In The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle , the animated pair are thrust into the modern, real world and must make their way across America to New York to thwart the fiendish scheme of Fearless Leader, played by Robert De Niro, to turn the world into zombies via the television shows broadcast by his R.B. (as in Really Bad) TV. As moose and squirrel move through the Midwest, passing strip mall after strip mall with the same combination of franchise stores, Bullwinkle keeps asking, Didn’t we just pass through here?
The punch line to that running joke is not in the movie. It is right here, in Times Square. Anyone who attended the film’s June 26 New York premiere at the AMC Empire 25 multiplex on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues could have seen it as they took the series of acutely angled escalators back down to street level. Connected to the theaters is a humongous food court-a term that was alien to New Yorkers 15 years ago-where the kind of chains that give Midwesterners the fattest asses in the Western world are all gathered under one roof.
From there it was down into the artificial daylight and sensory overload of the new Times Square. Six months ago, in the chill of December, at the edge of the millennium, this spot felt like the incipient crossroads of both the world and the future. But now beneath the pallor-inducing neon and the grimy, oppressive summer heat, the sense of anticipation is replaced by queasiness. That gigantic model of the Concorde pointing at the new Condé Nast building once felt like a compass needle pointing to our destiny. Now it feels like a Sharper Image–designed stake aimed at the heart of our vampiric New York–ness, the idiosyncrasies that made us sexier, freakier, smarter, funnier and better than the rest of the world. Times Square is safer, certainly, and thank God for that, but rather than defining us as New Yorkers, it seems just a gaudier, supersized version of the rest of the country. It’s as though New York has become was as though New York really was what the rest of the country used to say it wasn’t-part of America.
We expected something when the ball dropped on 2000, whether it was apocalypse or divine inspiration or the ultimate wisdom, but we expected something . And now, six months on the other side, we’ve realized that 2000 is actually quite different from 1999. For years, we amassed all of the power and money that the Clinton administration allowed us to have, and then we built a new city with it. We made a monument to our ambition made of titanium and limestone and neon that eliminated all of the dark, edgy corners of Manhattan. And then we sat back, while all of the tourists poured in to see what we had done, and we realized that while we were building we had gotten older and closer to our mortality. Some closer than others.
And we had turned New York from a place into a marketing opportunity. One that, by the way, President and Mrs. Clinton saw as the ideal home base for their post-retirement business plans.
For New Yorkers, the July 4 weekend has long been the signal to cut the engines to half speed and coast through the next sweltering nine weeks on momentum until we fire things up again for the fall, when the rest of the world begins to die and New York comes alive.
But we lost the engines early this year and, pardon the pun, but the price of gas just doesn’t seem worth it. Central Park is eerily verdant but, after the wilding incident, a little creepy. The Hamptons have almost completed their metamorphosis into a grotesque Levittown inhabited by the Children of the Damned and their damned parents. Even the Buddhist retreats are attracting a meaner class of people. And sweet Jesus, it didn’t used to get this stinky and muggy until at least mid-July. Suddenly the prospect of eating rats and grubs with a bunch of annoying people on some inhospitable island doesn’t sound so bad.
Right now, there a lot of wealthy people in Manhattan, but there are very few secure ones. Nothing seems like a sure bet, except treading water. Maybe it isn’t that we lost the way, but that we lost the bark of the guy whose ambition-acceptable or not-seemed the determining point to the city’s future: Mayor Giuliani’s speeches had always been full of apres moi le deluge warnings, and suddenly-after peaking to meanness after Patrick Dorismond’s killing-he had his series of revelations and press conferences, announcing that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, then in short order that he was separating from his wife, Donna Hanover, and withdrawing from the Senate race, and then suddenly…rather than the snarling weapon he had been, he was a friendly burgermeister .
Suddenly, the Mayor who vanquished dissenters with the speed and ferocity of Mike Tyson became merely a man humbled by the one opponent that eventually always wins: his mortality.
Practically overnight, Mr. Giuliani seemed to get in touch with the city’s pain, some of which his take-no-prisoners leadership had exacerbated. He sought to make amends, most notably by seeking to apologize to the family of Patrick Dorismond. But Mr. Giuliani also seemed to adopt a kinder, gentler method of running the city. In the days following Atlanta Braves loudmouth John Rocker’s announcement that he was going to ride the No. 7 train-whose riders he had disparaged with a series of epithets in Sports Illustrated -to Shea Stadium on June 29, Mr. Giuliani urged straphangers who found themselves on the same train with Mr. Rocker to “be nice.”
Be nice .
But just as Mr. Giuliani showed his more human side, the Central Park wilders struck and there was the sense that if the Mayor had once been too hard, maybe the old boy had gone soft. Some-those who had never been victimized by it-expressed a longing for his old cruel sneer. In any case, New York felt different.
“Now that you mention it I guess his condition has affected the atmosphere,” said author Norman Podhoretz, an unreconstructed New Yorker and an admirer of the new Times Square. “He was such a domineering presence that the atmosphere is different now that he’s receded from public view and become mellower.”
Mr. Giuliani’s dose of humility was a particularly staggering one, but there are inklings that some of his other contemporaries, as they encounter significant life changes, are tinkering with the gas-to-oil fuel mixtures of their New York personalities. Two years ago, New Yorkers watched in awe as Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a man who once defined the phrase “New York prick,” blubber for the cameras after the Yankees won the World Series. But Mr. Steinbrenner’s spokesman, Howard Rubenstein, noted that “for the last four or five years, George has not been thought of as a New York prick.” Mr. Rubenstein then hastened to add that “I wouldn’t use the word ‘prick’ myself. That was your language.” He continued that for those years, the “kinder, gentler” Steinbrenner “hasn’t been thought of as harsh or as confrontational. He’s more measured. He thinks he can be a very strong leader and yet show signs of sympathy. When some of his ball players had difficult times, he didn’t shoot off,” said Mr. Rubenstein. “The fact that he cried, that was the real Steinbrenner. Behind his iron will is a soft spot.”
More recently, we saw David Letterman stifle a face-wrenching sob upon his return from quintuple bypass surgery. Mr. Letterman still obsesses over it-after doing a joke on the June 26 show about the contestants on Survivor finding a chest of crack on their remote island, Mr. Letterman remarked that, ironically, just a few weeks ago, his chest had been cracked-but he seems to have arrived at the conclusion that, at least on camera, he’s more comfortable being wickedly honest than earnestly gooey.
And it was hard to miss once-petulant publicist Peggy Siegal at the Rocky and Bullwinkle after-party at the Galactic Circus video game arcade, where she gallantly suppressed her Upper East Side aggressiveness to join the food-service workers to pass out hamburgers to a backed-up line of V.I.P. children and their parents and guardians, including Live with Regis and Kathie Lee personality Claudia Cohen, who was shepherding the children of her ex-husband’s soon-to-be new wife, Ellen Barkin.
This struggle to somehow integrate the dark and light components of our psyches -as Jim Carrey does in Me, Myself and Irene -comes easier to some than to others.
Donald Trump, who’s been both reviled by the media and lionized by the public, claims that he doesn’t think in terms of “being a hard-ass or being softer, kinder and gentler.” For him, “it’s really a per-situation basis,” said Mr. Trump, who added: “I’ve always liked being softer, kinder and gentler but sometimes it can’t work out that way. Then I become the opposite of that. Not quite as nice or soft or gentle.”
Mr. Trump somehow manages to get away with both, but for others it can be a little disorienting. After so many years of ruling the city with a hard nose, Mr. Giuliani’s display of his inner softie has been greeted with suspicion.
“He’s bargaining with God,” the writer Fran Lebowitz said of Mr. Giuliani, after appearing on a panel discussion for the U.S. News and World Report television program, World @ Large.
“He’s saying let me live and I’ll be nice.” In Ms. Lebowitz’s opinion, the new, nice Rudy “is worse than the old Giuliani, in a way,” because, she seemed to be saying, it wasn’t the real Rudy.
The discussion in which Ms. Lebowitz had just partaken, along with Harper’s Bazaar editor Kate Betts and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything author James Gleick, was called 24/7: Are We Overworked, and it had dealt primarily with the way technology had changed our lives. Ms. Lebowitz took the position of the curmudgeonly old-world New Yorker, whose technological advancement had stopped with her acquisition of a telephone answering machine, and she was very good at playing that role. When one woman asked a confusing question, Ms. Lebowitz even remarked, “I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
“This was never the world capital of etiquette. Now, it’s a million times worse,” Ms. Lebowitz said, with so many handheld electronic devices beeping and belching in public and so many people screaming into their cell phones. Ms. Lebowitz even recalled a surreal episode where, she said, she witnessed a man sitting near her on a city bus screaming into his cell phone about a $30 million deal. As the man became progressively more annoying, Ms. Lebowitz said she yelled at him: “Hey, Mr. $30 Million, you’re on the bus!”
When the laughter had died down, Ms. Lebowitz added, “You actually long for the people who talked to themselves on the street. At least they showed imagination.”
The audience of mostly middle-aged executives laughed again. Ms. Lebowitz was conjuring up the New York of old. It was a more dangerous, dysfunctional New York, but it was a familiar one. And there in the Newseum studio, next to the IBM headquarters at Madison Avenue and 57th Street, Ms. Lebowitz, her fellow panelists, the moderator David Gergen and the audience were breathing in the last bits of it.
The New York of the future-the one evoked by the hyper-lit, hyper-juiced new Times Square-may be under construction, but we have yet to move in. It will begin to happen with the November elections and, later on, with the eventual election of a new mayor who will almost inevitably struggle in the shadow of the city that we built. Until then, whether we like our recreational options or not, we must rest up, gather strength and make mental note of how we want to decorate. The New York of this season may have a glacé surface of niceness slathered on to fit the last few months. But those who live here know that as the heat builds, in a million crevices through town, something else will sweat up through the pores and the stinky identity of New York in the summer will assert itself. And though the tourists who show up will complain that it’s a hot and smelly place to visit, we know that it’s the only place to live.