Friday, April 27, 2007

and I squish you

New York City, not only has a pulse. It has a fever. So many people. So much going on. So much history. A fantastic saturation of activity that I would, if experienced on a daily basis, find quite overwhelming. And that's just Manhattan. This place and the people who live here are what I want to be amongst. There’s so many little cultural nooks and crannies for people to wedge themselves into, it’s easy to see why everyone who visits finds a place to feel home. I know someday, even for a short while, I will live in this town.

I was always coming to New York, but it wasn’t until getting an invite from Audra (a random person I met on a frosty morning at the Grand Canyon), did I have a place to stay. When we met, we probably chatted for only about 10 minutes, swapped emails and parted company. This has been a fairly common interaction with people while I've been travelling and usually occurs with no follow-up. But three days later when I got back to San Diego, there was an email from her offering up her apartment as a place to crash while I was in the Big Apple. Amazing. But this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Once I finally got to New York, I landed in LaGuardia and my bearings weren’t up to scratch as to where the city was in relation to the airport. My single-serving friend on the plane had given me the quick run down on the public transport from the airport to downtown Manhattan, with my other seat neighbour drawing up a little map to help explain where stuff is in relation to the airport. As I was waiting for my luggage, I started talking motorbikes with an Argentinean mechanic who had just returned from working on a 250cc race in California. He and his friend were catching a cab into downtown Manhattan and I suggested we should split a cab. Grand. Not even an hour into my time in New York and already I was being driven in a yellow cab across Brooklyn Bridge with the lit-up 9pm skyline of Manhattan dazzling and sparkling across the water. On the way over we discussed travel, I shared the apples I had in my bag and discussed my desires to visit (and their experience of), the glacier and volcano area of Argentina. When we got to where I needed to get out, I tried to pay them my share of the cab fare, but they refused my money telling me I would probably need it. What a great introduction – free cab ride and a cautionary about me keeping an eye on my spending. At least it wasn’t the “proper foreigner” spiel I got from the immigration guy in London. The original plan was to call past a photo lab nearby to Audra's place and pick them up from there, but as it was now 10pm, the shop was nice and shut. I find my way to a cafĂ© with wifi and get the plan b instructions for getting into the apartment. I phoned Audra and she phoned her flatmate, who thankfully was home and opened the door for me when I knocked.

The next day I spent walking the length of the southern part of Manhattan. I ventured down to the financial district to have a look at where the World Trade Centre used to be. Being in an area where an event that redrew the rules of the world and influenced major personal change occurred was a weird experience. Walking towards the site, a Back to the Future scenario played repeatedly in my head, where Marty McFly emerges from the subway, picks up a newspaper, reads the date and the camera pans around to finds the towers still standing there. Once I got to Ground Zero, I was disappointed with the plaques and tributes to the victims, with heavy use of emotive language and the vengeful tone some of them took.

One of the common questions you’ll find hidden amongst a long conversation these days (especially if you're from New York), is “so what’s your 9/11 story?” – and talking to Americans about their experience and the environment revolving around them at that time, you get an interesting variety of answers. This was one of my favourite responses to what the general feeling amongst the American people was during the aftermath: “We wanted to kick some ass. We just wanted the finger pointed at someone. Anyone! If Bush came out and told us Sweden did it, we’d have no problem invading them and kicking their blonde Scandinavian butts back to the ice age".

When I was in Hiroshima in 2005, I spent a day wandering around the Peace Park memorial reading the stories, looking at the exhibits and being quite. I found the language used to describe the bombing of Hiroshima from a Japanese perspective much more respectful, both to the memory of the victim and to the judgement of the reader than the boards twist tied to the cyclone fence surrounding Ground Zero. The Japanese presented the facts of what happened at the end of World War II neutrally (almost clinically), leaving the emotion to the personal stories of the victims. Not being a terribly big sop, I was surprised that for most of the time I was there I wept and sobbed. When I read the plaque at the A-bomb Dome (we leave this structure here in an effort to ensure that this never happens again), I spontaneously started to cry. Afterwards, I felt I walked away with a greater understanding of the victim's suffering and further questioned the mindlessness of war as a whole. All I walked away from Ground Zero feeling was disturbing sense of emptiness, a lack of grief (especially for a city I am smitten with), and a feeling that those who suffered at this place had been cheated by the memorial they had been given. I felt guilty that instead of being upset, I walked away thinking the terror involved here was no less terrible than that experienced within the confines of a conventional war between countries. I guess Japan was the surrendering party. Don’t get me wrong, what happened here 6 years ago was a terrible, horrible thing and my sympathies go out to all those who were touched by the shit that went down that day. I just wish my (and the rest of the world’s), compassion for America wasn't soured by the way the Bush administration reacted.

I imagined our leaders seizing upon this moment of unity in America, this moment when no one wanted to talk about Democrat versus Republican, white versus black, or any of the other ridiculous divisions that dominate our public discourse. I imagined our leaders going on television telling the citizens that although we all want to be at Ground Zero, we can't, but there is work that is needed to be done all over America. Our help is needed at community centers to tutor children, to teach them to read. Our work is needed at old-age homes to visit the lonely and infirmed; in gutted neighbourhoods to rebuild housing and clean up parks, and convert abandoned lots to baseball fields. I imagined leadership that would take this incredible energy, this generosity of spirit and create a new unity in America born out of the chaos and tragedy of 9/11, a new unity that would send a message to terrorists everywhere: If you attack us, we will become stronger, cleaner, better educated, and more unified. You will strengthen our commitment to justice and democracy by your inhumane attacks on us. Like a Phoenix out of the fire, we will be reborn.

And then came the speech: You are either with us or against us. And the bombing began. And the old paradigm was restored as our leader encouraged us to show our patriotism by shopping and by volunteering to join groups that would turn in their neighbour for any suspicious behaviour.

An except of a speech given by Tim Robbins to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. - April 15, 2003

Enough politics...

The water front was next on the cards, with a possible jaunt across the bay on the Staten Island Ferry up for grabs. I ventured around the water and ran into a Japanese guy taking a photo of a lamp post. He wasn’t actually taking a photo; he was making a frame with his hands to simulate what a scene would look like if he took a photo of it. This looked interesting so I started chatting to him, excitedly forcing my broken, unused Japanese upon him once I found out he was from Japan. We chatted for about 5 minutes and then parted ways, only to bump into each other again about 20 minutes later. We decided to hang out and catch the ferry together, comparing notes on what brought us to the big city. Koji had come to America to study English and work at his hairdressing career. The ferry ride took about an hour to the island an back again. On it I spoke with a lady from Scotland and a photographer working for the New York Times. Once Koji and I got back to Manhattan, we wandered up to the subway and separated at Time Square and I haven’t seen him since. I think this may have been my poor rendition of the OK boku jo (wave hands in the air) joke which seemed to work so well a year and a half ago in Japan.

Once I had my fill of Time Square (I hadn't realised that there are two corners covered with TVs and lights. I assumed that there was only one corner that regularly changed it's appearance), I headed over to 9th Avenue to check out the photographer's Mecca - B&H. It's a fairly impressive store, almost up there with the eye burning complexity of a Yodobashi Camera Mega Super Happy Fun Time Store. One of the first thing I noticed about B&H is that the majority of staff are Jewish Orthodox (with the hole skull cap and ringlet thing going on), a sight that isn't that common in Australia. I ventured over to the lighting department first as I'd been flirting with the idea of rigging up a hand flash unit after seeing some guy in SF use one. The guy serving me was totally enthralled by his Windows solitaire game, and flicked between that and condescending answers when I asked questions about flashes. I figured he was either a jerk or was just having a bad day and moved over to the lens department, where a few smiles were floating about behind the counter. I lucked out and got another jerk, sighing, groaning and yawning (a little too dramatically), while I asked to look at a few lenses. I guess you can get away with being a total douchebag when you work at one of the best know camera stores in the world.

Jaded and empty handed (I need passion from my sales assistant to part with my money), I walked down 9th Avenue, then hit 8th on my way back down south towards 5th avenue, seeing little famous bits here and there along the way. I somehow ended up at Madison Square Gardens and spoke to John for a little while, then beelined straight back to home base. It seems that ever since being mugged, I have a subconscious almost Cinderella alert that says "It's going to get dark soon. That's when pumpkins turn into thugs and then you get robbed". Audra was still out of town, so I made food for me and her flatmate, who then proceeded to tell me about this guy that she just met who was putting all this heavy emotional stuff on her in the early stages of their friendship. She explained the relationship, the difficulties of working with the guy and the back story to her life, the universe and everything. I agreed saying it would put me in an awkward position if someone who I had just met started unloading all their troubles and emotions onto me - then said goodnight and went to bed.


Anonymous said...

I remember when I visited all the peace memorial museums and monuments and stuff (did Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the same trip, pretty heavy!) that I was quite surprised at how balanced the presentation was at all the exhibits. I mentioned this to my boss at the time, and he told me that one of his colleagues will still defer to him in a disagreement with a shrug and say "well, we lost the war". Very differnt mentality.

Michelle said...

Aww Dan, your making me New York sick :( . We've been there the last 2 July's and it's just one of our favourite things. You really do feel like your at home. I felt exactly the same about ground zero.
If you're after another photographer's Mecca there's another place downtown at the very bottom of Broadway which are good and a bit cheaper I think but I can't remember the name. It's opposite City Hall Park.
I don't know if river to river festival has started yet but the program's usually worth checking out. New York Transit museum in Brooklyn is great and so is taking photos of people taking photos in MoMa. To totally chill out hire a RC sail boat in central park, the guy who runs the place was a real character. I'm sure you've had a million recommendations, so have fun.