The block of Fulton Street surrounding the subway station was a mess of shredded gray cobblestone. Hardhats bobbed in trenches below me. I picked my way through bootlegged copies of recent films, Gucci handbags, and designer perfumes. “One dolla! One dolla! One dolla!” mumbled a man with a scarred ice chest of bottled water. “One dolla today, three dolla tomorrow… maybe five. Get it today.”
Beyond the fare card turnstile, the subway platform was a stifling pit (maybe I should have bought the water). The northbound Number Two was a blessed respite from the triple-digit sauna. The air-conditioned express train whooshed through destinations made famous by decades of movies and television. “The people ride in a hole in the ground,” I thought, recalling lyrics from Gene Kelly’s film, New York, New York.
Nowhere to sit during the 6:00 rush. I grab a rail and hang on. A brave woman applies eyeliner despite the car’s rhythmic rocking. Another punctures her eardrums with headphones I can hear six feet away. A miniature terrier sleeps in a pink handbag under a seat. A guy escorts his ten-speed from my train to the Penn Station transfer.
I’m a little dazzled by just how many ways there are to exit the 42nd Street station. So I probably leave the wrong way, but Times Square’s human traffic has no discernible direction or flow. Even ant farms seem better organized. A nation of jaywalkers seems oblivious to a centrally-located police outpost. It’s hard to notice the cars in your path when you’re assaulted by a phalanx of 20-story light shows.
Bubba Gump and the Hard Rock Café want my dinner per diem. Instead, I choose the Brooklyn Diner (confusingly named, since Brooklyn is a dozen train stops to the south). An interior of warm wood and stainless steel awaits patrons inside the heavy revolving door. The menu’s on the classy side of affordable. Twenty bucks for the aptly-named “Perfect Plate” of grilled shrimp, Greek salad, and hummus. I order a chocolate egg cream just so I can say I’ve had one. The sting of seltzer surprises me, but I decide I like it.
Half a century ago, the diner’s wait staff probably shouted coded orders for Blue Plate specials toward a short order cook. No doubt he responded with a slab of meatloaf on a bed of mashed potatoes. Ketchup (not salsa) was the country’s favorite condiment. Maybe dietitians of the day considered it a vegetable. The restaurant probably served bottomless cups of coffee for a dime (let us not confuse coffee of the Eisenhower era with latte or espresso; It was joe, the real-deal, a biting elixir aged by neglect on a hot plate).
Over time, that diner has been subsumed by this one. Its prefabricated metal frame may yet be buried beneath layers of tony varnish. Now it offers pretentious portions of upscale atmosphere, the canned experience of bygone days, adjusted for inflation. Commemorative t-shirts available at the cashier’s counter. Of course they take American Express.
Two streets up: the Shubert Theatre. Mary Poppins, Young Frankenstein, and The Lion King flank Spamalot. Maybe the current Broadway trend doesn’t favor original drama. All these shows seem to be artifacts of other entertainments. Everyone who’s seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and – believe me – everyone in the audience has), laughs even before most of the jokes have been told. The Black Knight proclaims “None shall pass.” Collective nostalgia triggers a pre-emptive grin. We are not living the theatre; we are re-living the cinema.
Frenchmen famously taunt Camelot’s hapless knights, threatening to “fart in [their] general direction.” Scores in the audience can recite the familiar comic insults. Arthur readies to storm the French fortress. The castle’s residents respond by catapulting cows (yes, cows). End Act One. House lights up. A teenage boy and his mother to my left wipe tears of mirth from their eyes. When they’re again capable of speech, I realize they’re talking to each other… in French. Suddenly, I don’t know how to feel. I can’t discern the ethnically sensitive thing to do (or think). Being politically correct means always having to say you’re sorry.
It’s a good show. Half-price, same-day tickets make me feel better about going. Orchestra in the “S” row for 56 bucks. Yeah. Half-price is $56. The whole family can see Dark Knight in IMAX for that price. Hard to argue against live theatre’s elitist reputation.
Did I mention it’s a good show? Stephen Collins looks like he’s having fun playing King Arthur. I think I’m supposed to recognize Nick Lachey, who’s also in the cast. I am only peripherally aware that he’s maybe related to somebody half-famous. He was truly funny as “Patsy,” Arthur’s coconut-wielding dogsbody/horse (Long story. Either you’re up on your Python or you’re not). Perhaps if I were a dozen years younger (in pop culture years), his performance would have delighted me even more.
I guess I could end with some smart philosophical summary. Something about Plato’s cave and how humanity seems satisfied with the shadows on its wall, preferring copies to the authentic experience. There’s probably a spiritual lesson to be learned from people who would rather go to EPCOT’s version of France than to Paris itself.
Instead, it feels more authentic to tell you that when I returned from the theatre, someone was playing bagpipes three floors above a corner sushi bar. Only in America. No. Only in New York.