Why We Write
Soon after arriving back here in lovely and talented New York City, I was hired to work on a commercial in Times Square. Specifically, it was an internet commercial for hair products, where some to-me-unrecognizable media personality types -- all three of them gay men, I guess because they were hawking hair products and all men who do anything hair-related are required to be gay? -- picked women off the street to talk into a microphone shaped like a big brush.
Spending the day in Times Square talking to random strangers was kind of like instant immersion back into the culture. Except from the tourist point of view, since nobody who lives here would be caught dead in Times Square, unless we were getting paid to be there, because we can't stand all the tourists. It's bad enough that we have to be packed in, cheek by jowl, with the people who actually live here, but these camera-slinging, shorts-wearing gapers, clogging the sidewalks when the rest of us are already ten minutes late (and aren't we all perpetually ten minutes late?) must be avoided at all cost. Have you noticed that New Yorkers don’t wear shorts? Ever? It's not because we're scared to show our pasty, white legs, although that is also a factor, especially this time of year. It's because we don't want to look like we're from the Midwest. Or Germany.
Having just been a tourist for several weeks, you'd think I would have a little more sympathy. But no, I carried my hatred of tourists with me, so I had to work desperately not to be one: no backpack except while hiking, no taking out the map and staring at it on street corners (although, realistically, in Buenos Aires, it's impossible not to do this because the place is so damn huge), and I never went shorter than the occasional skirt, or, okay, capris. And I had reason to believe that I was fairly successful.
"No, you don't look like a tourist," one Argentinian acquaintance said. "Your friend, though, the Canadian, she really looks like one, so if you're with her, forget it."
"With your coloring, you look like you could be Argentinian, from the North," another friend told me. "As long as you don't say anything."
Another job I had soon after my return was on a commercial for British tv, featuring a scene in which the main character walks up 8th Avenue, encountering all of these "typical New Yorkers." My job on this spot was to run around, miking all the actors, and one thing I do in such situations, to test our mic placement and levels, is to ask, "Can you just say what you're going to say, the way you're going to say it?" To which I got the following responses:
Guy with crooked eye who runs after cab: "Hey! That's my cab, son of man!"
Cart of boxes pusher: "Coming through, move it move it move it!"
Flyerer: "Yo, check it out, check it out, show right here…(to cell phone) No, baby, we were just dancing. I'm telling you, it was just –- Baby, listen…"
Japanese tour-guide: "(stream of hyperkinetic Japanese)."
Woman on cell phone talking to her lawyer: "No, you need to let her know that she's the one, she's the one who's liable here!"
Religious maniac: "The rapture is coming! The rapture is coming!" which they then changed because it was too religiousy to
Just plain maniac: "I am the greatest director, not you! You hear me? The Academy Awards know nothing!"
(Maybe he was more of an egomaniac).
Pushy older lady getting into cab with dog: "Grammercy Park, 26th and 3rd…Are you getting out or what?"
I suppose this is how we natives are perceived. One of the people I met while traveling described me, in one of his group e-mails to the folks back home as "a very likable young woman from New York." I think the implication being that we are mostly unlikable. But at least I was worth mentioning, notable for being of that loud, brash, Brooklyn teamster accent-sporting (you don't know how many times I got asked why I didn't have an accent), culturally-adept if insane and irascible alien species, and therefore fascinating without my having to work at it. And this is yet another reason why coming home can be so hard. You're forced to be the old you again, not the shiny, new, I can be anybody I want because I'll probably never see these people again you, but the real, exhaust-breathing, tourist-hating, how can this martini cost half my hourly wage, waiting 40 minutes for the F train at midnight, I'll never, ever get a table at Babbo you. On the other hand, it's nice to be around those with whom you have the same language and cultural norms, who can tell when you're joking, not to mention those who will listen to you complain and on whom you can't make a negative impression even if you try because for them, you are already irredeemable -- or perhaps endlessly redeemable, since they've already put up with so much of your shit that they can't stop now. They are, in other words, your friends.
But I have tried, for as long as possible, to keep my travelers' eyes, through which everything looks new and interesting, every day another adventure to be explored. It doesn't last, believe me. Still, when we were shooting in Times Square, a young man came up and asked me and the cameraman I was working with if he could film us talking about what we were doing. Not used to facing the business end of a camera, we said some fairly useless stuff about how we'd been standing around the center of the greatest city in the world since really early in the morning, and would pretty much be stuck there all day. But our young friend was overjoyed. I always forget that to some people, my life looks pretty interesting.
Maybe sometimes it is. One day on the British tv commercial, when I was lugging my cases to the next location, I heard a voice yell out, "Hey, you want a lift?" It was James Gandolfini, who was playing the lead in the spot, and he and his teamster, Joe (who I think really is from Brooklyn), pulled over his SUV to give me a ride. As we drove to Sardi's, the famous New York theater hangout where we were getting ready to film our next scene, we talked a little about the way the theater district was changing, about how they were still shooting "Sopranos" when they were supposed to be wrapped in January. When we arrived, he unloaded my cases for me and carried them over (I protested at first but let's face it, they're heavy and the guy's a lot bigger than I am) before saying goodbye and going off to lunch. By my standards, it wasn't like anything really happened, it wasn't even good blog-fodder (although now it has become that), but as one of my friends later pointed out to me, "How many people do you know who get to ride with Tony Soprano?" Still, especially when I'm sitting in front of my computer on a Saturday night (shocking, I know, but true), sometimes I have to remind myself of that. I think that's the real reason why I write this stuff down.
But you have to be careful not to let it get to be the other way around. Back in Times Square, before he left, our new tourist friend gave me a somewhat sad-looking homemade business card listing himself as "Singer/Songwriter/Musician" and the address for his myspace blog –- which I have since checked out, noting that he considered his trip a way to "promote my music/film footage for my music video & experience my first trip to the U.S.A , (sic) & discover one of the most famous cities in the world." And I wondered, In that order? Of course I also noticed that his blog gets way more hits than mine -- maybe I should have spent more of my travel time handing out business cards (although that wouldn't have gotten me anywhere since I can't put my blog on my cards. Damn you, anonymity!) But I guess, at the time, I was thinking more about seeing the glacier than how I was going to tell everyone about it later. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy to have the photographs. But you can't live solely with the intention of turning your experiences into material for later use. Unless, of course, you call life later use.