I’ve spent the week lying around, doing my best to recover from the debilitating lurgy that prevented me from making the planned trip back to London to surprise our youngest on his nineteenth birthday. Actually, Norwegian Airlines also did its bit to prevent me from going. Four hours before my scheduled departure at eleven am Thursday, they sent me a text informing me that my flight had been rescheduled to three am on Friday on account of the fact that they needed to comply with rules pertaining to rest periods for crew – rules to which they had, presumably, suddenly and surprisingly been alerted. They hoped this would not be too inconvenient.
Thank you Norwegian Airlines. Now we know why your premium economy seats are so much cheaper than everyone else’s. You’re not actually a proper airline, with all that this implies in terms of logistical expertise and professional standards. You’re an illusion, a sham, a fake.
But back to the lying around. While reclined, I did two things, in the main. The first was to binge watch Grace and Frankie. I know I’m late to the party, but what a party. Comedy gold. The trouble is, twenty four episodes in, I’m dangerously close to believing that I actually live in that beach house with Jane Fonda, and that I have access to her dreamy wardrobe of pastel coloured knits by Ralph Lauren and St John. At one point, L1 insisted that I leave the bedroom and come in to watch the news, just so I could regain some perspective on the world. I sat there, forcing myself to take in the latest revelations about how the leader of the free world had been paying porn stars to lie while colluding with the thug who’s in charge of Russia and a dodgy UK tech company and an even dodgier US tech company in order to subvert democracy, but I’m afraid none of it really made an impression. I was too busy longing to be back on one of those tasteful striped loungers on Jane’s deck, gazing out at the Pacific.
Wary of getting lost in Grace and Frankie land, and unable to get out into the city to experience it, I decided that the next best thing would be to to read about the city. I happened to have two books about New York to hand – Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and New York Stories. And what I read really got me thinking. I thought about the city in the books and the city that L1 and I have been experiencing, and I wondered whether either version is what anyone would call the real New York, or if such a thing even exists.
Let’s start, as I did, with New York Stories, and see what kind of city it thinks New York is. In Master Misery, Truman Capote’s Sylvia is sucked dry of all her money and her dreams, so that, in the end, she has nothing left to steal. In Pillar of Salt, Shirley Jackson’s Margaret looks forward to her two-week vacation in New York only to end up feeling appalled by the way “people seemed hurled on into a frantic action that made every hour forty-five minutes long”, and a series of incidents leaves her so fearful she cannot even cross the street when the light turns green. In City of Broken Dreams, John Cheever’s Evart Malloy, persuaded that diamonds are ground into the very pavements of New York, and lured to the city by a big-time theatre producer claiming interest in his half-finished play, is repeatedly accosted by “jewellery salesmen, theatrical lawyers, and laundry services” and led a merry dance by not one theatre producer but two. Bewildered, exhausted, disillusioned, and broke, he departs.
Goodness. What a place we’ve come to. Better watch out.
But that’s the old New York, I thought. Cheever and Jackson’s stories were first published in nineteen forty-eight, and Capote’s in nineteen forty-nine – practically last century. I turned to Goodbye to All That, which features more contemporary – non-fictional – tales. The title of the collection is taken from Joan Dideon’s essay of the same name, penned in nineteen sixty-seven. In the beginning, Dideon was “in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” She “had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” To those, like her, who came out of the West or the South, “New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”
Years later, she began to realise that it is possible “to stay too long at the fair.” Disaffected and depressed, she moved to LA after eight years of living in New York. She writes, of her reason for leaving, that “I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.”
The essays in the Goodbye to All That collection recount variations on Dideon’s story. Most of the writers were drawn to the city by the same “infinitely romantic notion” as Dideon, nicely captured by New Jersey born Dani Shapiro, who recalls that “you wanted to leap on its [New York’s] neon back and be carried away. On weekend trips to the city, you’d watch from the back seat of your parents’ car for the line in the Lincoln Tunnel that divided New Jersey from New York, because you felt dead on one side, and alive on the other.”
Many came against all the best advice. Ann Hood’s father forbade her from coming to New York in the seventies because “people get murdered there. Or worse.” When she finally did come, she could see exactly what her father didn’t like – homeless people lining the sidewalks, graffiti covered subways that stank of urine , panhandlers, drug dealers, muggers, traffic, shouting, horns, boom boxes. But she walked willingly into Manhattan’s “filthy arms” because she knew she’d outgrown her life in the pretty, seaside town where she’d grown up. Throughout her life, her mantra was I will never leave here
But however much these writers dreamed about and loved New York, for most of them there eventually came a time when they had to leave. Hope Edelman left when a relationship leaned towards marriage, and although she thought she was ready to leave, she later realised that what she really needed “was to leave New York for six months and return refreshed and renewed.”
Ruth Curry left to follow a boyfriend to Aukland, New Zealand, and she too thought she was ready to leave. But she found that, in Aukland, “there was nowhere to lick my wounds, no crowd to disappear into, no ocean of work to throw myself into.” And she came to miss what she saw as the gritty truthfulness of New York, realising that she “had good things to say about dark empty buildings and trash.”
Chloe Caldwell eventually left because “I was getting tired, and I was only twenty-three.” Ann Hood, who’d come despite her father’s dire warnings and had repeatedly vowed never to leave, also left. She followed a man to Washington, married him, then persuaded him to move with her back to Brooklyn. They had children. They moved away again, to Providence. Then her young daughter died, and “New York didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.” But as the fog of grief lifted, Hood began to see that there was a part her that would always need New York. She began to teach and spend time in the city, and found herself “getting in touch with that girl I was – optimistic, open to anything, wide eyed, open, willing. Grief had taken that part of me. It had turned me fearful and sad. But that winter in New York, that fear began to crumble…. I could open my heart again.”
For Hood, New York is not the frightening city in Shirley Jackson’s story, or the dream wrecker in Truman Capote’s. It isn’t the place that made Cloe Caldwell feel tired at twenty-three. Instead, “it’s a place of comfort. It’s a place of discovery. It’s the place where I found my true self, again and again and again.”
If there are any common threads to these stories, I think they are these truths. New York can be a very hard place to live, and it can wear you out, at twenty-three or thirty-three. Most find they need a break from it. But few take the break and never come back, or never wish they could come back. Those “infinitely romantic notions” about the city might wane, but they don’t die. Even Joan Dideon returned, in nineteen eighty-eight, twenty-four years after leaving.
In the Goodbye to all That collection, the exceptional story is the one written by a native New Yorker, Rebecca Wolff. She didn’t come to chase a dream; she was already here. Growing up in a privileged household, Wolff says that she was “inured to the fabulousness [of the city] by the dirty, hungry people lying around on the street; they [her parents] were inured to the dirty hungry people lying around on the street by the imprint of fabulousness.”
Wolff left New York, returned, and left again. She has now washed her hands of it. She claims to resent the transformation of the city from its gritty former self into a place where there’s a “tremendous amount of sameyness” and “poseurs and wannabes and moneyhounds” are “everywhere”. “New York used to be cool, and now it’s not,” she asserts. It’s a “giant pile of crap compared to what it used to be.” The city now “manifests itself shamefacedly as a chump-factory, a chump house. It’s Chumptown. Artists who live there are living dangerously close to extinction.”
Perhaps it’s the lurgy making me oversensitive, but it seems to me that L1 and I are examples of the very chumps about whom Wolff writes so scathingly. We are certainly two of those people who have no idea “how far any of it has fallen, how sterile Chelsea, how horror-show Soho, how lame-ass the Lower East Side.” And if a chump is someone who is not living in abject poverty for the sake of their art, or a person who takes dance lessons amidst diamanté encrusted ballgowns on Fifth Avenue and delights in the bourgeois splendours on offer in the Met and the Frick, then yes, guilty as charged. If a chump is someone who finds things to appreciate in the city in its reincarnated, uncool state, if a chump is someone who likes to be able to walk around at night without being overly fearful of being murdered, if a chump can see the upside of streets that are not clogged with garbage or overrun by rats or heroine dealers, then yes, we are chumps. I don’t suppose we like the extortionate amounts one is forced to pay for food, in supermarkets or in chump infested restaurants, any more than Wolff does, but we try to take the rough with the smooth.
Maybe L1 and I will never know Wolff’s New York of old, the cool, un-crap New York. But then, we can’t know everything about the new New York either. We can’t know the New York of the very young and just-starting-out, because we are late middle aged. We can’t know the New York of the young families living on the Upper West Side, or the New York of the Hasidic Jews who live inside a small, strictly demarcated square of Brooklyn, or the New York of whomever it is that actually lives in those trendy TriBeCa lofts. The only New York we can know is the one around us in the East Sixties, and even here, we are really engaged in a kind of spectator sport, because we are not rooted here. The best we can hope for as regards the rest of Manhattan – China Town, Little Italy, Chelsea, Lower East and Lower West etc etc – is that we might occasionally get a fleeting glimpse of what people do for amusement on a Sunday morning, what they eat, what kinds of dogs they own.
I suppose you can’t know all of New York any more than you can know any big city. And in any case, cities change and people change, and our decisions about where to live, what interests us and makes us happy at any point in time, are always being made at the tangled intersection of these two sets of changes.
Onwards – though perhaps not with Norwegian Airlines.
P.S. As I put this post to bed, there are strange noises coming from the sitting room, a kind of stomping interspersed with clapping which can only mean one thing: L1 is practising his line dancing. He was forced to go to the Arthur Murray Studio without me today, owing to my extreme incapacitation. Apparently, dancing with our (young, talented and graceful) dance teacher is a good deal easier than dancing with me. Who’d have guessed?
I was sad not to be able to dance today. But there were compensations, namely series three, episodes one, two and three, in which Grace and Frankie embark on a new business venture, and Grace wears three more beautiful sweaters and cashmere robe. Ahhhh.