n the first weekend of May, I was among thousands of booksellers
who descended on New York City. We were there, ostensibly, to
cruise and schmooze the floor at the annual publishing convention
(BookExpo America), and, of course, to pick up a few choice "reading
copies" of upcoming fall titles.
But given how many of these books I saw in far flung corners
of the city a Martha Stewart look-alike on the Staten Island
ferry clutching a copy of Baudolino, Umberto Eco's forthcoming
novel (October 2002), a greasy hipster on the subway to Coney
Island poring over Chuck Palahniuk's next cult hit, Lullaby
(September 2002) it appears that I wasn't the only bookseller
who spent time outside the convention center.
Who wouldn't? New York is the most exciting city in the world.
Whether you're into art, money, sports, fashion, money, theater,
food, history, money, or, yes, books, New York, the "world's
capital," is the center of your universe.
And, of course, there's the celebrated skyline. New York is
a chiropractor's nightmare. Tourists, straining for a postcard
perfect view of one of the many architectural marvels, roam the
city with their necks permanently crooked. Their loss. Though
everyone should get a good look at the Chrysler Building
at least once in their life, the most interesting spectacle in
New York is right there at eye level.
I'm talking, of course, about the people, the inimitable New
Yorkers. The most bewildering mish mash of humanity in the history
of cosmopolitan life, New Yorkers are famously difficult to describe.
What does a cab-driving Pakistani Sikh from Queens have in common
with a Botoxed day trader's wife on the Upper East side? Well,
let's say a certain comfortability with diversity (a word that
New York renders mercifully irrelevant) and the scrappy opportunism
required in one of the most competitive environments in the world.
But if all that distinguished New Yorkers were tolerance and
testosterone, they would be no more interesting than George Bush.
No, it's something else, an elusive quality that makes the people
of New York unlike any other group of Americans. For want of a
better word, I'll call it flair.
Australian novelist Peter Carey, a New York lover who emigrated
to the city in the late eighties, has observed that, like the
members of your high school thespian club, New Yorkers have an
sense of themselves. "For New Yorkers, life is theater."
If you need convincing, take a walk through Central Park.
If all New York's a theater, then Central Park is center stage.
BookExpo landed squarely in the middle of an extraordinary stretch
of beautiful weather, so I did just that. I snuck a few hours
and headed for the park.
Given the weather, the park was full to capacity
with people of all types: bicyclists, photographers, musicians,
and ball players; people reading books, typing on laptops, and
yammering on cell phones. And there were thousands of people simply
out for a stroll, and enough people cruising the park on rollerblades
to populate a sizable banana republic.
After entering the park at West 72nd and
meandering east, I noticed a group of these skaters had even cordoned
off a thirty yard stretch of road and turned it into an impromptu
roller rink. A pair of DJs, barricaded with their equipment into
a small island in the center of the street, were spinning a medley
of seventies 'fro funk Parliament, The Ohio Players, Funkadelic,
Earth, Wind & Fire, Rufus, etc. while
yelling occasional encouragement to the skaters: "Hey baby,
it's a love rollercoaster. Let it roll"; "Who wants
to get Funked Up, y'all?"; or my favorite, "Tear the
roof off, suckas."
But the real show was the skaters themselves,
dippin' and struttin' around the DJ island like extras in a Pam
Grier movie. There was one topless black guy wearing baseball
pants, gold chains, and a purple felt fedora (I'm not making that
up); a twenty-something Hispanic woman in a red-checkered, Mary
Ann dress rocking her hips back and forth suggestively and flapping
her arms like a chicken; and an aging hippie chick in sweat pants
and a tie-dyed tube top who was attempting to moonwalk on roller
skates. The whole scene might have been an "American Bandstand"
dance contest, circa 1978 (with Sly Stone standing in for Dick
After watching for about fifteen minutes I never did understand
how anyone could watch an entire "American Bandstand"
I wandered about 50 yards east of the skaters to the Bandshell,
where something was going on.
There was a group on stage giving an impromptu performance. They
appeared to be doing Macbeth, though you wouldn't have
guessed it from their costumes. Each performer had cobbled together
a unique outfit from stuff found in secondhand stores: army uniforms,
cast off bridesmaid dresses, psychedelic bell bottoms, whatever.
When I arrived, they were just getting started. Three young women
had just launched into the first scene of Macbeth, in which the
witches set the eerie tone for the rest of the play. Clearly this
was to be an experimental production. The three were wearing cast
off cheerleader uniforms from various high schools, and they had
modified the lines slightly. They apparently thought Macbeth had
lived in Southern California.
Like, when shall we three meet again?
I'm serious! In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Like, duh girlfriend. When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
I'm soooo sure! Like that will be ere the set of sun.
Then, one of them flipped on a boom box, and they all began to
lip-synch along to a tinny version of the Supremes' "Someday
We'll Be Together."
Bizarre? Like, for sure. But they were only getting started.
They had set the entire play to the Supremes. "The thane
of Cawdor lives: why do you dress me in borrow'd threads?"
was followed by "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine,"
and "Out, jiggy spot" turned into a dance routine set
to "I'm Livin' in Shame."
This was too much for me. I fled, heading north around the Lake,
which was dotted with lovers rowing about languidly in small boats,
up through the Rambles, where I saw absolutely no lovers, I swear!,
and back toward 72nd where I had entered the park. Along the way,
I saw a pair of teenage boys in full Hasidic dress listening intently
to an elderly black man with a beat up old guitar playing the
saddest rendition of "Georgia on My Mind" I've ever
heard; a group of five Caribbean nannies enjoying a good gossip
while walking their white babies around the park in strollers;
and a diminutive, middle-aged woman trying to sell tiny wooden
For some reason this last woman intrigued me, so I began to follow
her. With her gray shapeless dress and close-cropped hair she
looked like a nun, or perhaps an inmate. After watching her for
a few minutes, I felt certain that she was familiar with institutional
life of some sort.
She would walk up to someone and ask them if they'd like to buy
a coaster. After the inevitable, polite "No, thank you,"
she would start in.
"It's only ten dollars."
"Thanks, but I'm okay."
Now a little agitated. "Why don't you want to buy my coaster?
It's very nice. Nine dollars."
"Really, no thank you."
Here her voice would raise, and she would begin to physically
shake. "Buy my coaster! Buy my coaster! Why don't you want
to buy my coaster?" Then, literally yelling, "Five dollars.
Please! PLEASE! Won't SOMEBODY BUY MY COASTER?"
People all around would be moving away, and the poor mark would
either get forceful ("Look lady, you can yell all you want.
I don't want your f***ing coaster. Buzz off.") or experience
spontaneous meltdown ("How about four dollars?"). In
the second scenario, the little con artist would drop the coaster
on the ground, grab the money, and bolt like a scared dog, all
before her customer could mutter an insincere thank you. Then
she'd walk a little ways, pull another useless item from her bag,
and set in on someone else.
I figured I'd better move along before she accosted me. I wasn't
quite ready to go back to the hotel, though, so before leaving
the park I stopped at the John Lennon memorial, which is across
the street from the Dakota, where he was assassinated in 1980.
At the center of Strawberry Fields is a mosaic with the word Imagine
in the center that is generally covered with flowers, candles,
and other offerings. I sat down on a bench to watch the pilgrims
pay their respects and to listen to unwashed youths singing Beatles
songs badly. I was just about to leave the cloud of patchouli
was starting to get to me but I sat back down when a BBC
camera crew walked up and began to set up their equipment. This
ought to be good.
Once they were done, the camera guy took a series of arty shots
of the mosaic, which on that day was piled with flowers and nutritional
bars (I have no idea why), and then moved off to the side to give
people access. The idea, it became clear, was to get a few nice
shots of fans paying their respects.
The first to take the bait was a fifty-something woman from Brooklyn.
With her jet black hair (dyed), bright red fingernails (with white
tips), gold jewelry (excessive), and powder blue velour jumpsuit
(inexplicable), she looked like one of the mobster wives in Goodfellas.
She was there with her husband, whose only memorable feature was
his height, about five feet two.
The wife had brought a dozen red roses for John. She hesitated,
though, when she saw the camera crew, so one of the BBC guys came
up and spoke with her. I couldn't hear what they were saying,
but I assumed he asked if he could film her paying her respects.
She seemed shy and uncertain, and I felt sorry that these rude
journalists had interrupted what was clearly a private act. I
didn't realize she was simply having a quiet, Stanislavskian moment
while she "found her character."
After she'd finished her preparations, she turned and began her
approach to the shrine. I noticed a single, delicate tear making
its tentative way down her cheek. She seemed oblivious of the
camera. By the time she'd reached her destination and had begun
laying the roses one by one in a circle around the mosaic, her
tears had gathered into tiny mascara-smearing rivulets. Her shoulders
The sound man had a microphone on a pole, and when he moved in
to get closer to the action, she began to speak, as if on cue.
"Oh John, where are you? Your whole life was devoted to
love, to peace, and now look where we are. We miss you so much.
We need you so much, now more than ever."
Then she broke down completely, weeping in convulsive sobs. She
yelled to the crowd that was beginning to gather around, though
she could barely get the words out: "Does...any...one have
a tiss...sue?" It was a powerful moment, an intimate moment.
The poor woman, consumed by private grief, was simply unable to
We all wondered what to do. But only one man knew her
shrimpy husband. He stepped up behind his wife, who was now kneeling,
as though posing for a pietà, put a comforting hand on
her shoulder, and in a shaky baritone (with a Brooklyn accent)
began to sing:
Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
Living for today...
The sound man moved the microphone quickly in order to catch
the moment. Someone stepped in quietly and handed our leading
lady a Kleenex. Though about fifty people had now gathered around
the scene, there was total silence as he sang through Lennon's
eloquent masterpiece to the end.
You may say I'm a dreamer,
But I'm not the only one,
I hope some day you'll join us,
And the world will live as one.
"Ooooohhhhh Joooooohn. You've gone away, and there's no
one left to help us." The song had clearly achieved its purpose.
Our leading lady had calmed down. Marshaling her courage, she
staggered to her feet for her big finale.
"The world is still full of hatred, and unkindness, and
hunger, and bigotry, and violence." She broke down all over
again. The weight of the world was clearly more that this gentle
woman could bear. Somehow, she went on.
"What...should...we...do...now...John?" She glanced
up quickly toward the camera, which was getting the whole thing.
"You taught us that love and kindness are the answer. You
always had the answers. But what now, John? What about September
Spent, she fell back against her husband, who did his best to
comfort her as she wept modestly.
Just then, a young black man on rollerblades wisked by the crowd,
rolled back around in a big arch, and shouted to no one in particular,
"Peace and love? Ha! They belong to the Man, suckas."
÷ ÷ ÷
Tickets to a Broadway show start at around a hundred dollars.
And if the show is good, they can be hard to get. I say, don't
bother. New York is one of the world's great theater capitals.
And the best performances are free and available to all.