New Internationalist

Big Apple Rap

Issue 212

new internationalist
issue 212 - October 1990

Big Apple rap
New York may be the flashiest, splashiest, glitziest city in the world.
But who can find a decent apple there? Maggie Black hits the streets.

The Big Apple. New York, New York. Temptation, all golden deliciousness, money, high living, the good time, the big break, succulent, enticing. Go on, take a bite do. Break that shiny skin, savour that juicy mouthful, but watch out. Inside, if you care to look, there's rottenness around the core and a worm or two threatening to reduce the whole glorious promise to a pulp.

That's about as far as the apple metaphor will stretch, no distance at all, scarcely a block. No farther than the hop from Battery Park to the Staten Island Ferry (at 25 cents, the best and cheapest ride in town) or from the Plaza Hotel to Central Park (take a horse-drawn carnage if you've got the time and money).

Apple? Where? Try Zabar's, fancy food and kitchen goods. The Russian Tea-Room or the Hard Rock Café? No way. Oh I know. The Farmer's Market in Union Square on Saturday morning when the drug pushers have all been moved on. Clever.

Rush rush, Reebok sneakers on the feet whatever else you're wearing, whether it's jeans, sable, Norma Kamali or Calvin Klein. If you trip in a pot-hole you can sue City Hall or send a postcard to complain: 'Please draw a pot-hole in this space'. If you're in a wheelchair, the bus will sigh, kneel down for you, turn its steps into a hoist and lift you in. Everyone's on the express track frantic to get somewhere.

'Walk' commands the traffic light in white, 'Don't walk' in red. Who said New York was an apple? Don't know lady, but we're stuck with it now. Red Apple supermarkets, popcorn and chicken wings. Apple clothes stores, chrome interiors and cheap dazzle. Bank at an apple, stick an apple on a computer. Buy a T-shirt: 'I (heart) the big (pomme)'. What's with this Apple thing?

It can't be the shape, that's more like a banana. Nor the tang of dewy freshness, not in a city where buildings hem in the air and leave it sitting there for days, where dustbins tethered in the street give out the soft breath of decay and joggers fill their lungs with car exhaust. It's not the healthy glow of rosy cheeks: colour of that kind comes from the make-up counters snaking through every department store. Bloomingdales present Poison, scent for the smart and savvy, New York's finest.

It wasn't apples Ivana Trump had puffed up. Cheeks yes, apples no. There she was, wife of billionaire Donald and mistress of the Plaza Hotel, needing a more extravagant figure to match the vulgar opulence of her excess. Some people's apples come blown in steuben glass or studded with multi-carat baubles. At cocktail hour they're there in the bar as a motif on the coasters.

Move over, apple. Give some other fruit a chance. The Big Plum. No, that wouldn't do. The Big Peach? Give me a fruit with exhilaration, energy, a thrusting fruit, bursting out, that's New York for you. As far ahead as you can get, stretch the limo round the corner to your new address on Madison or Park. As far up as you can go, 100 floors to the top of the World Trade Center, but wear a tie or they won't allow you in the bar. As far out as you can be, grooving at a Chelsea jam session, little foil papers with white powder swapping hands and noses in the restroom. As far down as you can fall, asleep on the hot-air grating in a cardboard overcoat, lifting skirts to loose a flood of urine in the gutter.

'Big' is natural in New York, where everything is big conceptually even if it's small. A one-person show at an off-off-off Broadway theatre, a Tiffany billfold, a slice of Black Forest gateau in the Plaza palm court for tea, a singing telegram, a black cat landing four-square safe after falling from the 32nd floor. Only in New York. Only less conspicuous than a King Kong inflatable on the spire of the Empire State, the three-ringed circus at Madison Square Garden, the skyline of Central Park West, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, the 60-foot Norwegian Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza.

The Apple embraces, accommodates. The small man, Polish, mending shoes and making good for 50 years in the cubbyhole of a shop at a prime mid-town location. The biggest of them all, Italian, capo di tutti capi, parking on his way to dine, gunned down right there, just outside. The President, one of many, passing down the same block in bulletproof black glass en route to the podium in the UN General Assembly.

A city of extremes: extreme wealth, extreme generosity, extreme brutality, desperation, poverty, some parts vanity, others discomfort and bitterest shame. In the tatty brilliance of Times Square, a young kid props up a doorway eating a hamburger, payment for a dirty fumble in the dark a long way from home. In the night-time shelter for the homeless, among the prostrate figures on camp-beds, a solitary woman weeps the hours away. In the nether regions of the Parking Violations Bureau or the City Park Commission, someone plans an even bigger rip-off than the last.

In New York the timid never make it. Things and people demand to be noticed, shout and carry on, wave their legs in the air. Even the tin cup - 'veteran, hungry and sick, please help' is thrust in your face, right up under your carefully folded New York Times while you strap-hang on the subway. And if the statement's not loud enough, or bold enough, or crude enough, be sure it will be simply trashed. Humdrum is a no-no. And yet New Yorkers love their apple, plain old fruit, ordinary as pie.

At last, a real apple, there on that fruit-stand, the actual McCoy. Red, polished, uniformly big and beautiful. Rows of them, punctuating the greens and oranges of the ubiquitous Korean store, flown in from California, arrived at John F Kennedy airport this morning at 4 am. Those Koreans, aren't they marvellous? Never used to have the choice, never used to have the freshness, clock-round.

Oh but what a disappointment: soft flesh, tasteless and textureless as cotton wool. There you are, just like New York. Empty beneath her sumptuous robes. How can you say that? There's nothing like New York, nothing anywhere in the world. I love New York. I hate New York.

No-one knows for sure how the Big Apple got its name. But they say that in the Jazz Age, the bands touring the out-of-town locations sighed for their crack at the big one, waiting for their bite at the best. The Apple. The juiciest, splashiest, excitingest city in the world, the ultimate metropolis. Bite hard and beware. .

Maggie Black was lured from NI co-editorship to the Big Apple where she worked for UNICEF. She has recently returned to the UK to work as a freelance journalist.

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