Photo Credit: Alex throws down three card monte in the city, Karen Sterling
Alex sometimes blogs about his night walks in the city on The Zola System. I am a big fan of those posts. One of the pieces, "Zen, White Noise and the New York Night," is so evocative of the urban experience that you will want to get on a plane headed to the city if you aren't here already. I tease him that he is Woody Allen for the 21st Century, so in love is he with New York, New York.
Ah, but he's in love with the city past, the New York that Woody chronicled in "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan", a grittier, edgier and, yes, sexier place.
A romantic Bohemian in the post-Wall Street era, he has a foot in the past and one in the present in his Night Walks.
Q. What is a "Night Walk"?
A. It's my attempt to see the city in its most relaxed form which is at late night--any time from two in the morning til six, before the work rush starts.
Q. Do you worry about being out that late on your own?
A. Since Guilianni started arresting you if you looked cross-eyed at the sidewalk?--No! When I first started walking at night, the element of danger was an interesting fact that you had to deal with.
Q. When did you start?
A. My fourth day in New York City in the year of somebody's lord, 1987.
Q. And you were in college?
A. Yes. New York University. I went to a party. My friend John and I ended up in a half-drunken state walking from Washington Place and Broadway in the Village down to the Brooklyn Bridge. We got halfway across, decided that we were too drunk and might fall in and turned around and went back.
Q. Did you see anything fascinating that night?
A. The six bums I gave money. It was a new experience. I didn't realize until that night that if a bum stuck his hand in my face at a late hour, it wasn't a request.
Q. When did you go back out?
A. A month later, by myself, in a pharmaceutically enhanced state. I decided to go find the place on Ludlow Street where The Velvet Underground had lived back in the mid-60s.
Q. Did you find it?
A. Yeah. I ended up telling a toothless hooker and two drug dealers named Juan and Jose how cool it was that they were standing in front of where The Velvet Underground lived. Now I realized that they must have thought I was the dumbest guy on the planet to be out there talking to them.
Q, In those early days of night walking, did you have any narrow escapes?
A. Surprisingly, no. I did at one point find two hundred dollar bills on East 12th Street at about 9 at night, junior year NYU, 1989. I got three of my friends drunk at a college bar. Then I went to Times Square to see what I could see--something I'd done many times before. Things get a little fuzzy from there. The next thing i remember, it's 3:50 in the morning, I'm getting last call at a really skanky strip club on Eighth Avenue and I have my arm around a really skanky hooker. I still had $75 in my pocket when i got home, so I called it a win-win. In those days, you could get everybody hammered on $30 pitchers of beer.
Q. Have you consistently kept up the night walks?
A. Yes. One of the first things I do when I get back in town from a trip is take a walk around the city to make sure it's the same way I left it.
Q. New York is a character in your blog. It looms large in your life. Do you see New York in a special way or a different way than other people do?
A. I'd like to think that I do, but probably not. I might be a little more observant than the next person. When i first got here, the city was so dangerous that I had to be looking around closely at everything going on. I've retained that habit in my walks.
Q. Do you notice more people walking late at night now?
A. No! The city is dead, absolutely dead. It's been slowly dying at night since 2002.
Q. Why is that? What about all the new young people coming in every year?
A. The young people coming into the city appear to be trying to re-live their frat experience, like I said in Wednesday's blog "Urban Rubes." I saw three young guys walking out of a neighborhood bar and down Third Avenue, trying to break windows with pieces of a broken futon they picked up on the street. They were so drunk, they ended up hurting themselves. They couldn't break windows. I bet these are the kind of guys whose hands fall asleep when they're masturbating.
Q. Are you saying the city is attracting bozos today?
A. The city isn't attracting the literate rugged individuals that it used to attract. It's all about Guyland, the very, very rich and those who cater to both. The restaurants and bars are set up for one group or the other.
Q. There's a lot of nostalgia in your blog when you write about the past glories of Bohemian New York. Do you think those were better days and why?
A. Yes. The city was interesting then. Now it's a strip mall like Scotsdale, Arizona. Granted, it's a special kind of strip mall, but it's a strip mall in the end. There were problems in the city when i got here, but at least it was interesting.
Q. I understand what you're saying. I came here at the same time you did and I think the city used to be sexier than it is now. Agree?
A. Yes, much.
Q. Can you elaborate?
A. New York used to be a town where sexual entanglements could be spiritually satisfying. It seemed like the heat from the street and from all of the people could drive you to experiment sexually. On a whim, you could sleep with someone whom you might not have considered a likely sex partner. Now sex in the city is programmed, scripted and even the neighborhood rated X bookstore is homogenous.
Q. Does the internet play a role in this?
A. Partially. And new technology. People have forgotten how to relate to one another. They don't go to bars to have conversations which might lead to those weird but interesting pairings.
Q. What about hook-ups?
A. The guys don't have to buy the girls a drink. There are no expectations. They don't even have conversations. It's become: exchange names and go the bathroom.
Q. So, to sum up: the city is safer, less interesting and less sexy.
A. Yes, far less sexy.
Q. What's the most interesting thing you've seen on a recent walk?
A. I saw a hooker on Lexington Avenue in the 30s. They haven't been up there in a decade. She propositioned two twenty-something banker types by asking, "Hey, honey, are you looking for a date?" They clearly didn't know she was a hooker. I was shocked that their mothers let them out of the house. No street smarts! This younger generation has no street smarts at all.
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