Today I spent the afternoon at Rockaway Beach, one of the most “natural” places you can reach on the subway in this crazy city. Once you get over the stifling heat, the interminable ride on the 2-A-S, and the infernal racket therein (excited beach goers escaping hot apartments can be rambunctious), the broken glass and occasional condom in the waves… Wow. New York is amazing, and nowhere do you see the vivacity of this city more distilled than on this strip on the edge of the Atlantic, a kind of collective front stoop for a city with not enough space.
Pregnant ladies in bikinis, back handsprings, tattoos both stylish and ill-advised, I’ve seen it all today.
But to be honest, it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I remembered just how special Rockaway Beach is. I had just walked back to the subway shuttle that runs, Spirited Away-style, through the middle of Jamaica Bay and some rather grody marshes. The day was turning to evening, and high cumuli that had spat rain and made blue penumbrae above the apartment blocks were clearing. I ran into the last car of the train, where a policewoman was holding the doors. I set myself up in the opposite door with my duffle bag and the djembe I was caring around (long story). The car was hot and still — kids whose days had been too long, and their parents, whose days had been even longer.
Then the policewoman left, the doors closed, and the train lurched forward. A dad in the corner seat leaned forward from his family.
“Yo, turn that radio on!” he shouted. And the car was flooded with music. Specifically:
1. Dile (aka Otra Noche) by Don Omar
Within 30 seconds, people throughout the car stood up and began dancing, from middle-aged men in t-shirts and jean shorts down to their calves, to someone’s grandma across the aisle. Some younger women stayed in their seats and moved their shoulders to the beat. The dad who gave the call for the radio started passing styrofoam cups full of something that made people suck air through their teeth. He walked over to talk to “Mr. DJ” to exchange a handshake; DJ explained that a guy owed him money but he had him load up his iPod with 30 gigs of music instead.
I couldn’t help bobbing my head just a little. Actually, I didn’t even know it until the dad called me out.
“Hey, when you gonna play that drum?” he asked.
“No man, I’d just mess it up!” I smiled sheepishly.
“But I saw you moving — you feel the music in your veins, huh?”
Ha. I did.
Yes, New York, your rhythms are in my veins somehow, and this decidedly non-lowrider-influenced Sunday Night Oldies Show is dedicated to you, and all your fine people. Here’s what else I’m listening to tonight.
2. No Woman No Cry by The Fugees
Sure, The Fugees are no Bob Marley, but when I listen to their version of this song, sitting in an apartment with a fan on trying to fight the 80+ degree Manhattan heat at 1 a.m., I hear the heartbeat of this vast metropolis and the yearnings of 10 million apartment lights on its ragged edges; the breath of the city:
“I remember when we used to rock/in the project yard in Jersey./And little Georgie would make the firelight/as stolen cars passed through the night.”
3. 911 by Wyclef featuring Mary J. Blige
I love this city. That doesn’t mean it’s good for my health. Even in its gentrified form, it’s crowded, polluted, lonely — the individual is so dwarfed — and instills one with the dangerous and absurd illusion of being at the center of the universe. Watch this video and realize that this collaboration between two singers from Yonkers and Brooklyn-NJ, respectively, is as much about the painful love for a sprawling serpentine city as it is about a cursed romance. Maybe they’re one and the same.
Here’s one more for the road:
4. Dile al amor by [the Bronx’s own] Aventura