25 Books to Read Before You Die

33 Halliburton in Hell
32 Mr. Fabulous Chicken Fricassee
31 Little Dictators
30 The 2002 B-TOY Awards
29 My Fitness Goals
28 A Streetcar Named Darlene
27 Operation Enduring Irritation
26 Au Revoir
25 Jeanette MacDonald Among the Ruins
24 I, Flannel-Mouthed Shave Tail
23 The Center of the Universe
22 Some Ketchup with That?
21 That Loathsome Guild
20 Honey-Sweet
19 Buff-Daddy Bookseller
18 Dr. Seuss, Heretic
17 A Smart Bomb Sampler
16 Bin Laden, Bushranger
15 Puppet Nature
14 Character Determines Fate
13 Fundamentally Changed
12 The Smell of Rodent in the Morning
11 Planet of the Bobos
10 Poor William Rehnquist
9 What Michael Pollan Learned From His Alien Abductors
8 We Are in the End Times
7 The Incurable Disease of Writing
6 Halitosis of the Mind
5 My Mommy Fetish
4 Sherlock Holmes Was No Fancy Boy
3 Joyce Carol Oates Scares Me
2 Global Warming is Getting on My Nerves
1 I. Don't. Like. Dave. Eggers

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Original Essays | August 18, 2014

Ian Leslie: IMG Empathic Curiosity

Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very
No. 23:  

The Center of the Universe

Editor's note:
What does a boy from Portland know about New Yorkers? Carlisle may have seen a few characters in the park, but if you want a real taste, why not try one of these books featuring New Yorkers written by some of the best in the business.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
by Michael Chabon

This story about a pair of Jewish comic books artists in Brooklyn really is as grand and entertaining as everyone says it is.

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Low Life
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York
by Luc Sante

Full of anecdotes about the thieves, grifters, and other charmers in the slums of 19th century New York, this is the classic work on the seamier side of the New York personality.

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Closing Time
Closing Time
by Jim Fusilli

"[A] chic modernist tale.... The characters...may have the sickly look of people who do business under lampposts, but they are vital citizens of Fusilli's gorgeous nightmare of a city." The New York Times Book Review

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The Mole People
The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City
by Jennifer Toth

"Having...strode beneath New York with a can of Mace...and with a heart and head ready to listen, [Toth] has brought back a book of stories that no one else has told — a book that is honest and above all, loving, to people who are nobody's fiends. We should all do so well." The Washington Post

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The 25th Hour
The 25th Hour
by David Benioff

"The 25th Hour is the kind of tough, honest, young-in-New York novel you're always looking for but seldom seem to find. A story that will engage your mind and trigger your pulse from beginning to end." George Pelacanos

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Philistines at the Hedgerow
Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons
by Steven S. Gaines

The Hamptons aren't exactly in the city, but they are full of rich New Yorkers, and in this gossipy tell-all, Gaines demonstrates that very rich are often also the very weird.

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Bonfire of the Vanities
Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe

"Splendidly written and acutely observed....No one has portrayed New York Society this accurately and devastatingly since Edith Wharton." National Review

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Underboss: Sammy the Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia
by Peter Maas

In a profile of New Yorkers, you've got to get around to mobsters eventually, and in Underboss, one of the best Mob books ever written, Sammy the Bull Gravano tells all, from his early days as a young hood in Bensonhurst, to his rise through the ranks of Cosa Nostra, to his ultimate disillusionment and fall.

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O 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 "I'm-the-center-of-the-universe" 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 Clark).

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.

First Witch:
Like, when shall we three meet again?
I'm serious! In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Second Witch:
Like, duh girlfriend. When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.

Third Witch:
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 plates.

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 heaved gently.

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 go on.

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 11th? YOU...DIDN'T...IMAGINE...THAT!"

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.



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