Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ode to New York

Did you ever have a really important date come along that you just completely forgot about? Mom’s birthday, perhaps, or her seven-year-sober celebration? Well, don’t feel bad. We all do it. Those of us with memories that make an Alzheimer’s patient look like a spelling bee finalist, that is. I, in fact, did it last Friday. You would think that the fact that this particular date-stamp in my life happens to fall on a national holiday would aid me in my quest for memorial. You would be wrong, though, and I’ll forgive you this time because unless you know me personally, you are not yet familiar with the charming Swiss-cheese nature of my memory, as well as my many other quirks.

So what date did I completely forget about? Fortunately, it’s not important to anyone but me. No one got upset because I didn’t buy a Baskin Robbins ice cream cake like I was supposed to that time when I did forget my mom’s birthday (sorry about that again, Mom… I subsequently had your ejection-from-the-womb date tattooed into my arm so that would never happen again… both because I love you and because Dad’s anger at his dimwit daughter was terrible to behold).

On July 4, 2006, I moved to New York City.

Wow, all that buildup and that’s it? That’s the date you forgot after assigning it completely arbitrary importance? Could you, Lady Snark, possibly get any more pretentious and self-involved? Yes, yes, and, probably, yes. Human arrogance, particularly my own, knows no bounds.

It’s even less impressive than it sounds, because I only stayed until November. Then I left, ostensibly for good. I returned the following February. And I’ve been here ever since, tossing aside my nomadic existence for a life of stability, structure, and approximately eight million subway rides. So it wasn’t even an unbroken two years. Still, when you reunite with your extremely volatile lover who you hate at least half the time and who can’t even seem to remember your name but who you can’t seem to live without anyway, you don’t count those icky three months when you were apart.

I don’t, at least. And neither should you.

So yes: NYC and me, 2 year anniversary. That could almost be the start of a really annoying pop song.

In that time, I have learned to appreciate some of the finer things in life: the merits of the Subway Rat versus the Apartment Mouse; the positive energy that only comes from giving all of one’s cash to a homeless person lest they hurl what you have to hope are masticated bits of a Ho-Ho at you; the haunting, beautiful sound of an approaching train and the attendant high or low that determines the course of your remaining day, which is based on whether or not it’s the train you need; the pleasure of knowing that your apartment costs more, per square foot, than the Taj Mahal. I have also learned some important bits of “street wisdom: how to tell if a sidewalk-vendor gyro contains the special ingredients that are going to make you desperately ill; how to go home drunker than any human should ever be without getting mugged or shot; why it’s a good idea to avoid getting in the middle of drug altercations; the complete and utter recklessness of getting on the subway without a distracting form of entertainment, such as a book, an iPod, or a recreational substance.

But the most important thing I have learned is that people here are just like people everywhere else: mostly nice, some mental problems. Yes, perhaps we New Yorkers have a few extra degrees of spice in our saucy, but that’s just the outer shell; that’s what we want you to see. Underneath, we’re just as vulnerable, afraid, and anxious as anyone else. More, actually, seeing as there is a very severe “lack of personal space” issue in this city, which tends to make certain people rather cranky. Mainly the ones that carry guns.

Getting back to the whole New-York-as-lover thing, seriously, you’ve never met such a player in your life. Sexless, ageless, faceless (unless you consider the face of Lady Liberty to be the face of New York, which, personally, I don’t—she needs to work on her “haughty face” a bit more, and being a statue, her progress on this front is prohibitively slow), you might think New York wouldn’t get much play. You’d be wrong again, however. It turns out that having no discernible body (being, as it is, a city) gives one an air of mystery, of power, of allure that regular human players can only aspire to.

I know what I’m talking about here. I fell for New York when I was just a wee lass, more of a Little Snark than a Lady Snark. I had never even been here. I lived in California (a place to which, strangely, many New Yorkers aspire to move). I had no family connections nor any apparent link to this place that has managed to tie me down for more than a year now. All I knew was that I wanted to live here. I wanted to be one of the impossibly cool people strolling down Fifth Avenue in the morning, looking beautiful and important.

As it was conceived, so it was done. Sort of. My fantasies of living here, shockingly, did not turn out to exactly be on speaking terms with reality. New York’s draw lies mainly in its possibilities. Everyone wants to come here, and mostly everyone wants that because they have an idea in their mind about instantly becoming famous one way or another—writing, singing, politics, stripping. The problem is that a good 99% of the people who entertain these delusions are not in any way equipped to, I don’t know, make them happen.

Thus: New York is tough. It might be bustling, important, in demand, and, for lack of a better term, “glittery” but it is not what you might call a grandmotherly, welcoming place. It’s more of a “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” place. It is also very often a boring place, unless you happen to have scads of money. You may have been lusting after New York since you were eligible for recess and smiley face stickers, but that does not mean that New York was lusting for you in return. New York doesn’t have a clue who you are, even if you live here. It seems insulting, but if you had 8.2 million lovers to keep track of, you’d struggle a bit on the name-recall thing too.

I imagine God has this problem, on a somewhat larger scale.

So over time, a healthy relationship with New York City runs something like this:

Phase One: Lust. Undying, devotional lust. I’d do anything to have you kind of lust. This is what gets you to the city in the first place. As discussed, New York does not return this sentiment in any way, shape, or form. It’s entire response to your adolescent dedication is, and I quote, “OK.”

Phase Two: Greed. Upon arrival, everything seems possible. Exciting. New. The average infatuated new city-dweller suddenly envisions all of his or her dreams coming true, and begins to visualize the ensuing power, money, and attractive naked friends of the opposite sex. If you ever get a chance to actually watch this happen, it’s well worth a few minutes of your time. It’s especially entertaining to see the pupils of their eyes contract into tiny dollar signs. You can’t blame them, though. There’s something about this city that makes you want to gobble it up, which in fact brings us to…

Phase Three: Gluttony. Here’s what you need to know about this city. It has a lot of food. And a lot of it is very good. Just as much of it is very bad. During Phase Three, the newly minted New Yorker is probably dead broke and trying to scrape a bohemian living “to support his art” working as a waiter in a high class Manhattan restaurant. What does this mean? It means that he is constantly around very good food, and all he can afford is very bad food. Thank God the owner gets a tax deduction for those staff meals, huh?

Phase Four: Envy. Suddenly, everyone seems to have a better deal than you. All your friends start succeeding. Your roommate brings home a gorgeous new boyfriend, and you can’t help but be incredibly jealous even if you are a straight male. This is the definite stage of disillusionment, for most New Yorkers. If you happen to come across someone who is clearly in this stage, be nice to them. For your own sake as well as theirs. Something about having all your dreams smash into little pieces around your head has a tendency to make a person edgy.

Phase Five: Sloth. This is the inevitable, and necessary, step to recovery. This is the part where you tell New York to fuck off, you don’t care about any of it anymore. New York’s response to this is, and I quote, “OK.” There’s a lot of misery in this phase. Lots of drinking beer and eating chips and staring at the TV and contemplating how you could have been so colossally, criminally stupid and wondering if you have yet hit the perfect storm of sufficient cash and lack of pride that will allow you to get your sorry butt on a Greyhound and go crying home to Mom and Dad, who did warn you against this great adventure to begin with. “You’ll end up a broke, sad bum” was their exact warning and damn, it sucks when our parents are right.

Phase Six: Wrath. Lots of people don’t make it to this stage. The Sloth Phase is very powerful. Live with it long enough, though, and it begins to crystallize into a powerful rage. “I’m better than this! I didn’t leave my family, friends, and everything I knew just to be a bum on the couch! I could have done that back home!” is the common phrase. “Damn it, New York, I’ll show you yet! I’ll be more successful than you could’ve ever imagined! I’ll make you remember my name!” See if you can guess New York’s response to this.

Phase Seven: Pride. Ah, pride. Assuming the anger described in phase six spurs you to action instead of just hanging out in your apartment like an impotent bully, you can usually look forward to a carefully measured dollop of success. This happens only after you adjust your expectations of what your life here should consist of. When you trade in the gorgeous Soho loft fantasy for your plain, no-frills, apathetic-landlord digs. When you let go of the idea that triumph should come without any sort of work on your part and also be accompanied by trumpets and front-page articles featuring your face.

When you do this, there’ll be a night when you see New York’s essence pass by you on the street (usually in the form of white, toxic smoke billowing prettily up from a subway grating). And you will smile shyly, wave at this ethereal lover/place for which you have turned your entire life upside down and gotten no love in return. And an amazing thing will happen. New York will look at you, give you the cool head-nod… and smile back.

It seems like a small reward for your months of toil. But that cool head-nod means that you’re in. You’ve made it, for whatever it’s worth. It might not be much, but it’s enough, against all reason, to make you content.

After all, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

And it might even smell better.