The Information District

December 12, 2010

General Worth Monument, Fifth Avenue, Madison Square Park, New York CityThe other day, while I walked along Worth Square, across Fifth Avenue from Madison Square Park, highly canvassed with European walking tours and lunch hour foot traffic in and out of the local outdoor bazaar,  an old black man with a cigarette hanging from his lips coasted slowly on his bike through a crowd of streetwalkers.  I saw him in my periphery wobbling over the walkway through the slow amblers, and suddenly he was addressing me, without swerving, “Watch where you’re walking homo boy, watch where you’re walking homo boy,” he taunted.  Homo boy? I thought.  I’ve been called a “homo” before, and “fruity,” and my former 80 year-old landlady once called me a “fairy bitch,” so the precedent of insult no longer regards my actual sexual preference, but others’ perception of my comportment as a styly guy.  I did take offense though of being called a “boy,” and not a man, unless I am to extrapolate the homo part as Latin.  The biker’s slow wheel scraped the heel of my shoe, doing no damage. He thought he could mimic the horsemanship of General Worth.  Anyway, you can’t take seriously someone who smokes and bikes at the same time.

It is easy to cast a moral light on a subject in order to dispel General Worth Monument, Fifth Avenue, Madison Square Park, New York Citythe exploration of its stickier recesses.  At the urge of Mayor Bloomberg, bike riding in NYC has increased, with miles of new bike lanes, hundreds of bike racks.  It is part of the Mayor’s environmental initiatives, supporting the health of the air and of traffic.  It is a good thing, surely, to get rid of garbage on river barges rather than trucks, or to ban smoking in restaurants (though eating in New York diners has never been the same without lighting up over a black coffee).  But the right of bikers is also used by some to plow by pedestrians as if they have the right of way, since they don’t, and they shout like a berzerker’s warwhoop because they want everyone to know they aren’t going to stop.  The bigger a thing becomes, the lower goes its IQ, like Disco or the American version of The Office.  Thus the incident last year in Times Square when Critical Mass came riding down Broadway, and a uniform cop picked a harmless biker to brutalize.  What better place to demonstrate the paradoxes of the mass mind than Times Square!  A tourist happened to video the assault, which showed that indeed the harassment was unprovoked, and action was taken against the cop.  Didn’t the cop know that Times Square is the most visually captured area on the planet?  It is not only the Entertainment District, where New York City can gaze at itself basking in the lights and screens which are never turned off and the tourists aim cameras everywhere – but it is also the Information District.

At One Times Square, where the New Years Eve Ball is dropped and which is vacant but for Walgreen’s on the first floor, billboard rents command up to a quarter million cabbages per month, and the State of New York advertises its need of your gambling revenue at the “Racino:”

The New York Times were once headquarted in One Times Square, and the newspaper lent the square its name.  The Times still reside off the Great White Way, which might inform a passage of  The Gray Lady’s recent November election coverage:

Overall, however, voters did not express any clear policy preferences that might help direct lawmakers…. They indiscriminately ousted Democratic incumbents who loyally supported Mr. Obama’s agenda… as well as lawmakers who carved their own path by voting against the president and the party leadership…. A number of ousted incumbents were centrists… leaving the Democratic caucuses not only diminished but more liberal.

Sometimes, Times Square fairly advertises the Void:

This past summer, Times Square found itself a revelatory venue for mass prayer:

Apropos of evangelical signifiers, this car was parked in Hell’s Kitchen:

I always got a better kick out of this one:

Back on the Old Broadway, I was happy to see one of my all-time hallowed figures of history given sizable recognition:

I can only hope that, since this billboard is situated above Planet Hollywood, a biopic is currently in the works starring Joaquin Phoenix.
General Worth Monument, Fifth Avenue, Madison Square Park, New York City

Tourism is up in the city, but not as many of them are riding the buses.  Rockefeller Center, Times Sq. and Herald Sq. are all jampacked with people wired in to shop and gawk.  Gray Line Bus Tours is losing steam.  The new rumor is that they will not renew the lease on the headquarters at 777 Eighth Ave, and tour guides will have no theater in which to caucus and eat lunch.  Tips are down.  Tourists are getting harassed by the Evil Elmo.

I worked with a new driver who told me that, because of his prison record, he couldn’t get a job at Coach USA, a bus co. which like Gray Line is part of Twin America LLC.  I asked him about it but he didn’t elaborate.  He isn’t the only Gray Line employee who might have served time in jail, and there may be charitable light cast upon Gray Line – however dim – in its lack of discrimination in hiring ex-cons.  I think Michael Milken works in Payroll.

Last month, Old Town Bar, on 18th Street between Broadway and Park Ave, celebrated the 100th birthday of its mens room urinals.  As a recurrent drinker at Old Town Bar many times (it is featured in the classic New York movie, The Last Days of Disco) and have admired these historical artifacts, where Tammany wardheelers might have once made room for more beer.

As a countersignature to the supersonic land use of Times Square, it was a relief to read that Obama signed the CALM Act, which forbids wily advertisers to raise the volume of TV commercials above the volume of the broadcast program.  Such subterfuge against the senses should never have been legal, and now saves one the trouble of hitting the mute button during cocktail breaks for Mad Men.

The Bigot Spigot

October 14, 2010

The headquarters of Gray Line Bus Tours is at 777 Eighth Avenue, between 47th & 48th St.  In the 1970s, the building was a movie theater, Hollywood Cinema, that screened gay porn, and in the 1980s switched to playing revival flicks, but still promoted the second floor theater as the Night Shift, an “all male theatrical center,” which also offered a free continental breakfast to ticketbuyers.  Today, the second floor twin theaters remain intact, with seats and movie screen.  In one theater, which Gray Line advertises as the Blue Diamond, ticketed tourists are given a private show by a Broadway performer.  The other theater is where the tour guide staff hang out in between tours.  We call it the “lounge” or the “theater” or just “777.”

In the theater, I usually have made it a habit to stay quiet when most of the other tour guides talk with each other.  But I do listen, which is something most guides find it impossible to do, and end up blabbing to each other without response, like a batting cage or a one-way time machine.  There is often company gossiping and kvetching and exaggerating.  Other times the banter is highly entertaining and abstrusely informative.  Either way, no matter how alienated the vibe may seem, it never gets too ugly, just weird.

The other day I was alone in the theater with another guide, who sat a couple rows behind me.  I sneezed and he said god bless, and then asked why I held in my sneeze rather than let it out.  I said basically because it was less messy.  Eventually we started talking.  The exchange turned out to be a prime example of why I usually make it a rule to keep silent – it was weird and it was ugly.

This guide has worked for the company a long time, and though I’d see him ambling about 777, snapping caustic one-liners about the epically absurd rigmarole all employees of Gray Line can relate to, I never talked to him.  A few weeks earlier, when I was doing tours with the driver Mamadoo, this guide stopped by the bus. Mamadoo, born in Paris, his parents from Mali, had a laugh over how he thought he looked like Larry David, the comedian and co-creator of Seinfeld. “You watch Curb Your Enthusiasm?” Mamadoo asked. Mamadoo is a big fan.  The guide – I’ll call him LD – didn’t watch TV.

Talking this day in the theater, LD asked what me what a libray science degree entailed, what library science meant. I shuffled a bit in my description until finding the right terms, feeling that this is a question I should have a dense and succinct answer to. I boiled it down to organizing information so that it is most available to seekers of that information, etc.  As an example of the sensitive gravity of the field, I mentioned that it seems to be a pattern that often political regimes which commit the most heinous atrocities also keep the most detailed records of their acts.  LD used this to mention that Hitler “didn’t exactly have a bad idea.”  And suddenly the conversation was no longer about information science.  LD stressed a caucasioid bias against many different American ways of life, specifically Muslims, and generally non-Christians.

I do not usually engage most tour guides in conversation, but when I do, the odds favor that I will encounter a certain disturbed and anti-social psychology. For a few minutes I talked honestly about the job and about school, and LD was prompted to talk honestly too, about an ostensible belief in white supremacy.  He was calm in his enunciation but a suppressed rage roiled in him.  He hadn’t had fun on the bus in years and despised his passengers.  Did he think I was going to go along with all his bullet points of bigotry? No – he just realized he had an innocent listener, and this was a guy who no one listened to.  The irony of course is that his job is to talk to people.  After after a few minutes sniffing the rancid gust of LD’s temperament, I just turned back around to reading the newspaper, mumbling to myself (which is also a symptom of several tour guides, talking to themselves) . . . what the fuck?

New York City of course is a breeder of both enlightened civil consequence and violent prejudice.  A city this multi-ethnic and so fused with wealth and working class, is a pressure cooker.  LD is swallowed up in it, a mite in the teeth of the kracken, and for a few moments he exposed the dark depths in which people foresake human compassion and pragmatic sense, when they have given up common soul.  Clearly a weak man with a helpless mind, LD lashes out against minorities out of belief in his own existential captivity.  Might give him meaning – grossly – and he ends up posturing his negativity as a matter-of-fact.   You can’t argue with such a person – he is not arguing, just whining – but I could see him opening his mouth to the wrong person and rightfully getting his ass kicked.  LD gave a tour of his stance against the world, and I wanted off the bus at the first stop.  It’s an oral history that won’t make it into the Gray Line Archives, unless they got the theater rigged with secret microphones.