Monday, September 12, 2005

How I Brought New York Together

In November of 2001, my wife and I made our first post-9/11 trip to New York. I wrote a short piece about it that I’d hoped to place for publication, but it never made it out of the drawer. Here it is:


I had meant to dress nicer.

It was to be our first visit to New York since the events of September 11th and my wife and I wondered how the trip would affect us, especially when we caught our first glimpse of the new skyline. I think like many a Philadelphian, we both felt a little proprietary about New York. Living so close to it had allowed us to enjoy so much of what it had to offer and given us so many fond memories, of music, Broadway shows, and a hundred small moments that made us feel like honorary members of a secret club. We may have been lifelong Philadelphians, but it was time to acknowledge the Manhattanite within us and join together with our cosmopolitan kin. Surely they would recognize us and we would share our secret grief, a grief known most profoundly to we East Coasters, Sons and Daughters of the Northeast Corridor, Holy Knights of the Bully Ballclubs.

I have this problem at shows.

Several things have happened since my wife and I went clubbing in our heyday. For one, the artists we enjoyed then have either a) fallen off the face of the earth or b) challenged themselves and their audiences musically to the point where what they do is of interest to only their hardcore fans and (and this is a crucial and) those too young to understand that even though the artist they paid to see played a loud guitar with a knock-kneed sneer 20 years ago, this is no guarantee that they're going to attend what is conventionally known as a "rock show."

I should explain.

There's an entire generation of Elvis Costello fans that somehow believes that, even though he's done everything in his power over the past 10 years to convince them of the contrary, if they pay money to see him, he will revive the long-dead icon from the cover of My Aim Is True and play Pump It Up ten times in a row, and one more time as an encore. His dalliances with a string quartet, Burt Bacharach, or Tom Waits's back-up band will not disabuse of them of this notion. They believe it as solidly as you and I believe in gravity. There is no disuading them and the result is, when faced with Elvis fronting the latest version of the Charles Mingus Orchestra, their brains squeal and they stare in helpless confusion at their palm pilots.

And so.

The crowd that night at the Beacon seemed well-behaved enough, though there was an augury of the unpleasantness to come when the fellow a few seats down began to drunkenly mumble "Bulllllshiiit!" in the midst of a Mingus ballad. But this honest approach was preferable to the crew that planted themselves behind us and decided the Mingus compositions were some kind of background music, a kind of aural wallpaper they'd paid $100 to shout over. In my mind, I asked them to be quiet several times. Then my mouth exploded.


Or something like that. It doesn't matter. One guy grabs my arm from behind and tells me to shut up. From out of nowhere, I find myself telling him (this, in the shadow of one the greatest tragedies in our collective history, mind you), "It is the world's great misfortune that Charles Mingus is dead and that you, sir, are still alive." He glares at me as my wife and a spectator pull us apart. The only other thing I remember is my calling him a punk, as if I were about to jump on my Harley and burn rubber. But it seemed very articulate at the time.

The rest of the evening consisted of muttered insults that drifted up from behind us and blended into a sort of vicious white noise. Sides were taken, allies enlisted from nearby seatmates. The show ended as Costello explained how he had devised a set of lyrics to Mingus's Hora Decubitus as he was hearing about the attack on the World Trade Center. He roared through its performance, exclaiming over and over again at its conclusion, "Life is a beautiful thing! Life is a beautiful thing! Life is a beautiful thing!"

We all filed out quickly, avoiding eye contact, wondering what new and tentative armies might lie on the horizon.


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