Sunday, May 2, 2010

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

When I stepped out from JFK airport into the streets on New York City, it didn't feel real. It was like walking around a memory of some place that had been lost a long time ago, and that I'd wake up to the real world at any moment, the one where I was a foreigner adapting to something new. But the longer I walked, the more I saw that was American, and the less real it felt. Temperatures measured in Fahrenheit, distances in miles, weight in pounds. The month coming before the day in the written date. Streets running at right angles. People everywhere speaking my language with something a lot like my accent. And yet...

When I left the United States, George W Bush was president. iPhones were the rare toys of the rich and famous, and the really nerdy. Facebook was still mostly something for people in college or who'd just graduated. We'd pay $7 or $8 to go see a movie in theaters and complain about it being too expensive. Nobody really cared about Twitter. Looks like things have changed a little.

In some ways, it still doesn't feel like I'm home yet. While I've been to New York three times before, I've never lived there. It's been this weird hybrid of travel as I know it in a new destination and coming home. I've spent my days mostly seeing all these people who knew me before 2008. A couple of them before 1998. One even before 1988, though since neither of us was three years old yet, our memories are a little fuzzy on that point. But the neighborhoods, sights, and sounds are still fairly new.

You can learn a lot about this town by riding the subway. People talk to each other in more languages than you can count (it seems like everybody I meet is talking about this article in the New York Times). Strangers talk to each other, yell at each other and fight, and laugh and help each other. Some sit and mind their own business, others play their music for everyone to hear and dance in the middle of the car. The stations and cars are the dirtiest and most run-down subway stations and cars I've seen in the world. Seriously, formerly soviet Hungary and fiscally-collapsed Greece have nicer ones. But the people and thing happening inside the New York subway system are something to see.

The one thing I keep seeing inside the subway and around parts of town is an alert defensiveness. Signs that say "If you see something, say something" in English and Spanish. And emergency preparedness ads. Drills. Ads on TV for burglar alarm systems. This is city that has once been a victim. At first I thought it was a culture of fear. But that was what I'd seen in South Africa. This was slightly different. There, the people were divided and scared of each other. Here, they are united to keep an eye out for everyone, regardless of color or language. I didn't expect to see this demonstrated any further than reading the posters.

New York has some of the best theater in the world. I spotted a poster for a show entitled Behanding in Spokane, by a very famous playwright named Martin McDonagh, and starring Christopher Walken. My mom was born in Spokane. This was too good to pass up. So, yesterday, I got rush tickets in the morning (deep discount for the last minute).

I came down to 8th and 45th, right next to Times Square, around 7:40 for the 8:00 show, but had a little trouble figuring out a way to get to the theater. Some of the streets had been blocked off, including a chunk of Times Square. At first I thought it was construction, until I noticed the cops.

I backtracked a bit and tried to take an alleyway I'd spotted before, but the police had started blocking that off as well. I asked one what was going on. He said there was a car fire, and the street was closed. I turned back and passed the word along to some of the swirling theatergoers looking for the open part of the street they could use to go see their shows.

Everybody was backed up onto 8th ave. Nobody could go down the streets to the dozen or two Broadway theaters putting on shows within minutes. People were wringing their hands trying to figure out how they were supposed to get into the theater in time before curtain. One lady started asking a cop, who replied angrily "Why do you care about this show? You should worry about your safety here. Your safety is a lot more important than seeing your show."

I walked further and saw at least one other street had been closed. For a car fire? Exactly how big was this car, and why wasn't there any smoke? I found a number in my cell phone I'd used before-- telecharge, the NYC theater ticket agency. After five minutes on hold, they told me the shows were delayed due to fire.

That's when the cops decided to clear the street of the hundreds of theatergoers milling around anxiously with their tickets. nobody really seemed to know what was going on, but it came out that there was something unknown about the car. They didn't know what was inside it.

I walked back and forth listening to confused people confer with their spouses, kids, friends, speculating on what was happening. I told several what I knew. I asked a fireman sitting on the bumper of his truck what was going on, and he said that the car wasn't on fire, but that they didn't know what was inside it. Before I could ask more, I was interrupted by some 30-something women in short skirts and lots of makeup, gleefully making a beeline for the NYFD so they could have their picture taken with them. A couple fat guys passing by started laughing and loudly making fun of them.

Telecharge repeatedly said the shows were delayed. The cops stated yelling into the bullhorns that they were all canceled. But you could tell they just wanted the crowd to disperse. It wasn't until an hour and a half after the shows started that we finally started getting some of the story. The theaters had delayed but then started the shows with the few people in the audience who had come more than an hour early. The street was still closed, and would remain closed for an unknown amount of time. I asked some of the news crew that had arrived what was going on. Their two word answer: Bomb scare.

So I went back to my friend's place and found pretty much everything I had just experienced on the front pages of the New York Times, BBC World News, and Al Jazeera. This morning, we got this.

It's been an interesting introduction to being back.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. So glad you're back. Did you end up seeing the show?

  2. Yup. Swapped the ticket for a matinée the next day.

  3. Wow! What a time to come back in the states, and in NYC of all places!

    There is a slight "good bye lenin" feel to your description of what it is like to be back stateside. Any chance you can write about that more in the future?

  4. The bomb story was front page news here in Seattle the day after I read your blog. Made me realize how abstract in a way newspaper articles are if I don't know anyone the events happened to, and how personally I felt about it when I did.

  5. Now that your trip is almost over, here's a question that I've been pondering: who takes the pictures of you we sometimes see? Random friendly strangers? Time delay and camera on a rock? Fellow wannabe travelers yearn to know!

  6. Noah- Thanks! I've never actually seen the movie, so I'm not sure I can replicate it. Anything specific you had in mind?

    Catherine- It feel overblown to me, having been there. Nobody was hurt, the bomb was very ineptly made. Nobody was even nervous about it. At worst, people were anxious about their theater tickets.

    Anyway the pics of me are taken by a mix of both of those and some friends. The main pic on this post was taken by my friend Jason, who lives in New Jersey. If you remember the JYA show I was on with NBC, he was the guy who went to Australia. Great guy. That day was the first time we'd seen each other in person since the first filming in 2006.