Living Inside The Splendid Mirage
By Michael MaherFebruary 6, 2012
Every New York writer — really, every New Yorker — has their own New York story. Here’s what the magnetic city looks like from one transplant’s view.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once described New York as “my splendid mirage.” By 1932, worn out by the exertions of the Jazz Age, the author of The Great Gatsby — a New York story if ever there was one — had retreated to the suburbs. “Thus I take leave of my lost city,” wrote Fitzgerald. “Seen from the ferry boat in the early morning, it no longer whispers of fantastic success and eternal youth.”
Over the years, the mirage of New York has worked its spell on countless millions. Has there been another city in contemporary times to which so many have attached so much from such far-flung reaches? Refugees in Addis Ababa, traders in Tel Aviv, writers in Sydney and babushkas in Odessa all have been lured to this fabled city, lap dancing before them on the distant horizon.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York
It was Fitzgerald, too, who famously said there are no second acts in American life. But that’s precisely what brings so many here. A second chance, the very wellspring of New York’s mania.
Of course, it’s a conceit to write about New York after living here for a mere five years. After all, it’s only now that I’m beginning to know what I don’t know. It’s only now that I understand the look lifelong New Yorkers give newcomers enthusing about this city and their plans to embrace it. It’s a look which says: “You’ll find out. And most likely the hard way. Or else you’ll be gone before you get a chance to find out.”
Far better to heed the earned wisdom of Fitzgerald and contemporary chroniclers of Gotham such as Tom Wolfe. When Wolfe wrote Bonfire of the Vanities, his morality tale set amid the raging excesses of the 1980s, he believed New York had reached the depths of depravity. There was no further to fall. “The quality of life here is about zero. Maybe it’s minus something,” Wolfe told an interviewer at the time. “New York is the city of ambition and there is no other reason to be here. If you’re not ambitious, it’s not a place to live,” he said.
Little did Wolfe know that two decades on, the bonfire would be burning stronger still. And that, dear reader, is about the time I moved to Manhattan. Just in time to watch the collapse of the world’s largest economy. Just in time to see friends lose their jobs and to see the tic of fear in the faces of those who thought they might be next. Just in time to witness the Madoff affair, the biggest swindle this city of renowned swindlers has ever known. And in time to wake up one morning to the news that a few blocks away Madoff’s shamed son had hanged himself with a dog leash while his two-year-old boy slept in the next room.
Each of these events was shocking enough in itself, let alone one heaped upon the other. But it’s hard to shock a New Yorker. If you were so inclined, to irritate, anger or even outrage (mostly it’s faux outrage) a New Yorker is child’s play; try walking slowly on a crowded pavement or blocking a subway door for starters. But shocking one is an entirely different proposition. Perhaps it’s because New Yorkers already are living in a semi-permanent state of shock. Who wouldn’t be, after enduring the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression, preceded just seven years earlier by the attacks of September 11 and the deaths of more than 2,700 fellow city dwellers?
I live not quite 10 blocks from Ground Zero. My son goes to one of the public schools closest to the site of the terrorist attack. Each morning we walk down Greenwich Street to the schoolyard. It’s the very same path terrified children and their teachers fled up a decade ago, chased by an almighty cloud of toxic dust. The windows of our loft look out onto the space where the twin towers once stood and where their replacement, One World Trade, rises towards its final 1,776-feet height. The neighbourhood is full of markers of the city’s tumultuous recent past.
But it’s not all sturm und drang. Far from it. In fact, last summer I had my very own circus pitch its tent on my front doorstep. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of sexually assaulting a hotel chambermaid, took up residence directly across the road from me. With him came not a troupe of harlequins, trapeze artists and lion tamers but a just-as-colourful collection of retainers, sightseers and journalists. For months our sidewalk was a tangle of television cables and equipment. My neighbour, Jim, told me he was having great trouble restraining his Irish terrier, Angus, from relieving himself on all the gear strewn about what is normally a quiet, cobblestoned street.
Each day a procession of French tourists would file up to the townhouse the New York Post dubbed chez perv to take photographs. Some expressed their horror about how the NYPD and the city’s public prosecutor had treated DSK. Others told me: “You can keep him. We don’t want him back in France!” (that would be the Sarkozy voter). Although the tourists still come most days to take pictures, le cirque DSK has of course moved on to Paris. But living in New York is like having a different circus come to your town every day.
Few write about this town with the intimacy of Pete Hamill. The 76-year-old journalist, novelist, editor and essayist has been watching New York’s circuses his whole life. “I try to get the sense of the city,” he says, ‘‘its speed, its occasional cruelty, its dangers and its joys, its decent people along with some of the bad guys, too.”
After a recent television interview I recorded with Hamill about yet another Long Island serial killer (still at large), he summed up his New York this way: “It’s not natural to live in a place with so many people, and yet there’s nothing else quite like it. I was fortunate to grow up in New York because I got to see the world without leaving town. It came here.”
The world does indeed come here, the decent people and the bad guys alike. And I’m still drawn to the mirage. It’s just a little less splendid now.