Dispatch: Gotham

Daniel Hernandez is a Daily Cal staff writer and editor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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I was sitting on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when Willie G came up to me, eyeing my bright yellow Cal cap and holding a bright yellow sheet of paper in his hand. I would soon learn that he called himself The Poet of New York City, and he sold his poems for whatever pedestrians could afford.

But before offering his verse ("Everybody Has Gotta Start Somewhere"), he asked, "Southern Cal?" No, I said. This is Cal. Cal Berkeley. "Oh. You from the Bronx?" No, I said, to which he mumbled that I looked like someone he knew from the Bronx. He then asked where I was from. San Diego, I answered, and he gave me a good, long staredown with a hiss of vague wonder.

"How is California?" Willie G asked me finally. Warm, I said. He laughed.

"Is it all crazy like they say? You know, drive-bys?" No, I said; there aren't many places in California that have drive-bys still. "Just Compton," he interrupted, moving on to offer me his poem. (I let the Compton jab go, since I wouldn't know for sure.)

"I made enough to get breakfast and dinner yesterday," he said. I gave Willie G one dollar for the sheet of paper that bore his poem, and he looked like he appreciated it, adding, "You don't get much from college students."

He went off, and I was left with a strange feeling (minus the 35 degree weather): being in Berkeley. It was sunny on the Upper East Side that day and I wasn't alone lounging on the steps of the Met. Tired from trekking through the museum's four blocks of masterpieces, I sat drinking a bottle of lemonade.

Drinking something. On steps. In the sun. Being sold (for money or not) a sheet a paper. A Berkeley setting.

It didn't take long to snap out of it, though. Nothing of what I saw towering over Fifth Avenue before me would warrant a Berkeley regression. Nothing of what I was wearing - gloves, scarf, neck to ankle thermal underwear - reminded me of Berkeley. This was, in all its beautiful chaos, New York City. And I had managed to woo myself into thinking I had funds to spare for a holiday.

I did have funds to spare - at least if you count credit cards and financial aid, but that's all the assurance I needed. I was in New York, traveller's checks signed, ATM card ready.

A couple years ago, I would have never imagined that one day I would be gathering with friends to set out and see New York. I had always thought college was a time of intense poverty and cross-country vacations between semesters were luxuries for rich kids. Or, more properly defined, not me.

The idea is not as foreign now; peers of mine commonly head for ski trips in the Rockies, backpacking ventures in Europe or road trips upstate or downstate depending on where home is. Rich or not, they do it. And that makes sense. If not now, at the apex of our youth, then when?

For me, going to New York was more than a trip, it was a pilgrimage. Sure, we all know people who live, are from or have visited THE City, but something about being shoved in the commuter lawlessness of Grand Central Station or being honked at by a fleet of angry cabs at Broadway and 42nd makes every story I had heard about New York 10 times as volatile.

Each time I saw a beaming picture of Rudolph Giuliani, with his written welcome to "The Capital of the World," I became less and less irritated with that Gotham arrogance and more people believing that the capital of the world is here. It looks like it from the 107th floor at the World Trade Center by day, or the 86th floor of the Empire State Building by night. It looks like it at Times Square and at Rockefeller Center. It certainly felt like it when I stepped on international territory at the United Nations. (A security guard let us in for less than a minute after it was closed - just to get that full effect.)

Giuliani is right. Practically everything in New York is or at one point was the biggest or best or tallest something "in the world." I had my hands full just marvelling at how that place operates while always dancing on the edge of cosmopolitan anarchy. More than 100 tracks at Grand Central Station? How many thousands of taxis? How many cops in the NYPD? How many miles of subway tunnels? How often do cars swerve within lanes or pass red lights like that?

I tried squeezing it all into six short days, mindful to leave room to watch local newscasts and pick up local papers. The New York media was all heart and metro, giving plenty of time to a teary-eyed musician reunited with her lost $40,000 violin via a kindhearted cabbie, and taking a critical look at the Mayor's State of the City address. The Daily News and the Post are entertaining if you just look at their covers.

I read these papers while riding the labyrinthine New York subway, a system I mastered once getting past an episode where one missed stop left me in Brooklyn. Soon, I began wondering if I could ever survive, live, in that living machine of a place. Could I survive outside polite, warm and relaxed California?

Every now and then that home-state feeling would hit me. Times Square: breakers banking on the tourist crowds. Bagpipes playing at one corner, a drum set playing at the next. A drum set? Could it be? I dodged a limo to cross the street, hoping that just maybe I would see him with those sticks in hand.

But no, no Larry. Damn.

Where is that guy? Hopefully still in California, home.


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