When I met him, it was a warm day in June, hazy and humid under skyscrapers and drifting clouds. I rode right into his belly on the New Jersey transit, and was immediately struck by his bravado, by his artistic gaze, by his gaudiness and his pull-back-your-sleeves-and-get-busy work ethic rolled up into one. Right away I knew I’d have to have an interview. So while my wife grabbed the camera and ran off sightseeing, I sat down to have a chat with New York City. He finished another cigarette, and we began.
Me: Mr. York, it’s great to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you, and it’s an honor to finally shake your hand.
NYC: Well, thank you, whatever your name is. I get millions of visitors every day, but it’s nice to be recognized. Not many sit down for an interview, you know?
Me: Millions? Really? That’s a lot.
NYC. You ain’t kidding. Half of New Joizey comes over to Manhattan for work every day—sometimes I think the island’s gonna sink we got so many of ‘em—HaHa!. Course the other half of Joizey sits home and collects welfare checks—HaHaHa! Then you got the tourists, thousands and thousands of ‘em—all wanting the same picture of the same places, bumbling in front of each other’s shots, folding maps and looking at street signs, watching their wallets as if I have to pick their pockets to get their money—Ha!. But seriously, it’s great. I love the attention. I’m glad you’re finally here.
Me: I see. So, do you have something against New Jersey?
NYC: Joizey? Naaahh. Me and him go way back, waaay back. Nah, I just like to kid him a little.
Me: OK. Sure. Moving on, though. I think I should compliment you on your infrastructure. I mean, your skyline is impressive, of course, and you’ve got tons of tourist attractions, but you have something really amazing going in the way you handle the living arrangements for so many people—water to the tops of skyscrapers, food circulating for millions crammed into tiny corners of the city, transportation by roads and water and air—
NYC: And don’t forget trains. I love my trains. Hey, check this out—I got this number ready you (standing, taking a glitzy top hat in hand).
Me. Actually, this really isn’t necessary—
NYC: C’mon, it’s Broadway number. You’ll love it!
Me. No, really—
Underground, underground, got my trains underground.
A-clickin and a-clackin go the trains underground—
in the tunnels, in the tubes, in the stations underground.
A million people standin there in stations undergroooouuuunnnddd!
Me: Please, Mr. York—
NYC: (still singing)
A hundred stories up above and a dozen underground,
it’s the METRO – RAIL that goes zipping underground
Two-fifty for a ride on the metro all around—
Two-fifty for a pop on my trains undergroooouuuuuunnnddd!
Me. OK, I admit the jazz-hands are nice, but you don’t need to—
NYC: (singing louder)
The tunnels go a windin’ under streets all around—
the island’s honey-combed with the tunnels and the sound
of the rats—yes the RATS—that go a-squeakin underground,
and the people staring blankly at the beggars undergrrrrooooouuuuunnnddd!
Me: Stop it!
NYC: (panting) Sorry. I get a little carried away sometimes.
Me. You don’t say (rolling eyes). But honestly, isn’t the whole Broadway thing outdated anyway? I mean, in a city with the most sophisticated technology in the world, everyone’s paying huge money to see the same entertainment they did a hundred years ago. What’s with that?
NYC: (Putting away his stage costume) It’s funny. You people are funny. We got a thousand traditions around here that exist just for the sake of tourists. And it’s not just Broadway—take the whole Times Square thing: what on earth is useful there? It’s just a place for herds of tourists to gather and see electronic billboards and snap pictures of the Naked Cowboy. They got the same stores there you can buy from in a million other cities in four dozen other states—or online. But still, the crowds flock there just because it’s where crowds flock.
Me: I see.
NYC: Or the bull.
Me: The bull?
NYC: Yeah, the one by Wall Street—the huge bronze bull. I’m sure you saw it. People will wait in line with that thing for an hour just a get a picture touching its giant, hanging bronze— AHEM. Get it?
Me: Yeah, I get that. But why touch the bull’s—you know.
NYC: I told you, it’s the stinking tradition of the thing. You’re all herds, you know—someone said it’s good luck to do it, so now they wait in line to snap the picture, but… well. It’s just part of me, I guess—the traditions for the tourists: the I-heart-N-Y tee shirts, carriage ride in Central Park, shopping for Jewelry at Tiffany’s, traffic lights,—
Me: Or a New York hot dog from the street.
NYC: Nah, not so much.
Me: What? I thought every tourist had to have a hotdog from New York.
NYC: Well, maybe for the tourist. But the locals go for a kebab, or some lamb over rice, or a biryani. I’m telling you, the hot dogs are out, and gyros are in.
Me: Fascinating. Do you have a favori—
NYC: Halal guys, 53rd and 6th. Check it out. You’ll have to wait in line, but trust me, it’s worth it. And careful with the hot sauce–it’s pretty stinking hot.
Me: Thanks for the tip. Hey, I was going to ask you something, um, a little personal, I guess.
Me: Well, the 9-11 memorial. Is that, you know. . .
NYC: (wiping eyes). Don’t miss it. Really, don’t. You saw it all happen on the news. You know the pictures and the videos, but there’s something about the place, when you hear the water, and you see the names, and you feel the trees swaying around you, and you remember the fire and the panic and all the ones who died in the place you’re standing. . . It’s hard to. . . It’s just—
Me: That’s OK, I got it. I’m sorry I brought it up.
NYC: No, don’t be sorry (sniffles). I need that. I need to—to stop for it sometimes. Maybe you can come in the spring—the survivor tree will have its flowers then. It takes my breath away every time. Don’t miss the survivor tree. I mean, you can’t write fiction like that. And maybe you can go at night—after dark it’s something special to see it lighted up.
Me: Ok. Sure. (Pat NYC on the shoulder). I’d like that. Hey, I’d like to ask you about something else though. It’s the diversity you see here in the city.
NYC: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah we got that. We got that down, I tell ya. I mean, you walk some streets and you won’t hear any English at all. And I love that. You got people from all over, and all of them living the American dream. I got guys selling souvenirs on the street: pirated DVDs and purses, guys in shops with key chains and tee shirts and postcards, guys on Wall Street, guys frying whatever food they fry back home in their restaurants out in Jackson Heights, guys working in Times Square from someplace that ain’t hardly got any electricity, guys from all over, I tell you. You just step into the world when you visit me.
Me: That’s impressive.
NYC: You ain’t kidding. It’s crazy, I’m telling you. I mean, get this: there were these linguists, and they were studying some kind of dying language out in who-knows-where, in the jungles or something. And they think the language is going extinct, so they’re getting every last scrap of data they can before these last speakers die off, you know. And then, after documenting all this, they take the trip, fly back to the States, and they find out there’s a whole street full of them selling food in carts in the Bronx.
Me: Uh-huh. That’s. . . not really—I mean, exactly true is it?
NYC: Who knows? Could be. I mean, what linguists are ever out in the Bronx at night? How would they know? And who in the Bronx cares about linguists, or reads what they’re up to? I mean, it could happen.
Me: If you say so. Hey, before I go, I was going to ask you what’s the best way to see, um. . . you, I guess? I mean, what’s the best overall view? A skyscraper? Helicopter ride? Tag along with Spiderman?
NYC: Well, you do whatever you like. I mean, skyscrapers are great, but you gotta be ready to fight for a spot to take your pictures—just like on that ferry to Staten Island. Everyone goes there to get a free glimpse of my Statue of Liberty, but they all crowd onto one side of the boat so that none of them can get a clear shot. I’ve heard through, that there’s some nice view of Manhattan from down on the Brooklyn side of the bridges. You might check that out.
Me: Alright, sounds like a plan. Hey, I’m gonna take off, see some of this stuff for myself, try to catch up with my wife. Thanks for you time. Can I get you anything? A Coke or something?
NYC: Sure, thanks. But be careful out there—that stuff’s three dollars a bottle. Don’t go treating everyone you see.