Tuesday, October 28, 2008

ART HISTORY: Fairytale of New York, Volume I

Some weeks feel like a fulcrum. You emerge from them a different person, eyes open just a little wider. Such was the case with my week spent in New York City. At the time I had just been laid off from my TV writing job and followed a friend's advice in applying for a job with him. I didn't get the job, but I got a better adventure out of it.
Originally published 15 December 2003

BACK IN SAN DIEGO -- A night after returning from New York, I'm finally up to describing the trip in richer detail. My apologies for the teases in between.

After doing some sketching, however, I've decided the only way to do justice to this tale is to use the most dreaded of journalistic formats: The Serial Narrative.

As defined by My old newspaper, a Serial Narrative is used by long-winded kiss-ass hack writers who may or may not be schtuping kiss-ass big-assed editors to write ridiculously long stories with no real news value after spending months researching them.

By comparison, this project should only take less than a week to complete, starting tonight. So we're already ahead of the game. Furthermore, there is a story behind all of this: New York City is as fun and exciting and intimidating as everyone says it is -- and for just those reasons, everyone on earth should try to spend at least a week of their lives there, if only to taste what you can and see if you can live up to it. Hopefully some of these tales will give you a little sense of what I experienced last week.

Part 1: The East Village People

TUESDAY NIGHT, DEC. 9 – I’m picking songs on a 22,000-song jukebox and grinning idiotically about it – more precisely, about doing it in New York Fucking City -- when Jerry approaches. We’re at Hi-Fi, a suitably indie-rock bar he recommended, a couple of blocks from his East Village apartment. With dark lighting and darker, disheveled haircuts, the place reminds me of my beloved Turf Club back home. Just with more expensive drinks.

Twenty minutes and 12 rum-and-coke filled dollars later, Jerry and I start toward his place. I have to turn my big blue suitcase awkwardly to avoid hitting a cute girl in a long pink jacket. It’s my first encounter with an honest-to-Giuliani New Yorker. (Okay, Jerry is, but we first became friends in Kansas.)

"Hi, where are you in from?" Her name, I believe, is Robin. She shakes my hand. "Enjoy your visit!" My first thought: Wow, she didn’t say fuck once that whole sentence.

The night is, predictably, much colder than anything San Diegans encounter: about 36 degrees or so, but there’s no wind-chill, not even snow. In short, a great night for a walk. So after dropping off my bags and meeting his roomies/co-workers, Ominous Tom and Andrew, Jerry and I head to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on 26th Street for an improv show by local troupes Filth & Dillinger. Because Jerry takes improv classes at the theater, he gets into shows for free, and slips me his student ID to sneak me into this one. So no complaints.

After the show, we return to the Village bars for drinks, catching-up and general promises of more of the same should I indeed win a job with Dow Jones Newswires -- the main reason for this trip. A few drinks in, however, I decide to let some people know I’m safely in town. I call my friend Victor with CCNMA.

"Dude, I’m in New York!" I yell over the din of the Blue and Gold bar, where the drinks are $3 and the women, suitably, too indie for me. Or maybe I’m not indie enough for them. The prettiest girl in the bar is wearing a makeshift headband saying I am a praying mantis for no discernible reason. Victor, of course, understands my enthusiasm about the trip – and is immediately pissed at me for being such a happy idiot about it.

"You fucking peckerhead!" He replies with a laugh. "That’s fucking cool! Let me know what happens!"

After hopping through five bars the whole evening, Jerry and I stumble up the five flights of stairs to his apartment. The building looks to predate any elevators, and was probably built to originally fit one person per space. Jerry's spot, which probably wasn't bigger than my one-bedroom space at RiverPark Plaza in Wichita, has been remade to fit three incredibly small bedrooms. It takes less than three steps to reach the bed in each. He suspects it used to be a crackhouse, citing crowbar marks on the door.

Oh, wait, one more stop: We walk an extra set of stairs to the roof of the building. The Empire State Building, red lights shining, stared at us from the distance.

"Better than RiverPark Plaza, isn’t it?" he says, less asking than seemingly reminding himself.

Barely five hours of sleep after the first night’s adventure, it was time to get down to business, and to the Dow Jones office in Jersey City.

Part 2: The Lay Of The Land

WEDNESDAY, DEC.10 – Like any prospective employee, I’m wearing my best suit and tie to the office. Jerry joins me in my bourgeois style, which as many of his co-workers later noted, was very much unlike him.

"Wow, I’m a New York commuter," I say upon reaching the 14th Street train station.

"Yes, you’re a New York commuter," he repeats, with some amusement. During the commute, he seems surprised at the crush of people on the trains with us. "You’re getting the full commuter experience this morning." Sadly, we don't encounter any potentially murderous subway hobos, or even mildly rude natives.

The job itself is as close to a journalistic sweatshop as anything I’ve ever encountered. If I do become a Reporting Assistant, like Jerry, my life would entail sifting the news from the PR monkeycrap from various firms, and finding enough background, through research or calls to the PR monkeys, to construct an actual news story. The clips tend to be short but dry, and read like something edited by Detective Joe Friday -- Just The Facts, Man.

On a good day, one of your clips gets you a byline in The Wall Street Journal. Andy will later explain the trick is to get a story that’s too big to be insignificant, but not so big it draws the attention as one of the Journal's beat writers.

Because his bosses thought another writer was on vacation this week, Jerry isn't just my host. He's charged with tutoring and preparing me for Friday’s four-hour test, which will largely determine whether I join the company. This despite a Thursday-morning doctor’s appointment and a Friday/Saturday jaunt to Washington, D.C. for an internship reunion. It’s the latter engagement that relieves me a little bit. Otherwise Jerry may want to kill me by the end of the trip. Nothing against him; I just have that effect on people after prolonged exposure. Witness my mother.

Weeks before my arrival, Jerry had warned me about the greater peril of this: This wasn’t something to do for anyone looking to get out in the field. But it was a great job to have if one just wants to live in the City.

Our practice sessions are quick, but spirited. Jerry lays out the basics of each story, then let me have at them. By this point I’m surprised the previous night’s hijinks haven’t fogged my head. But Jer quickly reminds me the test will be much harder than anything we’re doing.

Jerry and I agreed to take things easy that night. But not before heading down Joey Ramone Way ...

Photo by Rob Boudon

Interlude: CBGB's

WEDNESDAY NIGHT – The American Heritage Dictionary says The Bowery, where CBGB's is
located, "has been notorious for its saloons, petty criminals and derelicts." Not two blocks from the bar, I realize why.

About 20 feet in front of us, some thuggish-looking guy shoves another hard into one of the many ad-plastered wooden walls. Jerry and I freeze and for a moment, I swear the assailant is looking at us. I start to turn to cross the street when I spot a group of preppies walking behind the thug, and realize we now have witnesses, and potential backup. We press on.

"I think they’re trying to figure out what to do, too." Jerry says. He hasn’t skipped a step this entire episode, and chalks it up to becoming a jaded New Yorker.

I stop to take the obligatory picture of the intersection of Joey Ramone Way and Bleeker Street and notice the 5-6 people standing outside the door. This place made its mark as The Punk Jerusalem. Standing in the cold in my long brown coat, black knit beanie and red turtleneck, I look anything but punk.

"Are you sure we won’t get killed here?" I ask Jerry. He points at the bunch of hipsters and asks, "Do they look dead?" Chastened, I take a deep breath and walk inside. Though just to be safe, I join him in having a beer rather than go for my usual Captain & Coke.

The bar is damn near empty; the teen pop-punk band onstage is playing before maybe 3-4 people sitting in front of the stage and maybe that much milling around the bar, besides Jerry and I. But they justifiably don’t care. They can now tell their friends at homeroom they’ve played the same stage where Blondie, The Talking Heads, and of course, Joey and The Ramones first made themselves famous. Their set is full of energy, without the predictable angst of their age, and they finish with a noisy flourish. Even without knowing their name, I feel great for these boys. Jerry, however, doesn't feel great about the bar.

"It’s so clean these days," he says, with visible disappointment. Turning my head, I see walls covered thick with flyers for countless bands and benefits, enough so that you could barely tell the walls themselves weren’t made of brightly-colored Kinko’s casualties. The tiny stage where the boys have just played looks like it was carved out of some cave wall.

"Yeah, they’re really let the place go," I say to Jerry, wondering if he can tell I'm joking.

To Be Continued

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