Bother From Another Planet


Suddenly the lingua franca in Central Park is Italian. French is Fifth Avenue’s new mother tongue. In Soho, it’s Spanish, as spoken with Argentine accents. Rockefeller Center is overrun with Russians, or, as one unamused worker there calls them, “Mussians. That’s short for mofo Russians, which they are.” When you encounter English at all these days, it’s spoken in the unmistakable tones of the ‘burbs.

The tourists are here. They’ve arrived in pods, seemingly from out of nowhere, apparently transported in strange air and land vehicles. Proliferating in the rarefied atmosphere of Manhattan, they’re easy to locate. For one thing, they never travel singly when they can ambulate three abreast. They talk weird, walk funny, and exhibit a strange slowness to part with cold currency. They show appetites for foodstuffs most locals consider scary or repugnant (honey-roasted peanuts!). They hardly ever wear hardened expressions that say “Stand back or I’ll rip your throat out.” They also, as choreographer Mark Morris notes, have an unfortunate tendency to announce themselves as suckers by sporting Hard Rock Cafe jackets that might as well read “Pick my pocket! Mug me, please!”

And they’re ubiquitous. “I’m doing a one-woman poll,” says Belle McIntyre, proprietor of Asian Opera, a new shop at the southern reaches of Greene Street in Soho. “This entire week I’ve had one person in the store who’s from New York. And she lives in Philadelphia. Most of traffic’s domestic, and there’s a lot of California, who knows why? But today we had a whole contingent in from Israel.”

Contingent, in the Webster’s sense, is a good word for how the alien arrivals leave a native feeling: not logically necessary, elbowed aside. You get this most clearly when attempting to navigate Midtown through throngs of people with no idea that sidewalks here function as pedestrian freeways. The ability to pass on the inside lane while calculating the time it’ll take to jump the next red light is one of a true New Yorker’s defining characteristics. And— since there are hardly any true, or native, New Yorkers— the developed ability to do so qualifies you instantly for membership in the club. Speed walking with purpose offers not only efficiency but the intoxicating head rush an Angeleno gets when navigating the multilane Hollywood to Harbor to Santa Monica interchange doing 70. And you’ll recall that even ponderous old Joan Didion got off on that.

“It’s like the whole city is suddenly jammed with Sunday drivers going 40 in the fast lane,” says Rebecca Brennan, a financial analyst who works near Rockefeller Center. “Instead of crosswalks, Giuliani should mark the sidewalks with High Occupancy and Passing lanes.”

At the very least, the city might mark off some of those comical “safety zones” the NYPD is so fond of— the ones that make Manhattan safe for the passage of, say, Julie Taymor’s Lion King effigies on New Year’s Eve, or Ralph Lee’s creepily archaic Halloween puppets— and alarming for those of us just trying to get to the IRT.

The mayor might equally provide for out-of-town pedestrians the fenced-off “secure” areas you find in better shopping malls. That way tourists can mingle and clump in happy ignorance between episodes of eating and shopping.

It’s a feature of the alien horde that, in basic ways, they appear to have no real idea where they are. That is, they have a vague sense that it’s not the same as where they come from—
although the American ones, at least, can buy the same corporate toy garbage (Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, etc.) here as back home. But, what used to be thought of as the signifying features of our own urban landscape— vertiginous buildings, chic retailers, weird statuary from bygone eras, ethnic delicacies, stylish locals, and an intelligentsia— now seem miniaturized and subsumed to some indefinable theme. Call it globalization. Call it the malling of Manhattan. Call it Warner Bros. creep. “What is this place named?” an outlander asked a guard last weekend at Rockefeller Center, that 60-year-old monument to idealized urbanism— medieval cathedral square meets city-as-machine. “Look at that church,” another tourist, a young woman in a Little Falls soccer jacket, was heard to say as she guided a school group past St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “That’s, like, so out of place.” Certainly there was some freshness in the observation: after all, what is a big, faked (no flying buttresses) French Gothic pile doing in the middle of the concrete canyons? But still, would you think a Baedeker were required to recognize a building that used to be considered the Catholic Mecca? You would.