That Sexy Bitch

31 Jul

nyc“I am an American, Chicago-born, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” Those aren’t my words, but they could’ve been. That’s the opening of Saul Bellow’s quintessential mid-American novel, The Adventures of Augie March. No one, however, captured Chicago better than Carl Sandburg:

Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders

All those words – Bellow’s and Sandburg’s were written years before I was born. But they were mere myths as I grew up in that city. Hog Butcher for the World? The Stockyards of Sinclair Lewis’ The Jungle closed in the 1950s. It may once have been a player with railroads, but in my youth Chicago was (and still is) more of an airplane hub. Most of the gritty, blue collar element lived on the South and West sides. I was up North, living in a neighborhood undergoing gentrification before that word was in vogue. I went to a private school, as did almost all of my friends.

When I told my mom I wanted to go to NYU she pointed out that it didn’t have a real campus. “New York will be my campus,” I said. At least that’s how we both remember it. Maybe it happened, maybe not. Like so much else, it has become a myth like that freight handling, big-shouldered Chicago. And like all the myths we hear and read about New York.

I’ve written on this before. There’s a tendency amongst some New Yorkers to always live in the past. We bemoan the great old bars and stores that are closed to make way for a Duane Reade or Citibank. The older I get, the more I bemoan, the more I live in the past. I never saw the Ramones play, but I still miss that bygone era of the late-1970s/early-1980s. I want to eat at an automat. Drink at a speakeasy with a fast talking Dorothy Parker type. Catch games at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets. I want to live in the black-and-white of yesteryear.

Nah, I probably don’t. No Internet, no cell phones, no cash machines. How would I deal with the crime? I’d rather watch Mad Men than live amongst them. It’d be nice to visit, but the me of Now could never live fully back Then.

There was a study done recently that stated that New York is the unhappiest metropolitan area with a population greater than a million. Pittsburgh was second. Detroit fifth. We are less happy than Detroit. The Detroit that is going to sell their art to get out of bankruptcy. Buffalo is ninth. New York has the Giants, Buffalo has the Bills. How is Buffalo happier than New York? (Oh, right, the Jets.)

So, we are unhappy? So what? What is happiness anyway?

Of course that’s what a bitter, malcontented, misanthropic, heart-hardened, cynical, pessimistic, burnt-out, struggling, miserable, discontented, heartbroken, forlorn, woebegone, scorned, scornful, contemptuous, bummed, dejected, moody, melancholic New Yorker would say. He’d say, “Yeah, fuck them and their fucking study, the fucking fucks.” He may add a fuggedaboutit just for local color.

But here’s the thing. If you asked me this very moment, right now as I’m writing these words whether I’m happy, I’d say no. I didn’t sleep well last night. I’m 38 years old, and this morning I felt about ten years older. I had a dream last night that I sold one of my new short stories. Then I woke from it and realized it was only a dream, and I thought with middle-of-the-night despondency that time is passing me by. Morning came, and instead of going to the gym I lay in bed and browsed social media. At Starbucks I was in line behind a coterie of Eurotrash who were confused by the coffee size options. My work emails were flooded with rush jobs that were obviously not rush jobs. And then I sat down with my coffee and began writing this without any real idea of where it was going to go. (Yes, I tend to write this blog at my place of business, and no one has yet to give a shit.) I put on the Ramones for inspiration. Someone mentioned the big Red Sox-Athletics trade, and for a moment my mood went from Meh…to Hmmm…, but only because one of my fantasy teams would benefit slightly.

I’ve never trusted Happy People, the people who are always sunshine and rainbows. I don’t believe happiness is a consistent state of being. Instead, happiness, like all emotions, is something that ebbs and flows. I go out to dinner with some good friends and am happy for a couple of hours. I ride the subway home and am not happy at all. I’m at work all day and I am happy for maybe ten minutes out of eight hours. It’s not that I’m miserable for the rest. I just am.

So if someone were to ask me at just about any point during the week whether I were happy, I’d probably say no. That doesn’t mean I’m sad. Sadness is not lacking in happiness. Most days I’m neither happy nor sad. But before you start calling the white coats on me, let me point out that I live in New York, and New York was not made for happy people with their fucking sunshine and rainbows.

***

A few months ago I was out in San Francisco. My last night there I went to this little hole-in-the-wall near my flea bag hotel. It was a dive with a great juke and a pool table. The Warriors-Clippers game was on, and I rooted for the home team with the few locales. Afterwards I heard a woman talking from the other side of the bar. She had this fast paced staccato pattern to her speech, and was loud. There was a hardness in her cadence. I began talking with her and learned I was correct when I originally pegged her for a New Yorker. True, she had moved West a couple years before, but she was a New Yorker born and bred. The Bay Area people have a softer, slower way of speaking. They don’t make every simple sentence into a hard declaration of existence. They all sound like they’ve been hitting the good mellow ganja. New Yorker’s sound like we’re just back from snorting an eight-ball.

I was attracted to this woman. She was attractive, true, but it was the New York in her that completely turned me on. And I realized that why I love New York is because it’s sexy. Oh, it’s not a kind sexy, not an easy lay by any means. New York is a tease, which only makes her more of a sexy bitch. You believe that sooner or later she’s gonna go home with you; that you’re not just friends; that someday she’ll find you as desirable as you find her; that all other cities pale even if they will fuck you after one date, because you know they could never be as good in the sack as that sultry, sexy bitch of New York City.

That’s what New York gives you. It’s not happiness but a tease that happiness is possible, a promise of happiness made by a city that has never been known to keep its promises. It’s the ultimate cocktease, telling you to give it just one more year before you leave/kill yourself, re-sign that lease one more time, stay at the dead end job just a bit longer, don’t delete that OK Cupid account quite yet, just don’t give up because soon…

Are we all so stupid and naïve as to fall for her wily ways? No, we get it. We understand exactly what she’s doing. And we’re totally okay with it. Because in New York, if we get what we want, it’s better than anywhere else. The ceiling for happiness in New York is higher than anywhere else. True, the floor for misery is pretty fucking low as well. But most of us would rather be miserable in New York than somewhere like L.A. where you have to drive five miles just to get a decent turkey sandwich, or Chicago where everyone else seems so fucking happy all the fucking time.

New York was not built for happy people. It was built for ambitious people. New York is rife with ambition. All the artists and businessmen, designers, brokers, actors, writers, entrepreneurs come here to do something they can’t do anywhere else. Their collective ambition is what makes it sexy. And you know what? Most of these people will fail. I’ll probably fail, but I’d rather fail in New York than not have a chance at success in, oh [RANDOMLY PICKS A CITY] let’s say Seattle.

Over the past five years many of my good friends have left New York. I’ve always cynically stated that they just couldn’t cut it in New York. That they gave up. Of course, this was only me projecting my own sense of abandonment onto them. (That at least is what my therapist would say if he hadn’t shot himself last week. Three in two years, I must be doing something right.) New York was not right for them. Most of these people are actually happy people. Happy people shouldn’t come to New York and have their happiness squeezed out of them, leaving them a dry and deadened husk. While I refuse to state I’m happy that my friends are leaving in droves, I understand that their exoduses are good for them.

Part of me wishes I too could leave, that I could be happier somewhere else, that I could live in [AGAIN RANDOMLY PICKS CITIES] Toronto, Portland, Austin, San Diego and not have to…what? Worry about money? Be envious of those who have “made it?” Live in a closet? Ride the goddamn motherfucking subway? Have my hopes dashed by a city that never has and never will acknowledge my existence? Be lonely? Be miserable?

But for many New Yorkers, our misery here is perfectly calibrated. In Toronto or Austin, Portland or San Diego or any other place, our misery would rise because our ambitions would dwindle. We wouldn’t have the tease anymore, the potential soul mate who maybe, just maybe, this time will say “Okay, let’s fuck.” Leaving New York to us is surrender and capitulation, even if staying means ambitions mostly thwarted and desires forever unrealized.   

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