A Color Choice For NYC’s Cast of Characters
When I first arrived in New York, it was not the city I remembered. Or, more accurately, it was not the city I thought I remembered. Throughout my childhood NYC was fed to me from media as if intravenously, and I longed for its light, lust and art as though it were in my blood, pumping my very own heart. But I quickly learned, once physically absorbed into the metropolis: this is no longer that tapestry-like weave of aristocrats and bums, businessmen and philosophers. Where are the premadonnas, the beatniks, punks, Millionares? As I searched the streets, clubs and cafes for the characters I thought I knew, I came to the painful realization that they had packed up, left or died.
In their place was an entire new cast who I came to know over the course of my stay:
- Dime-a-dozen investors & bankers, always boasting unfounded arrogance and strewn with tacky naked chicks, often canoodling with their cousins, the
- Dime-a-dozen & brokers – negotiation is their prized skill, but what truly wows us is how quickly they can speed-walk through the city
- Clueless Europeans – they strut around SoHo and are stuck in the 1990s
- Other Foreigners, wealthy – I was never privileged enough to actually encounter these folks
- Other Foreigners, not wealthy – this crowd is always increasing in numbers and bursting from their hoods’ seams
- Models & Actors – they are both everywhere and nowhere; they are all too-often lost in a sea of increasingly well-groomed and attractive commoners
- Wannabe Models & Actors – most of them serve us cocktails and eggs and sometimes with a sneer
- Delusional, Pampered Students – paid for by their parents and accepted to prestigious universities in part because of their money; failing to see this equation, they think too highly of their intellect
- “Hipsters” – young, tragically hip, insecure and in painful denial of their shallowness
- Graceless Socialites – we don’t see them often but we learn about their antics in the NY Post
- Ever-expanding Upper East Side Suburbites – once enclosed by 5th and Park, stretching only from the upper 50s to low 70s, the first urban suburb is now bloated to 1st Ave and the upper 80s, teeming with the same rich white folks, nannies and self-entitled prep school children addicted to technology and highly out of touch with nature; and, due to higher costs of downtown living, young 20-something-professionals
- New Age Suburbites – in attempt to distinguish themselves from their eastern counterparts, many families settle in the Upper West Side and dress in decidedly inauthentic bohemian clothing and spend more for labeled organic foods
- “Cool” Families – they live downtown, try to teach their kids the evils of materialistic behavior but still pay for everything, and often engage in activities that bring them closer to nature, such as making homemade bread or growing vegetables on their rooftop
- Bums and Addicts – still here, but more verbally aggressive and less likely to steal; some learn skill sets and try to wow us by rolling and diving down subway cars or singing a jingle, but most expect contributions for their laziness
- The Unfortunates – these people used to populate the majority of Manhattan land but due to rising costs of living, their projects have been reduced in size and shoved to the corners and edges of the island (one conjectures if they will cease to exist on the island completely)
- Too Cool for Manhattan – some people technically could afford to live in Manhattan but choose to reside in a Brooklyn brownstone to be “different”; some genuinely value the quiet and peace in this more spacious borough
- Feigned Too Cool for Manhattan – these folks try to blend into the above crowd, but the fact is: they can’t afford Manhattan rent
- The Leftovers – the uncommon college kids with authentic talent and debt up their ass; a washed-up photographer hiding out in the East Village banking on rent control; the aging but still zesty writers who survived the 70s and are still championing diversity, (etc)
- The Same Fierce Old Ladies – thankfully some things never change
Give or take, these are the people I came to know in New York in the early 21st century, and they have forever changed its landscape. Or, perhaps the land and its habituating people change in unison, molding one another as two plates of stone grinding and chipping away at each other’s surface. I think I use such destructive language because my nostalgic self is still attached to the NYC I read about in books and saw in movies as a child, and although the landscape has positively morphed into a more safe and secure environment, I find that has come with a cost. While the streets might be smoother, the apartments cleaner and more conducive to middle class or upper middle class living, and the area complete with appealing restaurants and boutiques, I can’t help but look at the crowd and wonder: for all the amenities, is life there actually improving?
The mad rush to move into Manhattan that raised its property price tags overall in the latter half of the 20th century also paved the way for a new bourgeois living situation. Buildings and neighborhoods previously only suitable for the ruffian lifestyle of the young and reckless or positively destitute slowly improved in quality and livability at the hand of a large and inevitable housekeeper: the expanding city. A class of people from any middle to upper middle class background found a new refuge in the multitude of new respectable hoods: the Village, Tribeca, Financial District, Nolita, the bloated UES, Morningside Heights – the list could go on for quite a while. When I first arrived in the city I was still under the impression that a safe and affordable apartment was not an option for me; I quickly learned that although rent prices were still multiples of every other U.S. city, they were attainable.
Attainable, but the return at the low-end of the pricing margins is often cramped, somehow awkward and forced environs that prove no more than tolerable, suitable only for workaholics, students, shopaholics or otherwise fairly “busy” folks who don’t spend much time at home. This seemed like a dismal waste of money to me. It also appeared dismal to everyone else in the City – stress pervaded the subway cars, the streets, the cab rides, the delis – to avoid it was to become intoxicated or go numb. Alcohol, drugs, and escapes of all kinds are the peacemakers in an overpopulated few square miles. But this method of controlling one’s sanity was never something I could condone: it always seemed unhealthy and virtually ineffective in the long term, seeing as it could only be an inevitable gateway to any number of additional problems: illness, overdose, overspending, strife, arrest (for illegal drugs), avoidance. Numbness is not happiness. When I had my fill of the complaints of pretty faced pill poppers, I decided to move.
Another revelation I experienced upon moving to NYC was that Brooklyn exists, and it is an interesting place. It was a new and seemingly good alternative to Manhattan living, so I jumped at an opportunity to reduce my rent almost in half and experience a different neighborhood. I confidently immersed myself in the up-and-coming, but still essentially disheveled neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. I would at once transform my statistic: from majority to minority, from low income to moderate. And, of course, I transformed overnight from Manhattanite to Brooklynite. It was a welcomed change, but I admittedly was slightly blinded. Immediately struck by the friendly and personable nature of the landlord and local vendors, I thought we were of a people in direct contrast to the brooding and selfish virus growing in the City. What I was forced to soon realize was that in moving from the UES to Bed-Stuy I was only exchanging one variety of misery for another, moving from the boredom and soullessness of the wealthy and settling amongst a race and class of people coming to terms with its history and still deeply troubled by lingering prejudices.
I finally had to face the fact that home is where the heart is. I moved again, farther out into Bed-Stuy, into a much larger, more modern and spacious abode which I felt could transform into a home. Under a woman who clanked around in her high heels at all odd hours of the day or night, adjacent to the thundering LIRR tracks, and neighboring a clan of constantly repopulating feral cats, no amount of love that I put into my apartment could overcome the sounds and smells of that bizarre and pitiful corner of Bed-Stuy. I had already been forced to admit home is where the heart is; now I was forced to admit that my heart can’t handle the City. As I tried to fantasize about townhouses in the West Village or a loft in SoHo, maybe even a new construction in Tribeca, I realized that no matter how much money I had to spend, there was no “neighborhood” that I would find agreeable. My needs were becoming more and more energetically based, and my energetic boundaries were so completely out of wack, they were simply incapable of managing the waves of vibes coming off of the people, the ghosts, the buildings, the merchandise – off of everything around me in a dense, urban environment. I missed the sun. I missed the earth. I wanted out.
My continual migration throughout the City exposed me to various people and cultures, which was always interesting, but I eventually came to notice something they all shared in common: unhappiness. I came to the City to escape unhappiness, only to find an exponent of unhappiness. Buddhist philosophy taught me that the world around us is a reflection of ourselves, so that was a fairly startling and unpleasant realization, to say the least. So my disappointment after arriving in NYC and encountering its new and strange cast of characters was not truly directed at them; it was not a simple acknowledgement a la Madonna that “New York is dead.” What pained me so was the fact that I, too was dead. It seems bizarre – New York? The Greatest City in the World? The teeming pile of millions of dead? people on a tiny… dead? island.
So I followed the trail of death, to the most dead place I could think of – the desert. In New Mexico, shamanism picked up where Buddhism left off. I learned that New York and New Yorkers aren’t the only dying population. Plants, animals, humans – the Earth, in essence, is dying. Will die. If we continue to live as we currently live. So I learned how to live in New Mexico. Desert ecosystems actually contain immensely diverse and complex systems of life.
After two years in New Mexico, I flew back to my place of origin in New England, catching the final leg of my journey at JFK. My departing plane took off with a sharp turn to the west before turning to head north, which I realized as I noticed the little gray pile of Manhattan out my window. Is that Manhattan? I thought. I had seen it before out of planes but for some reason it looked different. Oh my God, it’s so small. It’s so fucking small! I laughed, staring out the window in a spell of amazement at what looked like an architecture’s model of a city. New Mexico had revolutionized my sense of space and perception.
That strip of gray building blocks in my mind’s eye still makes me laugh, because it’s my higher self – accessed via the eagle eye of a jet plane – reminding me of how trite my fear is. My fear of that grayness. My tendency to idealize has always been as strong as my tendency to generalize, and although I don’t quite picture myself ever living in NYC again, I don’t believe it must come with prerequisite unhappiness. The earth has been mutilated everywhere; the Earth feels her sickness in every cell, as we feel, in every cell. Humanity has never been sicker. And for that, there is a new character in NYC which I failed to notice while I was there. And maybe we need to start back at:
- The Forward-Thinking Humanists – planting rooftop gardens and trying to figure out a way to propel NYC and its people into a sustainable future