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Marco Perella

New York's a Lonely Town When You're the Only Surfer Boy Around
by Marco Perella

May 2000

I know I can't tell you anything about New York that you don't already know. Even if I did you wouldn't admit it. No one can afford to admit that he or she is not up on life in the Apple. To do so would be to admit terminal unhipness. Or, perhaps, dishippity. After all, if you "can make it there you can make it anywhere" so the corollary renders you suspect. This being said, I will tell you about my trip to New York, knowing all the while that I am not telling you anything new.

When you write about New York you have to get real gritty. New Yorkers like grit. This is one of the things they're most proud of. The fact that they are used to grit and can handle it and you'd better be able to handle it too if you wanna come to MY town goddamn it. People who read about New Yorkers expect a lot of grit in their prose, so I've been practicing. How about this: "Her face was like the pavement: cold, hard and gritty." Or, "He had a laugh like a power sander with grit in the bearings." This is one of my favorites: "The snarling cop nightsticked me to my knees and left me searching for my teeth in the gritty snow." Okay. I think I'm ready.

J is my video/film producer friend in Houston. He calls me up to hire me for a job hawking new "TOP DOG" diesel fuel additive. It keeps your gas from "gelling" up in the cold. We have to shoot it in the snow. No snow in Houston, ergo....road trip! The western USA being dry as a bone thus far in the winter of '96 J books passage to NYC where they have an abundance of white stuff. And since you can't find actors in New York, J decides to bring me along. I guess he justifies this to the client somehow. I am billed as the definitive young trucker. (I think J just wants me to come along as his biographer. Just in case that was it I'm dutifully recording this transcript of his glory.)

Off we fly to Newark. Doug the sound man joins us. I don't know why J had to bring his own sound man since he's hiring the rest of the crew in New York. I guess Doug has something on him. I don't think he writes. We all schlep equipment over to the rental van and head into the burg. Now J used to live in NY and drive cabs and delivery vans and such stuff that aspiring young directors have to do while they aspire. So of course the minute we cross the bridge into Manhattan J switches into NY cabby mode. This involves constant acceleration and no down shifting. A NY cabby downshifts for nobody. A lot of lane changing occurs on all the one way streets too. All the while J keeps up a running commentary on how NY cabbies are the best drivers in the world and the street system in NY is so intelligently organized and you have to be looking thirty car lengths ahead at all times. All of which is punctuated with outbursts of profanity at anybody who slows down to turn left or doesn't slow down to let J change lanes. These people, J informs us, are assholes. They must be chastised. "Out of the way, asshole!"...".Watch out, asshole! "..."Let me in asshole!"...."That's right, slow down why don't you? Asshole!" Of course all these people are calling J an asshole at the same time. We are all assholes together, careening around the borough. One big dysfunctional traffic family. Doug and I have no assholes anymore. They have closed up very tight indeed with J driving.

Our first stop is Katz's deli where they filmed Meg Ryan having a fake orgasm in that Harry/Sally movie. They have signs and pictures of this event put up on the walls. "This is where she came!" I eat a sacramental pastrami sandwich that should satisfy all my animal fat requirements for the next quarter century or so. J likes delis. He tells us about all the fabulous delis he's going to take us to. The main criteria for judging a deli according to J is quality of something called a "knish", and creativity of insulting behavior by the proprietors. "Tomorrow morning I'll take you to this little Ukrainian deli over on 2nd avenue. The knishes are great and these Ukrainians are really rude!"

First we must find our hotel. J has offered Doug and I a choice between a sumptuous Hilton just across the river in New Jersey and a reportedly more humble if also more convenient mid-town affair. Doug and I both prefer to be in the very heart of the beast and so we are delivered. Grittiness awaits. I am escorted to a room of some 20 square feet with a bed and a safe. The safe is actually a little larger than the bed. Definitely more comfortable. There is a closet of sorts consisting of a bar hanging over the bed so that your overcoat hangs down over your face. There is a gap of four inches all around the air conditioning unit in the window. A well-ventilated room at least. I launch into my actor prima-donna routine until J purchases an "upgrade" which entitles me to a slightly larger room with a bigger safe.

We spend the afternoon in Times Square buying half-price theater tickets and drinking. Then we go dress for our first big evening in the city. I choose a power blazer combo with a confident red tie and my official Bogart overcoat. J tells me I am way overdressed for off-Broadway and will be sneered at by those in the know. He says I am an artist and artists don't have to wear ties. I think he's just jealous because he didn't bring one and feels hopelessly outclassed by my obvious sartorial splendor. Anyway I am taking no chances. Without the proper armoring I could be mistaken for a tourist and that, as you all know, would be it. I would be dragged down like a wounded wildebeest and disemboweled by the packs of wild hunting dogs jabbering up and down the side streets and slobbering there below me as I hurry across the steaming subway grates. The gritty grates.

As all of you New York experts know, it is imperative to hurry when you are moving through the city. Even the slightest pause to study some architectural feature or store window or woman's anatomy can instantly mark you as someone who has no driving, hectic New York purpose and may therefore be cut down with impunity. It is also very helpful to have an impressive overcoat. I am so glad I didn't wear my dorky parka even though it is ten degrees. The most essential item in my protective coloring is a carefully structured look of fierce contempt which I turn upon all who cross my path as I stride purposefully towards the subway entrance. And of course you know the eye contact rule. As in none ever if you know what's good for you. Make eye contact in Greenwich Village and packs of hyperactive homosexuals drag you away for forced mating. Make eye contact uptown and bands of African-American youths fire warning shots into your belly with their Uzis. Make eye contact in Chinatown and you become the sweet and sour entree. And of course eye contact in the financial district leads to besotted brokers tackling you and making you buy junk bonds.

Funny thing though. As I course the stoic sidewalks of the hallowed burg just about everybody I pass makes eye contact with me and I am powerless to prevent myself from responding in kind. Even though my busier- than-thou look of sneering truculence is carefully in place I realize that just about everybody sneaks a little look at my eyeballs and I at theirs. I decide this is a basic jungle law of the trail. Just a quick check of the windows of the soul to answer the important question: "Is this guy a psycho killer?" Or in some cases: "Are you impressed with my overcoat?" There's a hopeful and plaintive human quality here in the heart of the heartless city. One woman actually SPEAKS to me as we pass like dories in the dusk. "Lovely day isn't it?" I jump off the sidewalk and hide under a parked taxicab. When she is safely gone I find a policeman and have her arrested as a dangerous lunatic.

But this is a trend. Steeled as I am for my gritty urban interface I am delightfully surprised at the good humor, helpfulness and yes, POLITENESS of the New Yorkers with whom my path converges on this little expedition. The theater mavens at the off-Broadway house, the Japanese waiters at the sushi bar where J and Doug go afterwards (leaving me to wander the windy streets outside where I am safe from raw octopi) and the pink-haired young man lined up on the sidewalk for some mysterious after-hours party who answers my query as to the nature of the proceedings, "I have no fucking idea man, got any smokes?" are one and all pleasantly civil. Even the threatened contumacy of the Ukrainian deli-owner who we visit the next morning is blunted by affability. He gives me a free knish. What has happened to New York? Where is Lou Reed? Has the blizzard of '96 so crushed with snow the fragile infrastructure that people tread quietly, afraid that any violent outburst may cause an avalanche? Maybe it's that I'm from Texas. So hopelessly provincial that city-dwellers can afford to let down their guard a little and enjoy the entertainment possibilities inherent in my obvious bozo-on-parade performance.

J has cleverly arranged our punishing schedule so that we have a whole day free to "scout locations". I decide to scout the art museums. My only other assignment is to procure some hair dye. J, after knowing me for fifteen years, has suddenly discovered that my hair is gray. "Goddamn it why is your hair gray? You're supposed to be the YOUNG trucker! Hell, you look older than the guy I got to play the OLD trucker!" J thinks all this criticism disconcerts me but unlike other fatuous actors I am much too handsome to be vain. I agree to buy a tankard of chocolate thunder if it will shut him up and off I go.

My guides to the cultural nexii are Mimi and Arthur. Mimi and I lived together for a brief time in the 70's and in a real tribute to therapy, have somehow remained friends. Or more likely the brain cells responsible for retaining memories of that era are so hopelessly fried that we have no actual recollection of each other at all. Arthur is another refugee from that decade of excess who spent most of it driving a Land Rover across Africa, Asia Minor and the Indian sub-continent. He can tell a couple of stories. He seems to be most proud of the fact that after his travels he sold the Land Rover for the same price he paid for it. He now writes a financial column. They have a five-year-old named Ian and live in a house in Greenwich Village with a back yard. This is pretty hot shit in New York but Texans just laugh. We go to the Museum of Modern Art and look at Monet's water lilies and all those other fabulous paintings by those fabulous art dudes. Then we go hair dye hunting. When I describe to Arthur the nature of my quest he chuckles indulgently and assures me that this being New York, I can find it. But each all-night drug emporium I enter has the same rack of semi-permanent hair schlock. The Clairol jobbers have been bending some knees around here and forcing out the "Roux Fanci-full" products I use for all my hair coloring needs. You see, my brand of happy juice washes out with my next shampoo, unlike the Clairol which fades over a period of three weeks to a vivid orange. We hit most of the downtown spots with no luck. Finally I find a half-full bottle of "Espresso Delight" in the back of a Puerto Rican five and dime. I negotiate with the proprietor for a discount and proudly store it in the pocket of my overcoat. Arthur has gotten all excited about Indian food after regaling me with tales of the Hindu Kush and we eat curry at a place he remembers from his bachelorhood. Alas, times have changed. We wind up poisoning ourselves with stale tandoori bread and old chutney. We decide to go to the movies to cheer up. When we get home I realize that my precious, hard-won happy juice has slipped out of my overcoat pocket at the movie and I am back to square one hair dye-wise.

The next day is our first actual day of media labor and off we go to the wilds of Jersey and the famed "Crossroads Diner", our main location for principal photography. Upon arrival J immediately establishes dominance over his hired gun all-union New York crew by barking at them about camera angles and fills while I slip down to the local shopping center to renew my quest for youth in a bottle. I am gratified to learn that the Clairol Mafia has not sabotaged the glory of competitive capitalism in the state of New Jersey. I return to the diner a stunning brunette. In my absence...disaster. The mock-up cans of TOP DOG diesel fuel additive, recently Fed-exed from Houston, have been lost by our client's hotel. Any other calamity can be overcome. If the camera breaks we can get another. If an actor breaks, likewise. Even if the director has an attack of mad-cow disease and starts foaming at the mouth in utter artistic frustration he can be carefully sedated and quietly driven to Bellview and the show can go on. But when you're making a commercial, the actor has to hold up a can of the product and say "This stuff saved my very soul!" And we have no product. Everybody goes home until replacements can be found.

I use this unplanned paid vacation day to continue my cultural tour of the city. I get the New York crew guys to drive me to the Museum of Natch. They take me by way of the Meadowlands and try to scare me with tales of Jimmy Hoffa buried in the swamps of Jersey. (Like all union guys they are proud of their traditions.) They make me swear not to take a cab while I am touring the city. Real men take the subway. At least real men who don't own a grip truck. I bid them farewell until tomorrow and dash in to the Hayden planetarium where I am just in time for the last afternoon show. I pay my eight dollars and sit back in the seat and they turn out the lights and I immediately go to sleep. An eight dollar nap is what I have. After the show I choke back to life and stumble out, leaving brown hair dye stains all over the upholstery.

Mimi is on Long Island so Arthur takes me to Soho for Moroccan food. We have better luck than with the Indian place. They have weird stores in Soho. There is a whole store that just sells stuffed giraffes of various sizes. I am charmed. Not so charming are the clothes of New York women. Every woman in New York wears black in the winter. Black dress, black leggings, black overcoat, black hats and gloves. Big black platform shoes and boots. Mimi explains this to me. New York is dirty and black doesn't show the dirt. Also, black makes you look thinner. As if they could look any thinner. These New York white women, already a sickly pale from sunlight deprivation, have starved themselves into an austere and unhealthy meagerness. Their puny little black covered stick legs on top of those absurd 70's retro platform heeled monstrosities they call footwear make them look like starving crows as they stalk around like mourners at a mass funeral. I have become used to the substantial women of the south, nicely padded with a diet of beer and chicken fried steaks. Only the black women up here allow themselves to flesh out and look like real WOMEN. They should declare this city a fashion disaster area as far as I'm concerned.

Come the sober dawn and it's back to Jersey for another shot at selling diesel fuel additive. This time all goes well and the replacement cans look pretty good. My part consists of coming into the diner in my winter trucker garb and sitting at the counter next to the old trucker and saying "My gosh-durned rig gelled up on the pass! Cost me a half day and a thousand dollars to git her towed back!" This prompts the old trucker to pick up a handy can of TOP DOG and tell me what a hopeless nitwit I am for neglecting the latest innovation in automotive science. All the while the real truckers who patronize our still operational diner set peruse us skeptically. The climax of our little epic involves me driving off in my freshly ice-protected rig with my faithful dog (TOP DOG...get it?) at my side. For this pivotal roll J has hired a national champion boxer named Thomas. Thomas is completely inbred and his life expectancy is about five years. His nervous system is so genetically unidimensional that he quivers in fright pretty much all the time as the big diesels roll into the parking lot. Or maybe his agitation is caused by his owner, a woman who tells me that Thomas' puppies with the correct coloration sell for $50,000. For that kind of coin I suspect his mistress follows Thomas around with a test tube collecting seed for frozen storage. I guess you'd quiver too. She probably feeds him special oyster-Alpo. Come to think of it, maybe that's why he's only going to live five years. I wonder if I'd last that long? As Thomas and I stand in the cold waiting for the final lighting tweak I sink into a reverie....

"...Move it! Move it! Action! Action!" J is yelling again. I guess I tuned it out from force of habit. Directors like to yell at actors because they can't really yell at the crew who might go out on strike and shut down the project. Actors will take any kind of abuse. Thomas strains at the end of the leash and drags me behind. He is not really acting but rather responding to his mistress who is standing just off camera and waving a test tube at him. A couple of takes and we're out of here, Jack.

Back to the city for one final attempt at the perfect New York night. I get dropped off at the Met Muse of A and look at the Sargeant paintings. Then the 20th century stuff. People are walking around with vague looks of dyspepsia. They're looking at this stuff because it's supposed to be good for you. But let's face it, most of this section is a major bummer. A few halls over in the Impressionist section you see all these happy looks and smiling faces and people holding up their babies to look at the Renoirs. You ever see anybody holding up their baby to look at a deKooning? My Dad once said of a deKooning..."It's the kind of painting that makes you want to tear out your fireplace to avoid hanging it over the mantle." After the museum I have to stop at the airline ticket agent to make the ticket changes necessitated by our extra day of shooting. When the airline reps discover I am from Texas they beam at me: "We LOVE Texans! Texans are so NICE! Not like New Yorkers! Here...I've given you the best seat on the airplane with lots of leg room. Can I do anything else for you today?"

Once more into the streets. A water main has exploded on Fifth Avenue, backing traffic up to Delaware. The news says the broken pipe was manufactured in 1890. I plunge confidently into the subway, ready to face the supreme urban challenge: how to get to Greenwich Village by switching to the "L" train instead of winding up at the UN. It's rush hour too. I think I get off at the right stop because everybody is running like crazy the second the doors open, stampeding up the stairs to some other level of trains. I am caught up in the general panic. I don't know exactly what it is I am about to miss but there is a palpable sensation of hurry up or else. When we get up the stairs everyone jumps on this other train and I congratulate myself for making the door. Turns out we are all going to Yonkers. Oy vey! I finally find the L and get off a couple of exits early just to be sure not to miss it. This causes me to walk about four miles to Mimi and Arthur's house. I decide that the reason New Yorkers are so thin is because they are in excellent physical shape from all of this walking and subway stair running.

It's very cozy at Mimi and Arthur's. Ian is watching Power Rangers with his baby sitter and Mimi and Arthur take me out for one more attempt at a mind-boggling New York restaurant experience. They take me to their favorite Italian. Unfortunately I order the green olive pasta. Arthur blames himself but it is entirely my own fault.

My New York experience has been unpredictable. I couldn't buy a decent meal but everybody was nice to me. Just goes to show you never can tell. J picks me up at Mimi and Arthur's the next morning for the drive to the airport. J has previously regaled us with the story of how he once made it from mid town Manhattan to La Guardia in twenty minutes flat. But today it's snowing and by the time we collect Doug the sound man and pack the van we are seriously late. The bridges are gridlocked with confused winter drivers. J's mood goes from apoplectic to bellicose to kamikaze-jihadic and on up the scale from there. By the time we get to Queens he has sunk into a stinking funk (it rhymes!) as he searches for shortcuts he remembers from 25 years ago. Strangely enough the shortcuts have somehow changed into cul-de-sacs. Nevertheless we arrive at the airport with just enough time to load our baggage onto the curbside and haul ass to the gate. Our way is blocked by an altercation in line ahead of us. A woman has tried to carry on a suitcase that is too big to fit under the seat. The authorities are busy with their blackjacks, clubbing her into obedience. We stand behind her uncertainly with our ridiculously outsized collection of sound equipment and hangar bags overstuffed with Bogart raincoats. The airport monitors look up from their work and gesture to us politely. "You're the gentlemen from Texas aren't you? Right this way, your seats are waiting! Careful not to trip over this woman's leg...out of the way you! (crunch! whip!) That blood may be a little slippery... have a nice day and thank you for choosing Continental!"

From my superb airline seat I take one last look at the metropolis below. Good-bye New York, you gritty sprawling beauty! I've mastered you this time! And I'll be back to take my pleasure again, now that I know all your twists and turns, your peculiar little ticks and mannerisms. Sing it Liza! Kong comes! My breast swells with passion until J leans over to me..."That's Jersey City. If you want to see Manhattan you gotta look out the other side of the plane."

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