio that I’ve ever tried. To help rationalize this, I’ve partitioned my favourites by localities now. When in Manhattan, it’s Don Giovannis. When in Alliance, it’s Victorios. Although I still wish teleporters were viable…
The only real disappointment in this aspect was from a restaurant called The View. Located on the 45th floor of the Marriott Marquis, this apparent bungalow for the affluent played host to a menu where your only option was to participate in a three-course configuration and deviation from this was not allowed under any circumstances. First strike – totalitarian enforcement of the laws of the kitchen. On a more practical sense, cumulatively this was going to be way more food than I’d ever or could possibly even consider eating in a single setting, yet there was nothing I could do other than stuff it down. Furthermore, my palette for exquisite foods of this sort wasn’t broad enough, thus I was able to eliminate nearly everything on the menu as being something remotely appetizing. Yes, I do have a sensitive palette. Yes, I do have issues with textures. So yes, I am a picky eater. The appetizer, a salad, I ordered reluctantly for fear of it being over lavished in something so exotic that by only smelling it you’d endanger fifteen species of turtle; this turned out to be the case. Second strike – simplicity will always win out over complexity, especially in the food department; I was enjoined to waste the entire dish. The main course was a bit of steak, by that I mean a mere nibble, and steamed vegetables. This was agreeable although I prefer my steaks without butter. Dessert was a flight of gelato: four flavours with four distinct toppings. For drinks I settled for merlot and a glass of water. Verdict? Unimpressed, especially considering the price. The only redeeming quality about the place was the fact that the seating floor gradually rotated. It is exactly as it sounds – the floor rotates while you sit on it. Not in the way that manipulates the G-Force during astronaut training – this was incredibly subtle. Thus it is possible for one to get dinner and see the heights of the Manhattan Mountains all around you. Third strike – if I like your floor engineering more than your food, you’ve confused your priorities.
The streets themselves seemed to emanate with a life of their own – almost as if the very concrete would at any moment reach up to greet one with a handshake and offer recommendations for tourist hotspots. Carousing past the mammoth towers with open doors proved to be far more inviting than initially thought since each of them offered something different than the last. On display was the ingenuity of human design philosophy made real. Even though the employees contained inside were either too uninterested or too excited, they indeed improved the impact substantially, and regardless of the sway of mood, they were at minimum courteous.
However, for all of the distractions and entertainments that are on offer in the core of the apple, for all of the glitz and glamour, for all of the crowning achievements of engineering and Capitalism, when considering humanities it is an absolutely appalling place to experience. It’s important to understand that the lifeblood of this city is money. This is not a facetious exaggeration; everyone, everywhere, at all times is trying to sell you something regardless of how banal the item or service is. Every street is littered with food trucks and kiosks, makeshift tables holding designer product selling for literally seven-eights of its price in a major retailer (which, hilariously enough, we experienced this in Harald Square across from Macy’s), makeshift crafts and souvenirs for the unsuspecting tourist, news stands that offer all sorts of magazines and unhealthy treats and, worse yet, apparently homeless people passively vying for only money. It is not a far-fetched assertion that anyone you see walking on the streets is physically moving only because whatever web of entrapment constructed by money that they’re involved in has compelled them to do so, certainly in perpetuity. Moving for the grind, as some in my generation term it, comes as natural to them as breathing. In this, each of them is a self-maximizing preference seeking agent and the only objective is money – no more, no less; and this is a universal truth for all of its residents.
This very mistaken view of worshipping a pseudo legitimate impetus for the kinetic energy which places all humans in motion relative to society stretches to all aspects of human existence relative to our environment. Once on a walk toward Central Park West, we travelled north on 6th avenue and the closer we got, two things became obvious. First was that the congestion of people tended to simultaneously thicken yet disperse, and intermingled within them on one side of the street was pile after pile of garbage. Waist-high walls, in plain sight, consisting of one white plastic bag after another, each one brimming to the point of bursting, some in fact did, that stretched for nearly two entire north-south blocks that bordered 59th avenue which is the street-wise border between the city and Central Park. Not a single person, not a one (including myself shamefully), tried to do something about it. Burst bags allowed their contents to pour out onto both the street and sidewalk, and one by one people simply walked past them, some stepping on the rubbish, and continuing on with an all too blasé attitude. According to the Centre for Sustainability and Commerce from Duke University, on average, a single person produces roughly 4.3 pounds of waste a day, and the yearly average for the United States is about 220 million tons. Now, according to GrowNYC, a group focused on sustainability relative to New York City, current estimates suggest that the people in that city alone produce 12,000 tons of waste a day, most of which is plastics that are produced using fossil fuel and are only used once. Performing some simple math, we find using the current estimates that the yearly average of waste pounds produced by NYC alone is 4,380,000. One has to ask where it goes? Some goes to incineration, some goes to recycling, but most goes to landfills outside the city. There’s simply too much of it and those in governance have absolutely no idea what to do with it other than to sweep it under someone else’s floor mat. But that’s okay because they’re still raking in record profits and still able to keep their $5,000-per-month high-rise apartment. And the constituents within the city, concerned first and foremost with fulfilling their money-demanding responsibilities, don’t offer a solution the time of day.
On any given day you’d be hard pressed to venture down an avenue and, when being propelled onward by the momentum of the bulge, trip over a few of the city’s homeless. They were affixed to the pavement in one of two locations: on the sidewalk against the wall of a building or elevated on steps. Wherever they could sit that was in the periphery was suitable enough. Their pining for money was performed either passively, by using what is now known as the marker on a cardboard cut-out (the social media plea for help), or aggressively by acting like the criers so often seen with the aforementioned turncoat salespeople on the street. Those in the former lot did nothing but sit and read books or sleep, expecting the cup or container placed in front of them to hopefully produce a yield of something. I should state, for the record, that homelessness is an inexcusable, intolerable, and inhumane reciprocal of our society that goes largely ignored, and that it is the reciprocal of nothing more than our worshipping of money and simple overpopulation. That being said, the truly horrid aspect behind all homelessness is that because it is the byproduct of money, it is morally difficult to ascertain if one is actually homeless or perceptibly homeless. This proves to be an issue when one considers what to do to help, especially when that help manifests as the donation of liquid assets, i.e. cash. One has to ask, legitimately, what is that person going to do with the cash that was given to them? It is a well known statistic that those people who are incredibly wealthy are far less likely to be philanthropic than their poorer contemporaries. Considering that those people rely far too heavily on supposed moral validation, it’s not too difficult to see how feigning homelessness at the right locations and at the right times can prove to be an incredibly lucrative venture. In fact, these types of people have already been drawn out into the open and exposed in some cases, be they regular people or supposed military veterans. Furthermore, even if one is known to truly be homeless, what good is a pity coin going to do them? It never actually addresses the root cause of the matter. Instead it allows the giver the ability to fulfill their daily faux-altruistic requirements and the recipient an all too minor and insignificant lash back against that which put them there in the first place. Existing in this grey matter of subjective morality, we continued briskly past each one of them, ignoring the signs and pleas, just as everyone else did. The suits marched toward their businesses, the hip young crowd ran toward the fashion outlets, and us tourists danced from one safe place to another. The Coalition for Homelessness estimates that a little over 60,000 people are homeless in New York City alone. Think about your surroundings right now. Can you imagine yourself, your spouse, your children, living by the nearest abandoned building? Scraping your food from the inside of a waste bin? Going to sleep, if you can, night after night wondering what the hell you’re going to do to get out of that mess that we impose on each other?
For me, the trip to New York City was both an entertaining and enlightening experience. One that constantly kept me in conflict with myself; to let myself enjoy the experience while simultaneously understanding that none of it wasn’t possible without money. I can’t imagine I would ever visit there on a whim, but it’s sure to go down in recorded history as an interesting place.
Header Image – New York Skyline (https://pixabay.com/en/new-york-city-skyline-building-14606/)