NEW YORK 2003. Day four.
Today was the long march. Some trips its midtown to Chelsea up to the Art Institute on foot; this time it was Times Square to the end of Manhattan, and back. First: the Chelsea Garage. Two treasures from the 39-40 Worlds Fair: a coupon-ticket book made especially for Teachers College students. It originally held 20 small tickets you could use through 1940; five remain. The other item is rather mysterious: a little envelope with the obligatory Trylon and Perisphere, and the logo GOLDEN KEY CONTEST. Every day at the fair you could use this key to see if it fit the lock of a car. Every day they gave away a car.
Its unopened. Since this was a hotel promotion someone probably dropped it in his pocket before leaving town. Ill never open it. No one who values this stuff ever will. (If youd like to see the items, theyre here.) Theres so much Worlds Fair memorabilia out there, its staggering. And you know who has a big collection? Alan Dershowitz, apparently. One of the booth operators told me he sold stuff to Dersh all the time. Its not that hard to find and not punitively expensive; after all, they made this stuff in bulk for almost two years, and nearly everyone, it seems, saved what they got. They had seen the future, and they wanted to keep the proof.
Got something for the Gallery of Regrettable Food sequel; some CD stamps from 1942, a Soviet pamphlet from the Worlds Fair - very odd, that - and some other things youll see on the site eventually. Found one sad booth full of cast-off Soviet crap; crappy record players, crappy watches, crap, crap. Its the Soviet kids toys that always get to me. So cheap, so crude, but they try. Little happy Young Pioneers on a tin bus. Its your banality-of-evil moment. An utterly evil system was staffed at one level by people who went to work in the morning and came home to kids at night; the cogs got to keep some of their humanity. Someone had to design the toys; someone had to get them made. The regime, at some level, realized that children need toy cars to push around the floor.
Some Nazi paper ephemera, which gave me the creeps; I didnt want to touch it. A case of Nazi medals and the like - same deal. But one item made my jaw hit the garage floor: an armband that said, in Polish, GHETTO POLICE. It had a blue Star of David on it. What do you do with such a thing? Where had it been? In whose drawer was it folded and saved, and who wore it in the first place? And what did he do, what did he see?
You didnt want to know what the man thought it should cost. Any price was too much and any price was too little.
Had lunch at a place I chose because it had a bathroom, and indeed it did, but the last time I saw bugs that size was when I watched Starship Troopers. Moved along. I was meeting both editor and agent at the Blind Tiger Ale House in the Village. Highly recommended. Floors from about 1917, if that late. Rough and dim. Unbelievable beers. My editor brought his little girl, who was at an age I hadnt experienced in some time; she was Gnat circa Jan 2002 - preverbal, but getting there; preliterate, but interested in books. Lovely little child. We hammered out some details, had a Branding Epiphany, drank beer, watched the game, talked and told tales. Just a spanking afternoon. Like the great Ah-Hah moment I had the other day when I came up with the next day, we accomplished something we couldnt have done on the phone, because three people making six calls over 2 weeks will never have the immediacy of the same three people sitting down in a dark bar and plotting the future. So we were all happy. Went to a naughty T-shirt store in the Village - which doesnt exactly narrow it down, I know - and laughed ourselves hoarse at the slogans. I bought a new prized object: an eight-inch Big Boy figurine. I know what youre thinking: its the Village; would you care to describe it? Its an eight-inch Big Boy figurine, thats all. Batteries not required. Jeez.
Walked with my editor a ways until he had to head towards home. Said goodbye and marched south, down to the hole in the sky.
Late Saturday afternoon, almost five. Hundreds of people looking up at nothing. Hundreds of people looking into the pit. Everyone had come to see what wasnt there.
Flowers stuck into the fence; journals and candles, gifts, votaries, offerings, messages. The daily crop, removed at dusk. To my surprise they didnt just throw up a fence, but put up a series of signs that explained the history of the site, back to the Hudson Terminal Towers and beyond. The historical plaques, the fence, the reactions of the visitors - it felt like a death camp site. If you had no idea what had happened here you would know almost at once that it this place had suffered a hideous calamity. It had an emptiness I cant describe, an emptiness made all the more obvious by all the congestion around the site. It was like entering a parlor whose walls and tables were filled with framed photos, and you notice that theres nothing on the mantelpiece.
One building had a gigantic mural devoted to hope and remembrance. Im sure its just an accident that this wretched culture of ours didnt put up something reminding us to smite the bearded foreigners and run their blood into the gutters. An oversight. Last minute mistake.
Walked around, up the walkway. You look down and see the new construction; you see the naked subterranean floors still exposed, still raw. Back down the stairs, and theres-a few square yards of painted wood, smothered with the words of the grieved, the widowed, the friends and neighbors and people who always bought smokes from that store in the concourse and only knew the woman behind the counter as Maria, and everyone else who probably brought a Sharpie intent on saying what they had to say, and so what if they paint it over, itll be there still. Something isnt gone just because its buried.
T-SHIRTS TWO DOLLA, TWO DOLLA, TWO DOLLA said the vendor near the bottom of the steps, and I felt like walking over and kicking him in the nuts. But. Well. No. I went south instead, and once I was half a block away I was suddenly in a different world. South of the WTC site is the Deutsche Bank building, now wrapped in black fabric, abandoned. There was no one here, and there were no sounds. Ive never ever been anywhere in Manhattan where it was this quiet. No horns, no voices, no car alarms, nothing. Absolute silence. The wind had picked up, and was rippling the shroud over the DB tower. All the ripples went up. It looked as if the building was still shedding souls, and they were running beneath the thin dark blanket, looking for the way out.
I paused at the plaza on Liberty, took a picture of the empty sky, and turned around -
And there were old friends. The Trinity Building. The Equitable Building, God bless its unlovable bulk. I walked around and saw the other giants of lower Manhattan - 40 Wall, Cities Service. The Woolworth building. One after the other - giant monoliths old and new, gargantuan towers assembled in the sky by human hands, each one just another piston stroke in the motor of American commerce. You cant begin to knock all these down. And if you managed to fell them all, youd have to head north and work on that Olympian lance on 34th, and if you brought that down - it would take you years to make your way ten blocks.
The men who brought down the towers did nothing more than take a hammer to the tooth of a sleeping lion. Oh, you can do that.
But you can only do it once.
Now the Long March Home, from the WTC site to Times Square. Its not that bad. At least I learned where the Duane Reade drugstore got its name: there are two consecutive streets named, well, Duane and Reade. Duh. (I thought it was spelled Duane Reede, which may explain this.Yikes.) You have your crosstown landmarks: Canal, Houston, 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd. Each has its own history for me; 14th in particular harks back to the 90s when my friend Wes taught at NYUs film school. We hung around this neighborhood a lot. There used to be a Crazy Eddies there . . . no more. Ah, the liquor store is still here. Ah, the magazine stand is gone. Ah, theres the restaurant where, in 1984, I saw a bird hanging from a streetlamp; it was still alive. I called animal control. They came out with a ladder and got it down. Can you imagine that? Fourth of July weekend, and the city sends out some guys to get a bird down. I wrote a letter to the Times about it; they ran it. Up to 23rd, where I have spent many many hours at the Toy Fair. (Located in the Toy Fair building, formerly the Fifth Street Office Building, which replaced the old Fifth Street Hotel, first hostel in the city with elevators.) By now its the magic hour, the time when the streetlights and shoplights come on just as the sun has conceded the day. North, north; now the calamity of 34th, with Broadway and 6th smashing into each other, untangling, staggering off again. Theres a bus trying to turn a corner.
And hes gotten stuck. He misjudged the turn, so he has to back up. Theres someone outside helping the driver. But no one seems to understand that honking their horn will not solve anything. Theres a Lexus SUV stuck directly behind the bus, and he lays on the horn and does not lay off. As if this helps. As if the driver will think oh, my, theyre quite upset with me - Id best pull the magic switch that shifts the bus into another dimension and let them all pass. By the time I get half a block down every single driver has decided to add to the joy, and theyre just stabbing this guy to death with their horns. Its this big nasty gang F-You! F-you! F-You! F-you, you Fin F! F-You! EFFFFFFFF-you! What the F! F-You!
42nd. North to get a cup of coffee at the deli on 46th - havent had a cup since the morning cup of immerser-assisted Folger, which is amazing; usually I require 293 cups a day. But one cup in the morning, beer in the afternoon, an 80 block walk? I ought to be dead. But I feel just glorious. I think this was the New York trip I wanted all those years I was a dorkboy in Fargo, reading ancient New Yorkers and wishing I could be a bitter alcoholic at the Algonquin. The trip I wanted when I first came out here to slide a manuscript across the table to an agent, the trip I wanted when I came here as a journalist covering a Big Event, the trip I wanted when I came here to shoot the jacket photos for my books, etc., etc. Those were all good. But to be honest: as fun as it was to shoot the photos in a funky loft, I knew the books probably wouldnt sell squat. Well, I finally have a book that sold squat-plus. (Double squatplus, actually: I learned how well its done this trip, and I was stunned. And I wanted to say - uh, fellas, how come you get to keep most of the money? But no.) And its helped to put me right where I want to be, which is sitting at a desk 40 floors over Times Square, smoking a nice cigar, enjoying a bourbon smoother than Robert Evans pickup lines, and grinning at myself in the mirror: how about that, it happened after all.
And for that I thank you - everyone who hit the site, bought the book, sent me stuff, wished me well. This website was the fuse that made all this stuff happen, and thats why I try to do this Bleat thing daily even when I am sick to F of writing at all. I owe you; simple as that.
If youre in New York, you can collect payment right now. Whenever Im in another town and I see my book, I hide a penny in it. I figure it will pique the interest of whoever picks it up and flips through, and theyll be disposed to like it it: hey, a penny! Whats up with that? And theyll wonder why theres a penny in the book. And maybe theyll buy it.
I put a penny in the Gallery of Regrettable Food at the Barnes and Noble in Rockefeller Center. If you find it, tell me. (Include the page number.)
Tomorrow I go back, and for the first time in years Im loathe to go. But Im packed; all I have to do is wake, shower, shovel the sink stuff into the bag, and Im gone. Walk to Penn Station, train to Newark, monorail to the terminal, plane to home. I am steeling myself for the possibility that my seatmates on the way out might be on the plane heading back. But thats what those airplane pillows are for: feigning sleep.
Or holding over the face of the person who just wont shut up.