Friday, September 12, 2014

love and squalor

A couple years ago my stepson, his wife, and their toddler came to visit us in Brooklyn. The visit consisted of doing many of the usual things you do in NYC with first-timers. It was interesting to experience the city through fresh eyes - a sentiment I know many New Yorkers express when they have out-of-towners to stay. I was surprised (a little) by how unprepared they were in some ways for the city's harshness. They had only packed flip-flops so their feet were pretty well destroyed after a day's walking. Hauling Hunter's stroller up and down the subway stairs multiple times a day wore on everyone, of course, and there were no easy places to change his diaper - Starbuck's bathrooms (of questionable cleanliness) being the default option.

Still, when we took them on a driving tour of the city, starting somewhere around Central Park West and winding down into the bowels of the Lower East Side, I was a little surprised by their reaction to (what I've always felt to be) the gritty charm of downtown. I believe the conversation in the car went something like this:
"So, is this area cheaper to live in, at least?"
"Nope. Even the Bowery's expensive."
"Oh my god, why would people pay to live here?"

Now, in surveying the view from the car window, any sensible person would likely agree. The streets are filthy, mountains of black trash bags lay heaped along the sidewalks, building facades are crumbly with age, graffiti and stickers adhere to every flat surface, it's noisy and crowded.

But all I see is glamour. Visiting the Bowery and the Lower East Side always leaves me all fizzy with excitement.

I've given this a fair amount of thought and I can only think it is the product of coming of age in the 1980's. Or not, I don't know. I started college in 1984. Though plenty of people attending RISD had plenty of cash, it wasn't cool to look like it. I remember one classmate returned after our freshman year driving a cute red Rabbit convertible. Within a month she had traded it for a shabby, grey Datsun beater. Everyone's clothing was ripped, stained, torn, vintage, thrifted. Clunky black combat boots, badly dyed black hair, oversized sweaters (with sleeves hanging a foot past your fingertips), asymmetrical haircuts were de rigueur. Sid and Nancy was a huge hit - remember that scene where they're making out in some disgusting back alley while garbage rains down on their heads from the tenement windows? That was romance, baby! And Nan Goldin! Nan Goldin was Everything. The first time I got an eyeful of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was like being hit by lightning. I suppose it was all a reaction to Reagan's America, Thatcher's England. Not that I had any sense of politics at the time. It was just the sheer effrontery to respectability that thrilled.
Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen
Trixie on the cot, NYC - Nan Goldin
I guess, as a result, I've always assumed that all young people have a moment of infatuation with some version of that hedonistic, self-absorbed nihilism? I mean hello, La bohème
dates from when - ? (the 1840's - thank you Wikipedia). The cliche of the starving artist in the Parisian garret is at least as old, yes?

But my very sensible daughter-in-law proved entirely impervious to the derelict charms of lower Manhattan. To her credit, really, I think, my surprise not withstanding. It's gross. Dirty. Hard. Even studded, as it is now, with luxury condos. Still.

Still. I'd move there in a heartbeat. Even knowing the inevitable 5 flights of tenement stairs I'd have to ascend and descend daily might just kill me at my age, now.

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