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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

THE BIG APPLE, BIG CITY OF DREAMS

I never lived in New York but since the age of 19 I’ve always known good friends living there, and throughout most of my 20s I would go and visit almost every year. The museums, the music clubs, the awesome inescapable BEAT of the city itself, the restaurants, and the people, millions of people, millions of people from all over the world. As someone said, the capital of the 20th century, and still the cultural capital of America.

One fall I lived in the Boston area just to get a change of scene from my Michigan life, and one week-end a bunch of us were piled into a car to go visit other friends in New York. Buying gas on the way out of town, the gas station attendant asked where we were going.

“New York,” we said.

“Ah, the Big Apple, Big City of Dreams,” he said wistfully. I hadn’t known that people actually talked like that. I was similarly surprised, years later, to hear homeless men in their 40s and 50s in Seattle talk about “Frisco.” For a while I picked up that habit of speech, in part to annoy my hip friends, and not only the ones who live in Frisco.

Yesterday on the radio I heard Billy Joel and Tony Bennett sing a duet of Joel’s song “New York State of Mind.” Maybe it’s because I’ve only gotten there two or three times in the last 10 years, maybe it’s because almost every day I miss a couple friends who still live there, maybe it’s the sorrow-soaked symbol the city has become since the atrocity of September 11, but the song struck me with a gust of wistfulness. Really nice tune, the words work, Billy Joel sounds good, Tony Bennett sounds great, and they sound fine together. Nobody sounds out of place. As a singer, Joel doesn’t exude full-heartedness and well-being and confidence like Bennett (and Armstrong, and Ella, and some others of that era). But few singers of any era do. Bennett does.

This morning while changing the baby’s diaper, I was singing to him and playing with him and making him laugh. I started to sing the “Sesame Street” theme song.

Sunny day
Sweepin’ the clouds away
Come and play
Out where the air is sweet


I got that far into the song and burst into a few quick tears. Surprised the heck out of me -- I was in a good mood. The show’s setting is slum-esque. Sweet air can be hard to find. In 1963 the Drifters in a very urban song by Carole King and Gerry Goffin sang that “up on the roof,” “the air is fresh and sweet.” That was more than 40 years ago, and even then I’m dubious as to the literal (though not metaphorical) veractiy of the lyric.

In 1986 circumstances found me in Texas where as good luck would have it my friends DeWitt and Monica were celebrating their wedding reception. They lived in Houston and the party was at the country house of a friend of theirs, an hour or so east of the city in the lush east Texas countryside. My friends had hired a 20 year old black guy from the city to wash dishes at the party. After the party I piled in the back of DeWitt and Monica’s pick-up truck for the ride back to town; the dishwasher rode back there with me. Nice guy. We lay in the back of the truck and looked up at the stars. “I’ve never seen stars like that,” he said. He’d never been outside Houston in his life.

We both fell asleep on the drive and woke up in slow traffic on an in-city interstate, in the middle of the glare of concrete and carlights and the grit of smoke and smog.

My favorite New York song I’ve only heard once. Years and years ago; it was in a movie -- maybe a Woody Allen movie? -- two middle aged white people, one playing the piano and one singing, a song by Cole Porter, a song that says to heck with heaven, give me LIFE. Here’s the beautiful moving lyric, courtesy of Google.


I happen to like New York, I happen to like this town.
I like the city air, I like to drink of it,
The more I know New York the more I think of it.
I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it.
I happen to like New York.
I like to go to Battery Park and watch those liners booming in.
I often ask myself, why should it be that they come so far across the sea.
I suppose it's because they all agree with me. They happen to like New York.
Last Sunday afternoon I took a trip to Hackensack,
But after I gave Hackensack the once over, I took the next train back.
I happen to like New York. I happen to love this burg.
And when I have to give the world a last farewell,
And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell,
I don't want to go to heaven, don't want to go to hell.
I happen to like New York. I happen to like New York.

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