The Bronx is Up and My Battery’s Down, by Elayne Riggs
As you probably know, except for the LA-based Michael Davis, every ComicMix columnist lives in the NY-NJ-CT metropolitan area. The famous magazine cover at right chides our perspective as somewhat skewed, but in reality I think New York City and its surrounding suburbs offer a pretty good microcosm of modern civilization. Not for nothing are we the melting pot of the world.
The thing is, for a relatively small island, Manhattan is so much bigger than most people can cover, either on foot or in the media. Leaving aside for a moment the vast array of cultures inhabiting the "outer" boroughs (our northeast Bronx neighborhood seems to be a mix of mostly Jews and Irish but it appears to be diversifying at last), there’s just so much within NYC (the way many of us in the boroughs abbreviate New York, New York) itself that you can hardly take it all in. Manhattan never ceases to fascinate me, and I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of it these past few months while searching for a job.
Job search hours tend to be peculiar, because you’re usually coming into or leaving The City while other people around you are either on holiday or working. So I see the passing parade in a different way than I would if I were cooped up in an office for the better part of eight ours, only coming out to commute with the masses. And I’ve been able to pretend I’m sightseeing at the same time, revisiting old haunts as well as traveling to areas I never had the time or inclination to check out when I actually worked in NYC.
I think the most fascinating place I’ve seen that I never knew existed has been the World Financial Center. This huge complex lies between the Hudson River and the remains of the World Trade Center site. It wasn’t easy for me to get to, as I’m no longer much of a walker (more on that later), particularly in the winter when I interviewed there. None of the subways I access stopped near the site, as they’ve been closed down since 9/11. And there’s all kinds of construction going on in the area, requiring pedestrians to traverse an avenues-long elevated walkway, then a series of stairs or (thank goodness) an elevator leading to a corridor at which point you’re just about nearing the WFC entrance. But once you get there, you find this strange combination of office buildings, with their rigid security entranceways, and an indoor mall complete with restaurants and a food court surprising in its openness. I wasn’t sure if the mall serviced only the office workers in the massive complex until I saw how many people were hanging around with baby carriages and such. And the view of the Hudson from the atrium is spectacular. You don’t even need a watch when you sit there; you can see the time from the huge Colgate clock across the river in NJ. (Not really a surprise when one discovers that the Goldman Sachs Tower that the clock borders was designed by the same company responsible for the WFC itself.)
When I was a NYC regular I didn’t travel below Houston Street all that much, particularly after I moved from Brooklyn to the Bronx, but during these last few months I’ve seen lower Manhattan a number of times. The WTC site still spooks me, but just as eerie are all the cavernous side streets, the nooks and crannies that whip the wind around, the little hideaways with the fancy boutiques and restaurants, the main thoroughfares that all lead ever downward, converging at the beckoning river.
Sometimes it seems like every skyscraper in NYC stretches to crave a river view, or a glimpse of Central Park, or even just a gaze at another skyscraper. This week I found myself on the 20th floor of a building a few blocks up from the Empire State Building, offering a gorgeous shot of pretty much the entire length of the ESB from its floor-length reception area windows. The reception area itself was amazing as well; after all, when you talk about NYC buildings you can’t neglect the creative interiors. I’ve seen some amazing buildings, and I must confess I don’t usually look up at the steel mountains. But NYC, like many cities, is constantly evolving its architecture, and we’re in a really interesting period now where the new exists side by side with the old, and the new stuff is actually pretty to look at for a change. (Many of us who lived through the Era of No Aesthetic really appreciate this.) The exteriors are sparkly and futuristic looking, they’re not all rectangles any more, and they actually blend in well with the old filigreed and gargoyled and gilted structures. And the aforementioned interiors, the lobbies with their sculptures and indoor plant rows and elevators with sky-blue ceiling paintings and TV monitors showing captive-audience mini-segments of news and other detritus…
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve also been in the old warehouse-type buildings where the rickety elevators barely fit one person and the reception-free offices are dark and musty. Those are the moments I feel like I ought to be wearing a hat and talking very fast, like in an old black and white movie. NYC is the kind of place where even an unsavory experience conjures up motion picture images. It’s just that literary, that poetic, that iconic. The East Village where I used to work in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with its mix of bohemian and neo-Japanese culture, where some of the most unlikely office monoliths are on the rise. The upscale quiet of Park Avenue above Grand Central, still a majestic hub which can transport you just about anywhere, both literally and figuratively. The bustle of the Penn Station area where I worked for a half-dozen years around the turn of the 21st century. The self-enclosed environments on Lexington around the Citicorp Center, with their own basement-level eateries and subway entrances. The way you can create your own coincidences, as I have in discovering a CBLDF office two doors down from an employment agency where I had an appointment, or Teshkeel Comics a couple floors away from another agency. And the paradise of food, the pushcarts everywhere, with halal foods and bagels and sandwiches and steamy breakfasts, the Starbucks clusters shadowed by the bodegas on every corner, the little boutiques dotted all about that you wonder how they stay in business and many don’t…
Although traveling by subway is perhaps the most efficient way to get around Manhattan, it’s rarely the most fun. For that, you either have to walk or take above-ground transit. The four-digit taxis (number-letter-number-number) are perhaps your best bet in a door-to-door situation, particularly during midday when the traffic is navigable, but they’re also the dearest so my unemployed wallet and I avoid them. Besides, now that they no longer sport the Garden in Transit flowers on their hoods, they’re all kinda boring, with those same 4-digit ID "decorating" the bonnet medallion, sides of the cabs, roof light (when it’s lit the taxi’s available; when it’s dark and the lights on either side are on, the driver’s off-duty) and license plate. But it’s still fun to watch ’em congregate as I wait for the express bus at Bryant Park where I end up 9 times out of 10 after a day of pavement-pounding.
I can’t say enough about Manhattan parks. I’ve changed from sneakers into shoes and back at City Hall Park, Madison Square, Bryant and a few more I’m probably forgetting. Manhattan loves its green spaces. I adore walking through Bryant in the daytime with its carousel playing oddly modern-sounding hurdy-gurdy tunes, passing the chessboard tables and having to thread through at least one Major Setup For Evening Festivities. And getting on that west-side bus bound for home, passing the famous Love sign on 55th and Avenue of the Americas, turning onto Central Park South I get the feeling that time elongates. I look left at the grand gleaming hotels, then right at the park entrances lined with horse-drawn carriages as the horses are fed and groomed, and it’s like two different paces existing simultaneously. Everything in the park seems to move in slow motion, as if the park has cast a mandatory leisure spell on its guests. Even the joggers seem languid. Then we pass the park and go up Broadway for a few blocks, passing Columbus Circle and the impressive Time-Warner center, then the Trump Globe and Hotel, so tastelessly garish it’s almost stylish.
Sometimes we turn onto 65th Street, and I get to see some of the restaurants with their fairy-sized lights. I particularly like the little Xenon-blue ones, it makes it look like Christmas year-round, particularly at twilight. Sometimes the bus turn on 72nd Street and back onto Central Park West by the Dakota, and I always stare at the gas-lamped entrance to the Dakota because, well, just because. I have a cousin on my Dad’s side who lives next door to the Dakota, and I always think of her when the bus passes by. The same bus gives me great views of some of Manhattan’s best museums on its trips both north and southbound, including most of Museum Row on Fifth Avenue. And in an added thrill, the bus journeys through the park itself. The Park Drives that I see (mostly the South one) are never open to vehicular traffic, making them even more intriguing. Even on an enclosed coach bus, Central Park reaches into me and makes me feel different, changed. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a man-made area.
Most people would assert that Manhattan is best enjoyed via strolling through its many neighborhoods and sights. I think that’s true in theory, it’s really a city made for experiencing on foot. Alas, the older and more sedentary I’ve become, the harder it’s been to take advantage of NYC’s pedestrian delights. The job search has strengthened my gait a lot, but I still tire more easily than I’d like, becoming grateful for finding hidden oases throughout midtown. Many of the larger skyscrapers are surrounded by benches cut into the landscaping. On Fifth Avenue, just about every block has a three-seat bench off the southeast corner of each intersection between 42nd and 34th Streets. And if you look carefully enough you can scout out public spaces between the monolithic towers. But still. You’ll be walking a lot, particularly when the weather’s nice. Although beware, NYC has its fair share of allergens during this season, as the street-bound trees start to blossom into cottony powder-puffs.
Now, folks like Martha in particular have touted Manhattan before. Martha has the added bonus of actually living on the island; folks like me are content merely to visit before traveling back to our quiet havens. So why talk about NYC now? Well, we have a convention coming up, starting the day after tomorrow. I hope a lot of you are coming out for that. I would implore you, particularly if you’re mobile and staying beyond the weekend, to check out as much of New York City as your budget will afford. Walking is still free. Just find a spot you like and start to wander. In midtown particularly, if you’re not on Broadway just about all the streets and avenues follow a logical north-south and east-west grid, and it’s difficult to get lost if you can read street signs. Whereas in places like the West Village, you may want to get lost. And when in doubt, do what I do — bring a walking stick.
Elayne Riggs is still recovering from her Monday in Manhattan, and believes visiting four agencies on the same day as she had two interviews may have been a bit much. When she regains her energy you can find her blogging here. Come see her and her walking stick at the NY Comic Con this coming weekend; she’ll be with fellow ComicMixers as well as working the Friends of Lulu table and hanging out with that pro she married.