Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#40, June 23, 1999


by Marylaine Block

Here in the heartland, we scare our children into good behavior by threatening to send them to New York City - beats a bogeyman any day. So it was a revelation when I visited the Big Apple my very own self.

Despite the rumors that New York was full of purse snatchers and dope dealers, the only lawless people I saw the whole time were drivers. My taxi ride from LaGuardia was startling in that the driver kept kissing his girlfriend while cutting across four lanes of traffic, but I eventually concluded that anyone who actually obeyed traffic laws in Manhattan would never get anywhere.

As for pedestrians, they seem to treat "Don't Walk" signs the way we treat Mom's "Be home by 10, dear." At least it's nice that with New York's alternating one way street pattern, pedestrians can ignore traffic from only one direction.

The certifiably insane in New York all seem to be equipped with inline skates or bicycles. They weave freely in and out of traffic like darting little hummingbirds, playing tag with taxis and buses, and zipping across intersections where the less free-spirited have halted for blaring ambulances.

Coming from where spaces are open, I expected to feel hemmed in by tall buildings on narrow, canyon-like streets that cut off the sun. I was surprised to find sidewalks roomy enough for sidewalk cafes AND a dozen people walking briskly side by side. The buildings were tall, to be sure, but with many of them set back, plenty of sunlight was able to beam down on pavilions, fountains and flowers.

In fact, I found that New York is made for walking in, with shops, restaurants, concerts, sidewalk vendors, museums and parks jostling each other side by side, all open well into the night and early morning. When I first heard Huey Lewis sing, "Where else an you do a half million things, and all at a quarter to three?" I had no idea that was a simple statement of fact.

I knew about Central Park, of course, though no guidebook could ever fully prepare you for its vastness. But I'd never heard of all the little pocket parks. Bryant Park, in back of the New York Public Library, was an oasis of cool dark green on one side, and masses of flowers on the other, in colors only God can successfully combine. With cafes and concerts and chairs you can arrange into conversational groupings, it's a space that lifts the heart.

I expected culture in New York, and I got it in bulk loads. I saw up-and-coming rock bands and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and appreciated anew the difference between even the best regional theaters and the real thing. What I hadn't expected was the unofficial art - the man in Central Park playing Irish folk songs on a penny whistle, the saxophonist playing on a street corner in the dark, the parking lot production of King Lear.

Food's another way you know you aren't in Iowa anymore. Why every New Yorker doesn't have a 45 inch waistline I don't know, because with delis and street vendors on every block, nobody has to walk more than 25 steps for a latte and bagels. Food from every conceivable nationality makes you grateful that immigrants only Americanized themselves, not their food.

With two days for business and only one day for playing, I fit in the carriage ride in Central Park, Lindy's cheesecake, and the Frick Museum. But I missed the Statue of Liberty and the Brookly Bridge, and I never got to Wall Street to wave at my money. I'll have to come back someday.

You know, in the midwest, the only thing standing in the way of new development is corn and soybeans and the dreams of farmers. For us, it's easier to build from scratch than to fix up what's already there. We use up our downtowns and throw them away when a shiny new mall crops up on the outskirts of town.

It occurs to me that the advantage to building a city on an island is that you have no choice but to keep what you have and reuse it. Who would have thought that New Yorkers would be the real recyclers?

Or that maybe, just maybe, WE - the virtuous, smug heartlanders - might be the bogeyman?

Read the rest of
these columns

home to all my
other writing