San Francisco is the city that I love the most, but I’m not sure if I’d love it as much as I do if I hadn’t spent a significant amount of time (around 12 years) living outside of the Bay Area. I’ve often felt that you can’t love something unless you’ve experienced what else the world has to offer. Indeed, I’ve often asked, how can you know which ice cream flavor is your favorite until you’ve tried them all? How can you claim with such conviction that America is the greatest country in the world when you have never owned a passport (that one was targeted towards my conservative readership, if it exists)? How can you even think about settling down with one thing that you claim to love when there is so much more to explore first? Interestingly enough, my ex-girlfriend used a very similar line of logic in explaining her justification for dumping me. Believe me, the irony was not wasted.
With that in mind, this post is my first of several, which will be spaced out over the next several months, discussing the places I have lived outside of San Francisco. And what better place to start than the self-proclaimed best city in the world, New York! Because I’ve technically only lived in the city of San Francisco for about a year and a half cumulatively, New York, where I spent 3 and a half glorious years, takes the cake as the city in which I have spent the largest chunk of my life thus far.
I went to college in New York, at Columbia. I generally don’t tell people this fact, because when you tell somebody that you went to Columbia, they usually either assume that (a) you’re an elitist snob, (b) you’re much more impressive than you actually are, or (c) you’re inferior (if they went to Harvard, Yale, or maybe Princeton). However, in order to fully grasp my New York experience, you need to know that I viewed the city through the bizarre alternate reality prism of Columbia. Indeed, that’s part of the beauty of New York—there are so many different ways to experience it (unlike San Francisco, where you really only have two options—see my previous post).
Columbia was definitely a bubble. Some Columbians liked to claim that they live in Harlem, or even Morningside Heights (which was actually much more dangerous than Harlem), but really, Columbians live in Columbia. When I was there, we spent the bulk of our time in the rectangle defined by Broadway, Amsterdam, 112th and 118th. We drank at the Columbia bars and ate at the Columbia restaurants. I liked to refer to people in the area who were not students as “Townies”, who seemed somewhat out of place among the “educated elitists”.
Nonetheless, right outside of Columbia lay the beautiful city of New York, and I made it a point to venture out into the alluring bright lights as often as I could. I had a number of friends at NYU so I spent a fair amount of time in the Village. It always felt like such a hassle to get all the way down there on the Subway—I never, ever took cabs when I lived in NY—but it was always worth it. Eating falafel at Mamoun’s. Going to the Blue Note with my parents when they were in town to pay for it. And of course, going to Cherry Tavern, my favorite bar in the world, for the “Tijuana Special”: $5 for a shot of cheap tequila and a Tecate in a can. I used to throw an annual party there and to this day I still occasionally get an email from a friend I haven’t seen in forever that says, “I went to Cherry Tavern the other night and thought of you!”
New York seems like such a money-driven, expensive city, but man, we sure rocked that city on the cheap. Buying forties from the bagel shop and getting drunk on the steps in front of the university library. Drinking straight from plastic handles of “Poland Spring” vodka that cost $10.99—I’m seriously surprised that I didn’t go blind. Grabbing giant sandwiches from Hamilton Deli that would last for two meals. Taking the subway instead of taking cabs (as noted above). Walking instead of taking the subway. Going to the MoMa, Met and Whitney but not the Guggenheim because we couldn’t get into that one for free with our student IDs. Spending the afternoon walking the length of Central Park, from 110th street down to 59th. Going to free art gallery openings in Chelsea and drinking the cheap wine. Seeing jazz for $6 at Smalls. The most expensive meal I ate while living in New York was a few nights before graduation, when a bunch of us went to Rain on 82nd and the bill, including many drinks, came out to around 70 bucks per person. Now try going out in New York and spending less than $70—it’s hardly possible.
When I hear about New York, it sounds like the bad guys have won. CBGBs got replaced with a Citibank. “A”, my favorite little Caribbean joint in Morningside Heights (not Columbia), got replaced, most likely with a Citibank. None of my friends, not even the lawyers, can afford to live in Manhattan, so they all moved to Brooklyn. Brooklyn got overrun by hipsters, whom I think I dislike for some reason. A subway token increased from $1.25 when I lived there to $2.50, and they got rid of the tokens altogether (that actually occurred before I arrived, I think). Hot dogs became more expensive too, if I remember correctly. The 1% got too much power, and then the protests against the 1% became annoying.
But still, when I visit New York—and I try to go back every year—I feel like that indescribable New York spirit with which I became so enamored in my college days has yet to be defeated. New York will always have that raw, gritty flavor, even if the whole city gets Disney-fied. I think in the past, people associated New York with Frank Sinatra. Now, people probably associate it with Jay-Z. But for me, New York will always be Lou Reed territory: filthy, rude, starving, dark, and hopelessly and utterly romantic. Filled with really hot girls who will read 18th-century French poetry to you when they’re completely naked (except for their fashionable reading glasses). And they also have on blood red lipstick and they’re smoking cigarettes in an extremely sexy manner. And their hair is jet black and they all kind of remind you of Bettie Page. And in their apartments they burn candles in old wine bottles in close proximity to their violet satin curtains, with complete disregard for their buildings’ fire codes.
And the pool halls are all smoky, even though they banned smoking indoors years ago. And the bars all have Yuengling on tap. And in the wintertime there are hot roasted peanut stands on all the street corners and they make the streets smell like sweet, syrupy sugar. And the buildings block out the sky but you’re not missing much because the sky’s always gray anyway. And everybody speaks multiple languages and is Jewish, and they all dress in black and say things like “Avenue C is the new Avenue B.” And you always feel like you’re on drugs, and there’s a big chance that you actually are.
The summers are too hot in New York, and the winters are too cold, at least if you’re from California, and autumn only lasts for a week and spring only for a day but those two short seasons are enough to make you forget all of the miserable weather you endured. It’s funny, growing up in California, I always found that “talking about the weather” was a silly cliché, because nobody in California talks about the weather. In New York people often talk about the weather, and by “talk” I mean “complain”. New Yorkers complain a lot, in fact. This is probably a result of the fact that they’re all Jewish (as I noted above).
New Yorkers are New York-centric to a comical degree. When I was living in LA, a buddy of mine from New York came to visit. We were sitting in a restaurant in Venice and two guys sat down at a table close by, one wearing a Dodgers cap, one wearing an Angels cap. I started talking about baseball with my friend, and he asked, “so in California, do people prefer the Yankees or the Mets?”
On the subject of baseball and New Yorkers, I tend to like Mets fans more than Yankees fans. I tend to like Jets fans more than Giants fans. I tend to like Islanders fans more than Rangers fans. I don’t follow basketball, but if I did, I’m not sure that I’d tend to like Nets fans more than Knicks fans. I mean—New Jersey kinda sucks.
But I digress. There’s the old saying, “Leave NY before you get too hard, leave SF before you get too soft.” New York did bad things to me. It turned me into a cold, bitter, cynical asshole. How could it not—doesn’t it do that to everybody? I don’t think I could ever live there again, but I’m always happy to visit. It’s more fun to visit anyway. New York is a constantly evolving city, but the change is so gradual that you’ll never notice it if you live there. On my annual visits, it is all too clear that things have gotten cleaner, shinier, richer, and more boring. Some of the rough edges of New York have been sanded down. Movie tickets became ridiculously expensive. Everybody got younger. Then again, they opened the High Line and I must say it is absolutely beautiful. Global warming has tamed the winters, and nobody is going to say it’s a bad thing (as one friend of mine noted, 70 degrees in December is a “convenient truth”). They opened a new tapas place in Chelsea that is superb.
No matter how much New York changes and ceases to be the city in which I lived in the halcyon days of my youth, I can honestly say that I will always love New York. From an objective standpoint, I might say it’s the best city in the U.S., if not the world. Whenever I speak to a foreigner who has never been to America but is interested in visiting, I always recommend New York as the number one place to go if his or her time is limited. New York will give you the ultimate American experience as we want you to see it—a country brimming with diversity, strength, culture, and, in its own twisted way, prosperity. It’s as American as apple pie. A really over-priced, gourmet piece of apple pie. With vanilla ice cream. Vanilla bean ice cream.