NEW YORK 2003. Day One. En route.

Thirty thousand feet, MST3K DVD in the laptop, and drink cart is one row away. Life is good: I’m headed for Gotham!

Or rather, Newark! Only a fool flies into LaGuardia or JFK if you’re bound for Manhattan. It’s Newark, friend. You take the monorail (monorail!) to the train station, and you’re in the center of Manhattan in a few minutes.

Just ordered coffee. The days of drinking-while-flying are over, alas. We might suspend those rules on a late-night homebound flight, but not when I’m on a daytime flight that drops me into the middle of a dense metropolis. Hiya, folks - I’m hammered and fulla cash. Who wants some? Whoa, watches! Rolexeses an stuff, and they're CHEAP. Gimme ten!

I set off the metal detector, thanks to my money clip, watch, belt, and of course my gun. They shunted me to a holding area; a huge guy, the sort of fellow invariably described as a gorilla in a 40s film noir novel, came over and ran me through the security procedure. For some reason I channeled Lou, the policeman from the Simpsons. “That’s some quality wanding, chief,” I said. He grinned.

Not much time to kill at the airport. Ate a personal pizza, perhaps in preparation for the communal pizzas I would eat in New York. (I'm serious - that's how it works when you buy a slice. Please, give me a slice of the cold congealed mass of fat and salt right there, goose it up in the oven, and serve it to me on a paper plate that's thinner than the pizza's crust.) Read some of the book ("Bad Boy Burley Brown," Walter Mosley; I’ll finish this one before I got to sleep, and it’s been a long time since I dropped into a book and spent the day there) spent half an hour on the tarmac, then up to the sort of thing that epitomizes modern life: high above the earth, shooting through the clouds, watching a movie on my personal computer, and strapped next to an elderly person who seems to have excreted a small, hard old-person stool into her drawers. Her companion doesn't appear to have noticed - but he has is own problems. He is the dullest person I’ve ever encountered. Everything he says is banal. He actually read the emergency instructions out loud. And they’re pictures. He described all the pictures out loud. Now he’s reading the descriptions of the planes in the in-flight mag. Out loud. Other comments of note from the tarmac:

Central . . . standard time.

That’s a big one.

I wonder if that’s a school.

SHUT UP! I screamed. JUST SHUT UP! Well, no. But I wanted to. I'm going back to my movie.

Update: he hasn’t shut up, and he hasn’t said a thing.

“Look at the clouds. They’re pretty big up here.”

Please stop. Stop now.

NYC, Millennium Broadway Hotel, lobby bar, 9:07 PM

Okay. Yes sir; yes sir indeed. Fortieth floor room with a corner view; I face the illuminated clock of the Paramount Building, almost dead on; and you cannot imagine the whoop I gave out when I discovered that. Last time I was here I had a view of a ventilation shaft spattered with pigeon crap - a genuine New York view, in other words. This time I face the Conde Nast building - one of my employers, as it turns out - and the side window looks down on the lurid canyons of Times Square. Best. View. Ever.

Nice bar. Woody, with a distinct 40s vibe - helped along by the Glenn Miller on the speakers, I suppose, but the entire lobby cultivates the romantic Moderne / Deco / 40s mood. It’s been almost ten years since last I stayed here; that was for a Toy Fair, and I remember I had a slight fever one night; had crazy dreams about Spiderman. I chose this place not for those happy memories but for its New York feel - or at least what I think of New York. Everyone has their own idea of the place. Mine starts in the 20s and ends about the moment Riff stabs Tony in “West Side Story.” (Or vice versa.) After that it’s all Kojak and the Jeffersons and that grainy jerky flyover from the end credits of “All in the Family” until 1991, when I started coming here once a year. I’ve stuck to midtown. I love midtown, although I probably couldn’t tell you why. Less residential, good mix of architecture, Grand Central, Times Square. Block after block of inscrutable facades, buildings from the period of Studious Blandosity, a million delis that will sell you a cup of coffee, a phone card, a passport photo, a bagel wrapped so tightly in plastic it nearly gasps when you open it. I'm across the street from Pancho Villa and Virgil's BBQ. I went to Pancho's when I was here for the Toy Fair; the menu had a repro of a newspaper story on Senor Villa, and one of the stories concerned the construction of the Fifth Street Office Block - which is now the Toy Fair center.

No trees whatsoever around here. Some folks’ New York has trees. Mine doesn’t. That means nothing, but that's how it is. I think of New York, and vegetation is the last thing that comes to mind - which is probably why the trips to Bryant Park and Central Park are such a joy. Oh yes, that's right: this, too.

I made the mistake of telling my seat mates Mrs. Stinky Poo and Herman the Cretin that the best way into town was the monorail / train. This led to conversation. I chatted for a decent interval, then picked up my book, smiled, and wished them a pleasant vacation. He kept talking for five minutes.

In the airport he was standing at the ticket machine. “There you are,” he said.

Ha ha, yes indeed. Here I am.

“Where do you we go now?” he said, his words barely out of his mouth before the flat of my hand crushed his windpipe like a cardboard tube.

Actually, no. “Up the escalator,” I said. “It’s on the right.”

I went up the escalator to wait for the train. There was a helpful young woman in a red jacket answering queries; when my new friends got off the escalator she asked if she could help.

“We’re stickin’ close to him,” said Herman the Dim, pointing at me. “He knows where he’s goin’.”

“Take it all the way to the end,” I said, grinning as I produced from my cuff the throwing stars I used to sever his jugular. He was dead before he hit the floor.

Actually, no. Everyone bunched up around one door, and I had a hideous image of riding the monorail to the train station with Dame Loady-Drawers and her consort. Sometimes the thing just stops between stations, you know. Just stops and sits there for no reason while a prerecorded voice advises us that we’re not at the station, and should not push out a window and leap onto the electric rail. Or words to that effect. So when I saw the monorail approach I moved to the first car. Off we went.

At the train station I didn’t see them at the platform.

Now I felt guilty. Now I felt bad. But what part of “Take it all the way to the end,” had they screwed up?

The train chuffed and shuddered into Manhattan. Up the escalator, into the pit of misbegotten misery of Penn Station. Outside, up 7th, and all of a sudden: calm. Ah. Here we are again. The smells: the Sabrett dog wagons with that eternal roasted chestnut smell, cigarette smoke, bus exhaust, expensive perfume, the usual tableau of ruin and renewal. As I swam upstream (never head north on the left side of the street when half the city is trying to get to Penn) I realized the biggest change in the city since I first came here in the 80s: everyone’s on the phone as they walk. This may be hard for some to imagine, but try: picture a big surging wave of people walking to the train station with their mouths closed. They’re not saying anything.

Odd, eh? It’s like they’re pissed, or something.

Now you hear everyone’s conversations. “A screen for a door, that should cost what, five dollars? What’s he want? TWO HUNDRED?”

“Those muthafuckin muthafuckas dealin with some fucked up shit, nomesane?”

“I’m going to Antarctica next week. No - Antarctica.”

I check in. The guys behind the desk are Indian and Slavs. Lovely accents, high grooming. A tall European comes to the desk; you can tell he’s European because he’s tall, thin, blonde, has pretentious eyewear, and appears to have applied his cologne with a shower nozzle. He hands the clerk a bag of laundry and asks, in a Churman agcent, if ze can take care of ze lundrei. They assure him they can, although after he leaves it’s obvious they don’t know quite what to do, because most people press the LAUNDRY button on their telephone console. Not Hans: trots downstairs with a plastic bag and hands it to the help.

I had supper at Grand Central. I don’t know why, but the first thing I do in New York is go to Grand Central. I always want to stand at the top of the stairs on the west side and just do a Tevye dance. I love that place. I was awed by it when it was a dump, and now that it’s been buffed and spiffed it’s even better. It’s like a giant cave made of butter and gold.

I went towards the Lex exit, to see the murals. They’re in the passageway that links GSC to the utterly bitchin’ Graybar building. The rest of the ceiling is painted over, and was probably painted over long ago by modernist visigoths. It must have been quite a tableau - as usual for a mural of the era, it seems to detail the Trials of Toil and Labor and the Resulting Marvels of Modern Life. Skyscrapers, aerial perambulators, horseless autogyrenes, etc.

You know, nothing in this bar would look unusual to someone who worked at the Graybar in the 40s; even the giant paintings in the lobby are taken from that era. The glass-block artwork looks like it came from the Normandie. The TV in corner wouldn’t throw him. The laptop might, but it makes sense: a typewriter / television. We always think that people from the past would be AMAZED! at our gadgets, but they had sci-fi back then, too. If you headed to the past and wanted to find someone who could truly understand the world 50 years hence, look for the clerk who goes to the drugstore for his lunch break and reads Tales of Mars, not the guy who reads the New York Times.

Okay, time to go upstairs, phone home, iron clothes, and watch NY1. And then: Times Square. Damn! One fine day. But will this be a good trip, or a lousy cold miserable downer like the last one? Stay tuned. This week the Bleat is live from New York!

That's right! LIVE from New York!

Inasmuch as I’m not dead when I’m writing it. This of course is not being posted on the days written, because I don’t feel like telling everyone that I’ve left the house for a while. Unlike Dave Barry, who is content to tell everyone he's on a book tour because no one knows where he lives, and because he has a gator-invested moat and a security staff and a panic room with pnuematic access to a subterranean monorail, I don't broadcast my absences from Jaspewood. This alsso means I will have nothing to say about current events this week - like this Limbaugh thing which is breaking; my gut says guilty. I am also sure that upon hearing the news, Al Franken spronged sufficient wood to knock the table over. In terms of his credibility with his followers, I think Rush just had his Aimee Semple McPherson moment. The faithful will be divided. Short term? His 4Q ratings book is going to rock.

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