(Image from Jello Kitty)
I just got back from a trip to New York to meet my newest niece. The baby was adorable, the new parents were smitten with her, and New York was itself - full of people, noise, smells (it was summer), and the buzzing energy it's always had. New York is one of the few places in my life that I've been able to return to again and again and gotten to know deeply over time. I've seen a lot of different sides of it and seen its changes over the years.
I first visited the city in the early 60s with my grandmother and saw it as a fairy-tale place of privilege. The ladies in that world all wore minks and pearls. We whisked around in cavernous Checker cabs, stayed in my Aunt's Park Avenue apartment, went to see Mary Martin fly over our heads in Peter Pan on Broadway, and had hot chocolate at (the now sadly closed) Rumpelmayer's in the Saint Moritz hotel.
The next era I remember was the mid/late 70s, when I was in college. New York was getting scuzzier by then, or more precisely, the scuzziness of it was spreading beyond the areas it was supposed to stay in. And I was hanging around places that my grandmother, in her mink and pearls, would never have dreamed of going. Like the subway, which at that time, was unairconditioned, wildly graffitied, stinking of urine, and full of hoi poloi. Oooh, the danger and excitement of breaking away from your family: of going to downtown galleries and clubs; of sleeping on someone else's dorm-room floor; of not taking cabs! I was young, intellectual, and living on the edge (when I wasn't safely ensconced in my Ivy-League college, that is).
Oh my darlings, then came the disco days! I had left the Ivy League, with it's inscrutable (to me anyway) preppies and its revolting winters, far behind. I moved to San Francisco and in short order fell in love with a sitar-playing poet, stopped being an intellectual (because he was more talented than me, or at least that's what he told me), started wearing peasant skirts, got my heart broken, stopped wearing peasant skirts, and became a fag hag. Somehow one summer, we hags and fags all went East and met up in Manhattan at (shall the circle be unbroken?) someone's father's Park Avenue apartment. Not a pearl, fur, or pump in sight though. I remember I wore a black slit-leg skirt and a gauzy, almost-but-not-quite-see-through top. I looked gorgeous, as we all did. It was our hobby, our defense, our gang insignia, and it was the 80s so we all (boys and girls) had to look like Brian Ferry's back-up singers. Soon Daddy's limo came to get us. Poppers came out and were sniffed. We pulled up to Studio 54 and, because we came in a limo, the bouncer pulled aside the velvet rope and let us in. It was the absolute height of Studio 54's fame. We were all desperately excited about who we might see, but no one famous was there. My friends told me about all the famous people they had seen on other nights - Mick, Bianca, Liza, Andy - but not that night. I did, however, manage to get propositioned for a three way, but even though I said no (they weren't that cute), I remember the fact of it fondly.
Then, in the late 80s, I moved to New York and went to grad school on the upper west side. It was the height of the crack wars. I lived right across the street from Morningside park and I never stepped foot in once. Two crack-dealing gangs were warring over it and we were always hearing gunfire from the shadowy depths below the leaf canopy. In the 80s New York, every time I went outside I had to harden my heart against panhandlers. Walking a few blocks down Broadway to get groceries was an exercise in psychological warfare - them trying to get, and me trying to limit what I gave because we were broke. But there were museums (Yes I am paying just one penny to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thank you!), free festivals, free music, good street food, and such amazing things - some incredibly surreal - to take in just walking through the city. One cold winter night walking home on Broadway, we saw a gleaming black grand piano on the sidewalk. No one was paying any attention to it. It was as if it had just popped out of Lincoln Center at the intermission to get a breath of fresh air or catch a smoke.
Now the panhandlers, bums, and squeegee men are gone. (Where did they go? Are they all in jail? Or in New Jersey?) Morningside Park is being used by all and sundry as a park(!). Washington Square Park isn't full of ganja dealers, there's a Target and an Applebee's in the Bronx, and the only meat in the Meat-Packing district is the expensive organic, grass-fed kind the waiter serves you on a plate. Weird, amazing, and a little bit sad. But that's just pointless nostalgia. Because, really, all those parts of New York - the ladies in mink, the bums in rags, the middle-class families scraping by, the drugs, the dirt, the art, the pretty boys and girls, the excitement - are still there, just in different shapes, different places. And unlike London or Paris, the geographical facts of New York, the huge population crammed within its tiny boundaries, makes it a place where all those parts of the city get shoved, willy nilly, together. It makes for friction, unease, exhaustion, and unexpected beauty and inspiration. It's what made me go there, it's what made me want to stay, it's what made me leave.
God I'm glad to be home in a calm quiet city where I don't have to pay more than the monthly mortgage on my house to rent a cramped one-bedroom apartment. God I want to go back.