[The third is a series of essays from China, New York, and Israel]
Hurricane Sandy hit and shut down New York before we had a chance to publish the following article about my trip to the city in mid-October. Since then, I’ve been witness to a barrage of coverage about the devastation, from photos to death totals, and it seems insensitive to run a piece about my trip without comment on the storm and its aftermath. The majority of what I’ve seen has been social media updates from friends, family, and strangers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Everyone I know is all right save for power outages, but the comparisons to an apocalyptic Hollywood movie scene don’t seem unwarranted. My original piece was intended to be humorous, as one can’t exist in New York without a sense of humor. The city isn’t perfect, but it is fantastic; both its faults and strengths are as worth exploring as they are in my hometown, Chicago. One of the city’s strengths is most certainly the sense that despite its diversity, it is in fact a unified city, an idea I was skeptical about originally. The music scene has come together with benefit shows, my twitter feed is full of locals, celebs, and companies tweeting simple ways to help hurricane victims, and places offering their wifi and space for people to do their work. The amount of people affected by this disaster in such a small area is overwhelming; the amount of these same people coming together to help is phenomenal.
As I’m writing this now from Chicago, I can’t comment on the details of the aftermath and I will not try. I did not change any of what I originally wrote as I wouldn’t want to risk this becoming a puff piece and/or losing its humor. It should be clear that I’m a fan of New York and there’s a reason I like to visit. But stereotypes wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t some truth in them: New Yorkers are a tough breed and ain’t no little storm gonna take ’em down. To everyone reading this in New York or any other area affected by Sandy, please take care. For those still looking for ways to help, check out the Manhattan User’s Guide for some ideas.
For whatever number of reasons, many of my friends have been attracted enough to the garbage lined streets of New York City to want to move there permanently. This is good for me, since it’s an excuse to visit them often, but not have to deal with the stench and traffic and crowds year round. I’ll hold back on the rest of the clichés right now: everyone knows the city is kinetic. That’s why over eight million of you freaks live there. So as an outsider, is there anything worthwhile I can even say?
My biggest fear in writing about New York is coming off as someone from the Times writing about Chicago. Can we get over your quaint, condescending stereotype of the “Second City” and our inferiority complex to the “Big Apple”? In all fairness, neither city should be compared to the other, but both should be thankful they are. Hey, we’re capitalists, yeah? Competition fuels what makes both cities so great. With three times the amount of people, the chorus will be louder from the East Coast. But I like to joke around and think about how New York is a city full of three times as many people shitting and farting. Who’s the Windy City now?
Most of my experience in New York has taken place in Brooklyn. I’m still exploring in Williamsburg, which is apparently already old hat behind Bushwick, and nobody seems to shudder anymore when I mention staying with friends in Bed-Stuy. I don’t know the city well enough to call it my second home, but when I go to Manhattan, even I can get pissed off at the tourists. The High Line, one of my favorite parts of the city, was more crowded than I’d ever seen it, enough to the point where I didn’t bother walking the entire length. Annoying, but I’m still very into the idea of the Lowline. Remember those pictures of tourist traps in Beijing during Golden Week? That was the Brooklyn Bridge. Couldn’t believe people actually bike on that thing. I have to imagine that locals would try to avoid these areas like I do the Magnificent Mile. Which is also sort of weird. I mean, we choose to live in these cities because we love them. Yet there are certain parts that I think we all wish would go away. I’ve made the mistake of going to Times Square. Look buddy, just because I’m from Chicago doesn’t mean I want to go to your comedy show. Unless it’s at the UCB Theater, which seems just as hit or miss as Second City. But when they hit, they hit. Maneater: The True Story of the Champaway Tigress is highly recommended.
This time around I was excited to check out some live shows in some off the path places. Somehow not entirely wiped out coming from a 12 hour difference on very little sleep, I managed to make it out to the Glasslands for Royal Baths my first night in. More droning and with more shoe-gaze than I remember on record, the duo turned four-piece was putting my jet-lagged ass to sleep by the end of the show. A few days later, I was more than ready, however, for Menomena at Music Hall of Williamsburg. It’s been years since I’d seen them, and they are just a solid band live. Justin Harris’s voice cracks are more an adorable asset than a hindrance to their performance, and while the trio has expanded to five members (after losing a founding member), each one still plays multiple instruments. In short, the show was a great reminder that I need to get their new album, Moms.
Perhaps it was the sound issues or an off night, but both Guardian Alien and Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, two bands with stellar albums this year and that I’ve seen put on great shows both semi-recently, just weren’t doing it for me. Greg Fox’s drumming for Guardian Alien was as incomprehensible as usual, but then again I really couldn’t hear too much of anything else. Schrader is the king of in between song banter, but there was a certain oomph lacking in the band’s performance. So it goes. 285 Kent is a cool space, but a weird border between full-on venue and artsy DIY space. Back into the city, the number of musicians in parks, in subways, and the streets is almost too much even for this music blogger. It seems way too easy for these musicians to just get lost in the noise. Recently, music scribe Steven Hyden made the assertion that Brooklyn shouldn’t be the haven for indie culture it’s become, and musicians should open up a bit and look to the “so-called flyover country.”
There is only one place I’ve gone to every time I’ve been to New York: Russ and Daughters. The nearly century old deli and kings of caviar make *the* perfect bagel, and offer a variety of lox, cream cheeses, and sweet treats. New York is obviously a culinary wonderland, but I mostly kept it on the cheap side this time. Not particularly a fan of Seinfeld, I went in to Tom’s Restaurant full-on-“haters gonna hate”-arms-a-swinging. But damn if that Oreo shake wasn’t delicious. Vanessa’s Dumplings were as cheap as they were filling. Every time I’m in New York, the convenience of street meat alone makes me hit up a couple carts. On this score, Chicago really needs to step up its game.
Inevitably, I’ve fallen for the trap of comparing Chicago and New York. If Chicagoans succumb to the inferiority complex to NYC, it’s only to actually hide our jealousy. I’m part of the camp that commonly claims “New York’s a great city, but I would never want to live there,” but am quickly growing into the “keep your friends close and your enemies’ closer” point of view. What this essentially comes down to is cost of living difference. If I haven’t alienated my entire New York readership by now, I probably would if I discussed how (relatively) little I have to pay for how (relatively) big of an apartment. We won’t go there this time. At least you’ve got all those bodegas. There’s nothing like a fresh-made turkey sandwich at 2 AM.
Throughout my recent travels, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of exclusivity. In Beijing it is essential, but in America in general and New York in particular, it is essentially absent. Therefore, it’s hard to capture if there is any actual culture here or if it all gets spilled in the overflowing melting pot. If a word that means everything means nothing, can the same be said about a city? Ironically, New York is the place people go to find meaning, leaving family and friends behind in hopes of self-fulfillment. But further, as my fantastic editor pointed out, no matter what particular thing attracted you to the city, there are eight million other people around you who could not give a shit about it.
Yet these utterly different types of people are forced to bump into each other in bars, cafes, clubs, parks, street corners, shops, museums, restaurants, stadiums, art galleries, like atoms in the ether, coagulating into a real, specific mass. It’s not that everything means nothing, but it has the potential to mean anything, forever expanding, never stagnant. There’s a reason some of the greatest eras in music, literature and art were born, raised, and eventually killed off in the five boroughs.
Every time I visit this city, I can get into some new trouble. New York’s a fun town for me. People say how rough it can be. It’s not the otherworldly wasteland of The Warriors, but I know it’s not the easiest place to find peace, so hats off to anyone willing to walk that fine line between strong-willed and thick skulled and actually live there.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer based in Chicago. His previous essays in this series discussed bikes, beer, and baozi and Beijing nightlife. His next dispatch will be from Israel. He wishes New York and the surrounding areas a speedy recovery.