Monday, January 23, 2006

The Religion of Distant Places

It's a head-spinning cliche to say that New York giveth and New York taketh away. But when something is so true, it's hard not to keep repeating it, even if you feel like a jackass for doing it. It's sort of like whining about how cold it is, not during a wintry week in Chicago, but while doing research in Antarctica. I mean, what else are you going to talk about? Some things are so true that they deserve to be pummeled into the ground, or they at least crowd out the desire to say much else. Plus, New York's dirty little secret is that everything here is far more predictable than whatever's going on in Fargo: Talk about apartments; talk about your jobs (all of which take place in only two industries -- there are countless industries, but everyone you're talking to in your village-within-the-city works in one of two of them); talk about how and when to escape New York, even though most of us have no immediate desire to do so; talk about how we can't imagine living anywhere else; and talk about relationships, because far fewer people are married here than in other places, at least in the age demographic that I’m rapidly exiting (and such talk is only excruciating for all parties involved if you are in or not in a relationship. So.)

But to me, the defining warhorse observation about the city is the impossible bind of the love and hatred it inspires. Like a drug dealer, New York's trick is to give you tons of good stuff up front; beautiful, teeth-rattling, undeniable stuff. And by the time you realize that it might be bad for you, you're in pretty deep. By the time you know for a fact that it's killing you, it's too late. If this sounds harrowing, I don't mean it that way. It's actually kind of fun.

But it’s tiring, and it’s the mundane daily stuff that’s as responsible for it as the careerism, the nightlife, the keeping up with cultural offerings, etc. Last Wednesday night, I bought speakers for my computer at an electronics shop downtown. The box weighed a ton. I know I should have just hailed a cab, but instead I got on the subway, which ended up putting me through the usual rings of fire, all of which are deathly dull and won’t be recounted here. But there are times like this every week -– when, despite loving it here, I would momentarily give a limb to inhabit some exurban city where I . . . drumroll . . . put my recently purchased heavy items IN MY CAR and DRIVE HOME.

I bring this up because I dreamed the other night that I lived in Fort Worth. To make this dream at all palatable, my mind had turned that city, 30 miles due west of Dallas, into an architectural marvel, all jagged postmodern buildings (almost Gehry-like) surrounding a decent-sized body of water. When first recalling the dream, this was inexplicably weird, because a) Fort Worth's skyline is as inspiring as Columbus, Ohio's, which is sleep-inducing, and b) there is no potable water in Fort Worth. It's piped in from Canada.

It made sense as an imaginative leap, though, because a) Fort Worth is home to a relatively new museum of modern art that I’ve visited and that is indeed visually stunning, and I suppose I was extrapolating, and b) I often dream of living somewhere reasonably off the grid like Fort Worth, only, as my subconscious makes clear, I'd need it to be a bit more...griddy. And there’s the rub.

I only made it to FW probably seven or eight times during the 12 years I lived in Texas, but two of my strongest concert memories took place there: Joan Osborne and DJ Spooky. Strange that it would be those two, since I never – literally – listen to their stuff anymore, and barely did then. (Also strange because they’re not exactly musical bedfellows; they’re more likely to be on The Surreal Life together in five years than to share a bill.)

The greatness of the Osborne show was partly dumb luck. She played a club called Caravan of Dreams (now defunct, maybe because people hearing its name kept mistaking it for a new-age cult’s headquarters), and there were about 25 people in attendance, no exaggeration. (This was right before “One Of Us” took over the airwaves -- you know, the song where God’s taking public transportation and whatnot.) The audience was seated at tables, very civilized, and as much as I never really developed a taste for her songs, Joan can belt. She sounded great, and she engaged in a running conversation with one lunatic in the crowd, who kept standing up to talk to her. He was small and seemingly a retiring type (despite the stalker-like qualities he was exhibiting that evening), like a more confident version of the guy in Office Space who’s always muttering about his stapler, and he'd seen Osborne the night before in Missouri. It would be difficult to capture in words how strange it was to watch him clearly address her between songs with everyone's full attention, standing among all the sitters. (In my memory, he's even spotlit, but that couldn't have been the case.) It felt like bad experimental theater. Yet, she was very tolerant of him, even sweet with him, patiently answering him and never once gesturing for a brawny security guy to deposit him on the curb like the pile of recyclable newspapers that he resembled. She closed with a cover of Van Morrison's “Tupelo Honey” that’s still one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen, and then she came out to talk to everybody.

A year or so later, DJ Spooky just put on a great set, and I don’t often go to turntable shows. Plus, there was some girlfriend drama going on at the time that heightened the whole experience. A theme that hasn’t been developed very fully on this blog (probably because it would cause immediate and widespread comatose reaction) is how little it takes for me to develop a fairly deep affection for a place. Part of the trick, not surprisingly, is that I have to do memorable things there and not get back very often. This provides the staggering illusion that the place in question would be full of memorable moments, if I were only to live there full-time. Despite the paper-thin nature of the premise, I believe in it pretty strongly. It’s like my version of religion.

That said, most people in places like New York believe in the converse religion, which is that nothing interesting or memorable could ever happen in Fort Worth. I’ll take my more enthusiastic delusion.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Dezmond said...

Nice post. I kind of like Fort Worth. I went there a lot for work last year. I think that downtown FW is actually pretty cool. I imagine that is one of the things you do tend to miss, the great car culture we have down here in Tejas. If you live in Houston like I do, you become intimiately familiar with your car since you spend so much of your life sitting in it.

11:25 AM  
Anonymous pf said...

i have a kind of correlative
experience, though it goes in the opposite direction. in my dreams i tend to transform new york into a magical, sweeping, lushly green landscape -- often with elaborate highways and grand views. and often, the rest of the country is easily accessible by subway. in one dream, my brother and my cousin took the 6 train to el paso.

9:52 AM  
Blogger a.k.a. sunlit doorway said...

i am back in the 817, after escaping to travel and study in other cities. never thought i would stay here this long, but i've got a 13-year old niece and i want to kick up some dust in this city and add cultural flavor for her benefit. a groundswell is taking place now: a great new (Rahr) brewery; foreign film venues; an indep. film community; a vegan restaurant; an amazing and eclectic multimedia performance scene; a Latino theater company, and more. i used to perform @ the Caravan of Dreams (theater) and bemoan the conversion of downtown FW to a sanitized theme park for yuppies. But, when people gather, much else (beyond Barnes & Noble/Starbucks) can happen on the streets. And it's starting to show.

11:30 AM  

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