Five thoughts on New York

Five thoughts on New York

This week I was the beneficiary of another grand out-of-town adventure, courtesy of my consultant work, which continues to feel like an unaccountable dream. This time it was New York, where I was invited to speak to a group of about 100 sales and services people. I was the guest presenter at their fiscal year kickoff and planning meeting, with attendees traveling to the city from all over the place. The bagels were heavenly.

Talking to sales people about storytelling is one of those "coals to Newcastle" exercises. These are the extroverts, the life-of-the-party people, folks for whom spinning a good yarn is as natural as Steve Ballmer screaming like a madman. Stepping into someone else's wheelhouse with the proposition that you're going to make them better at it appears illogical, and the first time I did it at Microsoft I worried that I'd be exposed as some sort of fraud. But I discovered then, and every time since, that it's more akin to tossing dry logs into a hot stove. Showing people *why* it works and how - well, that's just pure fun.

Most of the weekend was pure fun, and especially because I was able to bring Eve along. This was what had been missing from my Paris trip the month before, and it certainly made the experience better. We left Seattle at stupid o'clock Friday morning, suffering all the way to JFK, but were happy once we arrived at our hotel - a cool little Midtown place called the Even ("What an odd name," Eve said) on E 44th.

Eating and walking dominated our time in the city. We had memorable meals in the Flatiron district, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, on a sidewalk in the Upper West Side, on Park Avenue, and in stops along the way. We were reminded once again of just how huge the blocks are in Manhattan, how long the walks can be, and how slowly a taxi can move. We talked to everyone we could, from the courtly gentleman who owed his own men's clothing shop (called Frank Stella, a pun of an artist's name which Eve could not forgive) near the Dakota, to the professional servers who brought us our food, to the bartender who challenged me to guess his nation of origin, and nearly fainted in surprise when I replied, "I'm going to say Egypt."

 Yes, pay phones. 

Yes, pay phones. 

In all, quite memorable. Here are five points that stuck with me this time:

1) New York food is serious business

Dine at a few of the higher-end restaurants in New York, and just try to imagine what it takes to pull it all off. Your head spins. Think first of the mind-boggling constellation of physical elements required at minimum: the tables and rooms set up and gleaming, the kitchen humming in precise measures of hot and cold, the bathrooms well-scrubbed, the air properly conditioned, the vermin held at bay. And then, the dizzying logistics behind each menu item (how do you get the perfect fresh diver scallop into the heart of the Flatiron district every night?).

The real clincher is the people who make it work: the managers, the dishwashers, the buyers, the busers, the service people. And, most visibly, the chefs and the servers. In much of the world, these latter roles are considered transitory; means unto more desirable ends in life. Certainly, Anthony Bourdain shined a memorable light onto the shadow sides of the New York culinary world. But here, at the upper echelons, food is a fully honorable profession, just as it is in Paris. You meet servers for whom their jobs are their passions and careers. There's status, competition, pride. And this makes dining in the city an experience unlike almost anywhere else in America. (The one great exception, as always of course, is coffee. Want a Seattle-quality latte? Fuggedaboutit!)

My winner for the best on all fronts this time around: the Union Square Café.

2) New York conditions are concrete and cold

What struck me on this visit to the city, which I'd somehow never quite registered as much before, is how utterly bereft of organic life Manhattan truly is. The experience is largely wall-to-wall cement and glass and steel. To be sure, amazing things are done within those walls. In many realms of business, art, and commerce, things are done better here than most anywhere in the world. But the vibrancy of other beautiful living things -- say, trees, plants, and blades of grass -- is either non-existent or sheltered away.

I noticed this in stark contrast to my recent visit to Paris. Comparisons between the two cities are dicey at best, but there's no doubt that the City of Light was designed with an eye to beauty and natural integration that was simply never intended in the Big Apple. New York delegates its places of nature into very carefully delineated plots: the parks (many of them lovely beyond measure) which are overflowing with people and sport and music. It's only there that you see the rare bird or daredevil squirrel. Step across the street, though, and it’s all grit, glass, and unforgiving pavement. Again.

 Baseball happens, occasionally. It's rare, it's scheduled, and it's awesome.

Baseball happens, occasionally. It's rare, it's scheduled, and it's awesome.

3) New York people are weathered

In observing the granite faces of people in every corner of the city we visited, I had the notion that New York years are like dog years. Just one of them here is worth seven anywhere else. No surprise, when you think of it. It's not just that the physical conditions are so fully adamantine, it's that the lifestyle they impose is so inevitably taxing. In New York, it's harder to go. Anywhere. Here, every day, you're going to walk, and walk a lot, no matter the weather. It's harder to get to work. Harder to go have fun. Harder to buy a gallon of milk. Harder to make it home. Harder to make the rent. Damn harder.

 Screens make for a good defense.

Screens make for a good defense.

Watching even the most beautiful people on the streets, I was struck by how weary and wary most of them appeared. Unlike Paris, which seems to offer a sort of cultural shelter that leaves many souls unharried, the people of New York appear universally haggard. Which is not to say that they're unhappy. There's an underlying joy, a kind of cynical, super-quick passion that waits to spring out if you invite it. People put their guards up by default, but they love to spar. Step into the ring, and you're in for a rumble.

Walking down the street fairs and flea markets of the Avenue of the Americas on Saturday afternoon, I spotted a young Italian-looking girl sitting by a table with a sign that read, "Palm Readings." I figured, if you're going to get your palm read anywhere in your life, it's probably never going to be more memorable than on Sixth Avenue on a summery day. So I asked what the deal was, and the girl pointed me back to the Fortune Teller: a large, middle-aged woman in a sleeveless blouse, sweating profusely on a straining lawn chair in the shade. She weighed a good two hundred and fifty pounds, and her accent suggested Staten Island. Maybe the Bronx. Not an uptown girl. And certainly no gypsy.

I asked the price and the fortune teller said twenty-five dollars. ("I see a blank space in your wallet.") I said I didn't have twenty-five dollars, so she said twenty. Deal. I handed over the cash and sat down. She did not look at my palm. From what I could gather, she'd read a book with a title along the lines of "Ten things to say that make you sound like a fortune teller." She asked me what I did. I told her, and she reported that I was a hard worker. She asked about my family, then she observed, "You've lost someone important to you and it's still bothering you." I'm not sure her heart was really in it. She inquired about what I was working on next, and I told her I was hoping to write a book. "You'll write it," she said, "And it will become a bestseller." There wasn't much else to discuss. We started talking about steakhouses and she'd had enough. She looked at Eve, standing beside me, and said," You want a reading?" I asked if it came with mine, and she looked surprised. "No. Twenty bucks." We went on our way.

4) New York is for the rich

Ronald Reagan had a dream. Get yourself rich, ungodly rich, however you gotta do it, and the nation and its laws and its servants will exist above all to protect and preserve your rarefied status. The rest of you, thanks for the cash and best of luck. No where has that dream come true more than New York.

There are multiple New Yorks, of course. There's the New York of the striving professional, clawing for the brass ring like the proverbial tree straining for the sky in Brooklyn. Middle class America, slowly shrinking. There's the New York of the working stiff, wearing a hard hat, a uniform, an apron, or an orange vest. There's theater New York, music New York, media New York, art New York. There's black New York, Jewish New York, Italian New York, Hispanic New York, Russian New York. There's Asian New York, gay New York, immigrant New York, homeless New York. And then there's rich New York.

 You'll never be welcome here. 

You'll never be welcome here. 

This is the playground of the one tenth of the one percent. Arrive here with nine or ten digits of wealth, and I can imagine that it'd be pretty damn sweet.

Like many other things, the privilege of the rich is not screamingly evident when you cruise the streets of Manhattan. Unless you look up, to the very tops of the penthouses. It's there you see rare swaths of green: gardens and trees cloistered five hundred feet up in the sky. There's a lush, two-acre park in Gramercy reserved exclusively for the local elite, who (after being approved) pay $7,500 a year for the privilege of holding a key. They let you look through the bushes. Peek along the alleys of the wealthy neighborhoods, and you see the doormen and the private gates. But it's likely that nobody beyond the rich themselves can know the true experience, the separate rules and special exemptions reserved exclusively to comfort the vastly comfortable. If the truth were fully visible, it's not hard to imagine riots on the streets.

5) New York is haunted

On Sunday, the weather turned cool and moody. We started walking downtown, but a nagging foot strain finally caught up with me around Washington Square Park, so we hopped in a cab and rode down to the new World Trade Center tower. I'm not sure what I was expecting.

I had visited ground zero back in 2003, two years after the terrorist attacks, and they'd just finished clearing out the site where the towers had fallen. There was no more wreckage or debris, just fences and a huge empty space in the sky. People had pinned memorials all along the fences, faces of the missing, and almost no one spoke in anything more than a whisper. Myself, I couldn't generate words. I was with some coworkers from Microsoft, and I simply stood and gaped. I had to jump in a taxi and get away after about 30 minutes.

Since then, they'd built the One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the city, and a new 9/11 memorial park. Somehow, I had forgotten to remember what exactly the memorial consisted of. Looking at a map, I saw the words "Reflecting Pools," and I recalled that they'd built water structures within the footprints of the two ghost towers. That was correct insofar as far as words were concerned, but nothing could have prepared me for the experience of stepping into that space.

The memorial is simple and brutally evocative. There are two pools, about 200 feet apart. You stand beside a great, yawning emptiness -- nearly the complete one-acre expanse of the original foundation -- and water falls gently down dark walls and into a pool far below. In the center of that pool is another, smaller black hole, the bottom of which is unseeable, the water descending into its depths. On the bronze parapets surrounding the two pools are inscribed the names of the 2,983 people murdered in the attacks. They announce themselves quietly to you as you stand there, telling you that they were once regular people, just like you, who got up and went to work one late summer's day, just like always. The water moans through the expanse, like a choir of weeping angels, endless and inconsolable.

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I stumbled onto this, quite unaware. And for a long time I could do nothing but try to fight back tears, which threatened to erupt in a molten flow from some sunken core of sorrow. I gulped my breath, tried to remind myself of the physical reality of my space and surroundings. Beside me, a family of tourists posed for a selfie, smiling like idiots, and that gave me a foothold. I realized that, to some people, this is just an attraction, a kind of Disney sad-house. Indeed, just a quarter mile up the hill is a ridiculous place called "Eataly," which professes to be a "large format Italian marketplace," replete with groceries, restaurants, and retail shopping. We wandered up there eventually, in search of a diversion from the pain, and I wondered how it was that I was the only person who seemed appalled that the floor-to-ceiling window in the room reserved for cooking classes looked directly out over the reflecting pool. Is there a cooking party happening next door to Buchenwald? Are idiots snapping selfies before the gates of Auschwitz?

Maybe so. Maybe that's what it takes, just to deal with the darkest of human truths. I know that dealing was hard for me. For the rest of the day, indeed for days afterward, I worked to pull myself out from under the gray clouds of that afternoon. And this is not to say that the experience was negative. Just that it was big. Just that it was New York.

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