I lived in New York for long enough that I came to feel I had some rights there; but once I left, each time I came back I was reminded that it wasn’t so. The first time, when I thought maybe I was back to stay, I was surprised by how forcefully I was rebuffed. I couldn’t find steady work; I got screwed on a sublet; and for the first time, for as long as I had been paying high prices for the privilege of living there, I was aware of how in New York money can just vanish, as if a meter were constantly running.
New York has many attributes that can be sentimentalized, like the way its citizens’ ingenuity can be suddenly summoned and gathered to help a stranger in distress. The genesis of all those slightly hoary “New Yorkers come together” stories and campaigns is in small incidents where a person on the street faints or gets hurt and out of nowhere someone’s running to the CVS to get them water, someone else is calling the ambulance, and someone else is trying to keep the distressed party comfortable and in good spirits.
Also New York’s institutions are generous toward the indigent and afflicted. One of my old friends there is on pretty much every form of public assistance the city offers or can wrest from the state and the feds, despite having barely worked a day in his life, and has never had to fear homelessness or medical neglect. He and I were just marveling at the situation of another friend in Texas, who has had to fight even to get the health care insurance he’s entitled to under the ACA. Were my friend living there instead of in New York, I’m sure he would have long ago died in the street.
But while one can sentimentalize New York, it is not itself sentimental. It doesn’t care whether you come or go, or what you’ve been up to since you left, and it casts a cold eye on anyone who presumes on a prior acquaintance. After the shock wore off, I understood it even then, but still to some extent whenever I came back thereafter I had in me something of the rejected suitor, who can have moved on, even gotten married, and yet still look for a sign that if this or that were different everything could be as it was.
As soon as my wife was fully vaccinated, so she at least in theory didn’t have to worry too much about being infected by me, I wanted to go somewhere. I booked a New York trip practically on the spur of the moment, because New York was all I knew to go to.
It was quite a time to do it because it was the first weekend since the city’s reopening and the streets were hopping. I hadn’t seen firsthand the effect of the outdoor dining booths that sometimes cover part of the sidewalk, sometime part of the street, and sometimes both. (I’d seen that in DC, but it has nothing like New York’s density.) It turns out that, on blocks with a lot of bars and restaurants, the effect is electric; it’s like a third reality materialized between the indoors and the outdoors — a very vivid one, since the diners’ banter and the restaurants’ various musics compete with the already loud street noise. Also, when the street and sidewalk spaces are physically compressed, it’s like narrowing the flow in a water hose, and intensifies the energy. I don’t know if the street scene in Little Korea, where I ate Friday night, was back to pre-pandemic levels, but it did feel like New York on a Friday night.
I should mention that, as has been the case in DC since the CDC guidance came out, outdoor masking seemed exceedingly optional — in spaces that are between 2x and a million times more crowded than DC could ever manage. Given what came before, it adds to the electricity of the crowds a little extra dangerous, licentious frisson, like Carnival, except in this case coming after the fast.
(Who knows, if this takes off maybe it will lead back to the license of the old days — public urination, lewd behavior, drugs! I did smell more weed in the city air than at any time since the 1970s. All I can say is keep going, guys, palace of wisdom and all that, and if it doesn’t work out at least maybe I can afford to move back.)
We then went down to Soho and Tribeca, and there the effect of the crowding and masklessness was also felt, but in slightly more demure tones and in much classier and more expensive clothing, carrying a smell of Shalimar. I knew the quadrant to be Big Money, but I had not had a good look at it in a while, and the sight of the rich in full public display — not as usual scuttling between outrageous lofts and unaffordable restaurants, but spread out on the sidewalk-street, basking in their bounty — was frankly almost disgusting.
The displays of public wealth — the civic improvements offered for public use — were something else again. Hudson River Park’s Pier 26 not only has the kind of neat if sterile neo-boardwalk architecture that’s at DC’s The Wharf — and unlike The Wharf I don’t think they had to fuck up a poor-people treat to do it — but it also has a long, grassy picnic area. Picnicking on the piers! In my day you just went to the piers to get wasted and fuck. It also has a “sports play area” where local kids can do that little faux-soccer thing with the tiny nets.
Given the neighborhood, those kids have to be as rich as the parents yelling “Dylan” and “Cody” would suggest, but access to the pier was available even to such as myself. I looked at the condos to the east and the glittering towers of Jersey City — Jersey City! — to the west, and thought, no wonder the red states hate New York; it not only has museums, theaters, libraries, soap and toothpaste, but also these oceans of money sluicing through, so much that the rich can offer the peons something nice out of it. They can even do something like the new “Little Island” thing — basically a pier dressed up like a Land of the Lost set, but with concession stands and an amphitheater — an ostentatious display of vicarious wealth, a Little Trianon to which locals and tourists can get a day pass.
This all felt a little different when I crossed over to Williamsburg, my home for many mostly penurious years, and saw the grand new edifices looming over the city streets, and industrial buildings once festooned with graffiti now covered with NOO YAWK themed ads for Maker’s Mark and Uber Eats. (There’s still a little graffiti, but it’s more of an accent now; otherwise they wouldn’t tolerate it.) Something called “Bushwick Inlet Park” (I don’t think any of us ever heard of a Bushwick Inlet back in the day, and if we had we would assume it was in Bushwick) had more and better curated foliage than I’d ever associated with the neighborhood, and huge sports fields with lots of Codys and Dylans and little nets. In McCarren Park I saw a guy working on his golf swing; I saw a girl holding a Pigeon Pose while looking at her phone. “TRAIN LIKE YOU LIVE” a condo beseeched, with an image of a fit young woman crouched over a stability ball.
This too is what Big Money brings, the spillover that makes homey old places fabulous and up to the minute. As I made my pilgrimage and saw the happy throngs picking their preference among approximately 89 coffee places on Bedford between Grand Street and N. 12th (there’s also a Dunkin’ Donuts now, and it gets plenty of trade), I had the usually mordant thoughts — some of which I’ve just expressed — but also an unaccustomed serenity about the whole thing.
Maybe it was that I’d been out ten years, and that’s how long it takes to break an exile’s longing, or at least the tight inner ring of it; maybe it’s just age. Maybe it was walking through these places with other friends who also knew how it had been, and talking about those past days and past ways, and suddenly feeling that those days and ways were not just old but obsolete, no longer suitable as a point of comparison to anything living or instructive to anyone who had more than 50 percent of their life before them.
We who remember can still talk amongst ourselves with pleasure about the great Age of Revival Houses and Unprotected Anal Sex, but the language of our race is not being preserved. Some of its sass and saltiness persist in the current New York idiom, but the kids who speak it neither know nor care where it came from. And why should they? The world is theirs.
So I looked on the new people and was glad for them that they don’t have to worry much about getting mugged, sad for them that the day-to-day hustle is so much harder than it was for us, and hopeful that when they run out of money and pass out of relevance they will find something else to take their place. Seen from a certain perspective, that’s a big part of the work of living.
When the train pulled out I did not look back.