Natterings
The Pulitzer

Sunday, August 30, 1987

CAN NEW YORK SAVE ITSELF ?
DAVE
BARRY 

 

Here at The Miami Herald we ordinarily don't provide extensive coverage of New York City unless a major news development occurs up there, such as Sean Penn coming out of a restaurant. But lately we have become very concerned about the "Big Apple," because of a story about Miami that ran a few weeks ago in the Sunday magazine of The New York Times. Maybe you remember this story: The cover featured an upbeat photograph of suspected Miami drug dealers being handcuffed face-down in the barren dirt next to a garbage-strewed sidewalk outside a squalid shack that probably contains roaches the size of Volvo sedans. The headline asked:

CAN MIAMI SAVE ITSELF?

For those readers too stupid to figure out the answer, there also was this helpful hint:

A City Beset by Drugs and Violence

The overall impression created by the cover was: Sure Miami can save itself! And some day trained sheep will pilot the Concorde!

The story itself was more balanced, discussing the pluses as well as the minuses of life in South Florida, as follows:

* MINUSES: The area is rampant with violent crime and poverty and political extremism and drugs and corruption and ethnic hatred.

* PLUSES: Voodoo is legal.

I myself thought it was pretty fair. Our local civic leaders reacted to it with their usual level of cool maturity, similar to the way Moe reacts when he is poked in the eyeballs by Larry and Curly. Our leaders held emergency breakfasts and issued official statements pointing out that much of the information in The Times story was Ancient History dating all the way back to the early 1980s, and that we haven't had a riot for, what, months now, and that the whole drugs-and-violence thing is overrated. Meanwhile, at newsstands all over South Florida, crowds of people were snapping up all available copies of The Sunday Times, frequently at gunpoint.

All of which got us, at The Herald, to thinking. "Gosh," we thought. "Here the world-famous New York Times, with so many other things to worry about, has gone to all this trouble to try to find out whether Miami can save itself. Wouldn't they be thrilled if we did the same thing for them?" And so it was that we decided to send a crack investigative team consisting of me and Chuck, who is a trained photographer, up there for a couple of days to see what the situation was. We took along comfortable walking shoes and plenty of major credit cards, in case it turned out that we needed to rent a helicopter, which it turned out we did. Here is our report:

DAY ONE

We're riding in a cab from La Guardia Airport to our Manhattan hotel, and I want to interview the driver, because this is how we professional journalists take the Pulse of a City, only I can't, because he doesn't speak English. He is not allowed to, under the rules, which are posted right on the seat:

NEW YORK TAXI RULES

1. DRIVER SPEAKS NO ENGLISH.

2. DRIVER JUST GOT HERE TWO DAYS AGO FROM SOMEPLACE LIKE SENEGAL.

3. DRIVER HATES YOU.

Which is just as well, because if he talked to me, he might lose his concentration, which would be very bad because the taxi has some kind of problem with the steering, probably dead pedestrians lodged in the mechanism, the result being that there is a delay of eight to 10 seconds between the time the driver turns the wheel and the time the taxi actually changes direction, a handicap that the driver is compensating for by going 175 miles per hour, at which velocity we are able to remain airborne almost to the far rim of some of the smaller potholes. These are of course maintained by the crack New York Department of Potholes (currently on strike), whose commissioner was recently indicted on corruption charges by the Federal Grand Jury to Indict Every Commissioner in New York. This will take some time, because New York has more commissioners than Des Moines, Iowa, has residents, including the Commissioner for Making Sure the Sidewalks Are Always Blocked By Steaming Fetid Mounds of Garbage the Size of Appalachian Foothills, and, of course, the Commissioner for Bicycle Messengers Bearing Down on You at Warp Speed with Mohawk Haircuts and Pupils Smaller Than Purely Theoretical Particles.

After several exhilarating minutes, we arrive in downtown Manhattan, where the driver slows to 125 miles so he can take better aim at wheelchair occupants. This gives us our first brief glimpse of the city we have come to investigate. It looks to us, whizzing past, as though it is beset by serious problems. We are reminded of the findings of the 40-member Mayor's Special
Commission on the Future of the City of New York, which this past June, after nearly two years of intensive study of the economic, political and social problems confronting the city, issued a 2,300-page report, which reached the disturbing conclusion that New York is "a nice place to visit" but the
commission "wouldn't want to live there."

Of course they probably stayed at a nicer hotel than where we're staying. We're staying at a "medium priced" hotel, meaning that the rooms are more than spacious enough for a family of four to stand up in if they are slightly built and hold their arms over their heads, yet the rate is just $135 per night, plus of course your state tax, your city tax, your occupancy tax, your head tax, your body tax, your soap tax, your ice bucket tax, your in-room dirty movies tax and your piece of paper that says your toilet is sanitized for your protection tax, which bring the rate to $367.90 per night, or a flat $4,000 if you use the telephone. A bellperson carries my luggage -- one small gym- style bag containing, primarily, a set of clean underwear -- and I tip him $2, which he takes as if I am handing him a jar of warm sputum.

***

But never mind. We are not here to please the bellperson. We are here to see if New York can save itself. And so Chuck and I set off into the streets of Manhattan, where we immediately detect signs of a healthy economy in the form of people squatting on the sidewalk selling realistic jewelry. This is good, because a number of other businesses, such as Mobil Corp., have recently decided to pull their headquarters out of New York, much to the annoyance of Edward Koch, the feisty, cocky, outspoken, abrasive mayor who really gets on some people's nerves, yet at the same time strikes other people as a jerk. "Why would anybody want to move to some dirt-bag place like the Midwest?" Mayor Koch is always asking reporters. "What are they gonna do at night? Huh? Milk the cows? Are they gonna wear bib overalls and sit around canning their preserves? Huh? Are they gonna . . . Hey! Come back here!"

But why are the corporations leaving? To answer this question, a polling firm recently took a scientific telephone survey of the heads of New York's 200 largest corporations, and found that none of them were expected to arrive at work for at least two more hours because of massive transit delays caused by a wildcat strike of the 1,200-member Wildcat Strikers Guild. So you can see the corporations' point: It is an inconvenience, being located in a city where taxes are ludicrously high, where you pay twice your annual income to rent an apartment that could easily be carried on a commercial airline flight, where you spend two-thirds of your work day trying to get to and from work, but as Mayor Koch philosophically points out, "Are they gonna slop the hogs? Are they gonna . . . "

Despite the corporate exodus, the New York economy continues to be robust, with the major industry being people from New Jersey paying $45 each to see A Chorus Line. Employment remains high, with most of the new jobs opening up in the fast- growing fields of:

* Person asking everybody for "spare" change.

* Person shrieking at taxis.

* Person holding animated sidewalk conversation with beings from another dimension.

* Person handing out little slips of paper entitling the bearer to one free drink at sophisticated nightclubs with names like The Bazoom Room.

As Chuck and I walk along 42nd Street, we see a person wearing an enormous frankfurter costume, handing out coupons good for discounts at Nathan's Famous hot dog stands. His name is Victor Leise, age 19, of Queens, and he has held the position of giant frankfurter for four months. He says he didn't have any connections or anything; he just put in an application and, boom, the job was his. Sheer luck. He says it's OK work, although people call him "Frank" and sometimes sneak up and whack him on the back. Also there is not a lot of room for advancement. They have no hamburger costume.

"Can New York save itself ?" I ask him.

"If there are more cops on the streets, there could be a possibility," he says, through his breathing hole.

Right down the street is the world-famous Times Square. Although this area is best known as the site where many thousands of people gather each New Year's Eve for a joyous and festive night of public urination, it also serves as an important cultural center where patrons may view films such as Sex Aliens, Wet Adulteress and, of course, Sperm Busters in comfortable refrigerated theaters where everybody sits about 15 feet apart. This is also an excellent place to shop for your leisure product needs, including The Bionic Woman ("An amazingly lifelike companion") and a vast selection of latex objects, some the size of military pontoons. The local residents are very friendly, often coming right up and offering to engage in acts of leisure with you. Reluctantly, however, Chuck and I decide to tear ourselves away, for we have much more to see, plus we do not wish to spend the rest of our lives soaking in vats of penicillin.

As we leave the area, I stop briefly inside an Off-Track Betting parlor on Seventh Avenue to see if I can obtain the Pulse of the City by eavesdropping on native New Yorkers in casual conversation. Off-Track Betting parlors are the kinds of places where you never see signs that say, "Thank You For Not Smoking." The best you could hope for is, "Thank You For Not Spitting Pieces Of Your Cigar On My Neck." By listening carefully and remaining unobtrusive, I am able to overhear the following conversation:

FIRST OFF-TRACK BETTOR: I like this (very bad word) horse here.

SECOND OFF-TRACK BETTOR: That (extremely bad word) couldn't (bad word) out his own (comical new bad word).

FIRST OFF-TRACK BETTOR: (Bad word).

Listening to these two men share their innermost feelings, I sense concern, yes, but also an undercurrent of hope, hope for a Brighter Tomorrow, if only the people of this great city can learn to work together, to look upon each other with respect and even, yes, love. Or at least stop shoving one another in front of moving subway trains. This happens a fair amount in New York, so Chuck and I are extremely alert as we descend into the complex of subway tunnels under Times Square, climate-controlled year-round at a comfortable 172 degrees Fahrenheit.

Athough it was constructed in 1536, the New York subway system boasts an annual maintenance budget of nearly $8, currently stolen, and it does a remarkable job of getting New Yorkers from Point A to an indeterminate location somewhere in the tunnel leading to Point B. It's also very easy for the "out- of-towner" to use, thanks to the logical, easy-to-understand system of naming trains after famous letters and numbers. For directions, all you have to do is peer up through the steaming gloom at the informative signs, which look like this:

A 5 N 7 8 C 6 AA MID-DOWNTOWN 7 3/8

EXPRESS LOCAL ONLY LL 67*

DDD 4* 1 K * AAAA 9 ONLY

EXCEPT CERTAIN DAYS BB ** 3

MIDWAY THROUGH TOWN 1 7 D

WALK REAL FAST AAAAAAAAA 56

LOCALIZED EXPRESS -6

"YY" * 1,539

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

If for some reason you are unsure where to go, all you have to do is stand there looking lost, and within seconds a helpful New Yorker will approach to see if you have any "spare" change.

Within less than an hour, Chuck and I easily locate what could well be the correct platform, where we pass the time by perspiring freely until the train storms in, colorfully decorated, as is the tradition in New York, with the spray- painted initials of all the people it has run over. All aboard!

Here is the correct procedure for getting on a New York subway train at rush hour:

1. As the train stops, you must join the other people in the platform in pushing forward and forming the densest possible knot in front of each door. You want your knot to be so dense that, if the train were filled with water instead of people, not a single drop would escape.

2. The instant the doors open, you want to push forward as hard as possible, in an effort to get onto the train without letting anybody get off. This is very important. If anybody does get off, it is legal to tackle him and drag him back on. I once watched three German tourists -- this is a true anecdote -- attempt to get off the northbound No. 5 Lexington Avenue IRT train at Grand Central Station during rush hour. "Getting off please!" they said, politely, from somewhere inside a car containing approximately the population of Brazil, as if they expected people to actually let them through. Instead, of course, the incoming passengers propelled the Germans, like gnats in a hurricane, away from the door, deeper and deeper into the crowd, which quickly compressed them into dense little wads of Teutonic tissue. I never did see where they actually got off. Probably they stumbled to daylight somewhere in the South Bronx, where they were sold for parts.

Actually, though, there is reason to believe the subways are safer now. After years of being fearful and intimidated, many New Yorkers cheered in 1985 when Bernhard Goetz, in a highly controversial incident that touched off an emotion- charged nationwide debate, shot and killed the New York subway commissioner. This resulted in extensive legal proceedings, culminating recently when, after a dramatic and highly publicized trial, a jury voted not only to acquit Goetz, but also to dig up the commissioner and shoot him again.

***

Chuck and I emerge from the subway in Lower Manhattan. This area has been hard hit by the massive wave of immigration that has threatened to rend the very fabric of society, as the city struggles desperately to cope with the social upheaval caused by the huge and unprecedented influx of a group that has, for better or for worse, permanently altered the nature of New York: young urban professionals. They began arriving by the thousands in the 1970s, packed two and sometimes three per BMW sedan, severely straining the city's already-overcrowded gourmet-ice cream facilities. Soon they were taking over entire neighborhoods, where longtime residents watched in despair as useful businesses such as bars were replaced by precious little restaurants with names like The Whittling Fig.

And still the urban professionals continue to come, drawn by a dream, a dream that is best expressed by the words of the song New York, New York, which goes:

Dum dum da de dum

Dum dum da de dum

Dum dum da de dum

Dum dum da de dum dum.

It is a powerfully seductive message, especially if you hear it at a wedding reception held in a Scranton, Pa., Moose Lodge facility and you have been drinking. And so you come to the Big Apple, and you take a peon-level position in some huge impersonal corporation, an incredibly awful, hateful job, and you spend $1,250 a month to rent an apartment so tiny that you have to shower in the kitchen, and the only furniture you have room for -- not that you can afford furniture anyway -- is your collection of back issues of Metropolitan Home magazine, but you stick it out, because this is the Big Leagues (If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere), and you know that if you show them what you can do, if you really go for it, then, by gosh, one day you're gonna wake up, in The City That Never Sleeps, to find that the corporation has moved its headquarters to Plano, Texas.

Now Chuck and I are in Chinatown. We pass an outdoor market where there is an attractive display consisting of a tub containing I would estimate 275,000 dead baby eels. One of the great things about New York is that, if you ever need dead baby eels, you can get them. Also there is opera here. But tonight I think I'll just try to get some sleep.

At 3:14 a.m. I am awakened by a loud crashing sound, caused by workers from the city's crack Department of Making Loud Crashing Sounds During the Night, who are just outside my window, breaking in a new taxicab by dropping it repeatedly from a 75-foot crane. Lying in bed listening to them, I can hardly wait for . . .

DAY TWO

Chuck and I decide that since we pretty much covered the economic, social, political, historical and cultural aspects of New York on Day One, we'll devote Day Two to sightseeing. We decide to start with the best-known sight of all, the one that, more than any other, exemplifies what the Big Apple is all about: the Islip Garbage Barge. This is a barge of world- reknowned garbage that originated on Long Island, a place where many New Yorkers go to sleep on those occasions when the Long Island Railroad is operating.

The Islip Garbage Barge is very famous. Nobody really remembers why it's famous; it just is, like Dick Cavett. It has traveled to South America. It has been on many television shows, including -- I am not making this up -- Phil Donahue. When we were in New York, the barge -- I am still not making this up -- was on trial. It has since been convicted and sentenced to be burned. But I am not worried. It will get out on appeal. It is the Claus Von Bulow of garbage barges.

Chuck and I find out from the Director of Public Affairs at the New York Department of Sanitation, who is named Vito, that the barge is anchored off the coast of Brooklyn, so we grab a cab, which is driven by a man who of course speaks very little English and, as far as we can tell, has never heard of Brooklyn. By means of hand signals we direct him to a place near where the barge is anchored. It is some kind of garbage-collection point.

There are mounds of garbage everywhere, and if you really concentrate, you can actually see them giving off smell rays, such as you see in comic strips. Clearly no taxi has ever been here before, and none will ever come again, so we ask the driver to wait. "YOU WAIT HERE," I say, speaking in capital letters so he will understand me. He looks at me suspiciously. "WE JUST WANT TO SEE A GARBAGE BARGE," I explain.

We can see the barge way out on the water, but Chuck decides that, to get a good picture of it, we need a boat. A sanitation engineer tells us we might be able to rent one in a place called Sheepshead Bay, so we direct the driver there ("WE NEED TO RENT A BOAT"), but when we get there we realize it's too far away, so we naturally decide to rent a helicopter, which we find out is available only in New Jersey. ("NOW WE NEED TO GO TO NEW JERSEY. TO RENT A HELICOPTER".) Thus we end up at the airport in Linden, N.J., where we leave the taxi driver with enough fare money to retire for life, if he ever finds his way home.

Chuck puts the helicopter on his American Express card. Our pilot, Norman Knodt, assures me that nothing bad has ever happened to him in a helicopter excepting getting it shot up nine times, but that was in Vietnam, and he foresees no problems with the garbage-barge mission. Soon we are over the harbor, circling the barge, which turns out to be, like so many celebrities when you see them up close, not as tall as you expected. As I gaze down at it, with the soaring spires of downtown Manhattan in the background gleaming in the brilliant sky, a thought crosses my mind: I had better write at least 10 inches about this, to justify our expense reports.

***

Later that day, I stop outside Grand Central Station, where a woman is sitting in a chair on the sidewalk next to a sign that says:

Tarot Cards

Palm Reading

I ask her how much it costs for a Tarot card reading, and she says $10, which I give her. She has me select nine cards, which she arranges in a circle. "Now ask me a question," she says.

"Can New York save itself?" I ask.

She looks at me.

"That's your question?" she asks.

"Yes," I say.

"OK," she says. She looks at the cards. "Yes, New York can save itself for the future."

She looks at me. I don't say anything. She looks back at the cards.

"New York is the Big Apple," she announces. "It is big and exciting, with very many things to see and do."

After the reading I stop at a newsstand and pick up a copy of Manhattan Living magazine, featuring a guide to condominiums. I note that there are a number of one-bedrooms priced as low as $250,000.

Manhattan Living also has articles. "It is only recently," one begins, "that the word 'fashionable' has been used in conjunction with the bathroom."

DAY THREE

Just to be on the safe side, Chuck and I decide to devote Day Three to getting back to the airport. Because of a slip-up at the Department of Taxi Licensing, our driver speaks a fair amount of English. And it's a darned good thing he does, because he is kind enough to share his philosophy of life with us, in between shouting helpful instructions to other drivers. It is a philosophy of optimism and hope, not just for himself, but also for New York City, and for the world:

"The thing is, you got to look on the lighter side, because HEY WHAT THE HELL IS HE DOING! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU (very bad word)! Because for me, the thing is, respect. If a person shows me respect, then HAH! YOU WANT TO SQUEEZE IN FRONT NOW?? YOU S.O.B.!! I SQUEEZE YOU LIKE A LEMON!! So I am happy here, but you Americans, you know, you are very, you know WHERE IS HE GOING?? You have to look behind the scenery. This damn CIA, something sticky is going on WHERE THE HELL IS THIS STUPID S.O.B. THINK HE IS GOING??? behind the scenery there, you don't think this guy, what his name, Casey, you don't LOOK AT THIS S.O.B. you don't wonder why he really die? You got to look behind the scenery. I don't trust nobody. I don't trust my own self. WILL YOU LOOK AT . . . "

By the time we reach La Guardia, Chuck and I have a much deeper understanding of life in general, and it is with a sense of real gratitude that we leap out of the cab and cling to the pavement. Soon we are winging our way southward, watching the Manhattan skyline disappear, reflecting upon our many experiences and pondering the question that brought us here:

Can New York save itself? Can this ultra-metropolis -- crude yet sophisticated, overburdened yet wealthy, loud yet obnoxious -- can this city face up to the multitude of problems besetting it and, drawing upon its vast reserves of spunk and spirit, as it has done so many times before, emerge triumphant?

And, who cares?

 

1987 Dave Barry The copyright laws of the United States prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material.

 

 

PITHY INTO THE WIND
A BOLDFACED LIE
LOST IN AMERICA

 

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