“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty of the world.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Ch. IV
A few months ago I had quite an odd dream.
I was walking the streets of New York. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what I was searching for. All I know was that my feet just knew to keep walking and eventually I would find something. As I kept moving my vision would occasionally flash to a bird’s eye view of the streets from overhead; the grid-like patterns were making me feel a bit like Pac-Man travelling through a bright blue maze. Or like Jack Torrence through the hedges (sans axe, of course). I’m not one to get frustrated when a dream’s interpretation isn’t immediately transparent – those who claim to “interpret” dreams are just giving their best guess anyway – but what I remember most was the great sense of comfort and familiarity I felt as I kept walking.
And that, to me, is the weirdest part. How could I feel comfort or familiarity with the streets of New York when I’ve never been there? How did I even know it was New York? There were no recognisable landmarks that I recall, no “I-Heart-NY” t-shirts to be seen, no random sightings of Louis CK or Kate Winslet. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you which borough I thought I was in. I woke up thinking about when Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was released and many native New Yorkers complained that the film (shot entirely on British soundstages and backlots) didn’t look anything like New York; that “the streets don’t look like New York”. In the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Queens-borne native Martin Scorsese proudly defended Kubrick’s not-quite-right aesthetic choice. Scorsese says the sense of unfamiliarity is exactly the point: “It’s as if you’re experiencing New York in a dream”.
I get what he means. I’ve been having that dream for as long as I can remember.
“City of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city, it is the fullest expression of our modern age.”
– Leon Trotsky, My Life (1930)
If I could trace my fascination with New York to any one source, I would probably blame The Muppets. The Muppets and Spider-Man. And the Fantastic Four. Hell, let’s just say The Muppets and every Marvel superhero ever. Plus the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while we’re at it. If you’ve ever read my blog before, you know that being a born-and-raised SF native is something in which I take a lot of pride. Still, when you grow up watching one city withstand Doctor Octopus, the Technodrome, and a troupe of anthropomorphic animals trying to put on a Broadway show, then SF is going to seem lacking by comparison. I mean, yeah we had a few alien invasions, but every city has those.
No, I wanted to walk down the same streets Run-DMC and LL Cool J when they thought up “My Adidas” and “I Can’t Live without My Radio”. I wanted to see the exact same streets Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and Jim Jarmusch had been filling with memorable characters. I wanted to jog around the same Central Park that welcomed Bob Marley, Diana Ross, and even The Ghostbusters. From the abandoned World’s Fair set of The Wiz to the dancing School of Performing Arts kids from Fame to the sidewalk where Morgan Freeman was shot down in Street Smart, I wanted to see the place that was so beloved in spite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was so openly despised by the people who called it home.
That’s what I’ve always found most confounding: growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the running joke about New York was how terrible it was. Be it an episode of Night Court or a Ralph Bakshi cartoon, the characters go to great pains to describe every borough as a descending level in The Divine Comedy: of rude (and racist) cab drivers, perverted construction workers, and possibly homicidal yuppies in Armani. A ridiculous number of songs and films have made that hatred their central premise. Even in Ghostbusters II, the mayor decides to ignore the coming spectral-apocalypse-brought-on-by-the-city’s-avarice by boasting that “Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker’s God-given right!”.
A place where the natives openly celebrate their contempt for their home? A place that’s home to mobsters, movie stars, and major industry figures? A place whose cultural make-up is so diverse that it even the United Nations calls it home? Oh, I’ve got to go there! I don’t care what it takes or how long it lasts, I’ve just got to set foot on this land and I’ll do anything to do it!
At least that’s what I used to think.
“I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window – no, I don’t feel how small I am – but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.”
– Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
Not only have I had a curious fascination with New York since childhood, I’m pretty sure I’ve been actively trying to get there for just as long. There were only two types of out-of-state trips my family took on a regular basis: LA for Thanksgiving; and summers in Chicago (father’s family) and/or Kansas (mother’s family). Except for seeing more family in Colorado and Texas, we never deviated. On the rare occasion our parents patronised us by asking where we could go if we wanted to, my brother would likely say some outlandish fantasy world. My answer was always the same: “New York!” When asked why, I’d say “Because there’s… things there! Lots of things!” (These questions were rarely asked by the time I became an articulate speaker.)
The answer would always be “No”. I’m sure I was probably told that it was because we don’t have family there, but that makes me curious as to why we never went to New Orleans, where we do? The closest I ever got was when I was 13. We were in Chicago for the summer and my uncle (grandpa’s youngest brother) was going to Toronto with his new wife and baby daughter for a long weekend. In a decision that baffles me to this very day, my parents agreed to let me and my brother go along. I slept through most of the drive, both there and back, but I remember driving through Detroit and taking a photo of the Joe Louis fist. I remember being in Toronto and the Canadians making fun of our accents (yes, really). And, more than anything else, I remember that we came back into the US through the border at Niagara Falls, which we stopped to photograph. That is the closest I have ever come to New York.
But it ain’t for a lack of tryin’, I’ll tell ya that. In fact I made a few very serious attempts at doing so over the past couple of decades, including:
FAILED ATTEMPT #1 – When I was in highschool I was serious about becoming a writer or an actor, as my skills in both were regarded as my greatest strengths and the most likely to lead to a prominent career. I loved doing both of those then nearly as much as I do now, so I agreed to try my hand at the sort of higher education that would make such a thing possible. It was then that I decided to go to the legendary NYU. I was happy as a clam when their recruitment materials arrived in the mail. I spent a full two weeks stressing over my essay, which I’d probably still rewrite to this very day. Nevertheless, I completed all my materials in record time and stuffed them as-neatly-as-humanly-possible in a large manila envelope. I wasn’t just submitting to a potential school, I was submitting for a potential LIFE.
I’ll never forget when I asked my mother for a few stamps for the envelope. She had no idea that I’d reached out to NYU, let alone received the materials. I mean, my parents had been stressing college for as long as I could remember; why not go for the best? She told me I wasn’t going to NYU. Just like that. No explanation. Nothing about the location being across the country, no acknowledgement of my suggestion for scholarships or student loans, no expressions of her concerns at all – nothing. Just a flat-out declaration that I wasn’t going to NYU; simple as that. When I asked my father for clarification (and support), he just said “Go ask you mother.”
FAILED ATTEMPT #2 – A few years after graduating highschool – and having dropped out of college after being told I had no future as an actor – I was working a soul-crushing retail job, as one does in their early-20s. The full-time hours were menial and some (not all) of my co-workers were assholes, but I was making money. Quite a lot, actually. I was making so much and spending so little that when I came upon the one-year mark that August, I’d decided I was going to treat myself the way I never had before: I was going to fly out of town. I actually did briefly consider flying out to see family (if for no other reason than to get away from my parents for a little while), before I realised I wanted to spend that coming New Years in Times Square. To this day, I’ve never seen real snow. To see it floating down as the ball drops would be the event of a lifetime.
I began researching flights, trains, and bus routes. I put an even tighter hold on my finances. I wanted to do each and every thing right so that I could make the most out of the trip I was going to take that December… of 2001. As you know, between my planning in August and the potential trip in December there was a certain event that made travelling to that area a bit more difficult than it had been before. In November I quit the job (a combination of no longer tolerating co-workers and my own youthful hubris), which meant that I would have to be a bit more frugal with my money. Which meant I was taking a trip anytime soon.
FAILED ATTEMPT #3 – I was still in my 20s and got another job. I’d even started taking classes again in the hopes of getting my AA and – who knows? – still being able to transfer to NYU. If nothing else, I was still determined to walk the streets – whether I lived there or not. Once again, I began researching cheap flights as well as the new Draconian security measures that went along with them. Wanna take a guess as to whether I actually made it?
In autumn of 2004, my father decided to go to the hospital after he began noticing considerable weight loss. It turned out that 35 years of smoking had led to the development of a tumor on his left lung. Said tumor was pushing down on his stomach, hence his eating less. Over the next few months he’d have regular examinations, surgery to remove part of his lung, chemotherapy, and other such recuperative measures done. Being sick in the United States is expensive. Very expensive. As in don’t-plan-any-cross-country-trips-expensive (especially since my-job-at-the-time not long after).
“Whoever is born in New York is ill-equipped to deal with any other city: all other cities seem, at best, a mistake, and, at worst, a fraud. No other city is so spitefully incoherent. Whereas other cities flaunt there history – their presumed glory – in vividly placed monuments, squares, parks, plaques, and boulevards, such history as New York has been unable entirely to obliterate is to be found, mainly, in the backwaters of Wall Street, in the goat tracks of Old and West Broadway, in and around Washington Square, and, for the relentless searcher, in grimly inaccessible regions of The Bronx.”
– James Baldwin, Just Above My Head
The three attempts I’ve listed above are just the three that stand out the most. It’s now 2014 and having actively attempted to make the trip since 1997, I think it’s safe to say it ain’t gonna happen. I’m not one to believe in fate, hexes, or the manipulations of some unknown force. But if I were, I’d start to think such a force seriously does not want me to set foot in New York. Force or no, I’ve made peace with the fact that I won’t ever be going. Not as a student, not as a tourist, not as a friendly acquaintance – I’ve permanently crossed New York off of my list.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but no. See, the reason I’m even writing this blog entry is because the only thing that pisses me off more than my failed attempts at travelling to New York are the reactions of people when I tell them. They regard me as the one with the problem. “Just go,” they all say. What the fuck do they think I’ve been trying to do for the last 17 years? Do they think I’m just expecting free plane tickets to magically appear in my mailbox? Do they think just using my lifelong affinity as a mask to cover up some resentment I feel towards NY? Do they think I’m staying away so as to avoid contact with old acquaintances who currently live there?
Jesus H. Christ, people – I’m glad that for you a trip out there is as easy as a trip to the grocery store, but I do not have the privilege. In case the details of my incessant job-hunt (which has now lasted for five years) haven’t made it clear: I’m broke. Not in a facetious manner, I mean really broke. As in, “I’ve put off buying $10.oo tickets to Rat Girl because it might set me back”. I’m THAT broke, people.
I’m glad you people can enjoy the sights and sounds on a whim, but my life isn’t yours. I have other priorities.
But allow me to play Devil’s Advocate. Let’s say money were of no importance; let’s say I found a block of time where I had nothing scheduled and could leave at a moment’s notice. What kind of New York would I arrive in?
“New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous.
But there is one thing about it – once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough.”
― John Steinbeck, America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction
Back in 2007 I was in a short film. A week or two before production, one of the actresses was taking a trip to – guess where? It was both a personal sabbatical and research, as she would later star in a production of A Chorus Line and wanted to hear genuine New York dialects in preparation. When she came back, she was disappointed. The trip itself was just the sabbatical she needed, but her research proved fruitless as “There aren’t any New York accents anymore.”
I’ve spent the better part of my life in San Francisco, so I could spend days on end telling you about the changes – both for the better and for the worse – that have taken hold of this city. I also keep abreast of world events, as such I know that there’s only one other city as notorious for its current influx of hipsters and techies. For every news item posted about vanishing SF landmarks, there’s one posted about the metamorphosis of NY streets. For every SF activist fighting Ellis Act evictions, there’s a NY native screaming the same to whomever will listen. For every drinking session I’ve had with fellow SF artists about trying to make ends meet, there are a group of NY artists doing the same thing.
Even before that, both places went through major changes: SF with the tech boom of the late-‘90s/early-200s; NY with Guiliani at the same time. The place I’d always imagined probably wasn’t real to begin with, but now even the reality is so different that almost no one can make heads or tails of it anymore. What was once the most definite location in the entire United States is now starting to look just like everywhere else. I would just be a visitor, so my presence there would only add to the problem. And that I don’t want to do.
“It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”
– EB White, Here is New York
As I write this, the one thing that strikes me in remembering the dream I described is that no one is there. Instinctually I knew that I was in the most densely-populated city in the US, but there was not a soul to be seen. That seems somehow fitting. I’ve never been to London, Soweto, Johannesburg, Paris, or Tokyo. Granted, my urge to visit those places – while great – was never as intense as my urge to take a 3,000-mile trip to “The City that Never Sleeps”. I finally realised that I could either wallow in the self-pity of thinking about someplace I’ve never been, or I could act like an adult and make the most of where I am and what I have. There’s no other place like it in the world and no other people like those who live there. It’s home to some of this country’s greatest monuments and was the site of the worst foreign attack on our soil. It’s a place that has changed the life of each and every person who has set foot on it.
I just know that I’ll never be one of them.