Contents | February 2001

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More on travel from The Atlantic Monthly.

Walking Tour - Page 2
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A Word About Crime

In general, the city is now very safe, despite what you have heard. Yes, the occasional band of Gypsies does sweep down upon unwary visitors, swarming with chattering tongues and quick hands, but they are easily deterred by buttoning up your pockets and standing very stiffly until they eventually go away. In the upscale shopping districts where you are likely to be, city officials are careful to provide plenty of police officers. In addition, most of the better food stores (magaziny) hire their own armed security staffs. In the fancy groceries, for example, young, blond ex-soldiers with up-to-date automatic weapons stand guard over racks selling imported breakfast foods like Mueslix, Cinnamon and Apple Flavored Quaker Instant Oatmeal, Cap'n Crunch, and Froot Loops, whose sky-high price tags put them beyond the reach of everybody except wealthy visitors and local criminal gangs.

Illustration by Ingo Fast

Froot Loops, in particular, have a long association with crime. Introduced in the early 1960s, when Kellogg's, the American breakfast-food giant, was trying to move away from its rather staid products like Corn Flakes and All-Bran and into cereals with high sugar content deliberately aimed at children, Froot Loops immediately won a large market share, thanks mainly to a saturation campaign of television advertising featuring a colorful trademark toucan. Coincidentally, at about this same time clothing manufacturers in the U.S.A. and Great Britain began to put a small loop at the back of men's and boys' shirts, just below the yoke and at the top of the pleat between the shoulder blades. These loops, of no apparent purpose aside from the decorative, were seen by some as overly affected and perhaps effeminate additions to the garment and thus were dubbed "fruit loops," the implied reference to a street word for homosexual combining with a pun on the recently introduced cereal brand.

Among adolescent boys in the American Midwest in schools somewhat akin to the local gymnasia, a sort of game developed in which the object was to sneak up behind one's companion and, with a quick motion, rip the "fruit loop" from the back of his shirt. For the author of these words, nothing evokes the near-frenzied school days of adolescence more vividly than the recollection of snatching at someone's "fruit loop" in a crowded hallway between classes, or of having one's own suddenly and unexpectedly torn off.

Naturally, illegal activity soon followed. In a small-town high school in the Great Lakes region of Ohio, in the spring of 1964, a boy by the name of Jim Robey, while attempting to snatch the "fruit loop" of a boy named Randy Case, happened to tear the other boy's shirt virtually in half from top to bottom. A full-scale fistfight broke out in which most of the eighth-grade boys ended up taking part; the school administration became involved, parents were called in, criminal charges were almost filed, replacement of the shirt was demanded, and bitter resentments lasted even after the Cases had moved to Illinois.

Thankfully, the chances of this happening to you are small. Nowadays, in the widespread euphoria over the rise of free-market economics, the terrors of high school in the past century seem very far away, with good reason. If, however, you are one of those travelers visiting the city as part of a high school tour group, it pays to exercise all the caution you would at home.

On the Boulevard Joe Namath

This lovely wide avenue lined with linden trees, the city's favorite promenade for seeing and being seen, was not originally named for the American professional football star. Someone or other who was King during the Hundred Years' War apparently named it after his son or close friend who was killed in 1346 at the Battle of Crécy. Laid out to form one of the arms of a commemorative Maltese cross (the other three arms were never completed), the avenue quickly attracted the city's most fashionable society and became the scene of many historic events. Pope Anatoly I, "the traveling Pope," pitched his papal tent along its upper reaches in 1495; some years later Martin Luther, in an act of defiance, held an eel-pulling on the very spot where the Pope had lain. More recently Joe Namath, whose victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts (which he himself predicted) in Super Bowl III will never be forgotten, was also here. Enormous banners advertising Namath's appearance in a touring production of Li'l Abner at the Mariinsky Theater stretched high above the street from one side to the other, causing some visitors and tour guides, for convenience' sake, to refer to the boulevard by his name. So cleverly is the city designed that no matter where one sets out from or which direction one follows, one seems always to end up back on this glorious boulevard.

Illustration by Ingo Fast

It is here and in similar places, not in airport shuttle buses or in the duty-free shop at the airport, that the true life of the city goes on. Here young couples walk arm in arm in the evening, enjoying each other and the cosmopolitan crowd—priceless entertainment that even the poorest can afford. On the narrow streets feeding into the boulevard, and in its basement cafés, and even on the pedestals of the Art Nouveau sylphs of the apartment façades, the city's inhabitants gather at day's end to socialize. Some are dressed in the height of fashion; some do not yet know the dangers of mixing stripes and plaids. All are savoring this brief respite in their lives, and their faces alone tell a story more eloquent than any book. A few, indeed, are wearing the distinctive green-and-white jersey of the New York Jets with the number 12, the number Namath always wore. These jerseys, given out perhaps for nothing or at cost to promote the show at the Mariinsky, can provide a lively opportunity for impromptu conversation. Disregarding your lack of knowledge of the language, you might mention to the jersey wearer the outline of Namath's life: how he grew up in the gritty steel town of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania; how he played college football at Alabama under the great coach Bear Bryant; and how he went on to New York City and the Jets and became "Broadway Joe," etc. Accompanied by appropriate gestures, a few simple phrases can convey a lot.

And above it all the serene, overarching sky, so limpid and infused with light, continues to offer inspiration as it did to poets and painters of old. In its depths you can perhaps see the spires of the ideal city of which the real one surrounding you is merely a magnificent approximation. The towering clouds, like the ones in that Virgin Airways ad, draw the eye ever upward above the rooftops into higher, brighter realms. There is, quite simply, no other city like this in the world. Of course you will come back, perhaps as early as next year, depending on the fares. And if, by some misfortune, you see the city only once, yet you will always keep it with you in memories and photographs. The great Goethe once made a very famous remark about the city. It may be found in almost every book of well-known quotations, cross-referenced under his name. And yet, we feel, even Goethe himself, for all his talent, failed to capture the spirit at the city's heart. It eluded him, as it always, finally, eludes us all. Shimmering beyond the reach of those who seek it, the timeless city remains unknown and uncaptured, waiting for new eyes to discover it with the dawn of every reasonably priced vacation day.

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Illustrations by Ingo Fast.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 2001; Walking Tour - 01.02; Volume 287, No. 2; page 92-95.