Although I’m in Manhattan, I find it amusingly appropriate that I’m currently listening to the Beastie Boys “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” on the local radio station.
Since I’m at a writers conference this week, I thought I’d try to run a couple of blog entries from New York, just to keep my students updated on why I’m ditching class. I’m sure a lot of my later comments will focus on writing, but today, all I did was get here, so I’m going to just toss out a few observations I scribbled in my little notebook at the airport or on the plane. Who knows: maybe I’ll be so enamored of the city that I’ll spend all my entries waxing romantic about New York. I am, after all, staying in a hotel on the corner of Times Square — you don’t get much more New York than that (if I wind up in a background shot on MTV’s TRL, I’ll let everyone know).
I was in O’Hare, waiting on a delayed flight to La Guardia, and despite the Metallica blaring on my mp3 player, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two women nearby. Both were younger than me by at least a few years, but one had — I gathered — just finished her MBA. The MBA-woman was engaged in a long narrative about her ex-boyfriend and some other male friends; her friend nodded and only occasionally broke in with a “Really?” or a “Then what happened?” The interesting thing — the quirk that made me shut off my Metallica and start consciously eaves-dropping — was that despite the MBA-woman’s allegedly advanced degree, and therefore despite her supposed level of higher education, she insisted on filling her monologue with the word “like,” to the extent that “like” made up somewhere near 30% of her vocabulary. Stranger still, she was using it as a conscious replacement for dialogue tags, as in “So, I was like, ‘You didn’t even think about that did you?’ and he was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and I was like, This guy is such an idiot.” Which prompted me to wonder: At what point did we replace “said” or “thought” with “was like” in our everyday storytelling? In some ways it seems to signify a shift in narrative intensity or involvement — the words we speak no longer merely represent our dialogue or our thought processes but somehow embody them. Or, we cannot merely speak or think; we must exist in a physical state approximate to our speech and thoughts. Perhaps it’s an added note of seriousness: Anyone can say something witty or interesting, but I was like the wit itself — I personified “interesting.”
Flying into New York at night, I craned my neck to see the city lights from the plane window. I didn’t expect much beyond a real-life version of all the Manhattan skyline fly-bys I’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows over the years. Really, New York in general is probably the most photographed city on Earth, at least in the popular media; I’d guess that the skyscraper landscape of lower Manhattan has been represented on film, either in real life or through movie magic, in every stage of its existence — somewhere we have seen a version of Manhattan for each year since it first sprang from the swampy forest and Native settlements of the island. (Several months ago, I read an article about a new book documenting, through archived photos and digital manipulation, what the island looked like before Europeans arrived to found New Amsterdam, so in theory, we now have all visual representations of this city that we could ever have.)
I was surprised, then, to discover how enchanting the skyline actually was. Perhaps it was because I first caught site of the Statue of Liberty, diminutive from that distance but remarkable and unconsciously symbolic despite its pop-culture commonality. But I think it was more than that “perfect” introduction to New York: The skyline itself truly is charming and unexpectedly warm, inviting even. To me, it looked a bit like a toy set, as though some giant child — probably a boy, at least in my mind — had built it from Legos and Lite-Brite boards.
Then, in the cab from the airport into the city, I found myself marveling at the reality of the city from street level: the apartments, first old brick and chain fences and bright, sweeping graffiti, then taller, newer, with New-York-modern furniture stark and clean in the bright open windows; the swarm of cabs and limos and dark Lexuses crowding down the highway and then through the city streets, beeping horns at every corner, every lane change, fighting each other with an almost passive comfort in the whole jumbled mess; then the brash digital billboards of Times Square, a lighted Coca-Cola sign thirty feet tall and a movie poster for Rambo the size of a building–the size, in fact, of the Pioneer Tower on our campus back in Wisconsin.
After I’d checked into my hotel, I walked down to the bowtie of streets that is Times Square and found — because it was easy and I was tired — an Olive Garden in which to grab a quick dinner and a beer. I sat at the bar and watched the TV there; the waitresses were engrossed in the Bravo marathon of Project Runway. The episode just ending as I settled in involved the team of designers constructing dresses entirely from materials they pilfered from the Hershey’s chocolaterie on Times Square, and I turned in my seat to look out the window — there, across the corner from me, was the very same Hershey’s store. I laughed. The crush of life here is intense, and I don’t think I could ever live anywhere near this city, but as long as I’m here, I think I’m going to love New York.