Things Are Different Today, Back In Old New York

Tim Eberle Aug 10, 2020

I can’t wait to find out what I was doing in New York in the era that preceded this pandemic. To discover exactly what New York was like at a time in which I was its resident, to flit vicariously through those magical years of my prior first-person experience; to be given a context, provided a backdrop, a soundtrack to the life that I’ll find out I had been leading. What zeitgeist will I soon be told defined my generation? What image will be chosen as the cover for my memoir? 

When Bob Dylan sang that he was “going back to New York City,” I intended to go back there with him.

And while it’s true that “memoir” will largely have been ghostwritten, that shouldn’t make it any less an evocative entry into the canon of Urban Non-Fiction. Think Patti Smith’s Just Kids, but replace “punk rock” with “to-be-determined transgressive art movement to which I’ll eventually be claiming a retroactive affiliation.” 

Just as the coronavirus outbreak is reshaping New York City’s future, so too it will reach backward to largely redefine its past — a past I’ll be thrilled to have been a part of. 

I’m willing to wager that the pre-quarantine city will turn out to have been someplace essential and, as someone who lived there and moved about freely, I’m excited to get to know why. Why that New York City was the real New York City, and why I’m sorry to tell you: “You missed it.”

Which probably requires something in the way of explanation.

For as many years as I’ve lived in New York, I’ve been plagued by the nagging notion that I arrived in the city “too late.” A persistent insecurity that the city I’d moved to for was not the city that I’d moved to. The former being, in all fairness, not really a “city” at all — more an anachronistic amalgamation of selected media imagery, a Scorsese-fied version of a gritty urban landscape that was one part Joseph Mitchell, two parts David Byrne and three parts dependent on whatever drugs Lou Reed was doing at the time. 

But imagined or not, it was a city that struck me as vital, a sprawling concrete majesty of unimpeachable artists and impossible con-men, of graffiti-tagged subways and smoke-filled back rooms, of indescribable wealth tinged with a seductive seediness that seemed to reek of the human condition. It was the city of CBGBs and the Lower East Side, of chronic rolling blackouts ending dog-day afternoons. It was Phillip Roth and Debbie Harry and Allen Ginsberg in the Village, it was Harlem, it was Warhol, it was Katz’s Jewish Deli. It was a place, it seemed, where life could be easy if one accepted that life would be hard, a place where a precocious philosophy minor could aspire to something “authentic.”

It was a city whose past I mythologized into a photo collage of my future, a place where my technical lack of career wouldn’t mean I’d have nothing to do. I would drink at the bar of the White Horse Tavern and I’d buy Dylan Thomas a whiskey. I would eat lunch suspended on a wrought-iron beam hanging thousands of feet above Midtown. I would steal a guitar and I’d dye my hair black and they’d christen me “Timmy Ramone.” When Bob Dylan sang that he was “going back to New York City,” I intended to go back there with him.

But by the time that I got there, that New York City was gone.

 At least that’s what everyone kept telling me. …Which didn’t feel, at least to me, an assertion necessarily borne out by the facts

On the contrary: my formative years spent in New York City — years in which I was lucky enough to not pay utilities due to my apartment’s steadfast inability to comply with the stickier standards of human habitability — felt flush with the possibilities that I’d always imagined of a life in the city. The buildings were as big, the subways were as crowded… I met an old man at a day-drinking-dive-bar who claimed that he’d known Dylan Thomas. I was young, I was poor, and I was living under a brothel. Replace “long-form improvised poetry” with “short-form improv comedy” and I was basically living Just Kids.

 At least, I thought I was.

 Yet at every turn I took I was met with the refrain that the New York that I had dreamed about was “dead.” Regardless of the source, the message was clear: New York used to be something and now it just… wasn’t. It was seemingly accepted as an a priori truth that “old” New York had been subsumed by something different, something corporate, something vacuous — a “playground for the rich,” as one pejorative-du-jour put it. 

There were thousands of essays titled “Why I’m Leaving New York.” Could all of them really be wrong?

The metaphors were as varied as the speakers who espoused them. Some focused-in on the “Disney-fication” of Times Square, once a bustling porn emporium, now a whitewashed tourist Mecca (although that veneer would occasionally be shattered by a shoddily-costumed, ubiquitous army of Elmos). Others lamented the Giuliani-imposed exile of the Midtown “squeegee men,” a ragtag group of guerilla extortionists expert in the provision of both non-consensual windshield washings and expletive-laden demands for recompense. For those with a penchant for heavy-handed symbolism, CBGBs had been acquired by a high-end men’s clothier, one specializing in the “punk-rock aesthetic.” The specifics would differ but the consensus was clear: Somewhere along the way, New York City had lost its soul — a consensus that I rejected outright, yet one that somehow managed to take root.  

Despite my best efforts to dismiss those assertions as the sour-grape-grumblings of a dying generation, try as I might to dispel any notion that the city’s best days were behind it, each successive year that I spent in New York made me wonder if those pronouncements held true. Had the heart of New York City been priced out of its apartment? Was its culture now co-opted by some faceless corporate interest? 

There were thousands of essays titled “Why I’m Leaving New York.” Could all of them really be wrong? And what, after all, could I offer as evidence to the contrary? I loved New York City and it never disappointed, but could I also say it met my expectations? 

My expectation being that the city would look like something out of a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective, the reality, as I found it, was that New Yorkers spent a vastly disproportionate amount of time “commuting to work” and “just buying groceries” than they did “lounging on fire-escapes while staring blankly into a camera” and “smoking in black and white.” Where was the action, what was the scene, when would short form improv penetrate the broader culture? Did I need to acknowledge that the naysayers were right? Could it be that New York City was dead?   

The answer, it turns out, was… “Nope.” Quite the opposite, in fact. It turns out that the New York that I was living in had never been more vital. And I would soon learn why.

At the time of this writing, New York is in what appears to be an early-stage recovery from the crux of its viral pandemic. And while it remains to be seen just what city will emerge in the wake of this transformative crisis, what is certain is that it will be different. Which means it will be almost certainly better. Which will make it most assuredly worse. Which probably requires something in the way of explanation.

The simple truth is that “New York City” has never been a real-time phenomenon. It’s a narrative created in hindsight, a curated series of revisionist histories that contrast the truth of the present. And it is in that contrast that those histories are defined, what it is versus what was. The city’s future is often a construct of chance and its present is out on display. But its past is whatever we want it to be and thus so are our pasts within it. 

The story of New York has always been told through its artists, but it’s a story that tends to be written much later, in the liner notes of future generations

We’re constantly recreating the lives that we’ve lived in response to the lives that we’re living and, as the years of our future become those of our past, those “lives” become, more and more, a blank canvas — true, of course, regardless of location, but you don’t write Just Kids in Montana. 

The creation of a New York City existence is a unique and deliberate thing, at least for those of us susceptible to that particular mythology of the city that places outsized emphasis on squalor and artistic freedom. It’s an exercise in the selective juxtaposition of what used to be with what is, and when “what used to be” has been replaced, its value sees an ex-post-facto spike. It is, in a sense, a specialized form of delusion, a specific nostalgia for those things that were bad, precisely because they weren’t good. (And quite literally so: the era of squeegee men and all-access porn is now referred to, wistfully and with reverence, as the “Bad Old Days” of New York, because a New York City that was bad is also one that was authentic and authenticity trumps progress. 

Sure, it’s nice to have a Duane Reade on the corner of 125th and Lexington. But now where will Lou Reed go to buy heroin? And is it even really “heroin” if it comes home in an Uber? Duke Ellington used to ride a crowded subway uptown, because of that we now have “Take the A Train.” Bono decided that he could just call Via – and now we’re stuck with “Angel of Harlem.” 

The struggle of New York gives New York its essence. Essence is the opposite of easy. A New York City that’s easy isn’t really New York City, it’s just another place to charge your iPhone. There’s a reason, after all, why the lyric isn’t: “If I can make it here… that success will be in no way indicative of any future achievement in larger markets…” A life in New York City is supposed to be hard — that’s how you know it’s a life!

 And life was so much harder in New York before you got here and that’s what made the city so much better.

This crisis has locked us in a clear moment in time — a process that would otherwise take decades. We get to engage in our revisionist histories while those histories are still cooling in the window. A life in New York City is usually one years spent in the making. After all, if one is going to create a past out of a repudiation of the present, then one had better leave some breathing room between the two, enough time, at least, for the edges to have blurred, to make one’s claims more difficult to fact-check. 

To wit: it seems to be a point of pride among aging New York punk musicians that they never really learned to play their instruments, which, forty years later, in a Village Voice interview, sounds irreproachably recalcitrant and pure. But forty years earlier, down the street from your apartment, it likely sounded more like awful music. We pine for the days of the White Horse Tavern, with its tables full of “Boho Literati.” But back then those were simply “alcoholics wearing watchmen’s caps,” drinking cheap gin on a Tuesday. The picture needs to fade a bit before it looks vintage. One’s generation won’t be defined for generations, or until a once-in-a-century viral pandemic hits the city. And then you’ve got a clear before and after. And it is in some middle ground between those two where we find ourselves today.

The only path forward out of this bind seems to be a dramatic restructure — the times, as they say, are a changin’. (Although if Bob Dylan were truly prophetic, his opening exhortation to “come gather round people, wherever you roam…” would have concluded with “…but please maintain at least a six-foot distance…”) This virus is an agent of irrevocable change. It will leave behind a vastly different city. And while it is difficult to ascertain just what that city will be — staring, as we are, through the lenses of glasses that are consistently fogged-up by mask-breath — we do know that it will look different. If the history of New York can be predictive of its future, the city will look better. But only objectively so. And just like a New Yorker, in true New York fashion, I’ll be longing for those things that were worse.

 Things like… the subway.

 As it was recently announced, for the first time in its history, New York subways will stop running after midnight. Night service will be paused so that the train cars may be cleaned. If COVID wants a ride uptown, it can Uber-share with Bono. The result of the service stoppage will be a cleaner, safer subway. Yet it will leave us with a subway that’s not in any way worth taking. The subway is a proxy for the city. And a subway that is dirty means a city that is honest. When you clean the grime, you wash away the soul. Cleanliness, as they say, is next to godliness — but only when it comes out of a mold-laden squeegee that’s been soaking in stale hot-dog-water run-off. 

The subway is essential not in spite of the urine. It’s the urine that reminds us that we’re living! 

How can one say that they’re experiencing “life” if they aren’t forced to sit in its waste products? The trains should hold a mirror to the city that they service. Yes, the D train may be “gross,” but so then is humanity! When you sanitize the subway so you sterilize the city. It’s the subway, after all, it’s not the Monorail through Epcot.

Of course, all of the preceding will thus be rendered moot if there is nowhere left to take the subway to, when anywhere that once was good is gone. Or, if not gone, then at a minimum “not the same” — which, when said with a dismissive snort and pompous grin, might be New York’s most withering indictment. After all, a restaurant that has been “strategically restructured so as to not be conducive to the immediate spread of a highly communicable and potentially life-threatening illness” is just a fancy way of saying “Applebee’s.” And I can go to Applebee’s in Jersey. 

Dining out in New York used to be a communal endeavor — in fact, that was largely the point: to share cocktails and ideas within coughing distance of your neighbor, to wink at posted “Occupancy Limits” as ironic urban kitsch, to Heimlich yourself into the edge of your table whenever anyone got up to use the bathroom. “But we were just so immersed in the energy of the city! We were all having one conversation!” is the narrative I imagine that we’ll land on later. We were always within a transmission’s distance of some artist, rogue, or poet — just please don’t ask us yet for the specifics.

Because, at the time of this writing, every New Yorker is still in the process of workshopping their chronologically-undebatable-enough-so-as-to-not-invite-further-scrutiny anecdote about the time they spilled a drink on some generationally-transformative-artist-who-back-then-was-not-yet-famous in the basement of whatever-formerly-crowded-dive-bar-is-now-a-socially-distant-Chicos. (I’m thinking that mine will have something to do with LCD Soundsystem in Brooklyn. But these works, as I say, are in progress…)

 And, speaking of art!

The story of New York has always been told through its artists – think Basquiat, Beastie Boys, Baldwin. But it’s a story that tends to be written much later, in the liner notes of future generations — at least for those artists who have been extended the cachet of being “underappreciated in their own time.” At their height, the Velvet Underground did not sell many records. But now everybody claims they knew Lou Reed.

Which is why I am perhaps most excited to find out about the to-be-determined transgressive art movements to which I will surely lay claim, the representative ethos of my generation “that could not have existed today.” Fingers crossed that it has something to do with unscripted comedy. After all, if there’s anything that’s unlikely to return in the form in which it existed, it’s amateur performances in windowless basements next to crates of unthawing mozzarella sticks. It’s only a matter of time before they get recontextualized as “outsider art.” 

Whatever it turns out that New York used to be, I’m just happy that I was there for it. It was a magical time in an incredible place and one that we’ll never get back to. “So enjoy your time in the city, kid, just know that it’s not what it was. Because that New York City was the real New York. And I’m sorry to tell you: you missed it.”

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