I planned to enter the Virtual Lower East Side so I could write a scathing critique of it. But instead, the thing pulled me in. Maybe it's because the streets are almost empty, quiet like they were years ago. Maybe it's because there are no luxury towers and no one's on a cell phone. Or maybe it's because the "V" could stand for Vanishing. Whatever it is, the VLES has a strange appeal.
Before I go into my first VLES experience, I want to send out an invitation. VLES is free to download. You'll be dressed and on the streets in minutes with a fast Internet connection (click here). Let’s all crash MTV's party. Let’s flood this kid’s fantasy world with curmudgeonly adults.
Meet me at the virtual Max Fish. I’ll be there tonight at 8:00.
Me in front of virtual Max Fish
First off, in the VLES, you are inevitably young. You can't give yourself a belly or a receding hairline. There is one body type to choose from (skinny) and you can only change your height. In my avatar, I don't look like the real me. I don't even look like the younger me. I look like an MTV-ized me.
The streets of the VLES are both familiar and strange. Yonah Schimmel’s knishery is here, but not in the right place. Katz’s is lit in neon but you cannot enter. There’s even Weinfeld's yarmulke shop, which actually vanished from the LES and is now in Brooklyn. Max Fish is open for business. Inside, you can lean on the bar, sit down, or just wander around.
There is a lot of wandering on the VLES. You wander from street to street. People look like zombies. I came upon a girl and guy chatting and asked if it was possible to cross Essex (I wanted to go to Streit’s). They said no and walked away like I was bothering them.
Here I am, looking a bit lonely, in Max Fish
My adolescent insecurities get very aroused on the VLES. I feel anxious about approaching people, both girls and guys. The girls strike teasing poses. The boys slouch coolly. People sit in circles in the middle of the street and ignore you. In Max Fish, I said hello to a girl and she walked right through me.
I approached two girls dancing on Ludlow. Another guy approached. He and I lingered nearby. Then I saw him grow taller. You can do this in the VLES, change your appearance instantly. I added six inches to my height and felt more confident. Then I worried about my shirt. I changed it four times. Taller and better dressed, I joined the dancing girls.
They said hi and I said hi. I felt better. We tried out fresh dance moves. When I got tired of dancing, I stepped backwards without seeing a girl who was dancing with me. “Just as I get my dance on you move away? That’s not cool,” she said, annoyed and maybe hurt. She looked tough in a black tank top and cute glasses. I tried to explain. She ignored me. She sat down on the curb and sulked. I tried to apologize but my avatar froze. I logged off.
The next morning, I walk through the real streets feeling like an avatar, floating along on cartoon feet. I turn my head like a robot and look at other people as if they are avatars, too. The city seems less real. I feel—this is very weird—kind of friendly. I want to say hi to people. And I have an odd, creeping empathy for the strangers on the street.
I keep thinking about the girl I inadvertently snubbed on virtual Ludlow. I hope she knows I didn’t mean to snub her. I imagine she is not like her avatar. She is pudgy and uncoordinated and lives in Nebraska. Only the cute glasses were true. I imagine she is terribly insecure and hates being 16.
I am sure that, very soon, the VLES will become incredibly boring to me. But, for now, it's a fascinating experience. In the meantime, I urge my readers to come check it out with me. At the very least, we can sit in Max Fish, or hang out in front of Katz's, and have a chat. Someday, the only city we'll have left might be virtual just like this.