Thunder peels down the canyons of cement, echoing from the edifices above, stern with the cold sunlight of another March afternoon. The Leathernecks were out in force today, or as Pointman, our dreadlocked Rastafarian warrior-poet would say, ‘on patrol’, as if lower Manhattan secretly harbored a hidden rice paddy or two, freshly remembered from his youth. Ironically, it was indeed Vietnam that drew us out of our toasty living rooms and into the crisp early spring day, although an observance ceremony at Veterans Plaza, and not some somnambulant Tet Offensive sprung from our leader’s teenage memories.
Perhaps it was the solemn nature of the occasion, or reading the letters home, carved in the Wall, from long dead boys stranded on the other side of the world, but we were all more jazzed up than usual afterwards, ready to drown those secondhand nightmares in bourbon and beer and overpriced cheeseburgers. We descended upon the Village like Khan and his Mongol hordes, albeit wreathed in motorcycle exhaust instead of the frozen breath of steppe-raised warhorses.
The afternoon slipped by like a child’s top, spinning faster, a blur of shots and irish car bombs and the sound of raw engines, the freeze frame image of tourists photographing us as we roared through Soho and Tribeca, hopping from one dive bar to another, slowly working our way down until nothing was left but rock bottom and the Brooklyn Bridge, welcoming us home. It was sometime just before that final call, nestled down in the Lower East Side, that I found myself bellied up to another darkwood polished bar, awash with Jack Daniels and perma-grin and the camaraderie of my brothers, and that was when she walked through the door.
In my favorite film noir movies, black and white and sophisticated shadows, that moment would have been frozen, the music stopping suddenly, the camera panning and moving in for that sudden close-up, the blur focusing on her angelic face, transfixed. Perfect. That never happens in real life, of course, but there I was, mesmerized, the shot glass mid-air, forgotten.
She stood perfectly upright, poised, graceful, her delicately sculpted lips moving as she ordered a drink, her voice unheard by my dumbstruck ears, lost in the background music of the darkened bar. And then she smiled, and it was as if sunlight burst into that murky room, real sunlight, not that cruel echo of early spring that clothed the city like tarnished steel, but summer borne, full of life and hope, heavy with the smell of clover and the drone of drowsy bees, rich with the laughter of distant children. It was the kind of smile that makes you smile back, reflexively, even if you are not the subject of her conversation, the corner of your eyes crinkling helplessly, charmed.
I watched her the rest of the time we were there, between the jokes and the war stories with my brothers, stealing glances, amazed, hypnotized each time. Her hair was resplendent in the light from the window, and it was somehow perfect that the only patch of sunlight in the gloom would grace her thin, elfin face.
And then it was time to go. I had to say something, so I stumbled over and asked her name, and I think I smiled as she told me. I have no idea what I said in return, I can only hope it was something appropriate and gracious—hell, I may not have said anything at all, but only careened out of the door after the other Leathernecks.
But as we rode out across the bridge, the wind sharp now, cutting, as the sun dipped into the East River and the Saturday afternoon odyssey slipped into night, one thing kept repeating itself in my mind.
That, and the memory of that incredible smile, and the way it lit up that small dark room, somewhere in the back streets of the Lower East Side.
Like 14 million other Americans this past week, I plunked down my precious sixty bucks and walked out of Gamespot with a freshly wrapped copy of Grand Theft Auto 4. For the non-video gamers out there, GTA4, as it’s commonly refered to , is the latest installment from Rock Star Games, and it offers a city in which you can do anything that you want. Particularly if that something would be ill-advised or fraught with lengthy prison sentences. Or other unpleasant results.
And when I say ‘a city’, I mean an entire city–full of people, cars, buildings, restaurants, businesses, helicopters, Mafia dons, prostitutes (somewhere, I haven’t found them yet), all fully interactable in real time. Unlike most video games which offer vignettes in evenly spaced intervals, or small enclosed areas in which you can operate for a limited time, GTA4 provides an entire metropolis in real time. You have to drive the streets (this version has a GPS included to help you get around), talk to people, buy greasy hotdogs from sidewalk vendors to stay alive, dodge creditors–just like real life.
With a difference.
Real life frowns upon you shooting said creditor in the head to avoid paying your hefty debts. In GTA4 you can. See a nice new sports car pulling up beside you as you munch on that hotdog? Pull out the driver, beat his ass, and take it. If you see a nicely appointed hooker trolling the streets of Harlem, pick her up and have your way with her (it was much easier in GTA2). Want to steal a snazzy UH-60 helicopter from the federal government and then fly it down Broadway at streetlight level? Go right ahead! Just be sure that you can either outfly the LCPD choppers–either that, or have a useful cheat code stored in your character’s nifty new cellphone.
Yes, the police are in the game, and yes, they will chase you down and lock you up if you get caught breaking the law. However, it is possible to outrun them, and even if they do catch you, they will only throw you in jail overnight, and fine you a chunk of your hard earned pay. Unlike with the NYPD, who will simply shoot you 51 times and then sneer at your family in court for three months. Well, the police in the game will shoot you, but somehow bullets are cured with a brief stay in one of Liberty City’s sparkling new hospitals. It’s amazing what technology has brought to gaming–who would have thought you could find competent medical coverage in NYC?
Now, I can hear the grayhairs out there saying, why would you want to run around breaking the law at will? Because it’s fun! Particularly when it is realistically portrayed, and it’s only in a video game. I’ve told myself that exact same disclaimer after doing any number of deplorable acts in the game. I suppose it all holds a certain amount of appeal to rebellious 15 year old teenagers–or to 40 year old soldiers with too many tattoos and an overdose of testosterone.
GTA4 is set in the fictitious metropolis of Liberty City–which bears a striking resemblance to New York City, along with Brooklyn and Albany. The last two GTA games have similiar tie-ins: GTA-Vice City took on Miami Florida, and GTA-San Andreas blended together Los Angeles and San Francisco. And as for ‘striking resemblance’, I mean amazingly accurate. In Liberty City, not only are there the usual tourist spots–the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, but even obscure portions of the boroughs. There have been times, motoring around the digital town, where I swear I recognize the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, or Bay Ridge (the part of Brooklyn I live in).
And this is where it gets a bit more interesting, or surrealistic. Having just arrived in NYC, and still well into the exploratory side of things, it’s very strange to be investigating the nether regions of Liberty City on the Xbox on rainy days, and then riding through the exact same places in real life the next. The two realities keep overlapping, and the effect is something like a binary version of deja vu.
Last week, in the game, I rode a stolen chopper across GTA4’s version of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the very next day, rode my Springer Softail across the real one. In the game, no tourists took my picture as I roared by, as they did in real life, but to be fair, unlike my alter ego, I wasn’t packing a fully automatic MP5 submachine gun.
It was in the shop.
To add to the mental confusion, Manhattan is dotted with simply massive ads, painted on billboards, and most strikingly, the sides of buildings.
So I here I am rumbling along 7th Ave, images of GTA4 fresh in my head from the night before, astutely trying NOT to run over clueless pedestrians (like in the game) and then I come across something like this and I have to question reality all over again. It’s hard work, when you’re trying to balance a massive hog in rush hour traffic, and simultaneously avoiding Gotham’s infamous potholes.
Now, if GTA can include the smell of the city and the feel of fetid air on your face, we’ll have some pretty realistic VR going on.
I give it ten years.
Thanks to Kuniochi 女 at www.flickr.com/photos/10564709@N08/2422923623 for the images!
The other day I took the new Harley out for it’s first real run. Just a short ride around town, since it was the first day that we had both sun and temperatures in the high 50’s. I rode out of Fort Hamilton, down to Coney Island, and then out towards West Long Island. I was shocked at how delapidated Coney Island is; far from the amusement park glories of the past, it is now largely a collection of projects and rusting little businesses. Brighton Beach isn’t too bad, although I was sort of disappointed not to see any evidence of the Russian Mob that supposedly runs the place these days.
Further down the road, I stumbled across another relic from the past, Floyd Bennet Airfield. Opened in 1931, it was the first airport in the New York area, and at the time, was the most space age aerodrome in the country, with it’s concrete runways and electric lighting. Nowadays, it too is falling apart; supposedly operating as a heliport for the NYPD, nothing seemed to be there except for some ancient hangars and a squadron of resentful seagulls. I motored on.
I decided to cut across the north end of Brooklyn, and see if I could find the Brooklyn Bridge. In Germany, I would take off on the weekends, without a map, and do my best to get lost. Well, try to, anyway, I never really did, mostly due to the excellent German habit of dotting the landscape with very detailed and clearly marked road signs. That, and the internal cranial map that I’ve developed after a childhood of wilderness exploration and an adult life of land navigation courses. New York is a good test of this, though, particularly when you only have a fuzzy idea of the lay of the land.
It can be interesting, in a way that Germany wasn’t. I never found a ghetto in Bavaria, but here, where the neighborhoods can blend instantly from one extreme to another, you can find yourself in some pretty dicey areas with little or no warning. Between the ‘normal’ squalor of Canarsie, and the yuppie-fied brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, there are a couple of real gems to be found. Crown Heights. Bedford-Stuyvesant. Flatbush. East New York.
Last night, on duty, I asked a group of our D.A.C.P. officers, all of them retired NYPD, where I should absolutely not go, regardless of the time of day. They thought pensively for a minute, and then rattled off a couple of names. All of the ‘hoods above were on the list, with East New York the number one advisory.
Needless to say, I didn’t know this on the ride. I became aware that something was off, however, after a little bit. Looking at boarded-up storefronts and groups of tough looking guys on the street corners, it became apparent, in a Mozambique sort of way, that I was the only white person in sight. This, and the fact that I was sitting on a brand new 20,000 dollar motorcycle, dressed in full biker regalia, made me a little nervous–that, and the fact that a lot of people seemed to be staring at me. In a city where the Golden Rule is not to make eye contact. Traffic was thick, and the going was slow. The feeling reminded me of patroling Sadr City.
Relax, man, I thought. You’ve got 32 tattoos, and you’re a big guy. You’re a combat vet. You’ve explored most of Europe and a good chunk of Korea on a Harley. Besides, didn’t your mother always tell you that you could pull off just about anything if you look at ease and fully confident?
Suck in your gut. Stick out your chest. Light a cigarette, and smoke it with a sneer, like John Wayne on a Chopper. Or at least a cutrate version of Peter Fonda. Adopt the biker persona that let you party with Hell’s Angels in Austria just a few months ago. Yeah. I got this. I started feeling pretty good about myself, although I kept an eye on the rear view mirrors in case anyone tried to bumrush me from behind. I can do this. Just look like you belong here, or at least are some crazy whiteboy biker who no one in their right mind would mess with.
I stopped at the next traffic light, slowly exhaled a wreath of cigarette smoke in a Clint Eastwood snarl; a Western theme song in my head. “Wah wah-wah.” Which is when I heard a little voice to my side say, “Hey, Mister.”
I looked down, to the sidewalk on my right. There was this little black kid standing there, wrapped in a grubby bubble parka, clutching something that may have once been a candy bar. Five, maybe six years old. His eyes were clear and wide, without malice, but with the sure knowledge of someone who has seen more than I have. And he said, in that voice that all children have; y’know, the kind that you can hear above whatever traffic noises are around you–the sort of voice that everyone can hear:
“Are you lost?”