new york
city weekend

My first week in New York, I went to a lecture where I heard two video artists describe their art installation in the Museum of Modern Art lobby.

They had placed video cameras above the revolving doors and at the base of the escalator, feeding into monitors located around the museum. The images and sounds on the monitors, divorced from context, resulted in intermittent shots of people coming into frame and leaving, filtering out the rest of the lobby environment. Although it was an intriguing study in observation and image, the artists explained their voyeuristic purpose gained greater meaning when, after studying some of the video tapes with museum security, they realized a call-girl operation was operating in the museum's lobby. High-class prostitutes, discreetly dressed, would appear daily, meeting awkward executives for afternoon trysts. Unaware of the artistic installation, the conversations between the call girls and their johns were picked up by the sensitive microphones and cameras in the heavily trafficked lobby. To me, what seemed to be really high-class and tony, actually had a dark and seamy side. This was definitely going to take time to get used to.
The next Saturday, my friend Ed and I were headed up the FDR towards the South Bronx to help his cousin Bobby with his car. The FDR is a fifty year old crumbling concrete and exposed steel viaduct that twists and turns its way alongside the decaying piers of the East River -- a landscape relieved only by glimpses of the Empire State Building and the majestic spans of the bridges to Brooklyn and Queens. Ed was only going sixty miles an hour, but the tight turns, narrow lanes and maniacal lane switching of everyone else on the road made me grip onto the door handle a little tighter. Ed saw me and laughed, telling me to relax and enjoy it. "Think of it as the "Poor Man's Grand Prix."
Bobby lived in what seemed to me a mysterious land, whose image was made up from the various crime reports I'd read in the papers. So with morbid fascination, I was actually looking forward to meeting Bobby -- a real live resident of hell on earth. I first thought we were just going to the auto parts store to get a new alternator. Ed, instead said we were going shopping - "Bronx-style." We drove down to an industrial neighborhood where there were beat-up cars left and right. Suddenly, Ed stopped the car and he and Bobby jumped out,telling me to keep watch. Bobby popped the hood of a late model Honda and working quickly with a few tools, unwedged a bunch of parts out of the engine. He told me later, with a great sense of pride, he and his brothers had completely rebuilt the engines on their cars with parts from wrecks in his neighborhood and had a basement at home filled with more stuff he'd found on the street -- stereos, chairs, clothing, luggage.
On the way back, Bobby told a story about when he and Ed went to a Rangers game, sitting the blue seats -- an area known for rowdy behavior and fights. The two guys behind them had had a little to much beer and kept yelling and sloshing beer onto Ed's back accidentally. Ed got tired of this and told them to stop. They would, but would start again in a few minutes, spilling more beer onto his back. Suddenly, Bobby said, Ed got real angry and reached into his pocket and pulled out his 8" switchblade, holding it to one guy's throat, saying if they did it again, he'd kill them. The drunk guys got scared and quickly left. Now Ed and Bobby don't immediately strike you as being particularly dangerous, but it seems most native New Yorkers have a lethal streak in them -- a button you push that sends them into uncontrollable rage -- if you're crossing the street in front of a taxi, or crowding on a subway train or dealing with surly counter sales people.
Back home in Brooklyn, I asked Ed if there were any places he'd feel scared to go into. He said there weren't any, because he carried his blade everywhere he went. He said he'd take me to Chinatown to get a stiletto blade for my very own. Taking out his knife he demonstrated his offensive technique, saying it takes a lot of practice to get the knife up into a stabbing position with a smooth flickof the wrist. The key was to open your knife in such a way so that your victim doesn't notice you're about to slash his throat -- until its too late. "Attitude, John -- it's all in the attitude," he said.

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december 1999