July 8, 2007

Mirage Tourists


It was a Saturday night, and Morgan and I were on a train on our way home after a brief visit in Philadelphia. It had been a long day.

      Half an hour out of New York, I groaned silently when I heard the kid sitting behind me pull out his cell phone and hit a few buttons.

      “Hey,” he said to whoever picked up. “Guess where I am? . . . I’m on a train headed to New. York. City!” He spoke the words with the unmistakable tones of a tourist—and probably a first time tourist at that. A college student on his way to the city for an out of control crazy time.

      Then he added, “Yup . . . New York Town.” That was the dead giveaway. No one who lives here has ever, or will ever, call the city “New York Town.”

      There was a pause.

      “I don’t know yet,” he said. “But I’m kinda wanting to see that movie Knocked Up.”

      Oh Jesus Christ, I thought, rolling my eyes. What sort of town do you come from doesn’t have a movie theater that shows crap?

      I mean, I can understand making a two hour train trip to New York in order to see a Fellini retrospective at Film Forum or some exhibition at MoMA—something that’s not going to be swinging through Pawtucket any time soon. But Knocked Up? I wanted to turn around and smack him one.

      Later though, after the annoyance faded, it struck me that the scene was actually profoundly sad—and sad for a thousand reasons.

      On a broad scale, it was sad because every single day people arrive in town—college students, tourists, people moving here, whoever—who come here with a concept of “New York” that’s thirty years old or more. The New York they saw in the movies or on television. They think New York is a gritty, crime-ridden metropolis, with graffiti-covered subways, colorful characters aplenty, and danger lurking around every corner. Well, it’s not. That New York is long dead. You’d get more of that old image by visiting the New York, New York casino hotel in Vegas.

      Yet still they believe they’re seeing the old New York when they come here. They may be walking down (reasonably) clean streets surrounded by beautiful, well-dressed rich people, but in their minds they’re seeing a scene from Taxi Driver. It’s like taking a vacation in a mirage. Then they go home and tell their friends what a wild and crazy town it was, even though they probably spent their time here eating at Olive Garden and shopping at Old Navy.

      My parents still refuse to come visit me here on account of the city’s mythical status. The ironic thing is, they visited me in Philly several times in the late eighties—and back then Philly was a thousand times worse than New York could ever hope to be.

      Over the past year, I’ve only gone into Manhattan a handful of times, and it’s probably been seven or eight years since I’ve been above Thirty-fifth Street. There’s simply nothing there anymore. Land of the dead.

      But I’ve bitched about all that ad nauseam over the years.

      Another thing that made me sad about the scene with the kid on the cell phone was that fake and desperate sense of bravado he felt obligated to adopt. I’ve heard it so many times among visitors—not just to New York, but other major cities as well.

      When I was in Madison, there was this guy I didn’t really know very well, but he struck me at the time as an intelligent, sophisticated, and cosmopolitan type, who carried himself with a world-weariness I admired. Then one day I heard him talking to someone on the street, and he said with a sigh, “Yeah, I’m headin’ down to Chi-Town for the weekend.”

      Chi Town? No one says “Chi Town,” except for big stupid jerk rubes who’ve never been there before, and are really really proud of themselves for finally having an excuse to visit.

      Well, that was it for that guy. All my respect for his well-cultivated image went straight out the window.

      I mean, you don’t get that transparent, mannered worldliness routine from people who are about to visit Kenosha or Duluth, even if it would be more appropriate. And the people who feel obligated to lay it on because they’re visiting the likes of New York or Chicago have always struck me as more than a little pathetic. They aren’t fooling anybody.

      The thing that made me saddest of all about that kid on the train, though, was trying to imagine what his life must be like. I mean, to him, this was all obviously a Big Deal—so much so that he had to call someone he knew to brag about it. And I’m certain it’s something he’d be bragging about to anyone who’d listen once he got back to the campus. His big trip to New York Town by himself to see some moronic sex comedy that was probably playing at the theater a block away from his dorm. Yeah, he’s a goddamn wild man, I’ll tell you.

      I have nothing against tourists in general. I mean, we’re all tourists. It’s that artificial sophistication—that “I’m not a tourist” attitude when it’s quite obvious to everyone around them that they are. Those are the asshole tourists everybody hates. Myself, I prefer tourists who openly admit that they’re tourists—the ones with the gaudy clothes, the cameras around their necks, and the faces frozen in horror. The ones who freely admit that they don’t know where they are or how to get where they want to be. I’m always happy to help them out however I can. They just want to have a good time for a couple of days, see the sights without proving anything to anyone. Those others, though? Well, they may find themselves unwittingly looking for an address in Mott Haven.

      It’s pretty funny, actually (well, to me anyway) how many of them—especially the college students in town for the weekend—are the ones who end up where they shouldn’t be. Then they get murdered and dumped in the East River. Serves most of them right for trying too hard.

      So let that be a lesson to you—if you’re on your way to New York—especially if you’re coming alone and you just want to see some shitty movie—don’t get on your cell phone and brag about it.


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