I’ll let you in on a little secret about New York City. You might already know this, but unless you were born here, and even if you were, you have to be slightly insane to live here.
Living in New York City takes a toll on your pocket book, psyche, body, and soul that is hard for those who have never done it to understand. It weighs and grates on you every moment of every day. And I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
My earliest memory of Gotham is coming here when I was about nine years old, my native New Yorker son’s age now. I grew up in Philly, a stunningly beautiful and large city, so the structural scale didn’t amaze me. The number of people did. We had very tall buildings in Philadelphia, although no skyscrapers back then taller than City Hall, by law, in fact. But it was the teeming throngs that I had never seen before. It was the absolute crush of humanity.
A few years later a teenager, I would wander to New York, then a very different place, and find myself at home at spots like Café Reggio or The Blue Note in the Village. I was a reader, and I knew I was walking the same ground as the writers I adored — the American ones, anyway. I knew it was the only place I really wanted to be. And nothing else would satisfy me.
So I went there for college and it downright smacked me in the face. I couldn’t afford it, or handle it. I had these two roommates from New England I hated. One used to read bedtime stories to girls in bed while wearing a nightcap. I told my RA I had to get out. He said only one room was available, and nobody wanted it. I told him I’d take it.
That fall, New York University had a rash of suicides, kids jumping off dorms, two in my dorm’s courtyard. NYU isn’t Columbia: there’s no quad, and you’re just there, in the city. My new roommate was Toheed, a gay, Middle Eastern club kid who for some reason I got on with. He’d take me to Tunnel, Twilo, and Jackie 60, where everyone would do drugs all night, and then walk out into the glow of fabulous Manhattan, a light show clearly created to cater to our needs. It was a panoply of profound and dirty beauty. It sparkled.
But I digress. That was the New York City of my youth, and everyone thinks the New York City of his youth is the real New York City, and it is. New York City belongs to the young; it belongs to those who fervently believe they can mold it to their purposes, and for most people who stick around long enough that is true. New York City will become the thing that you want it to be if you are willing to hustle, and be exhausted, and scrimp, and to want little more than to just be here. But why?
In the great darkness of bright Manhattan and Brooklyn, there is a rhythm. It catches your heartbeat, it captures the cacophony of the subway trains; it brings all the myriad phenomena into a steady thrum hum that becomes you. This is a kind of rejection of freedom. You can’t completely be free when 8 million people live within 20 square miles of you.
But is freedom without limits freedom? Does freedom reside in having no effect on those around you? Or in making choices knowing you aren’t the only one affected by them?
That’s not a knock. I’ve been travelling a lot lately around great America, to the lands where the quiet reigns and people have space. I love those places; I love the people there. I know they make a very different choice than I do, and I respect and try to learn from those.
I think about the fact that my son is born and raised in New York City, that he will never be overwhelmed by it, as I was. In fact, no city in the world could overwhelm him. But I also know he might choose to leave for Iowa or rural Pennsylvania and eschew all this. That would not disappoint me, because like I said, living here is basically insane. Who would wish insanity on his child?
But for me, well, the insanity, the constant frustration, the worries, and dark moments are worth it. Every now and then, you walk up out of the subway on some night of perfect weather and the buildings, the lights, the pretty, stylish girls and the boys affecting an attitude hard enough to deserve the city and the girls strikes you. The magic that exists now existed in 1993; it probably existed in 1893.
It’s New York City. And there is no place like it on the face of the earth.