New York, for all the chaos and poverty that surround and permeate it, is still, at its center, a magical city—a diamond as big as the Ritz—incalculably seductive to spirits of sufficient sanguinity or innocence or arrogance. There was, to take an example, a certain day in September, not long after the War. The morning sky as one crossed in an open car from Long Island through Brooklyn to Manhattan was the color of lemon. Turning and slowly climbing, the road left the edge of the harbor which it had followed for miles and became an elevated highway, broad and white (though not so broad as it has since become). The highway floated through the slums of Brooklyn, between paralled rows of wooden tenements, nearly at the level of their roof tops, burying the Irish and Italian dock-workers who lived down below in a sunless hell of noise and dirt. But in the open car it was really splendid. The radio played Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart, the leather seats were still damp from the Atlantic morning and through the haze, in the brightening day, one saw the sparkling river and across it the great buildings.
It turned out to be one of those days that drift in the memory, a confirmation of dreams that had been shaped by the movies of childhood, or, as one could not have known at the time, still another refraction of that ancient scene in which Satan, staring proudly at the towers of Pandemonium, sets out to make his desperate war on heaven. At the time, one’s conquest of New York seemed inevitable: less a challenge than a natural right and one never expected to grow old.
It did not take long to learn, however, that behind the glamorous appearance there lived a hard and sullen reality. Money was everything or everything, just beneath its surface, was money. The city was a balance sheet, a monstrously living, endlessly voracious organism of profits and losses. Everything was for sale, including, of course, the people and oneself among them. The buildings and streets, whole neighborhoods with all their inhabitants, were likely to vanish, quite in defiance of one’s preferences, to satisfy some calculation or other that had nothing to do with sentiment. You would leave the city for a month or two and return to find that a revolution or bombardment had taken place: a favorite view had been dismantled and carried away, a particular street, nearly as old as the city itself, that wound like a trench through the stone abutments of the Brooklyn Bridge had disappeared and with it a tenement once shared with a family of Poles who on cold Sunday mornings, would come by to offer a plate of fish, scavanged from the nearby Fulton market. In winter one looked at the snow and rubble and thought of East Berlin.
For Proust it was time that ruined everything, made love and friendship impossible. In Manhattan, if somewhat less so in the other boroughs, it is the pressure to maintain or increase the rate of return on invested capital, a stronger force than the mere passage of years, that wastes the spirit and the neighborhoods. With money one seems to stay young forever. Without it one might as well be dead, or return to the provinces or the surrounding boroughs.
To a stranger, the sums must seem improbable. Fifty thousand a year, quite apart from capital, will keep a family, if not in luxury, at least in reasonable comfort and safety. It is possible to manage on less, perhaps on as little as half as much by living on the West Side, doing without this or that and thinking more or less always about getting by. But to fall below this level is to become not a citizen but a victim of New York, incarcerated with thousands or millions of others in those miles of flats in Queens or Brooklyn where the degree to which you must overhear the neighbors’ television is precisely determined by the landlord’s accountants. In New York there are few respectable or comfortable ways of being poor or even middle class. To be without money in New York is usually to be without honor. The stately bankers, forever raising the ante, seem determined to destroy the very civilization that they feed on. They are making family life in New York impossible. Marriages increasingly become financially hopeless traps from which one barely escapes alive, or they become business partnerships to which children are extrancous. In such circumstances homosexual or other more solitary arrangements become preferable or even obligatory. The new flats in Manhattan are mainly affairs of one or two rooms.
The very rich set the tone and the pace, whether in art, fashions, restaurants, or general deportment. They are the true bishops and judges of the city and for all its triviality their style is often exhilarating. One stands on a cool October evening by the Plaza and understands why, to V. S. Pritchett, the avenues seem to be paved in carpets. Such charm is hard to dismiss, no matter how hazardous it is to pursue, and nearly everyone, no matter what his situation, follows the prevailing fashions until at last they peter out in the basements of Klein’s or Bloomingdale’s. The walls and closets of New York are filled with last year’s paintings and dresses, their indefatigable owners committed wistfully to designers or painters who have been discarded by the rest of the city. The insatiable speculation that prevails in the popular arts and increasingly in the more serious ones makes any choice a risk, a thousand times more likely than not to turn out badly. Especially in painting and the theater, virtuosity has replaced character so that one goes to a theater or a gallery, if one bothers to go at all, armed with skepticism, as if to visit an habitually ailing relative, grown tiresome in his predictable agony.
Anticipating such reactions, the artists themselves have surrounded their works with inverted commas. Each season’s fashionable productions—junk art, op, pop, and so on—express, in one form or another, a self-deprecating snicker or giggle or else they are as cool and other-worldly as fish trapped in ice. The impulse, of course, is defensive: the perennial appeal to an indulgent judge that one didn’t really mean it. But the artists have erected a further defense against criticism. Their works are seldom intended to last beyond a season or two. It’s all a joke and readily disposable, like the city itself. The rich, at any rate, can easily afford it, and if the stuff is a bore, well, that’s part of the joke too. What isn’t?
The substance of the joke is another matter, for the prevailing habit is to repeat, in the form of parody, the intellectual or aesthetic preoccupations that followed the two great wars: Despair, anguish, the conviction of absurdity, the strained frivolity, the impulse toward suicide are now all regurgitated in the form of farce or as a dilute and immunizing mixture of these themes served up as a kind of vaccination against the unavoidably real anguish and despair that rage just outside or under the skin or as close to home as Harlem. One is reminded by the painters and playwrights, the underground movies, the charades of sexuality and rebellion, of the masques of death during the plagues in the middle ages: titillating or reassuring diversions to distract the trapped survivors, making the inevitable disaster seem, for the time being, unreal or negotiable. These antics in New York are signs of panic rather than objects or movements in their own right. They come and go according to swellings or contractions within the afflicted body of the city itself. No one controls them or can accurately predict their arrivals and departures.
In this regard, New York is different from Winnipeg or Warsaw or Tokyo perhaps only in degree. New York is, or thinks it is, the center where these styles begin or to which they come for their final certification. It is the market-place of market-places. For better or worse, it is the city of the future. That the jungles of Africa and Asia should some day be cut down and given over to broad avenues and pleasant squares, decent cafes, and calm suburbs is inconceivable. That these jungles, if they survive at all, will soon turn into a gigantic Bronx, from which the brighter youth emerge intoning tags from Camus and Kafka seems inevitable. It is a future which one offers the world with great diffidence.
Even so, New York regards the world outside patronizingly, as if it were not yet quite of age, or as a suburb, eventually to be enclosed within the metropolis, just as Boston and Washington have recently been consumed and transformed into its northern and southern appendages. Nothing—not the forbidden city of Peking or even the craters of the moon—seems safe from this grotesque appetite. In desperate fantasy one thinks, at times, of escaping. From childhood there remains a faint memory, nearly lost, of a stream in a Northern forest: a stone dam, a trickling sluice, a hut of some sort where the dam-keeper lives. The loon cries over a lake, the pines stretch endlessly, black against the sky. And then one thinks of The New York Times on Sunday, five pounds of newsprint, a million-and-a-half copies a week. How many miles of forest, birds flung from their nests, the work of honey bees wasted, does our Sunday paper, thrown aside between breakfast and lunch, consume?
Most likely there is no escaping New York, either for oneself, or for the clever young men who survive its slums and come downtown to make their fortunes, or who come here from the universities of Great Britain or the villages of Africa or from the other American cities: who come here, in any event, because for certain combinations of talents and energies no other place seems possible or worthy of their ambitions. It is a kind of Darwinian joke or nightmare, this elaborately specialized environment which has selected out for survival a species whose greatest wisdom is that survival here seems not quite to be worth it; and which may now, as the wells and reservoirs dry up and the air becomes poisonous to breathe, be about to discover that for all its arrogance New York may not be the ultimate place after all, that no matter what its wealth and power the essential conditions of life may be quite beyond its means.
There is a newer road which now leads from the pleasant resorts of Eastern Long Island into the city, a highway eight lanes wide over which one speeds through the city’s brutal outskirts in a hermetic trance, interrupted from time to time by streams of headlights, incongruously glowing in the daylight. These are cars of mourners following the hearses that come out of the city each morning to the immense new graveyards that ring New York, perhaps thirty or forty miles from the center. There is no time on this road for stately travel. The hearses race along, sometimes two or even three abreast, at the speed of the other traffic or faster, past the roaring trucks and the lines of casual travelers. One watches and wonders how often, in this frightful race, a car of mourners, falling behind, becomes detached from the proper object of its grief and follows a stranger to his grave. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. You die here as you live, more or less irrelevantly, and you grow accustomed to losing your way.
On one’s own side of the road one looks up to see, just ahead, a truck filled with an engagingly colored cargo. Passing it, one discovers that the truck is on its way back to the city with the wilted decorations of last week’s funerals, piles of lilies and gladioli, ribbons and baskets, messages of condolence still attached. Such parsimony in a place as profligate as this seems odd, and from time to time in the day that follows one wonders about it. New York is a city of many strange appetites and nothing stays in its place for long.
January 6, 1966