Few things make a dyed-in-the-flannel Pacific Northwesterner more attuned to the gradual yellowing of their memory than a Seattle winter. It’s been ten lovely years to this tune now, and yet—without fail—the sun’s usual migration into vaguely fond remembrance seems to take with it a measure of months from one’s brainpan.
Case study: my New York travel journal, which was inked up during the summertime of 2001. I distinctly remember scrawling down random observations and bitterly Californian contemplations on this trip (The first actual plane-type vacation that the eventual Mrs. Hauser and I went on), yet I have no godly recollection of what might have happened to it. Even stranger, I can vividly mind-map my way into a variety of small, snack-sized little “vignettes” of where I was when I was writing them—and even some of the specific shorthand that was used—but anything past that is afloat in tepid head-broth and not-much-elseness.
This will not, however, deter my attempts to patch these entries together. Not in the least. Screw reality. If nothing else, it makes me realize that the impetus of trying to pickle what bits and bobs I can still rightly recall is all the more important: for a family whose crest should feature some cheeky pun about dementia scrawled across it in flowery text, this might have more value than I’m willing to admit.
So, as Andy Griffith has it: what it was, was New York.
Prior to this little tack-point in time, my travel experience had been relegated to one international trip to India some thirteen years earlier*, as well as the usual shotgun day trips. Barring the trans-Pacific flight to Malaysia, I don’t think I’d been on a plane for longer than four contiguous hours: as such, I was anticipating this coastal hop with a finely-malted blend of excitement and outright horror. The prior hinged on the simple idea of finally going someplace, while the latter was a naturally reactive result to the idea of—yeah–finally going someplace: the diametric hoe-down that results when someone’s natural inclinations are completely undercut by a debilitating case of social anxiety and the general creeps.
Further exacerbating** this mental state was the “helpful advice” that I’d been fielding from friends and fellow Californians about what to expect in The Big Apple. The general consensus was that I’d appreciate the city—in principle—but that the overwhelming claustrophobia of its rat-maze skyline and the inherent lousiness of its urban texture would probably have me retreating back to Hoboken within a few hours. As a kid weaned on the idea that coastal culture was diametric, I didn’t find any fault with this: after all, there was a reason why the Great Hip-Hop Wars of ’95-9X had been situated between the two polar points of the American continental map: they were not like us, and—despite the fact that my girlfriend of three years was a proud Jersey Girl***–this merited the appropriate amount of hesitation and elitist snoot-tipping. I may have been secretly paralyzed at the idea of spending four-plus hours stewing in the collective vapors of a full cross-country flight, but—by god—I was not going to let New York’s brickyard bullshit get the better of my proud Los Angeleno sensibilities.
(We can blitz through the pleasantries of that flight and the connected dots, by the way: summary recollection of that experience being that Newark has a horrifying airport. This was as true in the simpler world that existed in the quiet days prior to 9/11 as it is now, and—while far from a seasoned or savvy traveler—I know enough to avoid the shit out of that place, whenever possible. )
Upon arrival, that crusty veneer of resolve lasted for—at rough estimate—a good thirteen and a half seconds. I emerged from my first-ever subway ride and left the lower colon of the underground for a moment of sheer, blunt panic in stepping into the intestinal tract of Manhattan island: fortunately, Jynx was there with her Pentax, to preserve said moment for posterity’s sake…
… and I realized shortly thereafter that every nerve, fiber and crumb of my being should have been absolutely petrified by the sheer, epic fucking grandeur of what I was currently in the middle of. Southern Californians believe that we have buildings and a downtown sprawl; for the lifers among us, we can’t comprehend the twists of the X-Y axis that it would require to visualize taking all that wasted space and forcing it into an upright position. To be unable to see the entirety of the sky from the middle of the action is a daunting thing for someone who isn’t expecting it, and the clammy awareness that I had no psychic footing started to creep up into my brainstem.
It didn’t get much further.
And the reason—and theme, and moral of this particular story—is that I recognized shortly thereafter that in New York, nobody gives a good goddamn if you’re not comfortable with your surroundings. This is a tricky thing to explain to someone who wasn’t reared in the jetwash of Los Angeleno culture: that the Big Lie of making a go in that city is that you have to believe—honestly and truly—that you matter, and that everything and everybody around you is somehow keyed into an orbit of your specific design.
To try and parse this in sensible terms feels like a study in total horse shit, by the way. And having been away from the shallow root-bed of my youth for about ten years makes me realize just how inherently absurd this mentality is: every time Jynx and I touch down for work or play in Burbank, we practically count the minutes until we notice someone looking at us. Not because we demand attention or because anything about the figures we cut is worth taking inventory of, but because that’s exactly what people in Los Angeles do: look.
You wander into a restaurant in Malibu: people look.
You enter a movie theater in Santa Paula: people turn to look.
You drive down the 405 and happen to glance over into a parallel lane: eventually, someone will be looking.
These aren’t meaningful looks, or even something that most Los Angelenes are aware of: it’s just how we do. Everywhere, every minute, every thing and every one, we are compelled to go looking at others, quietly taking inventories and passing judgments. Until you’re removed from it entirely—ripped out at the roots—you don’t even realize how guilty you are of doing it. You might sneer at others for perpetuating such callow nonsense, but you’re also damn right that you had to look over at them to realize that they were doing in the first place****.
Anyway, this was the thing: the primo revelation, regarding that first New York Minute. That—despite standing in the middle of a human salmon-spawn, with elbows and earholes packed end-to-end, that despite being on the most singularly crowded sidewalk that I’d ever been on—nobody was looking at me. Hell, people weren’t even looking at anything at all, in passing: colors and creeds and all walks of the cultural track, all unified and devoted to a singular purpose of not giving a shit about anybody or anything around them.
In all fairness, I can definitely see where this sort of situation would be jarring to someone’s sensibilities, especially those fitted with SoCali circuitry. In a culture that dollops self-reverence atop all other things, it’s debilitating to a person’s ego to find themselves standing smack-assed in the middle of a city that genuinely doesn’t give a soggy teabag’s worth of shit about the individual, either in concept or social execution. And in being pie-faced with this cold, concrete-backed obstinacy and overwhelming sense of irrelevance, someone with my emotional scabs should have been freaked the fuck out of my head and unable to press on… and yet.
Contrary to all expectations, the thing I felt myself brimming with—just beneath that sweat-freckled skin—was respect. For all the fear that a city like New York can slide between the ribs of a person, its inherent honesty courts your senses in no uncertain terms: regardless of whether you walk, run, slip, fall, cartwheel or kowtow, the city—its arterial flow of foot traffic, taxicabs, the ventricle pulse of its subways—will keep on going. Psychically speaking, the faith required to live in NYC is to the American Character as Copernicus was to the Church; a place where principle is everything, unmoving and absolute, with no room or quarter given for misinterpretation.
And with that in mind, I took my first steps away from the fear one feels in giving themselves up to something new, and got on with my merry goddamned way.