The Visitors from Philadelphia



90 W 27th St, NY, NY 10001

Neighborhood: Chelsea

I am not from New York, nor have I ever lived there; the result, mostly, of not being a multimillionaire, nor having friends who are multimillionaires.

I was living in Philadelphia, New York’s embarrassingly second rate little brother, and had traveled up to “da big city” for the day with my girlfriend, to peruse potential art galleries for her paintings and to soak in the bracing atmosphere of history’s greatest city in the world.

Being from Philly, we were properly intimidated. Getting off at Penn Station, we were careful to appear to know what we were doing, and I slinked up to the info booth as unobtrusively as possible, to get a map, hating that I was aligned in my map needs with the Japanese tourists weighed down by gigantic cameras, the pasty Midwest seekers wondering where to go first: the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. I was grateful for the kind smile of the young, hip map distributor – I imagined her smile said “it’s OK; even though you’re not from here I realize that you too are young, hip and urban, even though your urbanity is extracted from a far inferior city than mine…”

We went out into the pressure cooker of New York In August. Taxis everywhere. Beautiful people. Ugly people. I was glad to see so many ugly people. Based on TV shows and movies, one would think all New Yorkers – except perhaps those in law enforcement – are potential supermodels or talk show hosts.

We strolled. Rather, we walked, purposefully, hiding our map as best we could, glancing up at street signs as surreptitiously as possible. I thought, as most tourists do, that I would spot a famous person at any minute. I kept an eye out for Woody Allen’s fishing hat; Madonna jogging by with a phalanx of no-necked bodyguards; some lesser famous person from some soon-to-be-canceled TV sitcom, eating sushi and talking on her cell phone. As we went farther down into the bowels of the island along Broadway, and crossed over Houston, I felt I was entering the New York I cared about most. The gritty New York, the authentic New York, the New York of Jack Kerouac, Iggy Pop and pre-70’s Warhol. I was pleased to see that, even in the middle of the incredible economic boom, there were abandoned vans covered with graffiti, poor-looking eccentrics with hair reminiscent of “Seinfeld’s” Kramer, crushed coffee cups from Dunkin Donuts along the curb like sad urban flowers. In short – there was a New York that still existed beyond what the media shows you.

We passed by street vendors selling rows and rows of trendy sunglasses, Rastafarians burning incense and selling mixed tapes wrapped in de rigueur yellow red and green cases, teenage girls chatting on candy-colored cell phones, wearing halter tops that could make perverts of us all. We marveled at all the stores selling incredibly zippy shoes; we looked around at the materialistic bounty of Canal Street and suddenly wanted twenty things we had no thoughts about a half hour before. I felt drab and outdated in my tight white t-shirt and khaki pants, a creature about to be made extinct by kids with blue hair and yellow-tinted sunglasses resembling sleek ski goggles. We ducked onto a quieter street. We went into art galleries, feeling grateful every time the aesthetic merchants were kind to us, treated us like real potential buyers or artists. Despite my plain t-shirt, I realized they had no preconceptions of my wealth, or lack thereof – If you are in New York, and not obviously a tourist, or crazy, it is assumed you have ready cash. We gazed at walls and walls of realism and abstraction, of “found” art and post abstraction, of art that would probably be forgotten and art that was bound for museums.

We continued our tour of Southern Manhattan: we bought Lower East Side t-shirts; we ate bad Chinese food at a serve yourself deli; we sat in Washington Square Park and watched two young black men do back flips before a large, random audience, and stuffed a dollar bill into their upturned Yankees hat.

It was getting late. We were exhausted from the heat, the crowds, the incredible first-rate LARGENESS of it all. We turned in the direction of Penn Station, back towards Penn Station, and the anticlimax of our own city.

On our walk uptown, at 27th street and the Avenue of the America’s, a fashion shoot was taking place. Women in shining cat suits and heels that could, placed correctly, kill someone, were performing their own subtle slow motion dances before the indifferent eye of the phallic-lensed whirring camera. A small audience had gathered, and even my girlfriend, a relentlessly jealous type, stopped and watched, silent, holding my hand, at the spectacle of God’s most polished handiwork before us. As we descended into the train station, later, it was hard not to feel we were leaving some sort of mad, imperfect heaven, and traveling two hours back to the greyer confines of purgatory.

August, 1999

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