Destination N.Y.

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE – September 17, 2000, Sunday

Destination: N. Y.

”HOW THE LUNATICS flung up their caps and roared in sympathy with the headlong engine and the driving tide!” — Charles Dickens, on arrival in New York, passing the insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island aboard the steamboat New York

Sure, there are people who simply wind up in New York, find themselves living here the way people wind up in Des Moines or Fullerton or Fort Worth, by accident or default. She is raised at 74th and Amsterdam, rents her own first apartment up West End Avenue at 103rd, then settles in a brownstone duplex in Park Slope; he grows up in Bayside and after dental school decamps a few miles west, to a junior two-bedroom at 67th and York with a view (of Queens). Or they arrive for college and never leave; or they’re transferred in for a headquarters tour of duty; or they tag along with a wife or boyfriend. But surely, for more people here than anywhere else, moving to New York was an urban choice, particular and self-conscious, bedazzling and scary. Moving to New York requires a yearning — to live by one’s wits or test one’s mettle; to make art or a pile of cash (or, during the 80′s, both at once); to live nakedly or anonymously or simply to get as far as possible from Des Moines or Fullerton or Fort Worth; or even, still, to breathe free. Fifty-one years ago, E.B. White wrote that those who were ”born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something” make up ”the greatest” New York. Each of them ”embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love” and must come here ”willing to be lucky.”

Given the cost of living, the ambient hypertension and the clattering grind, the decision to move to New York remains at least somewhat irrational, requiring a kind of quasi-religious commitment. And yet in this ostensibly hyperrational age, people from all over still make that decision in staggering numbers. It’s corny but true: arriving in New York, from the provinces or overseas, remains a central episode in the American narrative, a kind of living iconic rite. The mythic pull of the city has been gathering force for a long time, encoded in a body of literature so extensive and so familiar as to constitute its own genre. Walt Whitman invented (and embodied) the modern ode-to-New York mode, embracing the coarse and unlovable aspects of the place together with the plainly grand ones. His poems have colored coming-to-New York stories ever since, seeping into American Bildungsromane that celebrate the grunge and stink and bloody-minded rattle of the city along with the martinis and art and sleek talk. In this romantic urban landscape, game tyros dare the tough big city to defeat or disillusion them — David Copperfields without all that David Copperfield stuff that Holden Caulfield was too cool to indulge explicitly. Stories as various as ”Catcher in the Rye,” ”The Godfather,” ”A Chorus Line,” ”New York, New York,” ”Working Girl,” ”Bright Lights, Big City,” ”Wall Street,” ”Slaves of New York,” ”Angela’s Ashes” and ”Felicity” are all New York newcomer stories, each somewhere on the spectrum between the perpetually wowed (”Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) and the relentlessly dark (”Midnight Cowboy”).

Each generation and each caste has had its fresh iteration of the New York myth. (Jackson Pollock and the Beats replace John Reed and the Communists, Don DeLillo replaces John O’Hara, ”Seinfeld” replaces ”Annie Hall,” Tito Puente replaces Duke Ellington, Fran Lebowitz replaces Dorothy Parker, Wendy Wasserstein and Paul Rudnick replace Kaufman and Hart, Melissa Bank replaces Dawn Powell, Jeff Koons replaces Andy Warhol, Biggie Smalls replaces Charlie Parker.) But the city’s starring role in that myth — and its resulting position in the popular imagination of America and the world — remains the same. Even the New York that Dickens depicted in 1842 is uncannily familiar: the city, he wrote, was manic (people and vehicles ”all travelling to and fro: and never idle. . . . These restless Insects”), physically delirious (”confused heaps of buildings”), fashion-forward (”Heaven save the ladies, how they dress! What pinking of thin stockings, and pinching of thin shoes, and fluttering of ribbons and silk tassels”) and media-mad (”fifty newspapers . . . pimping and pandering for all degrees of vicious taste, and . . . imputing to every man in public life the coarsest and the vilest motives”).

The real-life city of New York, of course, has recently undergone a radical transformation. Twenty-five years ago, the city was in bankruptcy, the sidewalks teemed with crazy people, commercial sex was in its golden age and swaths of West 42nd Street and the Bowery were druggy dead zones. (All of which young knee-jerk nihilists, nurtured by a century of Whitmans and Allen Ginsbergs and Lou Reeds, regarded as attractive anti-amenities.) Today there are brand-new chunks of New York that could pass for Toronto or San Diego; Times Square is spectacularly family-friendly (again); Central Park and Bryant Park have been redeemed to an extent not possible to imagine in the 70′s. There are a third as many murders, thousands of new information-age jobs, a shocking sense of civic life more or less in control. But while starting salaries have doubled, some rents have quintupled. For people without an M.B.A. or a law degree, entry-level pay no longer covers a decent one-bedroom in a pleasant Manhattan neighborhood. The supply of cheap garrets has been outsourced to Brooklyn.

For most people who come here from Sri Lanka, or Nigeria, or Ecuador, of course, there is nothing bittersweet about the new, improved New York of 2000. They do not come here because they loved ”Bright Lights, Big City” in high school or heard about the Cedar Tavern on N.P.R. They come for the same reason immigrants have always come: the chance to make more money than they could in Bangladesh or Ukraine or Ireland. And while today they don’t believe (if they ever did) that the streets are paved with gold, they do know, or sense, that nowhere in America is there more opportunity for sheer stamina to be rewarded. A taxi can be driven 18 hours a day. Drywall can be taped 70 hours a week. Wallets and umbrellas and falafels can be peddled on the sidewalks pretty much all the time. In other words, the workaholic money madness of New York is part of the attraction for new arrivals at the bottom of the ladder as well as at the top. The couple from St. Kitts working five jobs between them surely belies the newest New York myth — that there is no more middle or working class, only the rich and the permanently poor.

But for the immigrants who were drawn here from the American sticks (like me), the appeal is less obvious. Manhattanism has spread deep into the provinces. Epicurean grocery stores and Miramax films and alternative weeklies and imitation SoHo’s are now a part of even small cities and leafy suburbs. So how has New York itself sustained its spell? Why do people still come here in such numbers, from so many other American places? For approximately the same reason, I think, that the new nationwide ubiquity of casino gambling and strip clubs improbably fed the explosive growth of Las Vegas during the last 20 years — as more and more Americans acquire a taste in their hometowns for sin or old-fashioned urban civilization, more and more of them yearn for the wellspring, the big show, the real thing.

In retrospect, my childhood in Omaha, a half-mile from a cornfield, looks like a New York 101 distance-learning experiment. Every week on TV during the 1960′s, I watched a couple of movies from the 1930′s or 40′s, almost all of them glorifications of this city — My Man Godfrey,” ”His Girl Friday,” ”On the Town.” On TV, half my pleasure in programs like Leonard Bernstein’s ”Young People’s Concerts,” ”The Dick Cavett Show” and Johnny Carson’s ”Tonight” (before the move to California) derived from their unmistakable Manhattan tang — the occasional evening clothes, the jokes about Central Park, the unapologetic cosmopolitanism. I played the cast album of ”West Side Story” over and over and spent years studying Mad magazine, by far the New Yorkiest artifact generally available to children in Nebraska. Venturing regularly by bus into downtown Omaha — alone, almost sneakily — I managed to see the big old stone buildings, the used-book shops, the single adult theater, the liquory breezes from pitch-black bars, the people of color, the policemen on foot, the kooks, the bums, the suspicious characters and all the rest as a thrilling miniature glimpse of what New York might be like.

So, just after college, I turned down a good job in Alexandria, Va., and moved, unemployed, directly to New York. Like all newcomers, I felt my outsiderdom acutely. I’ve found that this is a feeling that attenuates but never entirely goes away — living here is always part ”Blade Runner,” part Edith Wharton. And some of the pleasure of the place derives from those regular frissons of alienation.

Unlike San Francisco’s or Seattle’s, New York’s scale makes overfamiliarity impossible. That rule extends to professional subcultures as well as to geography. Unlike Washington or Los Angeles, New York has no single, oppressively dominant professional realm, but a half-dozen different major leagues, countless self-obsessed pecking orders you’ve never even heard of. Whereas in more anodyne, more normal American cities, the treacly breeze from the Cinnabon shop at the mall is the single-most intense public aroma, New York assaults pedestrians with intense odors — South Street’s dead fish, the meat district’s day-old beef, horse manure on Central Park South, peppers and hot fat in Chinatown. And whereas those cities are optimized to anticipate every consumer desire, New York, with its tiny markets and tinier kitchens, demands a constant rhythm of commercial interactions — newspaper here, bread here, vegetables here, wine there — that can be exhausting once the novelty wears off.

It is not a Welcome Wagon kind of place. Yet it can be more comfortable for newcomers than overtly ”friendly” cities. New York’s waves of immigration and emigration become a self-perpetuating spiral: newcomers as a class feel less like oddballs here, and so new newcomers keep pouring in, attracting more newcomers still. They ride that great assimilation machine, the subway, an egalitarian marvel that permits (O.K., forces) a real and immediate engagement with the urban tide unavailable in cities where everyone drives cars. Newcomers here wander on streets crowded with people and shops, getting a de facto crash course in urbanism. They eat among crowds of interesting strangers (during my first year here, I probably ate more restaurant meals than my relatively cosmopolitan parents ate in their whole lives), and every meal out is another chance to eavesdrop and stare at people you don’t know — a pleasure that in other cities can result in the police being summoned. So the newcomers don’t stay newcomers for very long.

I envy new New Yorkers. not the rents they have to pay, or the loneliness that goes without saying. Assuming they arrive equipped with some basic New York catechism, I envy them that first year’s plunge into the city of their imaginations.

Am I sentimentalizing? Should I be embarrassed by the civic-booster goosebumps I still get when I hear the first bars of ”Rhapsody in Blue” and read the 30-year-old Dickens’s first glimpses of the city? Is it undue pleasure I take in my 24-year-old niece’s giddy arrival in the city this summer? She could have stayed in Minneapolis — where she had an excellent job, free housing, plenty of friends, a progressive civic ambience and hot and cold running espresso — rather than pay her share of $3,000 for a small three-bedroom walk-up on the unfashionable edge of Williamsburg. But instead she has moved to New York, simply because it’s New York: New York for New York’s sake.

The other night, she told me, she discovered a charming dive just down the block from her apartment where Latin Americans drink sweet cocktails and dance to merengue on the jukebox. ”I thought there was just ‘merengue music,”’ she said, sounding like a postmodern That Girl, both amused by her own newcomer’s excitement and also genuinely excited. ”It turns out there are like a hundred different kinds of merengue!” A 43-year-old Peruvian she met at the bar, a man named Pepe, wants to take her out dancing in Manhattan. I doubt she’ll go, but she couldn’t be more pleased to have been asked, and to be here.