At Home in Liberty City

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

Date night. Driving along Mohawk Avenue to pick up the lovely Michelle for an evening at the cabaret (fabulous blues singer, so-so magician). Mentally adding a boardwalk stroll to the itinerary when, suddenly, there's a call from Little Jacob. He needs someone to tail a dope pusher, waste his buddies, then carjack a ride back home. Sigh. Sorry, Michelle. This kind of nonsense is always getting in the way of a nice evening in Liberty City.

* * *

When you visit Liberty City, people will tell you that you simply must steal cars. Maybe you've heard of the city's most popular guide, "Grand Theft Auto IV"? It's sold more than 5 million copies since its release April 29.

People will say you simply must beat the living snot out of some shady Russian gangsters, that you haven't truly lived until you've taken a joy ride in a stolen cruiser through Liberty City's five boroughs -- which look like New York City rather than the same-named Miami neighborhood. (Oh, this is all done virtually, via a PlayStation3 or Xbox 360 controller, by the way.)

It's true, to a certain extent. Would you ever come to Washington and not see the Lincoln Memorial?

But if you plan to be in town for more than 30 hours -- the minimum visit required to get through Liberty City, according to serious gamers -- or if you're simply a pacifist, then it's entirely possible to have a pleasant weekend of entertainment with minimal illegal activity. Catch the local news, hang out in an Internet cafe, see a floor show starring some familiar faces . . . it's all surprisingly engaging, offering much more than the city has in years past.

Here's what to do:

Start the trip by vegging in front of the TV at your cousin Roman's, where you'll be crashing until you get a place of your own.

Get acquainted with the city by watching Weazel News, a Fox-spoof network ("furry and balanced" coverage) advertising three categories of news: sports, weather and the war on terror -- plus occasional plugs for "Dateline"-esque specials. Are you a sex offender? Find out tonight!

Catch an episode of "Republican Space Rangers," in which cartoon GOP astronauts annihilate peaceful green men ("We are agrarian and do not have much, but what we do have, we share." Pow pow blam pow pow.) Or tune in to "The Men's Room," real-life fighting champ Bas Rutten's advice on navigating everything from "casual walking" to "consensus politics." Hint: Beat people up.

It's like Spike TV on even more steroids. Funny sound bites designed to be background ear candy. It's targeted to the channel-flipping viewer who came to Liberty City to shoot stuff, not watch stuff.

But spend an hour in front of the TV -- after that, the content begins to loop -- and you begin to appreciate the slyness of it all, this world that is not so different from our own. The TV's mockery of modern society skewers the viewer as well. In one episode of the reality show "I'm Rich," the hosts salivate over a flat-screen TV that installs in your toilet bowl, specially designed for bulimics. Heh heh. What kind of world would need TVs in toilets? Oh. Perhaps the same world that needs TVs in video games?

Time to get out of the apartment.

There's a lot of live entertainment in Liberty City. Start out with Perestroika, a club featuring the Incredible Kleinman and Ms. Bluesy St. John, who sings about her sex change operation. Note: To get access to these shows you'll have to first maim some people. Yawn.

The stars that get top billing around here are the animated versions of Ricky Gervais, of British "Office" fame, and BET fave Katt Williams, both playing at Split Sides. Gervais is the bigger name, but his material is mostly recycled, pulled together from his 2007 Fame tour. Williams wrote new stuff for his Liberty City stint, riffing on the local basketball team and the homeless problem in various sets.

Back outside, passing food vendors and clothing stores, head to one of the city's many Internet cafes, a chain named after lady parts that makes creative use of the "@" symbol.

On the way to the cafe, ponder the meaning of your time spent here. Why have you come to Liberty City, if not to steal cars? Watching TV on a TV is kind of meta, but what is so mesmerizing about that? Why did you spend 20 minutes listening to a radio show hosted by Juliette Lewis, when you can't stand Juliette Lewis in real life? (The Russian hip-hop station is really, really good, though.)

Part of the intrigue of spending time in Liberty City is the rabbit-hole aspect, wanting to see just how far the entertainment goes. The quest of travelers has always been to live like locals. If you were a resident of Liberty City, where would you go after being sprayed with stray bullets? Back home, of course, to relax with a rerun of "Waning With the Stars" or "America's Hottest Terrorist." It's a smarter world than one would expect, containing satirical debates about socialized medicine and ads for companies selling made-to-order babies. It's like the Onion, but a little younger and a little fartier, as if the Onion hadn't yet touched a girl's boob.

Into the Internet cafe, where a network of sites seems bottomless, containing at least 90 different addresses. The Craigslist parody alone can suck up an hour, with postings like "Nemesis required." Nothing crazy, explains the poster. "Steal my parking spot, knock my coffee over . . . occasionally whisper in my ear, 'Ahha, we meet again.' " Hahaha.

Other sites -- MyRoom (MySpace), MyOnlineMe (Second Life) -- are less comprehensive. You can visit Krapea.com, the home of affordable Swedish decor, but you cannot actually view any of the particleboard furniture. You can cruise the personals on Love-meet.com, but you can't go on any dates without completing more of those hack 'n' whack missions.

Not that you'd necessarily want to date these people, anyway. One love-meet specimen: the Euro-obsessed Matte Black, who writes "I don't want to be put into some category" under "Sexuality," and says he seeks someone "who doesn't have cholesterol where their soul should be."

You wouldn't even be looking at his profile if it appeared in real life and not in Liberty City. As with most of the entertainment here, Matte Black is worth a look partly because he's not real, and he's not the main event. He's meant to be a small detour from your felonious larger mission. He represents a parallel -- and in many ways, richer -- world to the grand theft auto going on throughout the rest of the city.

And that's the downside to taking the pacifist's tour of Liberty City. The longer you spend hanging out in bars, surfing the Internet and people-watching on the boardwalk, the deeper into it you'll want to go. The idea of yet another car chase may seem not quite so interesting. It turns out the most compelling aspect of this place is the human underbelly of the seedy city.

Now go kill some cops and criminals.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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