The City I knew too Well: New York, finally

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Museums at night have a special glow about them: when the crowds have filtered out, you understand the pieces better, their relationship to the gallery and even to the city. You get a sense for what a city values, how the art impacts and still speaks to the city.

Like the evening I ran through the Naples Archeological Museum, giving myself two hours in a place I realized—basically the moment I walked in—I’d need closer to twice as long for. The frescoes of Pompeii give a window into Roman life unlike anywhere I’ve ever seen before, and I’m completely spell-bound—sucked in as my head spins from a speed-concoction of caffeine, hunger, and genuine amazement. And when I look out from a balcony on Naples at sundown, the last red light spilling over pink and cream houses that curl up the hills while Vesuvius wavers in the distance, I’m thinking of my first night in New York, at the very start of this unbelievable trip.

Two-or-so months ago, I walked through the top floor of MOMA in a similar state: running through in a hungry, exhausted mania, pressed by only having 90 minutes on that final floor, which I learn too late is the whole reason to get to the MOMA. And while I’ve been to better galleries overall, there’s never been one quite as dense: in one room you’ve got Starry Night, the next, half of Picasso’s greatest. The art is overwhelming, and I’m sucked in thinking I’ve made it (made what? I don’t know, made something). I glance outside and the towers of the Upper West Side glitter back at me. “That’s right, holy shit, I’ve made it to New York.”

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And for the moment, it’s the city I always dreamed it would be. As I wander Midtown after, the passing taxis seem like stars, and my head’s full of them. There’s a pervasive scent of something like perfume in the air, perfume with that warm summer tang of garbage. I’m here.

It took a long time.

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Then came a crazy four days that left me exhausted and, more than anything, confused. And since then it kind of feels like I’ve been going backwards: from England to France to Greece and Italy, Chrysler to the Acropolis, until those four days in New York seem like a vague strange dream. I’ve written these blogs backwards too: of the three OG industrial cities, giants of commerce and art, I went to New York first but only write it now, after Paris and London. Not here.

What am I supposed to say about it? The short story: small-town Canadian boy finally makes it to the city of his dreams, finds out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, but there’s more to it than that. It’s the problem of knowing so much about a place you leave not knowing anything at all. And all that’s left is a rollercoaster of impressions—the exuberance constantly colliding with the depression—that screams at me in my head.

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Let’s try and sort them out.

 

I fell in love with New York halfway across the country from it.

There was this moment, standing on the streets of Chicago, when I decided where I needed to live. I was in Grade 11, at the end of a whirlwind trip that introduced me to the electricity of a city the size of Chicago: I felt the pounding of the pavement in my bones, and with the heat wafting off the glass towers as they extended along Michigan avenue, I felt like my life was opening up for the first time. And I asked myself, “Can this get any better, bigger?” My immediate response was: well of course, New York.

Ever since then, New York has been less a place, and more an idea—this island where anything can happen, the make there make anywhere mentality, where people never stop and the towers are always climbing. When I moved to Vancouver and battled with the disappointment that this gorgeous collection of glass was mostly smoke and mirrors (too small, even from the start), I’d console myself with the impression that I’d make it to New York. That was enough. I read everything there was to read about the place—from novels to NYT pieces to an essay by Joan Didion that’s still the most important I’ve ever read—that sometimes it felt like I’d already lived there, that I knew everything there is to know.

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Jump seven years later and sailing over the city, nothing about my obsessive dreaming could have prepared me for this: towers covering an entire island, an endless knot of concrete and pavement where the rivers aren’t rivers they’re just platforms for the boats and mills, where towers fight for height—some to obscene lengths that look ready to topple any second—while Empire and Chrysler shrug proudly in the middle of the madness. And your brain refuses to believe this isn’t just some playmobile model, because there’s no way a place like this really exists.

So when you know so much about a city you don’t know, seeing it for the first time becomes a constant battle with expectations and reality.

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The city’s darkness was the first thing. I’d subconsciously equated the city that never sleeps with the city of light, but the opposite was closer to true: in the middle of the jungle, the sun disappears, and a darkness takes over and floats just above your head like a cloud. The sun sets in minutes. I stepped out of the subway near Washington Park my first evening, and felt a heaviness that weighed on my neck. Above the street lights, it was only black windows in the middle of grey brick. Where was I?

All around me, students congregating after class spoke in happy chirping tones like it was a different language, models were doing artsy fashion shoots on side blocks leaning against poles, and boutique owners stood in the front window and scanned for appropriate customers. I watched it this electric activity in the middle of what felt like a bubble.

Loneliness sucked the feeling out of my bones, and staring up at the glow of the Empire State only made it more surreal—this place was exactly as I’d pictured it, and nothing like I imagined. Whatever I’d read about New York’s natural loneliness, I guess there’d always been an ingrained fantasy that insisted this wouldn’t happen to me, that my life here would be closer to Girls, or Seinfeld, or Friends. Not wandering alone and exhausted through the dark city.

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I walked the forty blocks to Times Square still half-expecting there’d be the light switch: it was only getting darker, a light rain falling, and I was retreating further into myself. Reaching Times Square sure brought the light, but with it came the tidal waves of tourists, tour-buses, tour shops, and the noise—noise like a computer has crashed and the mainframe’s melting. It’s fireworks, it’s capitalism cubed. And I’m nowhere. My legs were growing numb, my hands melting into the lights. I had this sinking feeling that the longer I stayed in the middle of the whirlpool, the less I was attached to reality—stay here much longer and I would disappear.

Being a solo traveller, I get that sensation from time to time: in particularly crowded areas that are completely removed from local involvement, people cram together in such loud groups that my loneliness is accentuated. I can’t talk to anyone, and soon enough I can’t breath; if I don’t get out fast the depression comes and I wonder why I’m travelling at all. Sensations like these usually come around the middle of big trips (it hit hardest last year in Shanghai), but Times Square is that it hit me right away. It was so big, so ugly. This couldn’t be all that’s left of New York, right?

Of course not: I knew Times Square would be awful, every blog, book, and friend told me this. I couldn’t judge the rest of the city on its most infamous block, that’d be like saying all of Paris is the Champs Elysée—ugh. But the next four days were largely defined by similar feelings of displacement and creeping loneliness.

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I walked everywhere. Over bridges through boroughs across avenue after avenue. I couldn’t believe the city is so big; my brain refused to believe that Midtown could be as large as it is when every block is full of regal brick towers that scratch the sky. I’d get dizzy: each block had the same pyramid tips, the same suited doormen by golden revolving doors, the same army of yellow taxis. Without a connection to these places—without friends looking out from the windows, or an emotional connection to a street-corner (here’s where I kissed them, there’s where I passed out)—I couldn’t distinguish one from the other.

And why am I walking? Why am I travelling in this city at all? Why travel in cities, ever? Outside of the museums and the landmarks (granting that NYC has a lot of both), aren’t cities just places people live—people who aren’t you? I went to the different artistic neighborhoods that had filled my imagination: the East Village, the Lower East Side, Washington Square Park, where pianists play on baby grands and you can see the Empire State through the bow of its white arch. Where are those artists now? Not here, that’s for sure—not with this rent. So when I walk through these streets, it’s not like I’m paying homage to the people that were there before, and walking by them isn’t gonna give me inspiration—they’re houses, and I’m trespassing.

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Particularly difficult was Greenwich Village. Possibly the most important artistic neighborhood in America, ever, it’s the home of Beat, folk, Dylan, hippy counter-culture and stonewall—the weirdest place in the world, the refuge for America’s freaks from everywhere else. And though it was the gay bastion in the early days of gay rights, it was that very factor that ended up killing it: in the nineties, with the wave of AIDS-related deaths affecting the community, all these rent-controlled apartments started getting freed up for richer and richer people, and gentrification began. It was the weirdest, now it’s the richest.

All I saw was baby stores, bakeries, and brunch spots with avocado-heavy menus. I knew it would be like this, but it hurt so much to see it—getting somewhere thirty, forty years too late, when history is near enough you feel it with a keenness that’s almost like nostalgia. I wandered through listening to “Visions of Johanna” on repeat, because the song’s got a 3-AM intensity that always makes me feel like I’m in that apartment with Dylan and Louise as their memories make them mad. I wanted to be there so much it hurt. It left me bitter, because at the end of my wander through the neighborhood said, in its wealth and general straightness: you’re not welcome here.

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Not modern New York, the city where you need to work in finance to live in Manhattan, where all of the people who actually make the city run—the police, nurses, cleaners and teachers—have to come from somewhere else so people with homes in seven other global cities can come on weekends; the city with a completely ruined public transportation system that’s dirty, complicated, and unreliable; the city with approximately ten trees outside of its one real park; the city I didn’t fall in love with at first sight, the way I’d always assumed I would.

There’s something both sad and liberating about losing a dream city like this. From New York to Paris and now (as I write this) Italy, this trip has really been one long practice in idol-smashing, scattering illusions. Now that I’ve let go of this place—because I always assumed I would end up here—I could go anywhere. Who knows where I could go?

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And once I realized I couldn’t live here, I became fascinated by the people who could. Real New Yorkers, taking these awful screaming trains in every day, braving the cold, the rent hikes and the general insanity to live in the global city.

Through the friends I did see, one of whom works in Broadway (go figure), I got a window into what life here is really like. There’s no end to the complaints: “Yeah the subway will suck forever,” “You’re here for when it smells, just wait until it snows so much you can’t leave your house,” “Yeah, you can’t afford anything here”—only to end every conversation with a large shrug and, “Well that’s New York though.” Unanswered: we knew what we were signing up for, or, we grew up here, it’s kind of always been like this.

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It’s an extremely difficult city to live in. “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere,” transforms from being a hopeful promise for becoming the best to, “Oh my God this city is so rough if you survive it you’ll survive anything.” Really, if there’s one thing that connects NYC through its whole history (from the immigrant waves, to the Depression, to Mad Men Annie Hall and Sex and the City) it’s that very difficulty of living here. And there’s a sadness to it, soaking through the whole city, I got a taste of it when I first left the subway in the East Village and it only got sharper the longer I spent here. A city of twenty-five million people you’ll never know. You keep working and working then you die. That sense of sadness and difficulty saturates everything I’ve ever read about the city (especially that Didion essay), I just didn’t notice it till now.

There’s something beautiful about that, that dog-eared determination everyone who lives here has—to say something along the lines of, “yeah it’s better in other places, but it’s not here.” I thought I’d made it there the first time I looked up at the towers in the MOMA; in reality I wasn’t anywhere close to making it. And if there’s something very sad about that, it’s also exhilarating. That complex relationship, that taste on my tongue—it’s the grit, the warm garbage, mixing with that perfume—is what I really remember of New York, once I could chip away my hopes and assumptions about the city and really see it.

It fascinates me, and maybe that fascination will drag me back—maybe next time, for a while (if I can kick it).

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