In New York, 'Seinfeld' is news here, 'Homicide'

January 06, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NEW YORK - You should see what's going on here. A television show announces it's pulling the plug on its very own life this coming spring, and already the distraught mourners are gathering at graveside.

It's the death of "Seinfeld," but it's also the death of a certain way New Yorkers have learned to reimagine themselves. Neurotic and self-absorbed, sure. But, ironic and self-mocking, too, and comically opinionated about the burning issues of the day, such as sexual sneakiness, and fighting for a parking space, and maintaining your cool while sharing a taxicab with John F. Kennedy Jr.

"Seinfeld" arrived when New York was mostly talked about for the killings in Central Park and the subway terrorism and teen-age hookers haunting Times Square to support their crack habits.

It will depart in May with New Yorkers feeling like emotionally reborn survivors of that era. Sure, the dramatic drop in crime helps the municipal mood, and so does the cleanup of Times Square, and the robust economy.

But a big city gets some of its self-image from the things it sees of itself on television and in the movies, and "Seinfeld" came along nine years ago and reminded America how hip this city can be despite - or because of - the everyday performance artists who are its residents.

Is the evening news here still pretty grim? Sometimes. But, in New York, who watches? For the past 15 months, "Seinfeld" reruns have been carried at 11 o'clock every night, and they outdraw all the local newscasts. "Seinfeld" is the real news, or at least the reflection of how this city likes to see its newly imagined self.

Of course, there's a show about Baltimore, too, and it's been justifiably honored and brings credit to its creators. But it happens to be "Homicide: Life on the Street," which reminds us of that chief municipal participation sport, shooting and killing.

As if we needed reminders: In the first six hours of the brand new year, 11 people were shot in Baltimore. At least one was completely inadvertent, a stray bullet apparently fired into the air to mark the arrival of 1998.

And it wasn't exactly an isolated shot. There were several reports of "celebratory" shots fired into the air. I heard awed, open-mouthed stories from some people around lower Park Heights Avenue about rounds of midnight gunfire lasting minutes. And a friend of mine, who's a security officer, left church with his family and said they had to crouch all the way to their car to avoid "celebratory" shots around Caroline and Lanvale streets at midnight.

So this is how Baltimoreans get to think of their community as the new year arrives: not much different from last year. Not much changed from a 1996 in which 1,274 people were shot and 309 people were killed, in what police had been calling a pretty decent year.

In New York, homicides dropped 22 percent last year. They dropped to the lowest numbers in three decades. The locals find this thrilling, as they should. The longtime siege mentality has lifted considerably. Like him or not, they've got a mayor at City Hall who's taken charge. So those who live here now feel a part of some grand era, witnessed by the whole country, which is reflected in the thing seen on television for the past nine years, called "Seinfeld."

The problem is, Jerry Seinfeld has announced the series will end this spring. The story made front page headlines of every newspaper in town, and the moans can now be heard across Manhattan.

Many heard the news and gathered at Tom's Restaurant, the legendary coffee shop where the show's real-life characters used to gather. They wondered what they'll watch on television now. Worse, they wondered how they'll think of themselves, and their city, minus the show's ham-on-wry guidance.

Much has been written about "Seinfeld" being about nothing. But that's ridiculous. It's about people living their ordinary lives in a city once considered the most dangerous in America, and now considered too productive, and too neurotically, trivially, comically self-absorbed, to wallow in the old nightmares.

In "Seinfeld," they go to the movies, and nobody wonders if gunplay will break out. They go to the Y, and Kramer's sure he's spotted Salman Rushdie in the steam bath. They go to the corner grocery, where the biggest crime is squeezing the fruit. Nobody's cringing behind locked doors. They stand on the street for gourmet soup, and the biggest danger is the lunatic Soup Nazi.

Yes, the show says, we have crazies in this city. But they're artists, and they're ours. The real-life soup guy, in fact, gets written about in the New York Times. He gets an offer to write a soup book. He turns it down. Why?

"They want me to go around the country to publicize the book," he says, kidding not even a little. "How could I leave my soup?"

New Yorkers are wondering, how can they say goodbye to this show? It's helped bring back a city's sense of its gloriously eccentric self. Could somebody please dream up such a TV show for Baltimore? We could watch it when we lift our heads between "celebratory" rounds of gunfire.

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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