New York, New York. Well, what can I say about this city that hasn’t been said a thousand times already? Empire State, Central Park, Statue of Liberty, Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal, Brooklyn Bridge, the bigshot museums or the place where John Lennon was killed because he made so much mediocre music: checked it all out with Brassman and it’s all been very amazing.
But there’s nothing new to it, I fear.
On the Saturday before last, that is, on the 17th of August, I realized, however, that there was still one classic thing I hadn’t done yet, namely stroll down Broadway southwards to Times Square and thus pass all the historic theater and musical venues.
It had been quite a lazy Saturday so far, you know. I had been in NY for exactly one week now and classes wouldn’t start until two weeks later. After Michigan-bound Dr. Brass and I had been violently separated from each other on Wednesday morning, I left our Manhattan hostel for good to travel to my future long-time home, a shared apartment in nice little Elmhurst, Queens.
Neighborhood nice (I felt myself reminded of the abodes seen at the end of the Full House intro although that show was set in San Francisco), flatmates great, everything pretty swell altogether. I took care of all the organizational and bureaucratic shit like opening a bank account, getting an American cell phone number as well as my Columbia ID, checking out the supermarkets and laundries and mapping the area a bit. As I said, everything went pretty swell.
Still, I was sort of living in a bubble world. Despite having brought over quite a lot of work from Germany – such as my yet-to-be-written B.A. thesis in philosophy, which I have to hand in on the 18th of September at the latest – I was, due to last semester being a bit too soulsucking, so turned off by the thought of doing university stuff that I decided to evade beginning the writing process as long as possible. So, I was telling myself that I’d just behave like some 19th century flaneur and voyeur (in the non-pervert sense) by taking the Sub to Manhattan to promenade around and let NYC reveal itself to me as long as the pressure of the impending B.A. thesis didn’t become too tenacious. Of course, every morning I needed like half an eternity to get ready, for when there’s no outer or inner obligation (which, as I said, I had deliberately suspended) forcing me to follow a tight schedule, I literally move and act like a slug and everything takes me three times as long as when I’m under stress.
Now, on that Saturday, I was meeting a fellow philosophy student from Bochum at Central Park, who, together with her best friend, spent the last week of their two months coast to coast US road trip in New York. Thus, I was told quite a few nice stories about the ups and downs of this awesome road trip, which, of course, also served as a journey of self-discovery and self-overcoming to them. Hearing about their adventures took me even further away from the university business and sent me deeper into my nice little bubble.
So, after leaving Central Park and going my separate ways I decided to embark on that little Broadway stroll. It was kind of a weird thing to do, though. I wanted to breathe, to feel the fibers of this city, have its soul transferred into me osmotically and thus have access to some kind of higher reality. And yet, I was somehow detached from all of it. As I said, distancing myself from the reality of university life, which, it often seems, is itself already a detachment from life, had brought me into this comfortable, yet consequently hyper-detached bubble world. During university rush hours I had always longed for some me-time to get to know myself again and to just think and write. But the distance from the university context didn’t bring me closer to myself, as I had hoped, it somehow even detached me further and I couldn’t find a way out of this magic circle. Again, that wasn’t unpleasant, that wasn’t bad, but normally my perception of New York’s greatness should have ushered in some kind of revelatory ricochet with the deepest core of myself, thus causing me to go through a somewhat sublime inner growth. While that didn’t happen, I nonetheless felt a sort of soothing disinterested appreciation of the stuff around me (greetings to Immanuel). That might have also been due to the fact that as soon as one’s born, images of New York start streaming incessantly into one’s mind through all channels and so you might say that New York itself doesn’t even really exist but only its eternally represented simulacrum, like that barn in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (great book, read it!), which people only come to visit because other people have photographed it, while its real appeal cannot even be retraced anymore. Of course, New York’s buildings and sites are magnificent in themselves, yet their representations tend, at times, to devour the ‘real’ behind it.
Getting started: How to perceive the metropolis?
Alright, and for that Saturday it was to be Broadway and Times Square, in other words, the mecca and very definition of all simulacra.
Before commencing my journey on the Southwest corner of Central Park, I still had to stuff some food into my body, though, to be fueled for my tiresome quest and so I headed to a Morton and Williams supermarket with acceptable prices close-by and bought myself a seemingly delicious fried turkey breast wrap from its deli section.
Okay, now you’re asking yourselves why the hell I am telling you boring bullcrap about my dietary habits. Well, for now, I refer you to the concept of Chekhov’s gun, which states that in a story, you should only mention an apparently unimportant thing or event at a certain point if it later becomes vitally important. Thus, only mention that there’s a gun somewhere in a house if it is later used to shoot somebody, only mention a nail if someone uses it as a hold for the noose he’ll hang himself with in the end.
Sandwich or wraps tend to be very stuffed in the US, much more so than in Europe, and especially New York is known for its delicatessen tradition. But this wrap was even more stuffed than usual, like literally one tenth of ‘bread’ and the rest just turkey. Well, I took my first bite and I somehow didn’t like it, but I continued. The more I ate, the more I hated it, but I was still soothing myself by telling myself that this is what you get when you buy turkey, since I, as a European, had only been used to chicken and so that was probably just the somehow more intensive taste of turkey and I had to cope with it and man up. Still, after forcing three quarters of it down my throat, I had to give up because it was just unbearable and I told myself: “Something is rotten in the state of New York” (arrrrrgh, sorry!). Ignoring my very bad conscience, I decided to throw the rest away and quickly made way towards Broadway.
Strolling down Broadway with a casual stride should be the king’s solution to getting the right metropolis feel, I figured. Admittedly, a big mark had always been left on me by reading the classic German language metropolis novels of the early 20th century, most prominently Rilke’s Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) set in Paris and Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). In these novels, Berlin and Paris appear as huge and devouring, yet somehow fascinating organisms, which moreover succeed in completely transforming their protagonists’ way of seeing and perceiving. Yeah, these are fine expressionist masterpieces, in which psychic overstimulation leads to houses and objects being endowed with human properties and vice versa, everything melting together in a huge synaesthetic and vibrating ecstasy.
Thus, I had also hoped for that to happen to me and in order to get even more into the right mood, I had purchased John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer (1925), the corresponding novel for New York Döblin seems to have stolen much from (next to Ulysses, of course): montage of newspaper articles, kaleidoscopic views of the city, objective third person narration, streams of consciousness, etc. Basically, these modernist novels are in a certain way all about showcasing some fancy narrative techniques and rhetorical devices, anyhow, especially synecdoches and metonymies. People become the clothes (“the uniform brought over the plates”) they’re wearing or the bodily traits they possess (“The moonface and the bottlenose were coming back”).
Manhattan Transfer tells the story of New York’s rise to the second (at that time) metropolis of the world:
“There was Babylon and Nineveh, they were built of brick. Athens was
goldmarble columns. Rome was held up on broad arches of rubble. In
Constantinople the minarets flame like great candles round the Cape
Horn…O there’s one more river to cross. Steel glass, tile, concrete will be
the materials of the skyscrapers. Crammed on the narrow island the
millionwindowed buildings will jut, glittering pyramid on pyramid, white
cloudheads piled above a thunderstorm”
Alright, that was NY in the twenties. Still pretty similar today, no? And one of the protagonists, Bud Korpenning, fittingly asks: “How do I get to Broadway?… I want to get to the center of things.” So, I wanted to do it like Bud Korpenning and get to the center of things and indeed, strolling down Broadway is really something!! In the distance, the flickering lights of Times Square announce themselves and on either side of the street all the classic buildings follow each other. It was nice, it was pleasant, it was inspiring, and yet: I was still detached, I couldn’t absorb it in a soulshaking way. Where was my synaesthesia, where were my houses becoming human and “starting to run”, where were all the people becoming synecdoches???
Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that there are so many different ways to discover a city, I tried them all, that is I tried grabbing my map and just checklisting all the great sites to somehow suck the city with all its contradictions into my system, to incorporate it all in order to have a higher synthesis. Well, understably, grafting one’s own concepts onto a city and wanting to stow [ Brasso 😉 ] it into one’s bag of experiences isn’t that satisfying and fruitful at the end of the day.
On the other hand, I tried doing it, as mentioned above already, in the style of late Heidegger, thus I decided to not want to get a grip on the essence of things by making a huge effort to grasp it through preconceived concepts, but rather tried to resist the temptation of categorizing and colonially exploring it by instead granting the city its space to peacefully open up and reveal its clearing to me. Well… Bollocks!!
Seeing things differently!!
Okay, so what had to happen for my expressionist novel’s experience to set in after all? I just didn’t know. Anyways, I continued walking down Broadway, when suddenly, after having maybe mastered a third of the distance to Times Square, I felt I would have to take a whiz pretty soon. That’s nothing special, normally I gotta pee every 30 minutes, so this was nothing out of the ordinary. However, in fact, feeling the urge to pee sort of already transformed my way of perception a bit, since as of that moment, I couldn’t continue snailing along Broadway peacefully and lazily, but I was becoming fidgety and somewhat agitated. The closer you get to Times Square, the more crowded and flashier it becomes and I started sensing that all this finally had its effect on me thanks to me having to urinate. Sweat pearls were forming on my brows, as the urge got more and more prominent and I imagined I was feeling like a scared animal thrown into a sea of flaring lights which doesn’t know how to shield itself against all those stimuli.
“Swell”, I was telling myself, “now you’re getting your expressionist experience”, for the growing immediacy of my bodily needs changed my vision from a quiet kaleidoscopic tilt to a cumbersome tunnel view, which made me perceive the buildings around me not as single and independent monoliths anymore, but as a continuous stream of overlapping glitter. Unfortunately, but as was to be expected, Broadway was so crowded on that Saturday evening that I didn’t want to search for a free public restroom here. I could have jumped into a McDonald’s or something but there, the queues were endless and thus, I had to let it go. So, I decided to head for the sophisticated toilets at Bryant Park, which is in just three minutes walking distance from Times Square, to be able to take a really royal leak. That would have worked, that would have been alright – having to pee may be irksome, but holding on for a few further minutes should have been no problem. While my view was narrowed due to my pee urge applying horses’ blinkers to me, I was nonetheless suddenly hit by some rays of special brightness emanating from my right. I took a look and there was the big illuminated sign for David Letterman’s Late Show! Sweet!
Letterman, the most iconic late-night talkshow host of them all. How great would it be to have my 15 minutes of fame and be a guest in his show!!! But how to manage?
I was dwelling on these thoughts a little bit but a short time later, I was violently torn out of them, when suddenly I felt some very strange movement in my stomach/bowels area. THE TURKEY WRAP!!! After all!!! Okay, I had to keep calm, for this all could play out in several scenarios. Best case: Just a little rumble down there and after that everything would be quiet and cool. Maybe it was nothing but a collateral effect of having to pee, which would cease as soon as I emptied my bladder. Worst case: The whole pee urge and the following rumbles had just been the forerunners, sort of the four horsemen of a much greater problem: Me not being able to properly digest the spoiled turkey wrap.
Well, the only thing I could do was continue walking. I realized I had to wait for further signs from my body. Basically, within the next few minutes, I would receive the revelation whether this was all just a little revolt or whether it would turn into a gastrointestinal nightmare. I knew, if there was going to be a second rumble, and if it was going to be painful, then I’d be fucked. So, I was forced to play the waiting game. Of course, I was hoping for the second rumble not to happen and if there didn’t happen anything in like five minutes, I knew I would be safe. So, five minutes of total insecurity on Broadway. My transpiration got more and more excessive and I can’t even remember how the flow of time presented itself to me in these moments, whether each second was crouching slowly and like glue through my fearful brain or whether time just didn’t play any role and I was simply stuck in an atemporal vacuum possibly to be shattered at some indeterminate point by the impending catastrophe. I figure that during this period, I was basically living in my own, solipsistic world, cut off from the buzzing reality and just frantically trying to talk my digestion out of its apparent plan to become my enemy. I was trying logic, I was appealing to its mercy, I hoped for some sign of grace. Perceiving my surroundings, if at all, as a fading shadow world, I must nonetheless have succeeded to somehow shuffle on on Broadway. Once or twice, I must have bumped into somebody, as I remember meeting with some kind of obstacle, but I was just too far away to let this become a conscious concern to me.
I had just reached the epicenter of Times Square, its famous red stairs, from where all the photos are always taken and which is constantly overcrowded by tourists, when it rumbled for the second time inside of me, this time more painfully.
So, this was it. I knew that now I really had to find a ceramic vessel to get intimate with ASAP and I gave myself another fives minutes, after which the point of no return would have been inexorably transcended and all damns would have burst without mercy. In a sudden streak of ironic rationality, I calculated that it would take me pretty much exactly five minutes to get to the exquisite toilets of Bryant Park. I also knew that this was Russian Roulette, for arriving on time at Bryant Park didn’t mean that the toilets would not be occupied, but well I simply had no other choice than to try my luck and so I turned left at 42nd street to wriggle my way through the masses.
Contrarily to those five minutes of insecurity I had spent in a nightmarish trance just before, I was now back in some sort of clearer reality. I guess my subconscious was forcing me to stay at least somewhat rational to glide through the crowd as smoothly and quickly as possible. But of course, the world outside of me didn’t appear like a well-ordered, let alone benign world. I was rather imagining being some kind of ancient Gnostic having to reject and get rid of this world of evil around me by not acknowledging its essential existence and instead expose it as a malicious circus of gruesome shadow clowns. Yes, the long-hidden deus absconditus had provided me with some revelatory insight through infecting me with these iterative waves of more and more painful bowel cramps and by thus incarnating himself as the divinely sparkling white shithouse at Bryant Park. So, the only way to prove myself worthy of escaping from that world, was if I had faith, if I kept on walking and if I finally reached this 21st century Elysium. I mean, they play classical music in there, it just had to be some secret temple of grace. I had read once that while devils listened to Mozart, angels listened to Bach, and I thought I remembered hearing the Brandenburg Concertos over there, so I took it as another sign.
Well, I was on my way.
The final countdown
Hold on, you worthless dustcloud! Three minutes left… Don’t frown, pancake face, and let me through, emergency!!! Hammm,hamm,hammering again, I’m fucking about to explode. Damn you, turkey wrap, damn you Morton and Williams, I hope you burn in turkey hell. Move it, you lazy prick, being fat is no excuse for being slow. I hate you all so very much, assholes around me, yeah, you should all have to suffer like me…. Oh sorry, sweetheart, didn’t see you there, hmm, let me turn around to take another look at that… arrrrrrghhh cramp, cramp. Crampppp!!!. And you, Daisy Dukes, just trampling idly around with that fatdrenched Pretzel in your elephant snout. In, bite, chew, moan, out, in, bite, chew, moan, out, törööööö, In, bite, chew, In, bite, chew, in, bite chew, eeeeee, aiii, ewww, eeeeaiiiewwwww, raaaaaaaaaaaah, tiktoktiktoktiktoktok, half woman, half automaton. LIIIIIIIIghts, You’re blinding me, stop flashing at me… Too bright, too fast bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuur
don’t wanna eat your sunrays, bitch, bright,briiiight., way too bright, you’re screaming at meeeee, stop it, oh please. your light tastes metallic, cold, cruel…. Breathe, Breathe, Breathe, you won’t suffocate meeeee you endless glittering snake. Your spire, it stabbbbbbbs me, Chrysler…
I’m gonna put you down, and if it’s the last thi….. ahhhh, sssssssssshhhhhhh, arrrrrrgh, damn…. pain, pain, pain!!!!, I can’t hold it back…….DID I JUST SHART????? TippiTippiTuppTuppp, sweat baby sweat, baby sex is a texas drought my face a water park… windscreen wipers for my liquid face!!..AHhh Bryant Park over there, just cross the street, just cross it… Black white, black white, black white, black white take me with you Zeeeeeeeebra, nothing but mammals, on the discovery channel, be my guide, I too am about to do things that only Prince would sing about
During my Odyssey to Bryant Park, I was also plagued with visions what would happen, if I didn’t succeed. If I really shat my pants in the center of the world??! Where would I get new pants from, how would I get home in my soiled clothes. Would someone have mercy and throw me a pair of clean pants? How would I survive the shame? Would I just jump in front of a car to end it all??? Was I to feel lucky that no one that I knew was by my side? Would I have needed that mental support? How would people around me react, when it happened?. Disgust, Ridicule, Pity, Ignoring it? What would be the worst option?
I remembered that I had once been in a similar situation in France. It was some excursion to Paris in I think 2005 or 2006. I remember how I had the exact same thoughts back then. We were standing in a group of like 20 people and our teacher was giving some kind of lecture about the architecture surrounding us. And suddenly it rumbled, and also back then, I hoped that it would be done after one rumble, but like this time, it wasn’t. I scanned the area, but there was no toilet around and I decided to try to hold on until we continued. I already imagined drowning myself in the Seine or fleeing into the underground like the next Phantom of the Opera, never to be seen again, if I shouldn’t be able to hold it. Then one more cramp and I knew that only one or two minutes were left to Doomsday, so I just suddenly waddled away from the group, telling the astonished teacher that I just really had to go, and, of course, I couldn’t run, because if I had run, I wouldn’t have lasted 10 seconds, so I was moving away in quick little steps, like a duck or I don’t know what animal, and at the next street corner suddenly an apparition, a McDonald’s and it was my only chance. Luckily, it was like 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, so no rush hour and I climbed up the stairs and the restroom was…empty!
Since then I had always been thinking about what would happen if one day I was to be shitting my pants in public. As much as I had a horrible dread of this event actually taking place, I also figured it might serve as the ultimate proof of real love and friendship. Yeah, you know in our day and age, there are really rarely these warlike moments of naked truth in which people are forced to reveal their real character, and maybe soiling myself in front of the whole world would be a means, perhaps the only means left, to find out who would still be hanging out with me after that incident without ridiculing me, who would show real solidarity instead of condescending pity. Funnily, American Dad really did an episode on that once, in which at a pool party, Stan (the dad) has eaten too much beef jerky or something similar, then climbs the diving board, jumps and unfortunately voids himself in the pool. His following frantic actions of trying to provide a complete damnatio memoriae rank among the funniest moments in American sitcom culture.
Well, back to our main story. I was now just some 200 meters ( or around 220 yards [fuck these non-metrical units of measurement]) away from those sacred toilets. It was now sort of a 50/50 situation and I was still fearing the worst. Then, I suddenly realized that since nowadays we find ourselves in the age of ubiquitous Smartphone usage, the question whether I could deem myself lucky not to be accompanied by any friend witnessing my ordeal so I could keep all that as my big secret, became pretty superfluous. As soon as I shat my pants, there would be thousands of Smartphones out there to record every detail of my following walk of shame through Manhattan. I would pretty soon be a YouTube phenomenon with millions of views. So these could then be my 15 minutes in the spotlight, after all!! And for the fracture of a second, I again envisioned myself sitting on Letterman’s couch just to be ridiculed by the mean words that would be whistling through his gap-toothed mouth. But, hey, at least I’d be famous! If I acted smartly, I could maybe even launch my own T-Shirt-collection “Shitshirt NY, est. 2013” or even better, pants collection with artificial shitstains printed on them, and sell lots of ludicrous clothing to stupid hipsters around the world. Hmmmmm, I thought, maybe I should just stop walking, close my eyes and let things run their course, the future would be adventurous in any case!
But then I remembered that I was on my mission to redemption and broken-heartedly, I resumed walking. Of course, when the toilets were in plain sight, I knew, for it was not the first time I made this experience, that now I only had few, few, few seconds left, because any tiny bit of rational control that before I might still have exerted on my body totally dissolved, when these ceramic shrines became visible and the urge once again doubled or tripled its power. I figure one could harvest quite a few nice new insights on the power of brute animalistic functions in humans by thoroughly explaining why the propositional knowledge that there are toilets close-by multiplies the hitherto still marginally domesticated urge and sets an inevitable countdown of some few seconds.
“Fuck you, body”, I told myself, “near toilets don’t entail free toilets, you should know better than that”, but as I had no other choice, I entered the door and headed for the two cabins. While one door was closed, I registered with relief that the other one was open, but when I was directly in front of it, I startled, for only then did I see that there was a father with his little son in the cabin. The dad had just pulled up the kid’s pants and the latter seemed to have finished his doodoo, but he was nonetheless still somewhat hesitant and fidgeting around so his Dad asked him whether he would like to try it again. But then the two noticed me at the door frame and they must have seen the desperate frenzy in my eyes, for suddenly they just walked out quickly and I thought “Yeah, I don’t care whether the kid’s gonna shit his pants in public now, he’s young, nobody will care”. I went in, locked the door, and oh thank you lord, I found my god and purified myself!
Now I’m a saint, you sinners, and you still crawl around in the shadow dust of this earthly grimace world. I’ll be praying for your souls.