Sunday, August 30, 1987
CAN NEW YORK SAVE ITSELF
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,
* 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
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:
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
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
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
* 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.
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
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
A 5 N 7 8 C 6 AA MID-DOWNTOWN
EXPRESS LOCAL ONLY
DDD 4* 1 K * AAAA
DAYS BB ** 3
MIDWAY THROUGH TOWN 1 7 D
WALK REAL FAST AAAAAAAAA
"YY" * 1,539
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 . . .
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
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:
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?"
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."
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?