If you ever wanted to be a rudderless, oversexed, career-obsessed alcoholic who can’t concentrate on any conversation for more than three minutes and has no conception of the meaning of your own life, New York is your kind of town.
A comically hyperbolic oversimplification that is completely true, naturally, but every time I revisit that city I seem to come away with this same impression. New Yorkers are going nowhere. They survive and thrive only as a tiny part of a giant machine that existed before they were gametes in a reptile’s gonads.
Sinatra said “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Sinatra had this backward. Anybody with a good handshake and a fake smile can “make it” in New York, because “making it” in New York is only about financial success and the social ladder. It says nothing about artistic, spiritual, or personal progress or your real value to humanity. Pluck a New Yorker out of the city, drop them in a cornfield in northern Saskatchewan and they will not make it out intact – and not because they aren’t “tough” or “wise” but because they can’t handle the isolation. It reflects the emptiness of their souls in refracted high-definition technicolor. Without the edifying support of the alcho-social money machine, they can’t manage their own psyche. They complain about the silence of the countryside, and cannot tolerate silence in general, because absence of noise signifies the breakdown of this machine. Without it, they would become another fossil swallowed by the tar pits.
I met a young woman in the East Village once who made the argument that New York is a “microcosm of the whole world.” Her reasoning was that she can get Afghan food a block from her apartment. “Culture” to her is just a reduction to cuisine made palatable to Americans. Not religion, not social norms, not beliefs or family or meaning — just meat on a stick, or in a bowl. (I recommend the lamb lawand, with a side of kaddo. Mmm!)
I don’t care if there are competing Dominican, Quebecoise, and Rastafarian Quebecoise parades on the same day, you’re still in New York City. You’re all governed by the same laws and the same overzealous mayors, the same rules of blistering sidewalk decorum. The air you breathe all smells of fried dough and landfill and the wildlife you confront is equally effete and rat-like. Sure, you’re at above-average risk of drowning in your own mucus in the next big monkey flu pandemic, but the greatest danger you face on a daily basis is that you might have to take a bus. New York isn’t a mosaic of culture, it is cultureless and nihilistic. And that’s fine, nihilism is a wonderful platform for the best and worst of America’s cultural exports, but don’t pretend it’s something it clearly can never be.
And no wonder the place is cultureless: New Yorkers have only two hobbies: drinking and New Yorking. Anywhere else in the country, when I need a ¾-inch slotted flat-head brass wood screw, I get in my car (those metal boxes you see speeding around your city, which you call “cabs”), I go to Home Depot, or take a walk to the local hardware store. But in New York, this becomes an adventure, and people who live there appreciate the distraction. New York is great for providing everything you ever wanted, unless you want something specific, in which case you’d better clear your calendar. Worse, you might have to take a bus.
The same goes for getting around. When a New Yorker wants to get from Brooklyn to Midtown, a distance of at most ten miles, it becomes the debate of the century. Which subway line is the fastest? The B? The Q? The 2/3? Should you wait for an express train? Transfer at Canal St.? Do you exit to the left or the right to come out on the west side of the street? This is an admirable use of time and conscious thought when you live in the city.
Ditto for food. When I want fine Northern Italian cuisine, I find a recipe, collect the supplies, and cook it myself, hopefully with good friends. In New York, you go downstairs. The New Yorker has learned nothing, and how could she? Nobody can afford a real kitchen in New York, and if they can they can probably afford servants.
New Yorkers, like San Franciscans, consider their city an inextricable part of their identity. If you run into an old friend and ask what she’s been doing since college, a common answer is “I moved to New York.” Somehow, you are supposed to be impressed by this. But substitute any other city in America in this question (except San Francisco and maybe LA), and it doesn’t work:
“So, what have you been doing since UM?”
Whilst popping their collar: “Oh, I moved to Tampa.”
“Is it inappropriate that I want to stab you?”
“I’m frankly surprised you haven’t already.”
The fact that New York is in such a special class of cities, a class that doesn’t absorb identities, but creates them, speaks volumes about the perceived self-importance of its inhabitants. When you’re from a small town, you do not brag about your residency. It might be the last thing you even share with someone, because it composes such a small part of your identity.
The appeal of New York, besides easy sex (and we all know that’s why you’re really there), is that there is never any shortage of things to do, places to visit, and people to meet. For people with sparse inner lives, this is heaven, and I can understand how the city can become like a drug after a short time. But those of us on the outside are still able to ask ourselves, “where would I fit in New York?” What do I have to offer the city that has everything? The answer is, of course, nothing. Moving to New York is an entirely selfish act. You can add nothing to the cultural zeitgeist of New York, while in a smaller town, you can do a lot. You can grow to be a big fish in a small pond, or instead grow to be a big fish in a huge pond full of much bigger fish and also a turtle and some dinosaurs.
Being an artist or musician in New York must be horrible. For one thing, you’re constantly flooded with opportunities for fun and entertainment. How does anyone get anything done in that city with so much going on? Nobody wants to spend more than the time it takes to sleep in their tiny apartments, or studios. How does creativity even happen at all there? (The answer, I guess, is “collaboratively.”)
And even if you are able to do the work, even if you can get thirty minutes of quiet time to reflect on the meaningless of your existence and the meaninglessness of ALL existence, it’s a struggle to be heard above the din of a million other artists. Musicians in New York are mostly ignored, because on any given night there are four hundred other shows going on, each better than the last.
With senses flooded just by going out of doors, it’s no wonder New Yorkers’ attention spans are so short. Even just trying to have a conversation in that town, you’ve got about ninety seconds to wow them before their attention flies across the room to a person who’s taller and hotter and richer. And even if you can hold someone’s attention, there is no chance you will ever impress them, because yesterday they met the UN ambassador to Eurasia who moonlights as an A&F underwear model and possibly owns one of the moons of Saturn. The good one, not the poison gas one. No wonder people there complain how hard it is to make friends. They’re all holding out for something better. In smaller cities, you make friends with who is there, or you don’t have friends at all. And this is enriching because it alters our characters in ways you cannot plan. (Of course, in small enough towns you can find yourself not enriched enough, but that’s a different discussion.)
But I don’t blame New Yorkers for the sickness that is New York. They are part of a machine, just as we all are part of an even greater machine called the United States and a still greater machine called Humanity. I have no doubt that, were I to move to the city I would become a part of the system and behave identically to other identity-less New Yorkers. And that terrifies me.
Perhaps what disgusts me most of all, what offends me so personally and the reason I wrote this column, is that some part of me still desperately wants to live there. Perhaps it’s only the tiny lobe at the base of my brainstem that seeks a continuously-revolving door of cigarette-slim, moderately drunken mid-to-late-twenty-somethings, which would be wonderful, until a year later when I realized the rest of my life had become a farce and nobody gave a damn about me. Who needs art, music, meaning, and love, when you can find a dozen lovely and willing women (or men) every night of the week?
This, of course, sounds like a fair trade. Bushwick or Bed-Stuy? The A or the C?
What do you think? Did he lay out the case to move to New York after all, or to stay away forever? Or did he not condemn the city hard enough? Let us know in the comments below!
Christopher previously went from berate to sedate with Things Your Barista Wants You to Know. –>