09 March 2006

New York City Girl

Young and pretty, New York City Girl
Twenty-five, thirty-five
Hello, baby! New York City Girl

Odyssey, "Native New Yorker"

Mr. Gordo and I have just spent a fabulous mini-break in New York City, a well-deserved break from the manic worklife of Cold City for me, and a nice part of my Big Eastern City Tourbillon-Tour 2006, which has continued here in Montreal, which is where I am writing from.

You grew up ridin' the subways, running with people
Up in Harlem, down on Broadway

New York City, in the words of RuPaul, remains a Big, Fat, Greasy 'Ho, unique in the constellation of mildly disinteresting North American cities. Yes, of course, there are a handful of truly idiosyncratic cities here, a short personal list of which would include Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and of course San Francisco, which competes most forcefully with New York for the title of most distinctive urban community in the USA. By this I mean cities which have specific and recognized mannerisms of life which are unique.

You're no tramp, but you're no lady, talkin' that street talk
You're the heart and soul of New York City

However, in the global imagination of the urban, New York City is one of the most prominent. And it is a city to which I have returned, again and again, over the years, and in some ways I know quite well, but am not a part of. On my recent trips to New York, I have increasingly been struck by a sense of déjà vu that speaks to this sense of knowing, and being known, within an urban community, which is both global and incredibly personal.

And, whoa, where did all those yesterdays go
When you still believed love could really be like a Broadway show
You were the star, when did it close?

I am reminded of Joan Didion's reminiscences on her first trip to New York City in the fifties. One of the reasons I have been drawn to Didion's work is the sense in which she is both an insider and outsider in her reportage on California, a critical position I feel I share, and one seemingly determined by Didion's leaving of California, following ambition, to pursue a career as a writer in New York City. Didion remarks that to be Californian and to "go back East" is to approach, with trepidation, excitement, and disdain, the national "centre" which is present and absent in a specifically Californian geography of self-knowledge. In other words, Californian identity is both unique from and in tension with the national identity established by the East, in media, cultural, political, and social spheres. I would add to this the material as well, for outside of San Francisco, no western city approaches our understanding of the Eastern urban, and so the actual cartography and physical form of the imaginary city is determined by the historically specific and regional distinctiveness of the East (which of course is why Los Angeles is the avatar of the western "city," for its special approach to the realities of western space, which is to say, space itself).

There you are lost in the shadows, searchin' for someone
To set you free from New York City

Like Didion, I left home at tender age to venture East following ambition, in my case to begin my studies at Presitgious Eastern U. (PU). The "East" was for me distinctly exotic and strange, from the weather to the people to the attitudes. I arrived in August early to attend a pre-college program for students of colour (called then minority students) wearing a sweater and wool slacks. After all, the East was cold, right? After some hours of uncomfortable chaffing, I was able to gain a new perspective on humidity.

The overnight flight, with a change in Chicago, was my first trip alone, and upon arriving, fearful of Eastern crime and degeneracy, made my way to PU on a rather long bus ride with my eyes open wide, past the almost tropical foliage, the atmospheric fecundity of an Eastern summer, the rusted and destroyed infrastructure, the pollution and crowds, completely unexpected. Another almost instant shock was Eastern ethnicity, with its Jews, Poles, Italians, Russians, mixed in with Black people and Caribbean Latinos, and (at the time) a noticeable paucity of Asian Americans and Chicanos. If the West can be broadly understood as racial, in many ways the East is ethnic. Part of this is that I didn't really know white people (we called them Anglos) nor Black people in my little haimish barrio. But another was the strength of distinctiveness of people predicated on their "tribe."

PU of course was its own shock of the new. The gilded lilies of the Anglo ruling class. Black Americans with their specific cultural sensibility. Religious and Cultural Jewry. Dining hall food. Homesickness and alienation and dislocation and vertigo and eventually (following the freshman "fifty," coming out, and the slow closing of home based in a rejection of both education and sexuality), equilibrium.

You should know the score by now
You're a native New Yorker

Now, of course, I have lived in the East on and off for twenty years, so the special idiosyncracies of the places here strike me less forcefully, if at all (although my innate western disdain, so brilliantly captured by Didion, remains: the East shall always be in some ways a reservoir of decrepitude for my western eyes). But sometimes, if I listen and use my senses carefully, I can recapture my original sense of wonder at the differences between East and West: coming upon the Hudson river in summer, the smell of the water heavy and rich; The roar of the deciduous forest in summertime, alive with insects; the sugar-like quality of fresh snow, and the muffled quiet and brightness on a snowy street in wintertime.

No one opens the door
For a native New Yorker

As I walk the streets of New York now, I am that person back then, an impressionable 17-year old emerging from Astor Place in October 1986, with a crew of PU undergrads shopping for my first winter coat at Antique Boutique. I am the later person, more familiar but still intimidated, changing trains under Times Square at midnight, moving through African percussion and crowds of people. I am the Banjee Girl, with a tough face and a walkman. I am the miserable grad student, broke and struggling. The young professional flush with cash. Now, the slightly older professional with not so much cash, but a lot of memories.

You should know the score by now
You're a native New Yorker

These versions of myself have become more acutely apparent to me now that my connections to this place are more distant and attenuated in Cold City. As I walk the streets and familiar by-ways and short cuts, I think: here is where I first emerged from a New York subway, here is where I used to buy shampoo, here is where I used to eat quite a lot (now closed), here is where I would take coffee and smoke while composing endless postcards (now posh), here is where so-and-so used to live (long gone), here is where I bought my first woolen winter coat (lost so long ago), here is where AG and I had a big blowout following too much listless time together in France (on the C train, to a delighted audience), here is where I experienced shame, exultation, friendship, disappointment, passion, drunkeness, brokeness, and a host of other human emotions and conditions. These memories now become overlaid with the physical and sensual embodiments of the person I was then and am now, in what can only be described as a strange schizophrenia of vision.

Like Calvino's Invisible Cities, all the cities (and selves in that city) that ever were or will ever be lie on top of one another, in thin and thick layers. Calvino's metaphor is one captured briefly in an essay by Freud that uses Rome as an example of the unconscious, and New York, in its energy and entropic decay, may indeed be the Rome of the American Goliath, collapsing into itself as new cities and selves emerge from the detritus.

This is what it means to have a history in a place not one's own. A Woman With a Past.

New York for me will always be Duane Reade shopping bags, the odour of Pine Sol in the subways, the heat of the summer, fabulous hair products, thirty dollar magazines, overpriced and disappointing restaurants, taxi cabs, the lights of the bridges across the East River, Banjee girls, Dominican boys, Black hairstyles, door-knocker earrings, Hasidim wigs, bagels and bialys, vogueing on the piers, Veselka at four in the morning, the velvet rope, Park Avenue matrons with some big hair, delivery from D'Agostino's, the Ramble in slacks and a sweater set, the Brooklyn Promenade, Fulton Street Mall, Junior's, Grand Central, 125th Street, Bridge and Tunnel, junkies, Guidos, quiet days at the Met, Chelsea galleries, making the scene, dropping out of the scene, Laguardia, Kennedy, Newark, the endless comings and goings, the breath of the City.

1 comment:

La Lecturess said...

I relate to this in so many ways, but particularly the east coast/west coast shock in things both cultural & climatic. My freshman year of college it was 98 degrees with 98 percent humidity when I moved in in August. That winter there was snow on the ground continuously from December until mid-March. I called my mother at some point during that very long first year and asked, "WHY do people LIVE here?"

I got poked fun at for saying "rad" and "pop." I learned probably two dozen Yiddishisms in my first month.

(But--I've now lived in one or the other of the same two eastern states for 13 years.)