You know you’re in Manhattan when someone who looks like a harassed, overweight father-of-three knocks you aside as you ascend onto the Avenue of Americas from the subway station below.
I had been attempting to make conversation with the besuited businessman, as he barked numbers into a cellphone and barged through the crowds of human traffic. We were on 40th Street and 6th Avenue, a busy crucible of stressed-out Fed-Ex personnel, slovenly construction workers in Timberland boots, and coffee-clutching power-suited commutati who use the word “Hamptons” without sneering. “Could you tell me where the nearest record store is?” I asked, as he walked away. “Or, like, a place to get drip coffee?” But he was gone, the scent of Old Spice still lingering in the cinerous morning sunshine.
O, city center! How best to navigate your overstocked sidewalks and honking lanes of chrome machinery? You can swim upwards like a salmon in a stream, hoping not to be grasped by one of the brown bears at every corner. Or you can sink like a sea-monkey, performing your own brand of cryptobiosis for an audience of none.
But maybe there’s another way — which is why, in the time-honored way of lazy journalists everywhere, I dressed in a fucking suit for a day to educate myself about Manhattan’s rich, overfed, depressed bourgeoisie. Manhattan is now a byword for a wealthy wonderland of tourist kitsch, where out-of-towners press their faces against tour bus windows to get a glimpse of the locals’ decadent Sex in the City lifestyles. In Brooklyn, however, it is little more than the name of a drink.
Given how strange it is to live across the river from a place that is no longer a cultural reference point and can’t quite get over that fact, I decided to embed myself among the frathouse powerbros of Murray Hill, the disillusioned thirtysomething professional women of the West Village, and the God-fearing immigrants who I can only assume live in hostels and crack-dens across the city, to see what their slow, lingering retreat from cultural relevance could teach me and my Brooklyn compadres.
First I needed to outfit myself. Bergdorf and Goodman was too crowded, and so was Saks Fifth Avenue. I shoved through the crowds of tourists at Prince Street to find some overpriced art gallery masquerading as a clothing store. A bored-looking Italian salesman hustled me into buying a suit for $1,400. While waiting at the cash register, I picked up a pastel-colored tie from a basket. “Are these factory made?” I asked. “Straight from Bangladesh!” said the salesman. I tossed them in the plastic bag, and he rang up the $199 sale, smiling like a factory owner plastering over the splintering lines in his basement ceiling.
Then, I shaved myself in a McDonalds bathroom with an electric razor bought on the Bowery.
Next, I realized that to get the true Manhattan experience I would need to hire a cab. A frazzled-looking young gentleman preaching the gospel at West 4th Street station told me all the cabs had bedbugs, and were controlled by an army of lizard men who lived in the moon. Nevertheless I stuck my hand out in the fashionable Manhattan manner, and was soon being driven uptown in my own private automobile. “Driver, your clock is going awfully fast,” I said. “And the time appears to be 11.45, not 13.75.” Once I learned these digits represented the price of my journey, I decided to walk the rest of the way. Whatever bearded bureaucrat controls these prohibitively costly vehicles should be shot at dawn.
My lack of wheeled transport meant I had to pass up lunch in Troppocaro, the Michelin-starred eaterie where some twat from Europe grills steaks in a midtown hotel and charges $90 a plate. Instead, I dropped into one of Manhattan’s wonderful “Subway” restaurants, which is presumably named after the underground railroad of the same name. “I was sort of hoping you spoke English,” I said to the Middle Eastern-looking gentleman behind the counter. “I do, he said. “I am American.” What jovial wit our foreign friends have brought to these shores! My meatball “submarine” set me back just $5, despite measuring almost twelve inches, and its rich tomato flavors transported me to the verdant fields of Sicily. Troppocaro can wait for another time.
And what trip to Manhattan would be complete without a journey to the heart of New York, where all the residents of this city feel truly at home — Times Square, where grinning merchants rub shoulders with costumed entertainers of every stripe. It seemed as if there were some kind of public event on, or perhaps an artisanal street fair, for it was filled with New Yorkers of every shape and color. Many wore matching T-shirts saying “New York 2013” and almost all were enthusiastically photographing the lurid neon advertisements. Aha, I thought. Perhaps this is one of Manhattan’s famous “flash mobs”, where locals dress as tourists to fool onlookers? I didn’t want to miss out on this classic Manhattan experience, so I joined in until a man dressed as a Sesame Street character began humping my leg. Dazed with the exuberant joy of it all, I hopped back on my fixed-wheel bicycle back to Brooklyn.
But my brush with New York taxicabs wasn’t over. In fact, one traveling down Seventh Avenue knocked me clean off my bicycle, without even a hoot of apology. I picked myself up and wandered into the nearest building in search of medical aid. Lo and behold, it was only the New York Times headquarters! A pleasant middle-aged man named Henry Alford sat me down to help with my injuries, and quizzed me how I had ended up coming all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He seemed very interested in my quest, and it struck him that perhaps his own publication might feature a story about my fabled borough. “Be careful though,” I told him. “Your article could easily end up being a smirking, patronizing hack job that would make your dead tree employers look out-of-touch and irrelevant.” I feel confident he heeded my advice.
It’s been a month since my Manhattan sojourn. The few hours I spent there taught me many things, but among them this: Manhattanites are actually just like us! They eat food, and occasionally travel in wheeled vehicles, and drink costly alcoholic drinks. They may disdain small enterprise, fashion and anything which might be represented as an alternative lifestyle, but gosh darn it these folks are fine by me. So the next time I want to pick up a “hot dog” — actually a german sausage, boiled in stock, and served in a brioche bun — or visit an authentic, American 7/11, I’ll know exactly where to go. And I’ll probably wear a suit.
(With apologies to The New York Times)