In the city as nowhere else we are reminded that we are individuals, units. Yet the idea of the city remains; it is the god of the city that we pursue, in vain.
—V S. Naipaul, The Mimic Men
Nobody comes to New York by accident, least of all the stray children of the small towns of America who flock here like stubborn pigeons. Whatever else draws these misfits eastward, there is always a bright thread of fascination stretching back to a youthful encounter: a scene in a movie, a casual tale told by an aunt or cousin, a rainy afternoon spent looking at the cartoons in a tattered copy of The New Yorker. The seed is planted and grows silently, and then one day you set your jaw and pack your bag and head for Grand Central Station, starry-eyed and determined to prove whatever it is you have to prove.
My own bright thread can be traced back to a long-forgotten TV game show of my small town childhood called “What’s My Line?” At 9:30 sharp every Sunday night, four panelists in evening dress marched through the curtained doorway of the studio, took their seats, and proceeded to guess the occupations of two working stiffs and a Mystery Guest. Dorothy Kilgallen, the Broadway columnist, and Bennett Cerf, the president of Random House, invariably served as bookends for a panel of New York celebrities who indulged in amiable chitchat and urbane byplay for the benefit of the folks at home. The people on the “What’s My Line?” panel, I quickly realized, knew each other, and watching them caused me to think of New York as a place that existed primarily for the collective pleasure of the rich and famous. To live in New York, I concluded, was to go to Broadway openings, eat at unimaginably fancy restaurants, appear on “What’s My Line?” and, best of all, be friends with lots of other famous people.
“What’s My Line?” was canceled by CBS in 1967, a victim of low ratings, mourned by me forever after. It was replaced by “Mission: Impossible.” Eighteen years later, I embarked on my own impossible mission: I moved to New York, which turned out to be a lot more like “The Honeymooners” than “What’s My Line?” I’ve been complaining ever since.
The causes of my despair are numbingly familiar: crack, rent control, corrupt politicians, homeless madmen in the streets, racial and ethnic polarization, the soaring crime rate, the high cost of living. Still, I haven’t left town. I haven’t even sent my resumé out lately. I came here to work at a highbrow magazine and ended up writing outrage-filled editorials for a blood-and-thunder tabloid known to its readers as “New York’s Hometown Paper.” The louder I complain about New York, the more deeply I seem to get sucked into the swamp of its daily struggles.
What keeps people like me from going back where we came from? Is it a simple matter of ambition? It is true that I came to New York in search of a writer’s work, and that living here has advanced my career. It is also true that New York tests your mettle, chiefly because it continues to attract a disproportionate share of this country’s smartest and hungriest young people. Once I welcomed that challenge. But now that I’ve earned a few stripes as a writer and editor, it is no longer necessary for me to stay in New York in order to make a living, much less to stroke my ego. In the age of fax machines, I could set up shop anywhere.
What about the cultural life of the city? When I first came to New York, I lined up to see the latest movies, I trudged down endless museum corridors, I went to Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and the Village Vanguard as often as my meager assistant editor’s salary permitted. I grabbed wildly in every direction, like a kid in a candy store with a hundred dollars in his pocket. It was lovely while it lasted, but I soon learned that the cultural assets of New York are more in the nature of conveniences, most of which can be done without in a pinch. I see movies a couple of weeks earlier than my brother back in Missouri, but I don’t go to any more concerts than I did when I lived in Kansas City, and the quality isn’t much higher, either, for there aren’t many artists who play New York without playing Kansas City first.
The romance of the city still tugs at me from time to time. New York can be a hauntingly lovely place when the windows are dressed for Christmas and you’re strolling down Fifth Avenue with a good dinner in your stomach and a ticket to Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in your pocket, certain for the moment that everything you see is yours for the asking. It is a handsome illusion—but you cannot count on it. The surface beauties of New York have an unpleasant way of vanishing without warning, dispelled by the reek of stale urine or the shrill sound of a taxi driver’s curse, leaving you adrift in the real New York, dirty and shabby and sad.
No, the true romance of New York is more elusive than that. It is a romance of elective affinities, something that no other city offers its residents in such miraculous abundance. I am, among other things, a book reviewer; a regular balletgoer; a jazz musician; a collector of old recordings of classical music; and an avid fan of animated cartoons. New York provides me with a hundred friends who share these interests and who like nothing better than to chat about them over hurried lunches or leisurely telephone calls. I spent the first 30 years of my life talking to myself about the things that interest me most. In New York, I have other people to talk to.
This rich collegiality is, without question, the main reason why I stay here. It is a tie so strong that for a long time it blinded me to the city’s cruder realities. There was a time when I was so strongly affected by it that I thought I might want to live in New York forever, complaints and all. I changed my mind on the evening when, a year or so ago, five young men held me up at gunpoint, threatened to shoot me dead, took all my money and disappeared, laughing, into the night. The hardened New Yorker dismisses such mishaps with a wink and a shrug, and my brush with death quickly became a valuable addition to my growing repertory of party pieces about urban life. But the laughter hid an open wound. For weeks after the robbery, I was filled with irrational fear. It was like being sick on an airplane. The ugliness of New York had finally reached out and touched me. I could no longer look the other way. I was tainted with doubt.
I started thinking about leaving New York on the night I was robbed. I began to think about it more seriously when a few of my friends moved away. One couple I know left for Brussels a few months ago; another friend has found a good job in Washington. They are gone but not forgotten, for their absence reminds me that there is life after New York, that I, too, could leave if I wanted. I don’t want to, not yet, but I have come to feel that I am living on a steadily narrowing ledge of tolerance, that one day a furious convulsion of rage and frustration will drive me over the George Washington Bridge and back into the real world. It may be triggered by something dire: a violent mugging, an accident on the subway, a visit to a chaotic emergency room. It may be something comparatively small: a story in the morning paper, a wild taxi ride, a burned piece of toast served by a surly waitress. One way or another, I am increasingly certain that the day will come when I decide that New York simply is not worth it any more.
What of it? I know that New York will not miss me if I leave. Ten thousand typewriter jockeys stand ready to’ fight over my job the instant I decide that I’ve had enough. But I also know that my feelings about New York are far from unique. Every time I sit down at a table to break bread with my peers, I find myself drawn, sooner or later, into The Conversation: Should we stay or go? Sometimes it seems as if everybody I know is thinking about leaving town. The refrain has become so droningly familiar that I have begun to wonder, in odd moments, what New York would be like if all the ambitious young artists and intellectuals in town suddenly gave up and moved out.
This is not quite as absurd as it sounds. Bright young men and women on the make have long been drawn to New York by the aura of high culture and gaudy opportunities. Seduced by the vital company of our peers, we swallow hard and accept the devil’s deal, paying the preposterously high rents and doing our best to ignore the grime and the danger, confident that the things we love will continue to make up for the things we hate. But it’s a delicate balance, a landscape riddled with invisible fault lines. People like me live here because other people like me live here. It follows that if enough people like me lost patience with New York and left, the rest of us would leave, too.
Would such an exodus be noticed? I think so. Others drive the trucks and sell the bonds, but we have our own special role to play: We civilize the city. Without us, New York would be just another tawdry megalopolis, bigger than most but otherwise distinguishable only by the extreme rigidity of its public pieties. Our youthful ambitions and enthusiasms help give New York its special savor. The decivilizing impact of our departure would be impossible to ignore. So would the resulting shrinkage of the city’s beleaguered middle-class population. It would not be much—but it would not take much. By such modest shrinkages are banks forced to close their doors and neighborhoods turned into festering slums. If enough hopeful young poets and critics and musicians and dancers and assistant editors left town, New York would take a long stride toward fulfilling the terrible prophecy of The Bonfire of the Vanities: The rich and poor would finally begin to rub up directly against each other, and the city would be consumed by the friction.
Needless to say, this isn’t exactly your usual establishment-approved worst-case scenario for the decline and fall of New York. Remember how that goes? The schools and hospitals gradually deteriorate beyond repair. The tax rate soars. A half-dozen large companies move to Texas. You know the rest of the story. If not, you will probably find it on today’s New York Timed op-ed page, buried in the fifth paragraph of “New York’s Peril, New York’s Hope,” a stirring call to action adapted from a speech delivered by F*l*x R*h*t*n at the last meeting of Concerned Democrats for a Slightly Better New York. In fact, I find that scenario highly likely, but I can’t pretend that it interests me very much. My concern is for the soul of New York, and that will be lost not when the city’s financial institutions crumble but when its cultural institutions—and their audiences—lose their nerve and start to head for the hills.
Earlier this year, Dance Theater of Harlem announced it was canceling its spring season, having succumbed to a chronic shortage of cash. I shook my head sadly when I heard the news, for the company is a fine and important one. I scratched the dates out of my appointment book and started to think of other matters. Then it struck me: What is to stop Dance Theater of Harlem from becoming Dance Theater of Seattle? Or St. Louis? What keeps Arthur Mitchell from moving his company to another town, one where his dancers could afford to marry and have children and send them to the public schools without having to worry about their kids being shot dead in the hallways? Nothing more, I suppose, than the fact that artists have always felt that the advantages of living in New York outweighed the disadvantages. That is an increasingly thin reed to lean on, in much the same way that guilt is a rope that wears thin. Dance Theater of Harlem continues to make brave noises about doing business at the same old stand, but it can only be a matter of time before some other high-profile cultural institution—an opera company, a publishing house, a popular magazine—lowers its flags and seeks a saner home. And such departures will become far more thinkable, if not inevitable, should enough people like me leave town.
I am not predicting the mass removal of young eggheads to a real-life Galt’s Gulch, there to contemplate the blasted clichés of urban liberalism. If we leave, it will be in dribs and drabs, and no one will quite grasp what is happening until some slow-witted policy nerd notices that it is no longer possible to put together a respectable dinner party for tomorrow night by getting on the phone at noon today. The result will be no less fatal for the lack of outward drama. For if enough of us leave, New York will become plain, and that will be its death sentence.
Not long ago, I ran across a catalogue from a mail-order firm that sells videocassettes of old TV shows from the Fifties. I looked up “What’s My Line?” and, sure enough, there was a tape for sale. I called the 800 number and had my credit card handy and, a few days later, the promised package arrived. It contained a minor miracle: Dorothy Kilgallen and Bennett Cerf and Arlene Francis and Fred Allen and Kim Novak, the mystery guest, coming to me live from New York at 9:30 p.m., February 5, 1956, exactly twenty-four hours before I was born.
Listening to their companionable chatter, I thought fondly of those half-forgotten Sunday nights when I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime and hobnob with the café society of New York. They taught me, long before I came here to live, that New York is more than the sum total of its skyscrapers and opera houses. The real New York, the New York that matters, is people: the people you want to have lunch with and go to the theater with and fall in love with and talk to, endlessly and joyously, until the sun rises over the East River.
What keeps all of us here is not fresh bagels and willowy ballerinas, but our shared belief in the god of the city, in the idea of New York as capital of the glittering world of culture and intellect. And what will happen if we lose our faith and abandon New York? What will we leave behind? Only tall buildings—and an idea. The buildings will survive our departure, but wrong ideas, like false gods, eventually fade away.