Friday, November 11, 2005

Talk of the Town

Visiting New York City is something like taking a mind-altering drug whose provenance is unknown and you can count on a trip to Heaven, Hell, or both. For me, it's usually both.

My visit earlier this week was on what is called, in a peculiar expression, "family business" — in this case, my mother's surgery. She was well enough on the following day that I was able to leave her at home in Queens and travel to Manhattan, primarily to visit the Met (see the previous entry).

New York, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. No, stop me, at least after a few paragraphs of venting.

The subway system is simply horrible. Efficient on some level, I guess, but an experience of such unremitting grime, noise, and congestion that I don't know how any sensitive person can endure it regularly. And the new Metro cards that have replaced tokens are a nuisance and sometimes worse; mine refused to open the turnstile but deducted more money each time I swiped it until my credit was zero. Complaining to the agent in his zoo-cage-like enclosure brought no recompense. It was like dealing with a talking statue.

I tire easily, too, of the all-but-incomprehensible English and dozens of foreign tongues spoken by so many immigrants (call me xenophobic if you want; I'm not, so I don't care) and the gruffness of the native New Yorkers. Now I am well aware that what auslanders think is rudeness by New Yorkers is usually not intended as such. New Yorkers assume you are very busy making money and a name for yourself, and that you want them to get straight to the point. All right, but I still prefer a little graciousness.

And how about those bus ads from an organization called something like ""? They feature celebrities with gay siblings — Cyndi Lauper and her sister, and a gentleman I didn't recognize and his brother were on one — and urge you to be supportive if you are straight and your sibling is gay, or vice versa. If somebody has a lesbian sister and is perfectly comfortable with it, I say that's fine. On the other hand, if said person is not comfortable with it, that's fine by me too. But it's none of my business, or's, or anybody's but the people concerned. This organization is one more group of busybodies dedicated to the proposition that ordinary people are too stupid or retrograde to work out family issues by themselves, so these "experts" have to educate them about what to feel.

Not to make too soft a point of it, the New York environment bums me out.

It can also take my breath away, in a good sense. Because, despite the oppressive crowds and noise, the streetcorner madmen lecturing to the sky and the absurdly costumed fashion victims, somehow an enthralling and even civilized residue remains.

You walk up Madison Avenue in the 80s and every other shop window is a wonderland of individual flair, a treat for anyone used to mall chain-store window displays. You admire the detailing of townhouses, Renaissance revival, Beaux Arts, Gothic revival, French provincial, and wonder that such magnificence still exists in our gritty, pinched era.

Step into the Metropolitan Museum, fork over a mere $15 — yes, I consider that a lot of money too, but still — examples from virtually the entire history of human artistic creation are there before you: take your pick. And I don't think you have to be an art historian or specialist to realize that these are not table sweepings. They are mostly of remarkable quality, and some are among the finest works ever realized in the world of time and space.

Even in the city of restaurants competing to see who can come up with the most outlandish decor and dishes, it is still possible to dine in a pleasant atmosphere, with polished service and imaginative but not crazy cooking, among customers who can talk in a normal conversational tone without bellowing at one another as so many oafs do in public dining rooms these days. It's risky to recommend anyplace on the basis of one visit, but since I have no reputation to lose I'll go ahead and suggest you check out Caffe Grazie on 84th Street between Fifth and Madison if you happen to be in the area.

New York isn't my kind of place, but maybe that is an advantage, because my visits are infrequent enough that its moments of magic catch me unprepared and leave me grateful.

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