Everest Guest Blog: A Californian in New York
Part 3: In which Everest's Elijah Thomson compares New York and Los Angeles, with an eye to Norway.
(Warning: Strong New York language ahead)
From as far back as I can remember, I’ve been a wanderer.
During my first decade of life, my father (may he rest in peace) was a touring musician. When his band wasn’t on the road, we had an MCI tour bus parked in front of our house, and he’d get a kick out of picking my brother and I up from school in that thing (providing us with much needed cred from our classmates). During the summers and school breaks, we were involuntarily taken along for the troubadour’s adventure -- and more often than not, utilized as illegal child labor, hawking t-shirts and records at the merch booth.
In my teenage salad days my mother (still alive) worked in the airline industry, granting our family free air travel (my father’s idea). Needless to say, we took advantage of that benefit for many years, globe-trotting at will. One of the disadvantages of complimentary air-travel is that you have to fly “stand-by,” which led to more than a few Planes, Trains and Automobiles reenactments, as airlines make a habit of overbooking flights. When I was in 8th grade I got stuck in Orlando Airport for 4 days… by myself. It was like a backwards Home Alone. (Yes, my life can be summed up by John Hughes movies.) And kids, this was before cell phones and whatnot, so just use your imagination to envision what a chaotic reality this might have been.
But I digress.
I went to Europe for the first time when I was nineteen, hired to play bass guitar for a harmonica-based blues outfit. Back then I had what is probably the typical amount of patriotism for the average American young adult. I had uttered the pledge of allegiance every day, and been taught history in public schools, mandated to paint sympathetic pictures of our country’s role in the world. President Reagan had just defeated the Commies, and all of our adolescent Red Dawn dreams had dissipated to dust. But while on a stop in the beautiful little seaport village of Kragerø, Norway, I engaged in the following conversation with a fair-haired, blue-eyed, handsome older Nordic fellow as he puffed away on a cigarette:
Norwegian Dude: “So, you are from U.S., eh?”
Me: “Yup; California specifically.”
ND: “You like living there... in America?”
ME: “Of course! You know… it’s the greatest country in the world!”
(But as I said this -- thinking about the U.S. from thousands of miles across the Atlantic in beautiful, perfect Norway — my homeland suddenly seemed like a huge clash of Wal-Mart and Las Vegas.)
ND: “Pffft! Hah! You really think that?”
(ND shakes head incredulously)
ME: “Well… er, um… sure. Doesn’t everybody?”
ND: “No! Not me… I think Norway is the greatest country in the world…”
(He continued to shake his head at me in disgust, as if I was the stupidest person he had ever met.)
ME: “Oh yeah, well… that makes sense.”
That short conversation was an epiphany for me, one that has long since altered my ethos in countless ways. A traveler can glean simple truths using observation and reason. The most obvious: Many, if not most people in the world, believe that their own country is a great place to be. Of course this is not merely true with the comparing of nations, but also with areas within nations.
Take New York and Los Angeles, for instance. This topic of discussion has come up virtually every day since we’ve been living in New York. “How are you liking New York?” “I bet you don’t get wind and rain like this back in LA!” “Personally, I can’t stand California… I know you’ve got nice weather, but the people there… ugh... all the plastic surgery and the freeways!” “I hate New York… I can’t wait to get outta here. I should move to California.” “I love New York… We’ve got everything here! Why go anywhere else?”
New York, old queen mother Demeter; Los Angeles, Aphrodite at the foamy sea.
Clearly the two behemoth cities demand comparisons. In the United States, NY is widely considered to be #1 in size and influence, and LA #2 (although the greater southern California area has quite a few million more people than the NYC metro, and is much larger in the sense of square mileage). Both cities tend to be magnets, daily drawing masses of immigrants from all over the world and country, and as a result are thoroughly cosmopolitan and multicultural. For modern musicians, NY and LA are the primary hubs of activity, and boast the greatest historical mystique and folklore. They're yin and yang: different, the same, intertwined, harmonious and dissonant.
At closer inspection the two cities are quite different places. I was born and raised in California, and like everyone, I love where I’m from, but I can’t say I love everything about it. I only love particular things that are mostly entwined with sentimentality and a love of Mediterranean climates and Mexican food... and beer, and tequila, and… come to think of it, pretty much all Mexican things.
In spite of what I observed in last week’s blog as a lack of cooperation amongst New Yorkers on the roads and in the train stations, I admit I sense a much greater degree of overall neighborliness in New York, as compared to Southern California. We’ve been living in Point Lookout, NY for what, like, three weeks now? And already we have had several of the local business owners and townsfolk come out to our various shows and performances here in the city, just because we have taken up temporary residency here in The Point. I swear, I’ve lived in certain neighborhoods in California for years, without ever once meeting my neighbors, let alone had them come out to any of my shows, or even inquire about what I do with my life. Don’t even try to deny it, Californians… I know there are a few fine neighborhoods out there, but it’s not even close in the sense of overall neighborliness. New York wins this battle easily. Hands down, gavel dropped.
In all fairness, I will say that our first encounter with our immediate next door neighbor was not so friendly. He merely walked up and said: “WHO-AH-YOOS?” Kinda dickish, but also classic New Yorker: Cut to the freaking chase. We casually explained who we were and why we were unloading things out of a black van into a garage in the middle of the night, and why he should anticipate endless columns of cigarette smoke from our backyard, and he seemed okay with it and hasn’t bothered us since. We even checked with him to make sure we weren’t making too much noise, and he said, “Haven’t heard a peep… ay, yo... fuggedaboudit.” So we’re cool like that.
Like I said in previous posts, I’ve been to New York several times before. I love NY, as most people do. But I don’t love it for the buildings or bridges or Broadway or bars or the bustle-hustle of city life. 'Cuz if it weren’t for the supreme greatness of the people, it would just be another London, and who wants that? (Sorry, London, but I mainly love you for Brick Lane and the British Invasion.)
I remember the first time I came to New York City. One night my family had nothing to do, so my dad suggested that we all take a (free) flight to New York and explore the city for a day, and fly back the next night. So we did. We caught the red-eye to Newark, arrived in the early morning and caught a bus into the city. We entered by way of the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson, spilling into central Manhattan. My face was pressed against the glass of the bus window as I gazed around at the towering skyscrapers, at the thousands of people rushing around the streets. I know it’s cliché to say it, but it was the “energy” of the city that cast such a spell on my young psyche. It was clear this was an important place to be. The people who lived here were obviously involved in special things that the layman couldn’t possibly perceive. There was a sense of power. Of danger. Like Peter on the mount of transfiguration, I knew that it was “good for us to be here.”
This is how I continue to encounter New York. I never know how a night is going to end. It's always a mystery.
Last Thursday we played (again) at the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, the site of the “Sleep No More” production. I first heard about SNM from my friend Bo, who assured me that it was super freaking weird and unnerving in the Kubrickian, Eyes Wide Shut kinda way; trippy and disorienting, akin to a Huxleyan hallucinogenic tale. In all his Bo-ness he said:
“Man, I was like, in this six-story hotel, and I’m wearin’ a f*ckin mask, everyone had a mask... and you enter through this pitch-black hallway, and it’s like a haunted house… and there’s these actors, but they’re not wearing any masks, right? Only the audience… and the audience are like wandering through this hotel on their own. And then you come across these actors and they’re acting out scenes… a f*cking retelling of Macbeth. Seriously. Only in one room, you’ll see a guy f*uckin’ a girl, and in another room, another dude is getting killed, right? And there’s these orgies… shit man, it’s f*cking crazy... and weird. I went back twice! You gotta see it! It’s sold out for months.”
This seems to be a common retelling of the “Sleep No More” experience. It's like living in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but an X-rated one. It's a bizarre, off-putting altered reality that leaves you even more confused when it’s finished than you were before it began. I cannot possibly try to explain it in a more eloquent way. It simply must be seen to be understood. But even then, not really.
It was interesting, though, being behind the scenes. A majority of the staff have to act like they’re extras at Knott’s Scary Farm to keep up with the trippy vibe, but quickly (and oddly) snap out of character once they find out you’re with the band. As the play lets out, it empties into a bar where people wind down with a few glasses of real-deal absinthe. We played a set in there. Not an ideal rock and roll setting for our band, but it was fun, and very much in the spirit of an eclectic New York night.
After SNM, we packed up and drove over the East River to Brooklyn and met up with our friends in Delta Spirit to celebrate Kelly Winrich being born; and also to mourn the passing of Levon Helm (tear). Most of Delta Spirit have recently relocated to NY from California (tear), but it’s always especially fun to hang with homies in a new surrounding. We closed down a bar called the Shanty, bid our farewells and piled in the black van en route to idyllic Point Lookout.
Although, I don’t exactly know how we got back here.
Corona Extra joins you in supporting WFUV and Everest, WFUV's artist-in-residence for April, 2012. Corona invites listeners to see a show, grab a Corona Extra and find their beach. Imported by Crown Imports, Chicago, IL. Corona reminds listeners to relax responsibly.