New York filmmaker Joshua Z Weinstein took an above-average interest in subway dance performers. (By “above-average,” I mean he glanced up from his newspaper long enough to notice them, which is more than can be said for most of us.)
It’s a good thing he did, too, because he deftly managed to elevate what can often seem an irritating (and invariably loud) performance into something approaching art:
After weeks of calls, I managed to book an afternoon shoot with some of the men, who call themselves the W.A.F.F.L.E. (We Are Family for Life Entertainment) crew: J-Black, Goofy, Boy Aero, Lex Aero, John-O and Sonic. I focused my lens on their hands seizing poles and feet fluttering in the air. As I zoomed in, I noticed that these self-taught artists are not just part of an underground subculture; their graceful moves also evoke a classical ballet.
London mayor Boris Johnson describes meeting New York mayor Michael Bloomberg:
When the mayors met for the first time, Mr. Johnson recalled, Mr. Bloomberg kept talking about trans fats.
“I didn’t know what trans fats were,” Mr. Johnson said, a glint in his eye. “I thought it had something to do with transsexuals, obese transsexuals, or something. Anyway, he made a great deal about that.”
Helena Fitzgerald reflects on her city’s performance during the latest (but most certainly not the last) disaster to befall it:
E. B. White, in his 1949 essay Here is New York, wrote: “No one should come to New York unless he is willing to be lucky.” Obsessively checking twitter, I watched friends and acquaintances, in the midst of disaster, asking plaintively whether bars were open, and where. A photographer I used to know posted a little after midnight, not long after the storm surge’s high tide, that he knew it was dangerous, but he was going to walk over the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan to take pictures of the flooding on the Lower East Side and in the East Village. One of the photos shows the FDR drive turned into an unrecognizable river. Another depicts the ConEd center on East 14th, after it had exploded, surrounded by deep, unbroken water, like some kind of science-fiction lighthouse. Walking across the blacked-out bridge, he ran into two people having sex, in the dark, in the middle of the hurricane. “Scared the shit out of me,” he said. But of course, I thought. I wasn’t surprised in the least. Not only because catastrophe, any and all life-threatening events, drive us to affirm life in the most basic way our wanting bodies know how. In any place threatened by a natural disaster, people would have clung to life by having sex in their homes, in bedrooms and living rooms, behind safely closed doors and secured windows. But it didn’t surprise me at all that in this particular city people had thought to put themselves in harm’s way as epically as possible, to go to the very most vulnerable and thrilling center of the disaster — on a bridge, in the dark, over a surging river, at the high point of the hurricane — while they had disaster sex.
“Willing to be lucky” is one way to talk about a city full of people more committed to being interesting than to being safe or happy. This unhinged, adrenaline-addicted prioritizing persists despite any gentrification, beyond any safe neighborhoods. I understood the impulse to go outside and have sex on the bridge in the middle of the hurricane, because it’s an exaggerated version of the impulse to move to New York at all. This place is a city full of unnecessary danger and difficulty, and to move here on purpose is neither logical nor sane. It is not exactly responsible to want everything to be this exciting at every moment. In the same way, it was not exactly responsible or noble of me to feel a thrill when I imagine these dangers turning the city back into something like what my parents experienced. But I admit I felt it anyway.
A literary map of New York:
Others have already called Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland a masterpiece, summoning specters of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and even “[providing] a resonant meditation on the American Dream” (so enthuses the New York Times‘ vaunted book reviewer Michiko Kakutani).
I will not be doing that. I hesitate not out of disagreement but due to some innate reluctance to place contemporary books amidst the pantheon of Great Literature. I’m not well-read enough in either area to be sure I’m connecting the right dots in the right way. And yet one can’t help but get the feeling, while devouring O’Neill’s magnetic writing, that he has managed to capture the American zeitgeist in a way few others have.
O’Neill zeroes in on post-9/11 New York, but with the unique perspective afforded to an outsider. For Hans van den Broek, a Dutch-born equities analyst who had previously lived in London, home is Manhattan, even as childhood memories of The Hague and frequent dashes to and from London create a sort of love rectangle, with each city vying for his attention. To Holland belongs his nostalgia, but it is London, where his increasingly estranged British wife and adoring son have retreated following the Twin Towers’ collapse, to which Hans continues to return, both in mind and in body.
New York is just where he lives. And yet therein lies the secret to O’Neill’s subtle ode to the city: he neither waxes poetical nor transforms New York into the gritty metropolis so ubiquitous in crime dramas. Yes, he revels in the occasional admiring glance. (Of Times Square, Hans concedes that “I always regarded these shimmers and vapors as one might the neck feathers of certain of the city’s pigeons — as natural, humble sources of iridescence.”) But O’Neill’s focus, and thus that of Hans, is drawn instead to its myriad characters, most notably that of Chuck Ramkissoon.
Chuck is a Trinidadian who, and here we can echo reviewers worldwide by drawing parallels to Jay Gatsby, dreams of leveraging his love of cricket into a burgeoning business empire, dedicated equal parts to revenue generation and also to a bizarre strand of ecumenism. “I’m saying that people…are at their most civilized when they’re playing cricket,” Chuck declares to Hans one day, in a characteristic burst of grandiloquence. “What’s the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this.”
By that measuring stick, Chuck doesn’t play enough cricket himself. As Hans finds himself increasingly drawn into the sport that marked his youth, Chuck wedges his way in too, serving as Hans’ instructor, ostensibly preparing him for his impending driving test. In reality, Hans soon learns of Chuck’s ulterior motives. “It gave Chuck a measure of cover, maybe even prestige, to have a respectable-looking white man chauffeuring him while he ran around collecting bets all over Brooklyn.”
Chuck’s unsavory business dealings soon leave Hans with a sour taste in his mouth, one that fades only with geographical distance as Hans finally bids New York adieu in search of reigniting a future with his wife, Rachel. Soon after the World Trade Center attacks, Rachel had coldly expressed to Hans her intention to take Jake, their son, with her to London. “It’s safer,” she reasoned. For his part, Hans bitterly noted that “all lives…eventually funnel into the advice columns of women’s magazines.” Now, with weeks and months of separation accumulating with ever-decreasing notice, Hans returns to the United Kingdom to salvage the wreckage of what was once a marriage.
In a sense, Hans truly is the Nick Carraway of Netherland, narrating from the sidelines, an objective third party to people, places, and events that intimately affect his own life, from his wife to the cities through which he passes. He may leave the dreaming to Chuck, but Hans van den Broek’s observations virtually force readers to close their eyes and open their imaginations.