While in the admission line for the Adler Planetarium on New Year’s Day, Claus and I looked at a pamphlet advertising something called the Chicago CityPass. For $96 bucks, you can buy a book of tickets to five of Chicago’s best art/culture destinations for half the cost if you were to buy tickets for all of them separately. The catch is that you have to use your book of tickets within nine days, which means you have nine days to see: The Field Museum, The Shedd Aquarium, SkyDeck Chicago, The Museum of Science & Industry or 360 Chicago, The Adler Planetarium or The Art Institute.
It’s lousy they make you pick between The Art Institute and the Planetarium, both of them being potentially life-changing experiences if you’re on a family vacation and you’re six. “Look, Denny: it’s either stars or art. Make up your mind or we’re getting in the car and going back to your Aunt Rita’s. I need a bathroom.”
Claus and I went to the SkyDeck on Tuesday. The SkyDeck is the observatory on the top floor of the Willis née Sears Tower. It’s strange that I like flying so much; airplanes hang out at 30,000 feet or so. The Willis Tower is 1,450 in the sky and I hated being up there. I got nauseated. I got dizzy. And then I had to “face my fears” and step out onto “The Ledge.”
The Ledge is a clear glass box that extends 4.3 feet out from the tower. You’re supposed to walk out into the box and stand there. Stand in a 4-sided glass box 1,450 feet in the air. There’s nothing under your feet but a clear glass shelf. I do not ride amusement park rides. I do not sky dive. And The Ledge? I did not want to do it.
“You have to do it Mary,” Claus said. When he says “Mary” it sounds so nice, like, “Mah-rie” and this is dangerous.
“Absolutely not,” I said. I was feeling queasy again and wanted to go back to the gift shop to discern why they were selling those monkey toys with the velcro hands that hang around your neck. How was that a relevant Willis Tower gift shop item? Plus, the gift shop is at the center of the observatory, so I was safer there.
“Oh, come on, Mah-rie. Face your feers.”
I hate it when Claus or anyone else says that because then I have to. What, I’m going to live this life without facing at least half of my fears? Damnit! People laughed at me because I had to stick one toe at a time into the cube. Inch by inch, I made it out there, took one look left, one right, one out, and one down past my feet (oh sweet mercy) then immediately nose-dived back to what now seemed like safety. Relativity is a cruel mistress.
We checked the SkyDeck off the CityPass. Tomorrow: The Shedd Aquarium.
I have tried, but it is plain: I cannot live in New York City.
Instead of falling in love with this place — my plan from the start — I have grown to resent it and am itching to leave. The itching could be bedbugs, but I don’t think so.*
New York City doesn’t care what I think of it, of course. New York didn’t notice when I arrived and it has stayed utterly ambivalent toward me since. Anything I have to say about New York will fall on the millions of deaf ears here, which is part of my problem with this place: aren’t two deaf ears enough? Not for New York.
For the past few months, I have been doing research. I’ve been watching interviews and reading essays and op-ed pieces by people who say New York is dead. I realize this is not a good strategy if your goal is to fall in love with a place, but when I hit Month Four and began feeling outright hostility toward the city, I launched my gloomy search. I had to find out if other people didn’t get it, if other people here were walking around perpetually sour like me. The things I liked about New York when I would visit my sister over the past fourteen years were there, but the bottom dropped out entirely when I had my own mailing address. Why?
I had a feeling my problem had to do with the way New York is now, in 2014; perhaps I might’ve had a different experience with a different version of New York. Maybe it would’ve been perfect for me in the weird and dangerous 1970s, or the wild and dangerous Jazz Age. Maybe I would’ve done better as a New Amsterdam colonist, scouring my washtub. It’s a bad skier who blames the slopes, but I’m blaming the slopes on this one: I don’t think New York in 2014 is so fantastic. The research I did showed me I am not alone in feeling this way. I’m in a crowd, in fact, which is annoyingly appropriate.
If you adore New York or if you’ve already made up your mind that I’m a weenie who just couldn’t hack it, I hope you’ll stay with me. I agree that there are valid arguments supporting New York as awesome and I’m perfectly willing to grant you that I’m a weenie.
Fran Lebowitz (lifelong New Yorker, cultural Cassandra, personal hero) has plenty to say about 2014 New York being awful. For years, she’s been watching her city turn from the intellectual and artistic capitol of the world into a theme park. (I think Lebowitz was the first to make the New-York-as-Disney Park analogy and it’s a little worn, okay, but it fits too well to ignore.) Former mayor Bloomberg — a billionaire, remember — had a goal when he took office. He wanted to increase tourism and commerce in his city. To do that, he had to make it a kinder, gentler version of itself. The safer folks felt New York was, the more of them would come here, which would bring in money. Bloomberg served three terms (he changed the term-limit law to make that possible), and thus had years to work on his New York Beautification Project. And indeed, the place is Disney-fied. You must wait in lines for everything you want to do. Extras are never included in your ticket price. Grand, sparkly attractions replace smaller, older rides because they photograph way better and push ticket prices up. And it seems that, like the planters and fences at Disneyland, everything in New York these days is rounded, never sharp, for liability reasons.
And then there’s the matter of housing. If you tried to rent a one-bedroom apartment on Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland, in the shadow of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, I reckon it would probably cost you about $4000/month. They don’t rent apartments on Main Street in Disneyland, as far as I know, but if they did, that’s probably what they’d go for. And this is what it costs in New York for a one-bedroom, give or take several hundreds of dollars, depending on how good (read: sneaky) your broker is. If you want to live cheaper in Disneyland, you’ll need to find a room for rent way out in Toontown (a.k.a. Jersey City) or maybe further than that. Maybe just hit the parking lot and skip the broker and your silly visions of Main Street altogether.
But here’s the thing. All that can be fine. It is fine for millions of people (at least a few hundred thousand) because they have a dream. They have a dream of making it in New York or they simply want to be in New York to escape a life they couldn’t stand. That’s great — and that dream is the crucial. It is the key; it is precisely what allows the young man to squeeze into the subway at rush hour, what zeros out the rage of the woman who sees that the checkout line at Trader Joe’s begins at the door of the Trader Joe’s. You gotta want to be in New York real, real bad to put up with the bullsh-t and if you do, it can work for you. In summation: to live in step with New York, it would seem that you need either lots of money or a dream so dear you don’t care about living with four roommates in Toontown.
Well, I ain’t got Bloomberg money and I ain’t got no dream, New York. I’m gonna have to dip.
I came here for an adventure, and I’ve had one. But I can’t stay. It’s wrong for me. I never felt like I had to make it in New York City to Feel Whole. I feel more or less pleasant at least half the time in other places, but I grit my teeth and steel my face when I’m “home,” which, admittedly, isn’t that often. Perhaps I haven’t bonded with New York because I haven’t been in New York enough, but try telling that to the part of me who almost started yelling at someone on the street the other day. A woman was trying to open the door to her garden apartment on a really hairy section of St. Mark’s. There was garbage that had caught in the doorway and on the cement steps leading down. She had a baby in a stroller with her. I saw the baby and the woman and the trash and the crappy doorknob to the basement apartment that she couldn’t get into and I had to stop myself from screaming, “Have you lost your mind?? Get that child out of here! Are you insane? This place is filthy!”
There’s more to the story. More reasons why I have to leave. Where shall I go? Ah, now that is a very good question. But I think I’ve said enough for now.