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Keep On Keepin' On

James O'Brien

--New York

They are New Yorkers, so when the tourists stand gawking at an empty sky where the Twin Towers used to be, they keep moving. Not without sentiment, but without sap. They know better than most that there may never be peace in our time, so instead of sitting around waiting to get sucked up to heaven, they go for the rapture now and keep moving.

They drink Sinjo and eat Korean barbecue and walk down Fifth Avenue at midnight getting stoned and take a second to gaze up at the Empire State Building, lit up with lightsaber red, white, and blue in honor of Memorial Day. They make their way to a karaoke joint, where a few dozen Americans, Italians, Japanese, and Koreans lend a boisterous chorus to "Bohemian Rhapsody." They raise their voices to a song written by a flamboyantly gay Englishman about the devil, black magic, and murder that should probably be banned in these sphincter-clamped United States, and keep moving.

They drink oily coffee and make their way to an exhibit of Diane Arbus photographs. They look at hundreds of portraits of outsiders--transvestites, dominatrices, teens, dwarves, giants, prostitutes, nudists, strippers, desperate housewives, deadened family men, and all sorts of other masked antiheroes. They see the artist's spooky eyes, and they gorge on her scrawled notes ("a photograph is a secret about a secret; the more it tells you the less you know"). They recognize themselves in the freaks and keep moving.

They play the lottery and when they don't hit, they crumple the tickets and throw them in the street. They curb their dogs. They sell flowers, crepes, drugs. They talk to their neighbors, preach on street corners, avert their eyes. They dig through each other's garbage for food and recyclables. They model clothes, make money, hail cabs, hang out, butcher each other's native language, tell each other to fuck off, and keep moving.

They play basketball with shorts hanging off their asses at half-mast, defiant and hip-hop and sexy as all fuck, while school kids, bums, and businesspeople press up against the fence, watching and waiting for the bus and a burst of sweaty grace and power. When it comes, the players don't ooh or aah or laugh like the spectators do. They just get back down court and talk shit and keep moving.

They sit on the subway wearing headphones and a T-shirt with a picture of labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph and a quote that reads, "A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess." When the train stops and almost overflows at Penn Station, they give up their seat to a woman who could be their grandmother, and keep moving.

They go to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They blow past the Europeans and the romantics and the realists and the Rodins, and go straight for the canvases of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the so-called godfather of hip hop. They meditate in front of his in-jokes and benedictions that go by such names as "the irony of the black policeman," "the obnoxious liberal," "plush safe he think," and "jimmy best on his back to the suckerpunch of his childhood files." They pick up colored pencils and fill the pages of the exhibit's DIY book with their own art and love letters, and keep moving.

They give a couple of free tickets to a couple of strangers to see the great Irish rock band U2 at Madison Square Garden, a monument to the city itself, of which the band's singer once sang, "The Irish been coming here for years/Feel like they own the place/They got the airport, city hall, concrete, asphalt, they even got the police/Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics/Religious nuts, political fanatics in the stew, living happily, not like me and you." They sit with dignitaries and celebrities and supermodels. The band roars onto the stage with great purpose. The singer talks about New York as "the city of the future," and about how his introduction to America came through the televised image of men walking on the moon, and a president who had dreams and a vision. He sings about leaders and bloody Sundays and bullets and blue skies and God. And here the New Yorkers stand and cheer and hold their cell phones aloft and keep moving.

They come upon an out-of-town rube whose ears are still ringing and who, in the middle of the night, is attempting to peel a U2 SOLD OUT at Madison Square Garden poster off the wall near the subway. They stop the rube and scowl at him and tell him, "It'll only rip and be no good and I should know because I put 'em up there." Then they go back to the truck and dig around and at the very bottom find two more posters. Which they give to the rube--one for him, one for the girl he just met from Colombia. And they refuse the rube's offer of a few bucks and keep moving.

They drum on pickle containers in the subway and practice with their calypso bands in the park at two o'clock in the morning. They spend Sunday morning walking through Central Park, lingering at the fountain where Meryl Streep celebrated her dead son's memory at the end of Angels in America, and then they make their way to the spot not far from where John Lennon was murdered. They watch the tourists take pictures of a sidewalk that is engraved with the word "imagine," and keep moving.

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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