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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  May 2011



A Bite of the Big Apple

Lightcap takes Manhattan — and neither may be the same again.

Whether you are an expatriated anthropologist or a social apologist, we can agree that, for the most part, we are products of our environment. For example, as a prodigal son of the high desert, my environment has produced plenty of effects upon me. My eyes are set in a permanent squint from the molten visage of the hammering-hot sun, and my skin has adopted a lightly browned, leathery texture. I get claustrophobic in enclosed spaces where you can't see the sky, and in my sparsely populated world, two's company but three is a mob. As such, I was a trifle daunted by the prospect of a visit to New York City.

Lightcap takes Manhattan
Lightcap in Times Square.

Let's make something perfectly clear — I have no problem with New York per se, or any other mega-metropolis environment. I mean, sure, New York may be too big and crowded, but at least it's smelly and expensive, too. But when a beautiful woman you are in love with asks you to join her for a super-sized, five-day weekend in an exotic city, you overlook this and enthusiastically say, "Yes!"

That was how I came to find myself in an airborne cattle car descending into New York's JFK airport. Having quaffed my single-serving-size Styrofoam cup of airplane coffee and returned my seat to the full upright position, I was wheels-down in America's most notorious city. How to reconcile the machinations of a complex urban environment with my distinctly Western idiom? To paraphrase a line from Blazing Saddles, what was a rustic non-urbanite like me doing in a sophisticated setting like this?

My first experience was a three-hour, 15-mile shuttle adventure hosted by a small Honduran driver. I do believe squirrels had nested in his brain and were making all the driving decisions, which would also explain the overly amplified cumbia music. Eventually, my sweetheart greeted me in the lobby of our Times Square hotel. She was the first familiar thing I had seen since winging out of El Paso that morning, and my chi was instantly restored. She quickly took me to Times Square, and I was as awestruck as a doe-eyed child, mesmerized by all the neon and people and sound. Standing there, surrounded on all axes by 360 degrees of New Yorkiness, this amazing spectacle found its context: New York is just like my arid, dusty stomping grounds back home.

Walking in the cool, stony shadows of magnificently tall buildings in Manhattan that crowded out the sky overhead to a mere azure gun slit, I was reminded of walking in the deep slickrock canyons of southeast Utah. Plying the crowded sidewalks in Harlem, I remembered Sunday afternoons in the El Paso downtown plaza, where the street vendors hawk their bootleg music and savory snacks. Standing on the parapet of the Empire State Building and observing the horizon-crowding expanse of electric lights, I thought about sitting in my plastic lawn chair, pondering the pinpoints of light in the endless expanse of night sky.

I blundered through invisible pockets of random New York aroma while walking the streets—an invisible cloud of sewage-tinged stink or acrid diesel exhaust followed immediately by the exquisite aroma of pasta or knishes. It was like walking in a desert arroyo, where a patch of fragrant sage or desert dust can instantly be usurped by the stench of sun-baked carrion or the perfume of summer rain.

Okay, sure, there were bound to be a few hiccups to my newfound analogy. There is no western equivalent to riding a train underground, asses and elbows to people you never met and you really aren't supposed to make eye contact with. Or standing next to a seven-foot Wookie constructed from Legos in FAO Schwartz. Or ice skating at Rockefeller Center. But New York has more in common with our little slice of desertified heaven than a jaded desert rat might first suspect.

The mood around the World Trade Center site is more somber, but I felt similar emotions when visiting Columbus, NM, where innocent Americans also died tragically. I saw New Yorkers draped over large rock outcroppings in Central Park, soaking up the springtime sun like ambulatory solar panels; it reminded me of countless lizards in similar repose. And while the Statue of Liberty is slightly more famous, I have also stood next to the recycled roadrunner statue at the rest stop west of Las Cruces.

Having been to New York several times, my sweetheart was kind enough to shepherd me around the big city like a pop-eyed child soaking in Disneyland for the first time. I saw some amazing stuff; I was inches away from an actual Van Gogh at the Met. Literally, inches—a guard reprimanded me for standing too closely. I was much more considerate when we went to the Guggenheim and MoMA — I did it when the guards weren't looking. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and toured the NBC studios, an experience not unlike being herded like cattle through chutes and gates, without the awkwardness of an air-hammer to the skull at the end. We ate floppy, greasy, authentic pizza and I had a pastrami sandwich the size of my head.

It was a singular experience, but I was relieved when the airplane nuzzled up to the gate at the El Paso airport days later. The air was warm and dry, the crowds were laughably small, and the incipient stink of Mexico replaced (and possibly exceeded) the random sidewalk sewage-funk of New York. For a few magical days, I did indeed wake up in a city that never sleeps, but now I'm pretty satisfied to be back in a land that does.



Henry Lightcap keeps his Empire State Building pencil-sharpener
souvenir in his lair in Las Cruces.



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