The Beach That Didn’t Exist


In August of 2001, a few weeks before the death of one world and the birth of another, I visited the US for the first time. I was there at the invitation of my friend Jerry, who I had met three years earlier in the Czech Republic, when we were both in flight from our destinies. These attempts at evasion had led us to the same language school in Prague, which assigned us to an apartment in the north of the city, way out past Kafka’s grave, close to a large crematorium.

There wasn’t much conviction to Jerry’s border crossings. He had already finished law school and it was clear that he would follow a career in the law. His parents would periodically call him up from their home on Long Island and lambast him for his “asinine” attempts at escape, while also checking to see if he was attending temple, or if he had met any Jewish girls. I, by contrast, was starting to suspect that my ongoing failure to acquire any useful skills might cause me serious problems later in life. And indeed, Jerry did surrender to fate immediately after that single year in Prague, leaving to work for a federal judge in South Carolina, while I departed for Kazakhstan because I thought it would be interesting to explore a blank space on the map. But we stayed in touch, and when Jerry invited me to stay in the apartment he was sharing with some Patrick Bateman types in Manhattan I jumped at the chance.

My goal was to lose myself in the great metropolis, to become—for a few weeks at least—a New York City Man. In some respects, I already was an NYC man insofar as New York is a territory of the imagination at least as much as it is a physical place constructed of glass, concrete and stone. So it was that when I finally stood on top of the Empire State Building, I experienced what can only be described as the shock of the familiar: as the yellow cabs crawled along the floor of the skyscraper canyons, I felt that I had seen it all before — because I had. And yet I could not have said which movie or TV show I had seen it in, or that it was this view precisely. It was a composite of many visions, many stories.

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And as I walked the streets below, again and again I found myself slipping in and out of the “real” New York and the versions that had been imagined for me long before I ever stepped off the plane. Of course, the Empire State Building was located inside King Kong’s New York, which I had first visited as a small boy. Amid the night time crowds on Times Square, I stepped inside Travis Bickle’s New York and remembered the rain that he said would come and “wash all the scum from the streets”.  The East Village belonged to Quentin Crisp, the “stately homo of England” who had abandoned a career in Her Majesty’s civil service for a liberated life on the other side of the Atlantic. In Hell’s Kitchen I heard the shrieking and yelling through paper thin apartment walls that Robert Fripp set to squalling guitar noise on his Exposure album. And then there were all the other New Yorks captured by journeymen TV and film directors which I had seen in countless thrillers, sitcoms and police dramas, and which now merged together in my head.

But the New York I knew best, I soon realized, was Lou Reed’s New York. I first slipped into it on Lexington Avenue, which until that moment had existed only in the opening verse of Waiting for the Man, his ode to scoring heroin in the 1960s:Up to Lexington 125 Feel sick and dirty more dead than alive I’m waiting for my man

A little later I found myself on St. Mark’s Place, where the protagonist of Sally Can’t Dance had lived in a rent-controlled apartment for $80 a month untilShe took too much meth and can’t get off of the floor

One night I was surprised to discover a roaring, muddy river near the UN building; but then I remembered that Lou had warned me in Romeo had Juliette that Manhattan wassinking like a rock into the filthy Hudson what a shock

Even declaring myself a New York City Man was a tip of the hat to Lou, as it was the title of a song on his middling album Set the Twilight Reeling. And it was from Lou that I first heard about Coney Island, thanks to the last track on Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed which I had purchased on cassette as a teenager in small-town Scotland…

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