Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Something’s been stabbing at my gut since my return from Mexico that I can’t seem to shake; the disquieting sensation of no longer being one with the city I love and have always called home. If I didn’t know better I’d say I was in mourning, and that’s made this particular entry especially hard to jot down.
Grappling with my emotions is not an entirely new sensation, but then neither is my growing disaffection with what I perceive has happened to New York. I’ve been resisting a nagging sense of estrangement from it for some time, now; the way one tries to ward off a cold. You know the feeling: you shrug off the aches, pains and sniffles as best you can, but if a bug’s persistent enough it can ultimately wear you down no matter how many drugs you drop in your system. All of a sudden it hits you like a brick house and you’re confined to bed fighting feverish chills and the numbing banality of daytime TV. That’s what’s happened in this instance. The sense of detachment and alienation between me and the city that has been gnawing at my toes finally widened its jaws and swallowed me whole.
Call it my F. Scott Fitzgerald moment, aptly reflected in his My Lost City; a piece he wrote in 1932 after climbing to the top of the newly-built Empire State Building. It was upon looking out at the city from its then highest structure that Fitzgerald understood what he called “the crowning error of the city,” the sobering realization “that New York was a city after all and not a universe”, a realization that caused “the shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination [to come] crashing to the ground.”
For reasons I’m at a loss to explain, I waxed nostalgic along those same lines as I gazed out at the city from the window of the plane. Maybe it was the lethargy I still felt from all that downtime under palm trees of the Yucatan, or maybe it was the after-effects of my having lost a bet with Kyoko the night before over a bottle of tequila, and the worm I drank was still alive and turning in my entrails, but for whatever reason my resistance to sullen introspection was ebbing to an all-time low. The landing flight path took us straight up Broadway; but my usual sense of wonderment and pride over that view immediately soured as we neared the southern tip of Manhattan.
I got my first glimpse from the air of the newly-completed Memorial Plaza, and might as well have been gazing upon the face of Medusa. Before I could stop it, a torrent of quicksilver memories of that September morning cut through me like Rio’s straight razor. I felt like a kid who had just tripped and spilled his bag of marbles, and who had to frantically scurry in a vain attempt to somehow catch them all. Only my reflexes weren’t fast enough, so I sat helpless as my Pandora’s Box of memories vomited up thick billowing black clouds of vaporized steel, glass and flesh and splattered them across my mind’s eye. I sat, frozen, a prisoner of my own recollections, and looked on as those plumes of smoke and flame continued to churn, fuelled by jet engines, only to then abruptly collapse in a pan-caking cascade of debris crumbling towards the ground. Finally, my self-defenses kicked-in and dissolved the avalanche of mangled debris into a gentle shower of tears pouring into the pools the footprints of the Towers had become; black granite pools plugged, like dual computer processor chips, into the earth in a vain attempt to help us calibrate and come to terms with what was lost.
If that wasn’t disturbing enough, that somber and unsettling vision immediately collided with another as we continued north, to the cluster-fuck of meandering pedestrians cluttering the Disney-like mall we’ve made of Times Square; a swarming hive of pixies armed with shopping bag wings fluttering under lights so blinding they cowed night itself into submission. Huge digital billboards boosted ads thousands of feet in the air, and mammoth-sized screens bombarded passersby with an endless loop of xenophobic newscasts and promos geared to wearers of disposable income in any currency known to man. Midtown stared up at me like a painted whore plucked from the garish parlor of a border town bordello; hustling harmless thrills to the throngs of faceless, nameless tourists that even we so-called residents have become.
Suddenly it all seemed horribly wrong and hopelessly foreign. I had to shake and remind myself that this wasn’t a storyboard set left over from Blade Runner. This was supposed to be New York, a city I’ve called home since my birth and fell hopelessly in love with soon thereafter, but that now seemed uncomfortably distant and alien, and I was overcome by a momentous sense of loss. Perhaps it was the sharp juxtaposition of those two conflicting images which hit me like a runaway sixteen-wheeler. Maybe my fatigue after the long flight home made me especially susceptible to the vagaries of an ever-changing landscape. Maybe I was finally struck by just how much our obsession with being constantly entertained on one hand and kept safe and secure on the other has ultimately cost us, but whatever it was I sat in my seat on the plane and wondered how the city of eight million people could abruptly go missing.
Well, perhaps not abruptly. As already noted, my F. Scott Fitzgerald moment has been quietly rehearsing inside me for some time. Putting things in perspective is part of what I’m suppose to do for a living, so I understand that New York has always reinvented itself and that it’s skyscrapers, like so many of its features, have perennially come and gone. I know the grid has been erected, dismantled and built up again, generation after generation, as the city inexorably grew. I know that the city the Dutch founded rose as an edifice to commerce, driven by the engines of self-profit, pragmatic accommodation and unbounded imagination. New York rose on the landscape like a modern day Yggdrasil, a great, man-made world tree with deep roots anchored in bedrock and stretching out towards all horizons. Its over-reaching branches formed a thick, protective canopy from whose boughs hung fruits both promised and forbidden in Eden. The city was an open, limitless harbor and idyllic haven to the tallest ships and the greatest dreams. Its towering buildings were cathedrals to the business of dauntless ambition, and its shimmering lure reduced the Atlantic Ocean to a veritable river Jordan; becoming the melting pot and chief port of entry into the Promised Land that was the New World.
The rest of the country didn’t always like or understand the great experiment that was New York, but the best and the brightest followed the yellow brick road that invariably led here, regardless. Who could blame them? Only in the Emerald City could each and every one of them glimpse behind the curtain and dare become who they were. New York became the yardstick of all effort and ambition and the one true measure of success. Here all things were possible, and when fame and fortune was won and lost one could be consoled by the fact that, in New York at least, it could be won yet again if you were worthy. We were the great cauldron, the world’s pressure-cooker, the personified energy and aspiration of an age, the jewel in Lady Liberty’s crown and raison d’etre for an entire nation. Here, in the daunting canyons of New York’s towering skyline, and not in the wilting cornfields of Iowa, was America’s true Field of Dreams.
I’m not sure exactly where and when that changed, but it has and I don’t like it.
Being the fictional dick that I am I know a frame job when I see one, so I have no intention of laying the blame for this sad turn of affairs at the 9/11 doorstep, as if one more orphan of war. Too much bullshit’s been swept under that rug, already. We’ve been force-fed enough lies and misdirection as it is, so I’m not going to add to our collective indigestion. Let’s keep it real and remind ourselves that New York has always been a target because of what it was and what it symbolized. There’s nothing new about envy, hatred and fear, and we’ve always had more than our fair share of enemies; foreign and especially domestic. That kind of animus comes with the territory. We’ve always been brash, even arrogant, albeit sometimes provincial, but we’ve also always been best, and we’ve always defiantly weathered all storms and have emerged bigger, better and badder for all the sticks and stones thrown at us. So let’s cut the crap and admit that the shock of that morning in September wasn’t that the Towers were attacked — both we and they had been attacked before — what we can’t forgive, forget or abide by is that fact that they actually fell. I keep seeing the collapse of those ugly-duckling towers in my mind, a bad dream stuck in an endless cycle of rewind and play, and begrudgingly admit that their falling struck me like the breaking of an inviolate promise; the breach of sacred contract, a betrayal, almost and a shattering demonstration that there was indeed, as Fitzgerald saw seventy years ago, a limit to the city, it’s people and it’s power.
It’s not our innocence that was lost on September 11 —we never had any to lose — but our collective hubris; our peculiar expression of Manifest Destiny and brazen audacity that enabled us to reach up and out and construct towers to the stars. To be painfully honest — always dangerous — I’m not sure we still possess the energy, the audacity and the resolve to rebuild them.
You can say I’m full of shit and I won’t argue, but that don’t make me wrong. I look at the city lately and don’t like what I see. I don’t like its fortress-like mentality, the constant surveillance, the barricades and check points, our bunker mentality and the Doublespeak of the media and our so-called ‘leaders’ trying to convince us that living in constant fear is natural. New York was once the great transformer, the great shape-changer to all within its seemingly endless reach, but the tables have turned and the city has now become the thing that is routinely gutted and flayed. I look at New York these days and see every other outlet strip mall in the country; the same fast food restaurants selling us shit we shouldn’t eat, the same retail chains selling us cheap shit we didn’t make and the same luxury stops selling quality shit most of us can’t afford. We pay lip service to mutual accommodation and diversity, and no one knows or cares about what and who was here before them or can tell you the name of who lives next door. New York has always been a magnet for the clash of outrageous wealth and abject poverty, but there was usually an open conduit between the two that’s now as distant and forgotten now as a decent egg-cream and the Third Avenue L.
I’m not about to pull a Pete Hamill and reminisce on times gone-by. He does it far better than I could, and his memory is longer than mine. But even this native son can see we’ve become a city of transients, a stopover for both the mega-rich whose luxury condos are little more than time-shares to a bite of the Big Apple and for the growing underclass only here holding fill-in gigs en route to being something somewhere else. We’ve become a city of tourists, hipsters, sand-baggers and day-traders profiting on playing small margins and selling each other short. Our one and only product now is bullshit. Everyone wants in on the action, but it’s all done by proxy and remote control, and when no one is accountable someone else is always to blame. No one has enough real skin in the game anymore to give a “Whoop-De-Damn Do” when the cameras aren’t turning. Everyone arrives here now primping for their close-up and their fifteen minutes of fame, and since they know all the answers they dismiss everyone else with the condescending disdain they once reserved for itinerant busboys. They’re not content becoming part of the great melting pot; they’re all self-styled Reggie Jackson’s determined to stir the whole drink. But if they’re that fucking smart I wonder why they had to leave home in the first place.
My snoop’s nose tells me the tragic events of September 11 didn’t start this transformation, but they may well have marked its culmination; the shattering moment when you realize that even the greatest cities can fall down.
That’s the F. Scott moment I had while gazing out an airplane window at the city on my way home from Mexico. I’m not one to cut and run when things get tough, but I’m also not entirely stupid. Next time I’ll book a seat on the aisle and spare myself the grief.