Monday, April 24, 2006

Sunday Afternoon Roller Disco, NYC

It was strange to come back to a city where I lived for a long time and see it as a different person, even 3 weeks later. It's almost too familiar (or strange?) for me to write about, but I'll try.

I think the late 1970s/early 1980s must have been a cultural golden age for the city. At least a few key elements of NY culture arose during this era which people really cling to. One is neo-deco "contemporary" furniture design. Renderings of beds and dining sets in this style, plastic or enameled aluminum, can be found in a ghetto furniture store in just about every neighborhood in Manhattan. Pink and grey are key to the palette. By economic reasoning, it must be the case that demand for this stuff is consistent and ongoing. This blows my mind. It's not that NYC is the only place one can find this furniture; it’s in every town in the U.S. It's that you would expect more from NYC, some kind of natural selection for good taste. Small spaces and high standards of living have enforced style Darwinism all over Europe. But every real New Yorker knows that the city is actually completely filled with ugly crap and undrinkable coffee. There is no explanation for this in classical economic theory.

A second important example of a NY style anachronism is the persistence of the ladies' polyester Sunday suit. These may have a proper name, but this is the only description I can think of. I think you know what I mean.

There are entire swaths of midtown retail devoted to the ladies Sunday suit. This is some of planet Earth's most valuable real estate and it serves what must be hordes of 60-year old women. Except one never really sees them. The shops are always empty and their wares fading in the windows, blue suits faster than red ones. Unless the DVD release of Tomlin & Parton's 9-to-5 has sparked a renewed demand for the oversized polyester suit, this remains another NYC cultural mystery.

Example number three is Cool 101.9. This radio station must have more listeners than any other in the city: it is absolutely ubiquitous in public space. Does anyone like this music? Is everyone under the mistaken impression that someone else must like it and therefore that's what we should listen to in stores and bus stations? Do they broadcast the aural version of crack? How can we break these chains and bring modern music to the big apple?

My final example is the only good one: disco skating. You know you've watched them. Parachute pants, floral jeans, big teased bans, fanny packs. Skating on classic or inline wheels in Central Park. To a DJ that may very well be from Cool 101.9. But these people love themselves. And you have to love them right back. They might have come out here everyday since 1980. White and black, gay and straight. People who want to be watched and those alone in their own world, but all of them are lacking 21st century neurotic self-consciousness.

Something about the late 1970s/early 1980s must have sparked all of these cultural mainstays. Maybe it was the city's bankruptcy, rising crime and flight of the middle class to the suburbs. But the message to New Yorkers is clear. It's okay to be uncool. The city has a booming sector of uncoolness and it's easy to get in on the ground floor.

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