When I was four years old my mother stood me in front of the New York Public Library and pointed in four different directions: north, south, east and west. She told me the names of the avenues going both east and west of Fifth, explained how the street numbers went either up or down, and reassured me that henceforth I would never get lost in Manhattan. It was a grid, and one could easily master it. And I came to know it well.
We rode the subways a lot, mostly on Saturdays, taking the train when we’d visit my grandmother in Washington Heights, and afterwards to a museum or a Broadway play. Subways back then were barely-ventilated hotboxes with flickering lights and seats made of woven wicker that, if you were bored, you could easily pick apart with little effort. Machines mounted on columns in the stations dispensed two-packs of Chiclets or a piece of Juicy Fruit for two cents. The forebears of the rodents who now inhabit the system raced alongside the tracks as they tore through discarded pages from the Daily Mirror or the Journal-American. Occasionally, and only on certain lines, a legless man mounted on a wheeled platform would zip through the cars, begging for alms, and sometimes crazy people would start to sing, loudly about Jesus.
When I turned ten or so I was allowed to ride the subways on my own, and when I went with friends we enjoyed standing in the spaces between cars, where it was easiest to be flung free into the tunnel and subsequently sliced in two by the wheels of one of the rear cars as it whipped past the curve, something that is undoubtedly now, sensibly, forbidden. It was a safer city then, as safe as it has now become, and a boy my age, especially if he knew his way around town, could easily travel without adult company.
A few years later I came to know Greenwich Village very well, where the grid starts to fall apart around 10th Street. Now streets start to gain names, old names, names given a century or two earlier and where indeterminate neighborhoods of boarded-up warehouses and ancient cigar stores, wind-blown and dusty, have become SoHo and Tribeca, smart and crisp and far too expensive. Back then the East Village was the place to live, or at least the only hip place to be, unless you could afford a brownstone on West Twelfth Street or thereabouts, where hipness could be traded for comfort, and for not a lot of money you could have an apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen right on First Avenue, complete with cockroaches, the smell of catshit and the ever-unwelcoming knock on the door from someone needing to “crash.” I remember being in flats on East Thirteenth Street that were rat-infested and filthy, where people (i.e. drug-dealers) had police doors installed, and which, now renovated and properly condo-converted, trade hands for not much less than a million bucks.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because I’m in the process of writing a screenplay entitled “The Grid” for a Los Angeles production company, a script based on an idea of theirs, and which is set in contemporary New York City, a very different town from the one in which I grew up . Without divulging the premise or the plot of the script, it involves two people trying to escape what’s essentially an electronic trap of a city, a place of security cameras, satellite surveillance, phone taps, system hacks, and set far enough in the future (say five or ten years from now) where even a photo capture of a person’s hands can be enhanced to bring up a fingertip and therefore a fingerprint: the air itself can be imprinted with one’s identity. It’s hardly an impossible idea. We’re all confronted by surveillance cameras more than a few times each day—when transacting with an ATM or strolling through a supermarket, when exercising at the gym or entering a medical building. Someone is always watching us. Even our cellphones tell someone else where we are at any given time.
So I’ve been mulling over how this is to be played out, because it has to keep moving, and it has to feature a whole slew of landmark locations. Years ago I read an interesting little book entitled Invisible Frontier by L.B. Deyo and David “Lefty” Leibowitz, urban explorers who, along with their crew, dress in eveningwear to explore and photograph the more forbidden and dangerous parts of New York City, such as abandoned subway tunnels, the top of the George Washington Bridge, and Roosevelt Island’s Smallpox Hospital. None of these are particularly safe to do and most of these journeys could and sometimes did end up with an arrest, but these intrepid folk and their tales have lingered with me into this script. New York has featured in movies ever since the earliest days of cinema, so as one feels obligated to show the same thing in a whole new way (for what are movies but clichés reinvented?), one must also show the unfamiliar.
One thing I’ve realized is just how small Manhattan is. Most who don’t live there think of New York City as a vast and overpopulated place, but once you separate out Manhattan from the other boroughs you’re dealing with a dense, narrow island, vertical in density and bordered by two rivers. Tunnels and bridges connect it to the outer boroughs or New Jersey. You can get out of New York, that’s for sure. But it’s never easy to get New York out of you.
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