By Jason Keidel
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If you’ve never been to New York City and have a keen curiosity on America’s money and media vortex, there’s only one bible to buy at your local Barnes & Noble.
E.B. White wrote the best book on New York City you’ll ever read. He wrote it 60 years ago, sweating in a hotel room during a scalding summer week, sans air conditioning. And it’s just as vivid and accurate now as it was in 1949, painting our petulant town with unfathomable skill and will and detail and touch. And he did it in just 54 pages.
It was a flawless essay on our beloved five boroughs, a treatise on the rhythms and regality and the absurdity of the whole thing. He framed endless contradictions, our fame and fortune, our fatuous and forlorn. There is something so colossal and anonymous yet small and amorous about the city that never sleeps.
White’s work is more than great. It’s gorgeous. We toss around the term “greatness” so promiscuously that it’s drained of all meaning, redundant in to such a degree that it detracts from all art. And in the end we are the ones who lose because we don’t know when we’re touched by true divinity.
It feels like half the Super Bowls over the last 30 years have been great, with one behemoth blasting a far inferior team. And not all Super Bowl winners were great teams. Were the Jon Gruden Buccaneers great? Last year’s Ravens? The 1986 Giants were great, but the ’90 team? With Jeff Hostetler, no wide receivers, and an ancient Otis Anderson?
Bringing the game to New York City – yes, we know the game is played in New Jersey and I now live five minutes from MetLife – doesn’t make either entity more eminent. New York is great on its own, as is the Super Bowl. But melding the two doesn’t make both greater.
Beyond our love for football, part of the Super Bowl’s charm is watching a small civilization parachute onto an otherwise quiet hamlet, stretching the town to its absolute limits. When the game was in Jacksonville, boats were bought as floating hotels. Indianapolis, a calm midwestern city rising out of otherwise pastoral farmland, morphed into a metropolis for an ephemeral enchanted week.
It gives an otherwise pedestrian area a serious jolt of publicity. Not only do they get a financial shot in the arm but also a chance to show their wares as a tourist destination.
Does New York City need the publicity? Do we need a Super Bowl to know and show we’re the bomb? If you don’t live or work between Penn Station and Port Authority, you wouldn’t necessarily know the game was even here.
I asked a cashier at K-Mart, a megastore that squats over Penn Station, if this changes her commute.
“Does what change it?” she asked.
“The Super Bowl!” I demanded.
“That’s in New Jersey, right?
“Yes,” I said, comforted by her New York sarcasm. “But what about Super Bowl Boulevard?”
“Where is that, anyway? Have they opened it?”
Exactly. And that was that. So I slid down the escalator, where the bottom floor of K-Mart pours into Penn Station.
For those who haven’t been to NYC, there are two arteries that pour the masses into Manhattan from New Jersey, both on the West Side, off 8th Avenue. Penn Station, on 33rd Street, is the hub for NJ Transit and Amtrak Trains, and Port Authority, on 42nd Street, is the home of our myriad buses. Most are also sponsored by NJ Transit, but there is an entire alphabet of smaller entities, like Peter Pan and Greyhound, that rent space inside the cavernous terminal. Super Bowl Boulevard, while technically running up to 47th Street, is essentially based between Penn Station and Port Authority.
Penn Station is literally under Madison Square Garden, making it most convenient for Knicks and Rangers devotees to watch their beloved squads. You can decide whether either team is worth the jaunt.
Like a leopard in the bush, I waited for the right person to jump.
A young man wrapped in a scarf and denim jacket, jeans and Sketchers, paused for me. Once he realized I spoke English and wasn’t asking for money, he conceded his name was Joshua. Not Josh. Joshua.
He was almost annoyingly trendy, with his perfectly trimmed beard and black-rimmed glasses and a beanie. He looked like he was on his way to the X Games. I would be stunned if he didn’t live in Brooklyn, own a skateboard, and buy vinyl records of Cat Stevens.
We walked down 7th Avenue, past newstands, taxi stands, and the delightful smell of roasted cashews, our feet crunching on the salt sprawled across the sidewalk.
“What do you think about Super Bowl Boulevard?” I asked.
“It’s cool,” he said. “I haven’t really seen it yet.”
“Where do you work?”
“On Varick,” he said, referring to a bustling boulevard right next to the Holland Tunnel.
“My old FedEx route was on Varick,” I said. “About a decade ago.”
“Cool,” he said, ready to jump down some stairs to the 1 Train. “I gotta go. Sorry.”
“Gimme a score,” I demanded.
“Who’s playing?” he snapped.
This is how it’s been. Yesterday I interviewed two Army soldiers guarding Penn Station, wrapped in weapons, both of whom hadn’t watched a single minute of the playoffs and didn’t plan to watch the Super Bowl. They were strictly NBA addicts.
My ex girlfriend’s father said he was always suspicious of men who didn’t like sports. Couldn’t agree more. Even if soccer is your sport, you’ve gotta have a frothing fanaticism about some meaningless game. It’s what men do. Joshua was too proper for me.
Women are always dubious of men who approach them. Especially attractive women. She hopped up the steps, emerged from the mouth of Madison Square Garden. A tan coat, beige skirt, and brown boots, black hair and blue eyes, her gloved hand gripping a cup of overpriced Starbucks potion. The kind of gal your wife notices before you do, and you can feel her scowl before you even think of turning your head.
“Good morning,” I said. “Ever heard of WFAN? Sports Radio 66, The Fan?”
She kinda sorta heard of it.
“Erin!” she said, with the alarming glee of a morning barista.
“Hello, Erin,” I said. “I write for CBS.”
“I’m on TV?”
“No,” I said, with a sense of emasculation. “I write for the web site.”
“Oh,” she responded with a small sense of disappointment.
While we waited for the light on 33rd Street to flash “Walk” a delivery truck rumbled by, splashing some slush our way. We hopped back to avoid the debris.
“Do you like the Super Bowl being here?”
“Isn’t it in New Jersey?” she quipped. Turns out she’s from Montclair and takes a provincial pride of having the game in the Garden State. The distinction really does matter for those whose world is west of the Hudson.
As someone who lived in Manhattan for about 35 years and then moved to NJ, I am a spiritual hybrid of NYC elitist and indignant New Jerseyan who thinks the Garden State is much more than a swampy suburb of Manhattan.
“Right,” I said. “I meant the festivities. How do you like Super Bowl Boulevard?”
“It’s pretty cool,” she said. “I walk to work from here, on 6th Ave.”
“Does it make your commute any harder?”
“Not really,” she said, kissing her cup of steamy coffee. “This only happens once. So we should enjoy it. My boyfriend is a Patriots fan, so he’s kinda bummed that they’re not playing.”
Another thing women love to do. They toss the boyfriend barricade out ASAP, keeping the discussion as platonic as possible. I’m fortunate enough to already be dating an alarmingly bright and beautiful woman. I’m like a career .280 hitter who signs $100 million deal because he happened to hit .330 once, which happened to come in his contract year.
“Who do you like in the game?” I asked.
“I think Denver will win,” she said. “Peyton Manning has karma on his side.”
“Going existential on the game,” I said.
“I believe in that stuff.”
“So does my girlfriend. Men are too obtuse to see the metaphysical elements of sports.”
She nodded in agreement. “But I like that guy with the long hair on Seattle. The one who yells a lot.”
“Oh!” she said. “Um, 30-20”
She bent left and I spun around, heading back to MSG, The World’s Most Overrated Arena.
I had to find someone who sums up the hysteria of midtown traffic.
He screeched to a halt at a red light, his “Beats By Dre” headphones clamped over his wool hat, his dreadlocks funneled through a rubber band.
There’s no more a maniac than the messenger, especially the ones who huff around the city on their bikes, weaving through the anarchy of yellow cabs, FedEx vans, while gulping clouds of smoke from our MTA buses.
“Kevin,” he said, his right hand jutting toward me.
“Do you watch football?” I asked while I shook his hand. Men have this thing where we grip harder every second so that we don’t feel dominated before we even speak. Call it a draw.
“Of course,” he said indignantly. He was wearing a hoodie with a sweater underneath, one leg of his sweatpants rolled up to the knee. His calves seriously large, vascular, and defined.
“What does Super Bowl Boulevard do to your routes?”
“Nothing,” he said confidently. “I’ve got skills.”
“Can you ride this thing through the Boulevard? I saw all the cops and blockades. Gotta be tough.”
He tapped his handlebars proudly. “I can get this through anything.
“Who you like this Sunday?” I asked.
“Seattle,” he said. “Easy.”
“Got a score?”
“Yeah, man. I’m gonna say…31-17.”
“They hold Peyton Manning to 17 points?”
“Legion of Boom, son,” he said. “Peyton is overrated.”
We bumped fists and he slid his headphones back on, and pumped the pedals, screeching back uptown, weaving around unsuspecting citizens, who now walk like zombies through Manhattan, faces buried in smart phones, tablets, and mp3 players.
But even if you’re adjusted to the absurd contours of Manhattan, walking up Super Bowl Boulevard is a sight to see, jarring our already outsized sensibilities. It’s as if the circus were making its regular rounds with Midtown, but instead of unloading elephants they belch athletes, and instead of camping inside MSG, they unfurled the red carpet up Broadway & 7th Avenue, endless tents puffing in the wind.
While every major media entity is represented, the FOX and the NFL Network tents are most prominently placed. ESPN, for instance, is planted on the lower end of the Boulevard, by Macy’s in Herald Square, on 34th Street.
Everything is larger in New York, and Super Bowl Boulevard is no exception. It has the obscene, fun-house distortion you expect when a party is thrown in Times Square. Since the parade of NFL propaganda is flanked by so many skyscrapers, you literally have to be on the Boulevard to see the hysteria. If you walk up 8th Avenue, you wouldn’t even know there was a festival one block east. If you walk down 5th Avenue, you wouldn’t hear a horn two blocks west.
To paraphrase the ’70s classic, the Bionic Man, we have the technology. We have the hotels and restaurants and transit and trendy nightspots for those who flew in for the party, not the football, the hipsters that true football fans avoid like West Nile. We want our football as pure as possible, separate from the promotion, from the hype, from the faux fan who watches the Super Bowl just for the commercials.
And that’s what this feels like in Manhattan. I’ve spent nearly three days huffing along this monstrosity. It nestles nicely into our streets. Just not into our hearts.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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