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The town you love to hate
New York, of course
You read and hear a lot about New York City in a lifetime. Too much, probably. It’s no wonder people in the rest of America regularly get sick and tired of it. Not to mention visiting New York and having things go awry. I’ve heard many stories of visitors’ bad experiences in New York. Maybe you had one. I, who was a citizen of Manhattan for thirty-five years, am well aware of the high antipathy some people have toward the city. It doesn’t help that New Yorkers are often self-satisfied and smug. Do you recall the Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover?
It appeared forty-five years ago, and it’s still on the mark. People in the vast United States are resentful of New York thinking it’s the only place on earth.
I don’t think a song like “New York, New York” does the city any favors, either. It’s become, unfortunately, an anthem. It’s a braggy tune, bellowing out the city’s name again and again and again as if that’s enough reason to make you love it. Even I want to say to Frank or Liza, “Please, just shut up.”
Yes, it’s often brusque and rude and downright hostile. You get thrown to the mat almost daily it seems. It’s a hard place to live. How many times have I just wanted to walk out on it for good?
I don’t share their feelings, though, the NYC-haters. That should be clear when you begin a piece by saying that you understand how people can hate New York. That’s really a set-up for: nevertheless. But I’m not here to convert you to be a fan of New York if you aren’t. When I was younger, I tried that. It doesn’t work. Besides, what more presumptuous occupation is there than missionary?
Yet. I love the city, and I always will.
Well, here’s one answer.
It’s possible to knock on an apartment door—as I have—to be opened by an older woman who tells you to come right in. On the walls of her apartment you see posters of Broadway shows from the 1950s—Damn Yankees, The Pajama Game, Guys and Dolls, Kismet. The apartment itself seems out of the 1950s, decorated with furniture and knickknacks from that era. You learn that this woman was an actor in some of those shows. No, she didn’t have the lead, but she was part of the chorus, she was an understudy, she was one of the girls in a big dance number.
She came from—where was it?—Spokane when she was a young woman, because she wanted to be on Broadway. And she did appear on Broadway. Maybe her star only shone briefly, and not as brightly as she had wished, but shine it did, and she has the posters to prove it. Yes, that’s her name in small print toward the bottom with seven or eight others. And look, here’s the Playbill where you can actually see her picture, second from the last. Yes, that’s really her! It surely took courage for her to leave her home town and come to New York by herself so many years ago, so young. But come she did. No, she never married. Yes, she’s alone now. And that’s hard sometimes.
But, you know, she did it. And New York provided her with that chance. No other city could have. Not with that much possibility.
I left her apartment that day, and I thought, I wonder how many others, men and women like her, came to the city from Anywhere, USA and took their chances? Who bet it all on black.
I’m closing this with a line from E.B. White. He knew New York as well as anyone ever has:
“No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”