Insider City

One thing about New York is that it’s not a user friendly place, surprising given the “Aren’t Grid Cities Great!” ejaculation of newbies and tourists wrestling with the implications of numbered streets and avenues.

1. I’ve never seen a place so poorly signed. I learned the hard way that subway entrances are very carefully placed: if you want to go north, you enter the subway station on the side of the street with the traffic going north. Get in on the wrong side and you’re out a fare and the time it takes you to realize your mistake (x2, of course, for backtracking).

Before I figured this out, I used to go down to the booth and ask the guy: “does this go towards [insert destination]” with him staring back at me like I’m out of my mind and responding with an incredulous “well, yeah!” or “what!? (and pointing back the way I came)”.

2. Public workers, particularly in the transit gigs, see their job as an opportunity to power down all brain function save the tiny little corner that keeps their eyelids open. Bestir them from this slumber and be ready for contorted looks of horror and wild gesturing. Their jaws work impressively, but to what end who can know with a soundproof glass wall between us?

3. The infrastructure was built in the 30s-60s and looks every minute its age. I was once turned off by the post-apocalyptic film noir sheen to everything, but when you finally figure out “the energy” of the place, you get past it pretty fast. How do I know? Mary did. I’ll be recovering from the shock of that for a while still.

4. Construction. In most places, the decision to build or modify something probably goes something like this: “Boy, this could look/work better. So we’ll need to make it a construction site for a bit, but it’ll all pay off in the end”. Here? “Boy, this would look/work better as a construction site”. The pyramids aren’t this permanent.

What do you call modifications without construction? Baffling. Bunch of pylons blocking an exit with a few powered-down workers standing around. But there’s a new sign that contradicts the two or three you saw earlier dashing your and Google’s carefully laid out plans. Or the six or seven lanes of highway collapsing down to a two-lane, eighty-year-old (honest estimate) moonscape of a pathway too critical to ever close down.

The first dozen or so times you encounter all this is absolutely bewildering. Things are so packed in (it’s an island!), ‘progress’ so sclerotic, security so paranoid and ‘temporary’ measures so permanent that it’s an honest miracle that this thing works.

Once you ‘get it’? (I’ve racked my brain trying to describe the upside without sounding like a drug-addled flower child). You’re in the club.

Suddenly ‘charming’ and ‘quirky’ brushes aside our natural desire for ‘clean’ and ‘functional’.

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