Thursday, February 13, 2014

Manhattan: Home of Symbiotic Isolation

Webster's defines autonomy as, “The right of the individual to govern himself according to his own reason.” You would think that life in Manhattan would engender that kind of thinking. Well that's true, but that is only one side of the story. Living there can be a little bit like living in an incubator. As cramped as you may be in your two or three room apartment, once you've been in it for more than five years, it becomes virtually impossible to leave. Never mind that your rent is so astronomical that you can scarcely save up the money to move. There is this mentality that pervades all logic: that life off the island of Manhattan not only has no meaning, it does not exist. Not really. No one else could possibly really live. I can remember shuddering when someone even mentioned taking the Path Train to New Jersey. When you live in Manhattan, the world is flat. Go over a bridge, and you will fall off the earth.

Add to this mentality the convenience of city life. You do not need a car, because everything you could ever want is within a ten block radius. You don't have to cook or buy groceries, because you can get anything, even a fur sink, delivered. (You couldn't cook even if you wanted to because your armpit is bigger than your kitchen.) Then there are all the support groups, public assistance, unadvertised sample sales and sliding scale payment plans. All of this adds up to the proverbial flip side of the saying old blue eyes made famous: “If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere.” Maybe you can make it there because its easier there than it is everywhere else. For once you become an integral member of your neighborhood, Manhattan can feel downright symbiotic.

It is that symbiosis that has made New York the capitol of the world, and home to every artist imaginable: from Dylan Thomas at the Chelsea Hotel, to Lou Reed and the Factory courtesy of Andy Warhol. Art and New York are synonyms.

Two writers who make a name for themselves by inviting us into the arms of the city are Truman Capote, with his uptown wit and scarlet ladies, and Jonathan Safran Foer whose precocious Oskar both breaks our hearts and demands our allegiance.

Truman's Holly Golightly embodies the spirit of the city she merely rents on a month by month basis. Her relationships are all transient as signified by her lack of furniture so that no one can feel at home. Her cat is merely a room mate until she loses him. When the cat finds a home without her, the reader is left wondering who in the story has a happy ending, Holly, or the cat. The cat also doesn't want to leave Holly, he runs his body along her legs as she tells him in no uncertain terms to leave her. He feels the connection that she does not. He recognizes his home in this female vacuum.

Holly spends her life behind dark glasses. In her furnitureless life, she whisks about in an alcohol induced stupor with eyes veiled and hence unreadable. In a city of nine million people, sunglasses can be a vulnerable person's best friend. Holly utilizes these with the dexterity of the restless, thrown away child that she is. Her stolen masks are simply more of the same. Unlike her cat, she is never conscious of just how much she relies on the city for her self-definition. But her unconscious reliance is misplaced when she chooses to identify with Tiffany's: the brand of the New York elite. She may be passing herself off as a shiny prize worthy of the famous baby blue box, but like the blood diamonds sold on Fifth Avenue, she is a specter, wearing a label that misrepresents her true self. She never values those elements of Manhattan that encapsulate her and provide her her home, like Joe Bell and Fred and Mr. Yoniushi. If only she could see the difference between the insular five floor walk up and the cage.

Grady McNeil is yet another young women finding herself. She understands her relationship with the city. She understands her upper east side. But she wants to understand herself and that inner essence which sets her apart from her mother and sister. She does this by cutting across town and standing on Broadway on the upper west side. A non New Yorker may think that uptown is uptown, no matter if its east or west, but they would be wrong. There is a world of difference between each individual neighborhood. The upper east side is home to Old Money, investment bankers, et al. The upper west side is New Money, artists, Broadway stars, Fashion icons. The east side is conservative. The west side is liberal. So for Grady to stand on a corner of Broadway on the west side in the forties is shocking. She is purposefully out of her element: pushing the envelope, taking a risk. The touchstones of her childhood are no where to be found on Broadway and her risk taking lands her in an adrenaline rush of cross cultural socio-economic landmines no debutant can survive. In a city that insulates its tight knit neighbors and neighborhoods, Grady breaks a rule the city rarely forgives: she goes slumming. Once you go downtown, or over the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge, there is no going back to Fifth Avenue. In this way New York has always been a mirror of fiscally conservative society. Some rules, as Grady realizes, cannot be broken.

Perhaps the most noteworthy character in Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, is the city itself. In working through his grief at the loss of his father, Oskar Schell connects with strangers in a manner only possible in large urban environments. The self imposed island a New Yorker becomes as she puts on her dark sunglasses ala Holly, can provide much needed emotional insulation. But the city has heart, and in post 9/11 New York (and Post Giuliani's Police state) it is safe enough for a child to discover himself through connecting with others who have suffered a loss. Each person Oskar connects with needs the experience of him just as much as he needs them. The city supports the exploration of these new found friendships. It engenders them. It gives nine million people a chance at the wonders of symbiosis.

Lou Reed once remarked that the dot com bubble was pricing all the artists out of New York City. Someday, he said, art will find a new home, one where the artist's will find affordable rent. That may be true, but the voices of established artists will never leave the capitol of the world. It is brash. It is self important, but it is a character and a cauldron and it percolates people until they either self destruct or catapult to greatness. It does nothing in between. Capote's and Foer's character's are evidence of the wit and intelligence that cultural meccas galvanize. They could belong nowhere else but to the city the Beastie Boy's so famously told us “blends and mends and tests”.

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