Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Heat, the Mosquitoes and New York Times

Ever since I started working in New York City, my disposition with regards to this aspect of my life, has been grumpy at best. Take a passionate crusader for the country-living-high-thinking kind of life-style and thrust her into the rat race of the finance captial of the world, the end result is grouchy frump. Playing daily dodge-me with a teeming mass of people, chasing 'walk' signs at pedestrian crossings, running up stalled escalators and spending an hour every morning admiring the environs of New Jersey turnpike(NJTP). That is working in NYC for you. Contrast this to the daily delights of beautiful vistas, spring flowers, fall colours and rolling fields, the staple of suburban Pennsylvania, my last residence. The Big Apple has a remote chance of tempting me to bite.
Yet, the City(New York) is devious. It has a slimy way of creeping up from behind, trying to lure the unyielding outsider in its web. Take for example, the New York subway - a subterranean ant colony of humanity. However, within its folds, half-concealed, sits the wayside musician. Playing his own thing and completely oblivious to the indifferent pattering of feet crossing him every second. Once in a while he will play the most compelling piece you ever heard. Then there is that 'perfectest' linger-in-your-mouth Tiramisu that you discover in an innocuous hole-in-the-wall shop. Serendipity at it's benign best. There are also the occasional newsworthy scares like a fire outside Grand Central Station and the ensuing excitement (and lots of stories to tell people later. The I-was-there-on-that-day kind of stories). That is fun, I admit. The only exciting thing that ever happened in PA was a convention of Jehovah's witnesses.
So as you see, the City's guiles are numerous. The indifference, pace and godlessness of the teeming metropolis throws up a surprising counter-balance of culture, humanity, passion and a wanton display of human quirks and courage.
It was at Times Square a couple of days back. I was footing my way from work towards the Port Authority bus terminal. Times Square was jam-packed, a little more than usual. "These tourists", I muttered grumpily to myself. "I should have taken the subway". With the recent devaluation of the dollar, tourists have descended upon the city like a swarm of locusts. They are everywhere. It was only the other day that I had a run-in with an extremely endearing Japanese variety in the subway. She was taking a video film balanced on the narrow escalator that leads down to the platform. I am proud to have provided her with a wonderful panorama of expressions for her film. Starting with amazement (WTF, a film here!), to urgency (my train.. it's here), frustration and impatience (get out of the way, I need to get to it) and finally... resignation (the train has left). I could not disappoint her, after all I still retain all my Indian 'Mehmaan bhagwaan hai' values.
Back to Times Sqaure, inching forward towards the next block, I realized 8th Avenue was closed to traffic. As I neared the crossing I noticed something strange. Everyone was looking heaven-wards. I looked upwards too duly expecting a fireball. I was relieved .The sky was clear. No signs of airplanes. (Note: however, important you might feel narrating first-hand tales of disasters in comfy family rooms, it is never as exciting to be there at the time of action). I steered my vision in the direction the crowd was pointing. It was the fifty two floors tall New York Times building. My eyes darted around for a bit and then settled in on a figure..... a man. Yes, a man hanging on to the building some half-way up. He seemed to be stuck. Who was he? A window cleaner who got a unlucky? Someone escaping some problem in the building? Who? A little asking around brought to light this interesting story of two men.
The first, Alain Robert, a stuntman with a fetish for climbing buildings. A Frenchman to the core, he thinks buildings are like mountains, only difference between the two is that new buildings get constructed regularly (how perspicuously French!). For a while he has been in the realization that the heat in the South of France is getting unbearable. And no, it's not because Bollywood with all the B(ee)s(and fly Amar Singh) have descended en masse in Cannes. Even the Ms Non-Recyclable Plastic Rai and her Ms World contestants know the green-house gases are the culprit. 'Global Warming' has long replaced 'World Peace' as the mantra for the crown bearing activists. The US, undoubtedly takes the blame for all ills ailing mankind, esp. from the French point of view. Think of it, not only did they pick the most un-evolved item of the French cuisine, the pomme frites, and brand them as France's most identifiable contribution to the world cuisine, they now are adding 'gas' to the fire through green-houses gases. How long would the self-respecting Frenchman tolerate all this?
Alain decided it was time to something. The only 'something' that he is equipped to do is scale buildings. So a building it was. His zeroed in on the NYT building in Manhattan. (A clever choice, I would add. It is fun climbing over the media's head). One fine morning he started his ascent. Being an old hand at it, in a couple of hours his act was performed. As per routine, he was discovered, the police called and a welcoming committee was waiting for him at the top of the building. Point made, Alain happily made his way to cool his heels in jail thereafter.
But the story does not end here.
Another man. Renaldo Clarke a denizen of the City . He had spent a particularly restless night punching mosquitoes in his Brooklyn quarters. The natural side-effect of heat is mosquitoes and mosquitoes carry Malaria. So Mr Clarke had dreamt a dream, he wanted to do something about Malaria. What better to do than climb a building?. But then Clarke watched the afternoon news. He saw Alain Robert waving into the screen. The march was obviously stolen. "Damn these French! Even after we declared 'Freedom' from their fries and threatened to return the Statue of Liberty, they continue to be a nuisance." Clarke knew it was time for action - Now or never. At 6:00 PM he started his ascent.
When I looked up from my vantage point at around 7:00 PM, he had made his way up to the 30th floor. But now he seemed stationary. Probably tired. Clarke, unlike Roberts was not a professional. He had never climbed a building before. He had no technique or training, just guts and gumption. His fate was hanging precariously from that NYT building. My country genes held me there for a while, wide-eyed and mesmerized, silently rooting for him. But then suddenly something within lulled me back to reality. The 7:00 PM bus missed, the 7:20 bus about to leave, the charming NJTP awaiting my passage, I had to leave.
And so, I disengaged, turned around and walked away…. just like a New Yorker would do.
As the bus emerged from the bowels of Port Authority, the NY Times building loomed up in front. And there he was, that small figure, hanging on for his dear life. He hadn't moved an inch since I had left. The bus wound out of the city into Lincoln Tunnel and I wondered what his fate would be. I was slightly perturbed with the indifference that seemed to have surreptitiously taken root within me, but alongside I started perceiving a new sensation, a knotty warm feeling in the gut that told me he would get there. That seemed to be the only possible ending to his act. NYC was the stage where his drama decided to unfold. A little heat, a few mosquitoes, an idea and tenacity (in tons)...... That's all it takes to scale a height here.
The Big Apple....it spins its web, I sense the shadow of a silvery yarn over my being, Am I getting entangled?
Post Script :Mr Clarke did make it to the top, totally exhausted, but victorious. After his moment of fame in front of the cameras, where he revealed his concern for Malaria, he too went to join his French friend to cool down in jail. They were both freed a couple of days later.


  1. Ritu:

    Very nicely written account! It was funny and engaging.. keep it up!


  2. Ritu,

    This is blog is worthy of a prize for short story writing. Send it as an entry.


  3. Hello Ritu,

    This is a very interesting writeup :-). I too have very mixed opinions about New York City. On one hand you have the majestic Statue of Liberty, the Central Park, the numerous museums and above all (for an academician like yours truly) excellent universities like NYU and Columbia. On the other hand, you have the horror stories people tell you about Harlem and Yonkers and getting mugged. But the worst thing about New York for me is driving in the middle of the city. Whether it is Brooklyn Bridge with speeding cars not bothering to obey too many traffic rules, or one-ways and under-construction-roads that pop up from nowhere and confuse you and your GPS, or shady characters that tap on your shoulder when you are refuelling your car at a gas station, or hunting for those elusive parking spots (even the ones that make you pay through your nose), driving and anything to do with driving in New York City is one nightmare that never seems to end. If there is one thing (or place) that taught me the importance of the Gayatri Mantra, it is Brooklyn Bridge :-).