NY, NY (2010)
“The city that never sleeps.”
I recently went for a holiday in New York. My first impression was that it’s also the city that never showers. With a population of eight million, the city’s rubbish collecting infrastructure is weak. There’s no space for alleyway skips, so small mountains of garbage bags line the sidewalk. Garbage-mountain dwellers are known as ‘gleaners’, a consortium of Chinese who sort through the bags for plastics to make into sideshow prizes.
“Take a walk on the wild side.”
I’d never seen an African American in real life, and spent most of my time on the subway admiring their inherent coolness. Having only experienced them through television gave me a unique perspective, and every time I saw a Knicks cap and hi-tops I thought ‘you’re from The Wire.’ I was bombarded with other races I’d barely experienced including Latinos, Mexicans and loud, earnest whites. (‘You’re from Jerry Springer.’)
“Cos’ everyone’s your friend in New York City.”
New Yorkers, while stereotyped as rude, for the most part obey the social laws of American hospitality. On the friendliness meter, the locals shone, offering directions freely and passionately, even if they were wrong. In an apartment block jungle, elevator etiquette included bidding your floor pal a good day. Being Australian, I hadn’t greeted a stranger since I started wearing pants in public, and replied with a nod and grunt, (Bargearse for ‘you’re welcome.’) This friendliness does not apply on the roads, where cars are fitted with horns that permanently honk, only relieved by the pressing of the wheel.
“King of the hill, top of the heap.”
I was in the studio audience for the David Letterman Show. The aggressive briefing ordered us to laugh and cheer before threatening “if Dave doesn’t think you’re on his side he won’t do his A material in the warm up.” The experience was so surreal I may as well have been watching it on TV. Dave had his mug replaced during every break and there were five different Paul Schaffers. Jay-Z was on and when asked how he escaped the ghetto’s said: “not everyone had talent so they ended up dead or in jail. Fortunately I had extreme talent and a little bit of drive.” Jay-Z, like many rappers, suffers a condition where the body produces too much self-belief. Being a celebrity, he can afford to treat it with cocaine.
“No sleep till Brooklyn!”
Williamsburg is ‘the hipster capital of New York’ (therefore the world), and the most Fitzroyish. When I arrived it was all bikes, vegie bookstores, record cafés and those ambiguous boutiques where you can’t tell if it’s a gallery or a shop and everything is a cassette turned wallet or a clock with no numbers or hands. If Melbourne is the commonwealth games then Williamsburg is the hipster Olympics. Fashion tip: wire rimmed glasses and not smiling.
“…new york city man but he couldn’t take the pace / thought it was like a dog eat dog world.”
More like dog eat hot dog. Every ten steps there’s a cart selling wieners, soft pretzels and butterscotch good humors (yankee golden gaytimes). Red white and blue are the colours you’ll turn after digesting the cocktail of fat, sugar and salt available at the frequent pizzerias. The burgers and slices I sampled were incredibly bland, my felafel came in a box while root beer turns out to be flat dr pepper. Nowhere was I more offended than at Australian themed chain ‘Outback Steakhouse’. While I tolerated the corporate Aboriginal art and ‘Shielas’ on the bathroom door, I could not forgive the menu inclusion of ‘Aussie fries’ (an ironic acknowledgment of our Americanisation). More baffling were the tokenistic fusions of ‘Tasmanian buffalo wings’, ‘New South Wales sangria’ and ‘Walkabout soup’.
“New York I love you, but you’re bringing me down.”
Stand-up comedy is the best way to tap into the mentality of a city. After surveying several gigs, the most popular subjects appeared to be racism and porn. (Comedy’s sex and death). My favourite show was ‘Long Story Short’ by Colin Quinn, directed by Jerry Seinfeld. It covered the history of civilisation in an hour. By the three quarter mark every nation had gotten a serve and I was dreading Australia not being mentioned. Finally, we were characterised as the over eager friend, always popping up whenever there was a war: “God bless the alcoholics. We’re like, yeah Australia I was gonna call you. (whispered) Do I even have their number?” After summing us up as denim cut-off wearing Paul Hogan types he hammered home the geography. “There are three planets closer to us than Australia.”
“The only living boy in New York”
I spent most of my time spotting the many differences between America and Australia. Exit signs are red, the green crossing man is white, entrees are what they call mains, toilet bowl water levels are twice as high and there’s no self-deprecation. Vehicles are at least one and a half times bigger, with single Moms cruising round in terrifying black combat tanks. Language wise, I realised I’d spent my whole life not pronouncing my ‘Rs.’ Where a New Yorker will say ‘parrt’ I would say ‘paaht.’ I had an accent malfunction while trying to explain a busker I’d seen. “A what? Bosca?” was the reply. The local referring to a brand of chocolate soda. “Oh, buskerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
“The lights will inspire you.”
The only thing the lights of times square inspired me to do was kill and kill again. What I had always thought was one or two electronic billboards was actually two blocks of multistorey, king sized capitalist epilepsy – the equivalent of twenty megaphone wielding salesman screaming around your head. The advertising cancelled itself out as my eye-line couldn’t find a place to land, like a fly in a sauna. The capital of corporate hell was M&M world where you could buy everything M&M known to man, including the infamous ‘black M&M’, sold in separate packets during the 50’s. From across the store I heard clapping and cheering, it turned out to be a party generated entirely by the staff, urging the blue and yellow M&M costumes to beat each other in a splits competition. It was then that I penned the first line to my own song about the big apple.
‘People weren’t meant to live like this.’
Having never travelled outside Australia, I wanted to go to the one place I’d heard nothing but rave reviews about. While being the centre of the artistic universe, New York is still an overcrowded townhouse cluster bomb with the loudness, smelliness and uptight vibe of any super city. The subway’s genius, the organic superstores are priceless (in a pricey way), and central park is like a movie set, but there’s also lousy shoebox housing, racial inequality (whites man the shopfront, blacks and latinos sweat out the back), and more art means more bad art. Being raised modest, I don’t think it’s healthy for any place to have so much ego.
“First we’ll take Manhattan (Melbourne), and then we’ll take Berlin (Burnie.)”