Daily Archives: January 11, 2004

None Dare Call It Flanerie

ON a recent cold and windy Saturday afternoon, Dave Asaro-Berman, flanked by his friends, emerged from the PATH station at 33rd Street and the Avenue of the Americas, took a gulp of city air and marched toward Times Square.

So begins a very curious Sunday New York Times story The Emerald City, all about what used to be known as “the bridge and tunnel crowd” — an identificatory tag as reprehensible to Northeasterners as “White Trash” is to Southerners. As might be expected from “gulp” and “march” the term won’t be used to describe the article’s subjects

Inquisitive and a bit theatrical, Dave led the group of four boys and one girl, all of them teenagers from northern New Jersey. Each one had paid the $3.95 to take the 1:49 train from their hometown, Fair Lawn, to Hoboken, where they switched to a PATH train and were delivered from suburban tranquillity to Midtown bustle.

“a bit theatrical” = Metrosexual.

Asked what they might normally be doing had they stayed in Fair Lawn, Dave rolled his eyes. “There’s a 24-hour CVS pharmacy, and we hang out there,” he said. “We call it Club C. That’s how sad our lives are.”
One boy, a soft-cheeked 16-year-old named Jon Brandwein, had campaigned with his parents for days to be allowed to go. “My father’s a chiropractor in SoHo,” Jon said, “and he knows the crazy things that go on in the city.”

Aha — an “insider”! But as we learn they don’t want to get “inside” anything.

As the group neared the neon glow of 42nd Street, Dave, who is 16 with an unruly goatee and hair held aloft by gel, paused.

Doubt that Kyan would approve.

“That’s new,” he said, pointing to a giant flashing video screen. The epic scale of the billboard and the pulsing energy of Times Square seemed to suffuse him.

“No matter where you are or what time of day,” he said, “there’s always something to do in New York.”

And staring at a lighted billboard is “doing something.”

“The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the facades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. To him the shiny, enamelled signs of businesses are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to the bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done.”

So said Walter Benjamin back in the 1930’s, finding such passive activity an honorable estate. Or as “honorable” as Charles Baudelaire at any rate.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s get back to Dave and his friends.

Venturing into Manhattan and hanging around Times Square, Central Park or the Village is a rite of passage shared by many suburban kids. But to be a teenager growing up in the Garden State is to have an especially complex relationship with New York. It is to be close enough to feel the city’s big beat, but to be far enough removed to feel its absence from your own life; to be familiar with the otherworldly skyline and regal avenues, but still to be an out-of-towner; to crave New York’s bottomless well of excitement, but to fear its dangers.

But only of you stay safely on the outside.I grew up in Flushing Queens, venturing into the city every day once I went to the High School of Music and Art. In fact from high school on I only went home to Flushing to sleep. And once I began having sex I didn’t always do that. So did I ever really qualify as a Suburban Flaneur ?

Last Oct. 7, a teenage couple from New Jersey were killed in a car wreck on the West Side Highway. The girl attended Fair Lawn High School, which Dave and his friends attend. Five days later, a 19-year-old Connecticut college student from Byram Township, N.J., was found shot to death in Prospect Park South, Brooklyn, after a party.
There are less grave but no less daunting concerns too: navigating the transit system; rushing to catch the last bus or train home; and encountering that dreaded nemesis, the city kid.

“Dreaded nemesis”? Not for me. “City kids” meant Tippi Walker in The World of Henry Orient or better still, Ryan Philippe (or more to the point his gay equivalent) in Igby Goes Down. Yes the city was dangerous, but one took precautions — even as one took risks. Like everyone else who went there I knew perfectly well that the Rambles of Central Park could be dangerous. But somehow they never were for me.

Just Hot.

Still, for many, New York looms across the Hudson like a steel and glass Everest. “Growing up in New Jersey,” said Tom Perrotta, a novelist who was raised in the working-class town of Garwood, 25 miles southwest of the city, “I always felt New York was there to be conquered.”

Dave Asaro-Berman would probably agree with Mr. Perrotta. Though his jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch sweater constitute a kind of uniform for the suburban teenager, he claims to be an urbanite at heart. “As far as I’m concerned,” Dave likes to say, “New York is the center of the world.”

Well it used to be. I went back in 200 and it struck me as being the final realization of what Godard in 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais D’Elle called “being inside of an enormous comic strip” — the end-state of modern life. But rather than a comic strip, New York has become an ad for the Disney corporation.

He cites his bar mitzvah. The theme: New York City, complete with its landmark skyscrapers as table centerpieces – miniature Chrysler and Empire State Buildings lovingly sculptured in tinfoil by his grandmother.

But Fair Lawn, he says, is tame, predictable, static. In a word – excuse the yawn – dullsville. Fair Lawn, a borough of 30,000 in central Bergen County, has all the pedestrian qualities (to a teenager) of a classic north Jersey burg: easy access by highway exit; dotted with tidy homes; a stone’s throw from five malls.

A mere eight miles to the southeast is the George Washington Bridge and, across it, The City. Yet living nearby does not necessarily foster affection. Although Dave visits several times a month, many other New Jersey teenagers have little interest in straying beyond the local malls. Dave’s friends were once among that crowd. “They’d maybe been to a Broadway show once a year,” he said. “I was the one who instigated the whole ‘let’s go into the city’ thing.”
His fascination was sparked by the fact that his parents once lived on Central Park West. Many residents of New York’s gilded suburbs are former Upper West Siders or Park Slopers who moved away to start families but never fully gave up citizenship.

The notion of the suburbs as a sub-standard foreign country is the middle-class equivalent of internalized homophobia.

The commuter tradition, too, keeps teenagers connected. “My dad worked in New York, at Morgan Guaranty Trust Company,” said the novelist Rick Moody, who spent part of his youth in Darien, Conn., later lived in Hoboken and captured some of the angst of suburban teenage life in his novel “The Ice Storm.” “It gave you the feeling you were attached to the city by some umbilicus. I was fascinated with all the appurtenances of his job. I thought the subway tokens, for instance, which he kept in a dish, were really cool.”
For Mr. Moody, journeying into the city was always a larger-than-life event. “It was the recognition of scale,” he said. “I was endlessly fascinated with the F.D.R. and how it snaked under buildings. I had that feeling that the city is the land of 10,000 things, in distinction to the narrow house with two acres in the suburbs.”

Moody, the bete noire of the terminally cranky Dale Peck has been exceptionally lucky in pop culture marketplace terms. The Ice Storm was made into a rather good film by Ang Lee, starring the iconically resonant Tobey Maguire, marking it a minor classic despites Peck’s pecking.

Adi Shaulov, a precocious 17-year-old from the Bergen County town of Tenafly, is typical of the teenagers who have an easy rapport with New York.
“I go into the city almost every weekend,” she said. “I go shopping in SoHo or out to eat. When it comes to culture, activity and life, I always turn to the city.”
Her attitude is a stark contrast to that in the working-class enclaves across the river and to the south, where the city has long been viewed not only with indifference but with fear and suspicion. Elizabeth, in Union County, is just a few minutes from New York, but it feels as if it were on the other side of the country.

For those, like Mr. Perrotta, who grew up in such places, an uneasy relationship with the city is encoded, passed down from parent to child like crooked teeth. “I grew up around people who were scared of the city,” he said. “Like a lot of working-class people, my father had only contempt and dread of it.”

Maybe they knew the New York of the “before time” — prior to the Disney/Giuliani “clean-up.” Ah those were the days! Thank goodness Samuel R. Delaney remembers them in his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue .

Trips to New York by Mr. Perrotta’s family were few and far between, confined to a ballgame or a trip to see the circus at Madison Square Garden. Because of that, he says, “I was more afraid of New York than people from the Midwest. For them, it was a mecca. For me, it was a beacon and also a rebuke.”

No place captures that tension more powerfully than the Port Authority Bus Terminal. One of the three ways most New Jersey kids enter the city (the other two are Penn Station and the downtown PATH stops), the station, on Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, is a cavernous maze ripe with both excitement and menace.

And Hustlers!

Mr. Perrotta can still recall the sensory shock of pulling into the station. “You could get a bus on the corner of your quiet town, across from the local pet shop,” he said, “and get out at Port Authority and have guys beckoning at you: ‘Hey, Jersey boy.’ “

“In for the weekend? Wanna make some money?” HOO-YAH! and Hubba-Hubba !

Dave and his friends were dressed down recently by a surly bus driver for trying to pay for a ride with cash instead of buying a ticket. “He yelled at us in front of everyone and kicked us off the bus,” Dave said. “We weren’t sure if we’d make it home.” (The suburban teenager, much like Cinderella, must be mindful of time; the last bus or train out of the city usually leaves around 1 a.m. and those who miss it are stranded till morning.)
Dave and his friends were on friendlier turf this day: their first stop was the McDonald’s in Times Square. With a vast city to explore, it seems an odd choice, but, like many suburban kids who visit New York, Dave and his friends stick to a few well-worn areas: Times Square, whose frenetic pace and hormonal energy, even now that the drugs and sex shops are gone, seem expressly made for teenagers; Central Park; and the commercialized bohemia of Greenwich Village, with its T-shirt shops and lenient bars. Brooklyn and Queens might as well be Mars and Venus.

Yes we’ve come a long way from The Arcades Project. In fact, were Benjamin around today he might skip New York completely and head for those suburban malls that Dave and his friends abhor.

This is due partly to the fear of being an outsider. But it’s also a result of being mesmerized by anything and everything – one way to pick a suburban teenager out of an urban crowd is to watch for a swiveling neck and dilating pupils.

Yep, they’re just like junkies!

At one point, for example, the group trekked to the Great Lawn to play hacky sack (alas, no one had remembered to bring the actual sack). They could have easily hacked the sack in the parking lot of Club C, but instead, they were standing in Central Park. The city, in other words, has the power to elevate the most mundane endeavor into a momentous occasion. As Dave put it: “There’s so much going on here. Even if you’re not part of it.”

For some, the city’s pull is so strong that they will defy their parents to get here. Many younger teenagers, especially girls, aren’t allowed to go into the city on their own, and so one of the great shared traditions among suburban kids is sneaking into New York via the feigned slumber party or skipping school.
One of Dave’s friends, Lindsay Bright, laughed as she recalled a girlfriend who concocts a variety of ruses to visit the city. “She’ll call her mom and say, ‘Yeah, we’re over at so-and-so’s house,’ ” Lindsay said. “Meanwhile, we’re at Starbucks in Union Square.”

Which is no different from the Starbucks in Jersey. Haven’t these kids seen Playtime ?

No, of course they haven’t.

Adi Shaulov has stories, too. “There was a club on 56th Street called Exit that had a teen night and my parents forbade me to go,” she said. “Of course, I went anyway. There were five girls, and one of the mothers drove us in.” The girl who said her mother would pick up Adi and her friends, however, had lied. “We stayed out really late and had to pay a cabby a lot of money to take us back to New Jersey,” she said ruefully. “We thought we were so adult.”

Most New Jersey kids who build a nascent life in New York are similar: the intellectually curious whose tastes run more toward the Met than to the mall; the ones who find the suburbs too boring and confining; the higher class of delinquent who favors the city’s edgier thrills. Not surprisingly, there exists, among them, a shared culture of people, places, experiences.

Adam Schlesinger, co-founder of the rock band Fountains of Wayne, writes songs that capture the suburban view of the city with great accuracy – waiting, drunk, at the Port Authority; falling in love with a fast girl from Queens. One song, “Laser Show,” sends up a classic teen ritual: “They come from Bridgeport, Westport, Darien/ Down to the Hayden Planetarium/ We’re gonna space out to our favorite tunes/ We’re going straight to the dark side of the moon.”
“You used to hear ads for the laser show all the time on the radio,” said Mr. Schlesinger, who grew up in Montclair, N.J., 12 miles west of the city, and named the band after a lawn ornament store in nearby Wayne. “It was a New York destination.”

My favorite Fountains of Wayne song is “The Valley of Malls.”

Mr. Schlesinger’s songs are also born from what may be the most widely shared trait among New Jersey kids, a sort of suburban inferiority complex. “In high school I felt vaguely inadequate when I was in New York,” he said. “In my perception, the city kids had a certain attitude that was based on nothing more than being raised there.”

Mr. Moody, too, recalls how advanced city kids seemed. “They made me feel so uncool,” he said. “They all knew the guys you bought dope from in Central Park. And they knew the places to go at night, like the Peppermint Lounge. They had worldly connections.”

The image of suburban kid as sacrificial lamb is an enduring one. The city isn’t nearly as crime-riddled as it was in past decades, but there are still news reports of suburban kids getting mugged, arrested and even murdered.
And humiliated. Mr. Moody recalls his first unchaperoned trip to New York and the fiasco that followed. “My parents gave me an incredibly romantic lecture about Grand Central station and how I should look up at the constellations,” Mr. Moody said. “I went in and saw a prep school friend and felt so adult. While I was waiting for my return train, I was accosted by a Hare Krishna. Within seconds he swindled me out of $10. I got on the train and thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a suburban loser.’ “

No. The “loser” part was feeling “adult” because you had a friend in prep school.

Little has changed since. Dave spoke often of his fascination with flash mobs. “They’re so cool!” he said, referring to a Dadaist moment that erupted last summer and has long been passé. Adi admits to being flat-out jealous of city dwellers. “I feel like I don’t want to be from New Jersey,” she said.

However often a suburban kid visits the city, the initial awe and wonder at the scale and complexity of New York may never be lost. Neither is the feeling that one is still, essentially, from New Jersey. “I was doing a book reading in the city a few years ago,” Mr. Perrotta said, “and I saw an old girlfriend that I hadn’t heard from in 20 years. She was living in the city and looked very much like a New York woman – dressed in black, very chic. I was startled that one of us could go over to the other side.”

Kind of like a Val Lewton movie, no?

As it turned out, Jon Brandwein’s parents had little to worry about in their son’s foray into New York that Saturday. The group’s afternoon in the city had a wholesome, vaguely Richie Cunningham quality, as if sex, drugs and contempt for anyone over 30 had miraculously passed them by.
After watching the skaters circle Wollman Rink in Central Park and recovering from the great hacky sack misadventure, the group made its way to F. A. O. Schwarz, of all places, soaking in all of New York’s visual riches. “I love looking at the nice cars at the Plaza,” Dave said as he passed the hotel.

Only one boy in the group, Yev Feinstein, owns a car, but everyone was auto focused. “Look,” one of them, Anton Brett, said. “A stretch Hummer limousine!”
There was equal astonishment at the prices of the toys inside F. A. O. Schwarz, like $500 for a chess set, and of the food at Maxie’s, a touristy restaurant near Times Square that charges $19.95 for a chicken sandwich with fries.
But as the little group ambled toward the blinking lights and rattling noises of the ESPN Zone arcade in Times Square, no one tried to plumb the depths of New York or make contact with native New Yorkers. Rather, the group seemed to float along the city’s surface currents, dipping toes in here and there, then moving on. Just being a spectator to New York’s 24-hour circus seemed to be enough.

But New York is more than a matter of nice cars. It can be an inspiration, as Frank O’Hara proved in poems like “A Step Away From Them”

But that was another time and another New York.

Heading to the Port Authority, that anteroom to the suburbs, Dave summed up the group’s feelings. “You know,” he said, “I almost don’t want to go back to New Jersey.”

What flaneur would?

For as Benjamin said

“The crowd was the veil from behind which the the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flâneur. In it, the city was now landscape, now a room. And both of these went into the construction of the department store, which made use of flânerie itself in order to sell goods. The department store was the flâneur’s final coup. As flâneurs, the intelligensia came into the market place. As they thought, to observe it – but in reality it was already to find a buyer. In this intermediary stage…they took the form of the bohème;. To the uncertainty of their economic position corresponded the uncertainty of their political function.”

But wait a minute — a departent store? Whoops — we’re back in New Jersey. Back in the Valley of Malls.