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Only in New York...

By Christopher Schonberger

Summer is the season of “getting out of town” on the weekends, and when I do a lot of people from other places ask me what it’s like to live in Manhattan. “Do you see a lot of celebrities?” (No.) “Is the pizza amazing?” (Not really.) “If you can make it there, can you make it anywhere?” (Definitely not—it is literally the most convenient city in the world, and the proximity of 24-hour food and medical care makes survival extremely easy.)

As a natural born hater, I tend to dismiss the hype of the city, and most of the “only in New York” moments that I have are not exactly positive reflections of Manhattan. For example, “only in New York” would someone dressed like a genderless guerrilla insurgent from the year 2112 tell you that you can’t come into a bar because you’re wearing jeans. “Only in New York” would someone give you an approving nod for paying “merely $1,000” per month in rent. “Only in New York” could you sweat this much on an 80-degree day.

But in spite of my misanthropic self, I do find many occasions to count myself lucky to live in a place that is, for better or for worse, like no other. Case in point:

The other day I got home from work after an exceedingly typical day. I had woken up, thrown on some Js, stuffed myself into a crowded subway car, worked while drinking several coffees, stuffed myself into a slightly less crowded subway car, and returned home. I laced up my Sauconys, kicked myself for not charging my iPod, and went outside for a run. I don’t really mind running without an iPod—it just means I have 45 minutes to be alone with my insecurities and nameless fears about the future. Let’s roll!

Anyway, I was just about to reach my turnaround point at the East River Park Band Shell (as featured on Murray’s tour of band rotundas in Flight of the Concords), when suddenly I heard some serious bass pumping out up ahead. I figured someone had illegally parked a Hummer or souped up the sound system on a Parks & Recreations van. But as I rounded the corner, it started to sound live, and I began to make out some familiar words. Could it be!?

Yes. KRS-One, one of the most legendary MCs in the history of hip-hop music, was holding court in the band shell, with also-legendary DJ Kid Capri on the decks behind him. I jogged straight into the crowd, planted myself about 10 feet from the stage, and proceeded to watch the best half hour of live music I’ve seen all year. In between classics like “The Bridge Is Over” and “Criminal Minded,” Kris freestyled endlessly, speaking directly to the crowd that had gathered like a preacher talking to his parishioners. He even rhymed over classical music—one of the more inspired moments of hip-hop showmanship I’ve seen. The “art of MCing,” indeed.

Now, make no mistake about it—New York City is the capital of free entertainment. However, it is also the capital of scenesters and people who refuse to pay for anything because they drop 60% of their monthly income on rent. This means that most free events—most notably, Central Park’s SummerStage concert series—are complete swarmed to the point that you’d consider paying people to leave.

But this was different. There was something so organic about finding KRS-1 in my local park as a long summer day drew to a close, holding a few hundred random spectators in the palm of his hand. All the strollers, dogs, and sports equipment suggested that a lot of people had simply wandered into this MCing extravaganza like me. Between songs, KRS talked to us about how he used to sleep just feet away from the stage (his homelessness in his younger days has been well documented). And when he said he sat on a bench there with Marley Marl and 2Pac back in ’87, I had to believe him.

Standing there in my running clothes watching the show was sort of a surreal experience, and in a sudden moment of self-consciousness I realized how much more I was enjoying it than most of the shows I go see. The randomness definitely contributed, but it was also the lack of hype and expectations—no crowds to fight through, no people stepping on my shoes, and no concerns about getting to the bar or bathroom and back. No terrible decisions to take camera phone pictures to send my friends or worries that whomever I was with didn’t like it. No money to spend even if I could.

And—though I hate to admit it—no other place than New York that something like this could happen.

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