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Mr. Bellers

Tourists love New York City for the neon lights of Times Square, its skyscrapers and art museums, but also for the stories unfolding on its streets. A new website called Mr. Beller's Neighborhood captures some of the stories visitors might miss. Thomas Beller is the New York-born author of the recent novel The Sleep-Over Artist. His site consists of an aerial map of New York City, so detailed you can pick out individual corners or rooftops. Superimposed on the map are small red dots. When you click on one, you can read a story about that address. Reporter Marianne McCune took a virtual tour of the city.

Mr. Beller's Neighborhood
by Marianne McCune

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93rd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue.

Thomas: "On a sunny weekday afternoon not long ago, two men sprinted across Amsterdam Avenue, one in hot pursuit of the other. The man doing the chasing caught up with the one being chased. There was a tackle and ugly awkward groping, and then the pursuer had his prey in a headlock right there on the pavement. 'Bank robber', he said."

This is a story told by Thomas Beller himself, but anyone can send one in via a button marked, "Tell Mr. Beller a story." The site intersperses essays and letters from the unknown or struggling to be known with timeless stories from the well known. A tourist tells how talk show host Gordon Elliot spontaneously handed her a hot dog and Henry David Thoreau writes that the pigs on the street seem to him the most respectable New Yorkers. Each story offers a personal tour of New York, as experienced by an author.

Thomas: "You know, the great infrastructure of tourism and the amazing architecture to look at is certainly like a valuable part of New York. But I mean the essence of New York that people are usually looking for is the sort of unexpected, the strange."

Abigail Frankfurt was a student of Thomas Beller's and submitted to his website this guide to the New York subway.

Thomas: "This is a piece about a woman's displeasure at the way men on the subway sit with their legs 500 feet apart. She had the audacity to start interviewing some of them as a journalist, and saying, 'Excuse me, why are you sitting like that?'"

Abigail: "'In a Jacuzzi sperm die.' This was the response I got from John of Long Island City, on the Lexington line at nine o'clock on a Friday night. 'I don't think you understand the question, sir. I asked you why men spread their legs so wide on the subway?' 'I know what you asked. I'm just sayin' sperm die in a Jacuzzi. Ya know, from the heat. The heat kills the sperm.' New York is so much about freedom of space and how much space you're gonna get. You really have to fight for it; it's like rent. And it has to be this juvenile leg-kicking contest."

Thomas: "There's so much human experience that goes on in the city that is just intrinsically interesting."

Again, Thomas Beller.

Thomas: "Eventually I see myself as having a thousand bureaus around Manhattan."

Carolyn Murnick reports from behind a 24-hour Upper West Side bar. In one dispatch, she tells of a stylish young woman who deserts her middle-aged, gold-chain wearing date to corner the bartender.

Carolyn: "'I'm pretending that I'm just asking you for a tampon', she says sotto voce, 'but really I'm on the worst blind date of my life and I need you to help me get out of it.' 'Of course,' I say, amused and strangely excited by the idea of a role-play. 'I'm going to ask you for a piece of paper and somehow I'm going to write my cell phone number on it without him seeing. Then I need you to call me if you can.' 'Ok,' I say, 'I think I can do it.' Mr. Beller's Neighborhood is about exploring the connection between the urban landscape of the city and the emotional landscape of the city-dweller."

Mr. Beller's neighborhood guides you through what you might not see while visiting one of those cute little New York neighborhoods, full of boutiques and adorable restaurants.

Denise: "Sitting in my first floor apartment window, people watching, it hits me, hard, that three out of the past five people who passed were white."

This is Forte Green/Clinton Hill, a rapidly gentrifying section of Brooklyn. The writer is Denise Campbell, a 47-year-old neighborhood activist who has to leave her sub-letted apartment to make way for a wealthy buyer.

Denise: "'When did this happen?' my daughter who'd been out of country for over a year asked in astonishment. It was her second day back in Brooklyn. 'It's the invasion of the Caucasian,' I say to her, half in jest."

Thomas: "One of the things I find quite challenging with this site is finding a way to write about the city that acknowledges the sort of pain the city is constantly inflicting on its residents, even if it's just the pain of changing things so much it just gets to you. I want to acknowledge all that ugliness in the city, but not make its entire subject the ugliness. I want to find these brighter spots."

Back at 93rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, the police arrive and untangle the two men. "Upon hearing that the supposed bank robber kicked and broke the bank's glass door in frustration," writes Thomas Beller, "the ranking officer poses this question. How long have you been banking at this branch?"

Thomas: "Everything seemed to hang in the balance on this one question. If he didn't bank there, perhaps he was a robber. But if he did, well, who would rob their own bank? 'I've banked there for more than five years, since it was the American Reserve Bank.' Everyone was silent for a moment. This man hadn't even wanted to bank with The Republic National Bank of New York, they just happened to acquire the institution where he did his banking, and now he was being tackled on the street to the cheers of a huge mob. From the sidelines, someone called out, 'Get a new bank!'"

The rest of the stories dotting the island of Manhattan can be read at www.mrbellersneighborhood.com.

In New York, I'm Marianne McCune for The Savvy Traveler.


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