Why Brooklyn Is Home
MAY 09, 2013 by MICHAEL NOLAN
The five-year milestone passed about a month after another: 10 years since I left Indiana for good. The latter means more to me, and that took me by surprise. I’ve been trying to make some sense of it. For one thing, the fact that New York isn’t Indiana isn’t much of a factor anymore in why I prefer the former. I still go back regularly to visit family, who, along with several friends, are making fine lives for themselves there. I could move back myself and probably be happy, mainly because I wouldn’t be poor, like I was when I left.
And there are times when I wish I was sitting on my parents’ porch watching a summer storm bruise the western horizon, or flying down an empty freeway, the car filling with sweet cornflower air and affordable cigarette smoke. Or sitting around a bonfire with my dad, having cigars and talking about nothing in particular. All of those things are unavailable to me in New York. I don’t fault anyone who figures that their personal equivalents—say, the air up in the mountains, or the community out in the bayou, or whatever—are far too valuable to give up for the chance to live in the most overhyped city on the planet.
I [kvetch] New York
If this doesn’t sound like love, that’s because it’s not. For one thing, I won’t attach something like love to something as abstract, convoluted, and indifferent as a whole city. Incidentally, I disagree with people who say a city isn’t the buildings or the subways or the location—it is those things, but only in combination with the people trying to live there. Take a bunch of buildings and remove the people and what you’ve got is ruins. But take all those people and have ‘em wander around without buildings and what you’ve got is the Book of Exodus. Put them both together and you’re really cooking, but it doesn’t make much sense to me to say that I love what results.
And besides, cities as such call up a mix of emotions in me; individual cities each have their own proprietary blends. I can still summon something that I cannot name, tied to my first glimpse of Chicago as I approached in my grandparents’ Datsun. Even going to downtown Indianapolis, at one time, seemed like a pretty big deal. Maybe there’s something like love in there somewhere, but I’d use another word if English had it.
So this thing I’ve got going on with New York, it’s personal, and I don’t think there is any such thing as a case for or against it. I bring this up half because New York’s status (and aforementioned overhype) means everyone in the United States has an opinion about this place, and a lot of them include resentment. Often justifiably.
But the other half is because I’m constantly having this very conversation with myself. I have worked from wherever I could get online for almost a decade now, so where I live is much more a matter of choice than necessity. That means that I’m choosing to put up with New York, and I wonder quite often what I’m paying for and whether it’s worth it.
The answers to both questions shift regularly. This shouldn’t be a surprise; phrasing exactly what I want out of New York has never been a simple proposition. I want a life here, and a life is a big, messy, indeterminate (if not quite open-ended) thing. Besides, over the last decade, I somehow got 10 years older, for which I blame the CIA. It's changed how I value the things I used to be shooting for.
I could do up a list of things I like about New York: the density of good record stores, the fact that every band and movie stops by here if they can make it, the endless diversity of well-stocked bars for every mood and occasion, the quality of food one can take for granted even at price points roughly equivalent to the Olive Garden. The museums and the theaters. There’s the architecture. There are the artists I love who are from or who made their careers in New York (Kurt Vonnegut and David Letterman, also ex-Hoosiers, have particular significance). There’s the history. There’s the riot of languages and people and fashions, the healthy stress of knowing I’m surrounded by more talent, intelligence, and hustle than nearly anywhere else on the planet—and then the payoff of having people like this from whom to construct my social world. And you can be unhappy sometimes and air your grievances. We’ve all got plenty, after all.
I could contrast New York with other cities, but that seems pointless, except to catalogue all the ways New York fits together more of what I want than anyplace else I can think of. The closest substitutes would require at least a 40 percent raise to justify the move (I’m looking at you, San Francisco), have the wrong climate (New Orleans, Miami, all of Texas), are too far away from anybody I know (Boise and Denver) or too close to them (Cincy, Louisville, and probably even Chicago), or are just irredeemably lousy in all respects (screw you, D.C.).
Offers I Can’t (but Maybe Should) Refuse
The thing is, though, it always feels like I’m living under the authority of the mafia—and that’s before you get into political theory or read literally any story at all about people like Vito J. Lopez. This mafia—or this alliance of mafias—might be somewhat less in my face than the Cosa Nostra variety, especially since I’m white, so stop-and-frisk only fills me with disgust and shame; it does not raise the specter of arrest for simply leaving my apartment.
But the thugs and weasels running this place still insert themselves between me and all the wonderful things about this city, extracting one toll after another. None of these schmucks was necessary in order for any of those wonderful things to come about. But I have to cough up or they’ll get violent fast.
Being subject, at all times and in all places, to the whims of the powerful is the fundamental condition of everyone who lives in New York. But that's nothing all that new. Even when the residents of this city weren’t formally indentured to or the outright property of the city’s rulers, we’ve always been treated as such. The city goes on anyway.
But it still feels like freedom itself just to walk the streets, even if returning to the Midwest doesn’t feel quite like this.
What saves New York is that it’s far too big, too crazy, too multifaceted, and ultimately too productive of a city even for an authoritarian blowhard like Giuliani or Mike “Little Big Gulp” Bloomberg to ruin completely. That, and the simple fact that, to quote Walker Percy, “Here there is no one to keep track”: You can slip into anonymity, move from one lifestyle to another, and it doesn’t much matter what the neighbors think. Given what it was like growing up in the land of John Mellencamp (he’ll always be “The Coug” to me), this alone is worth a solid 25 percent of my income—which, incidentally, is going to be higher here than in most other places.
In the meantime, there is a sense—unlike anywhere else I’ve ever lived—in which we’re all in it together. This has nothing to do with being part of an organic whole. We all have our own hustles. But, by and large, you can count on people to help out when you need it. I was here as a tourist during the last transit strike, in 2005. Most of what I heard about was commiseration and community. In some cases, people were even allowed to miss work rather than walk a few miles in subzero weather; it’s a powerful kind of decency that can penetrate even Midtown corporate offices.
During Hurricane Sandy, this sense of community was even more pronounced. It wasn’t necessarily always friendly, but neither did public order dissolve into rioting and looting, and people started reaching out to make preparations and offer support before the storm even hit.
More generally, you can’t live here without getting the feeling, from time to time, that “the city” is one great, unified thing—that it has selfhood, almost—that is separate from and occasionally hostile to you. It feels sometimes like the pigeons themselves are the carriers of random fortune, and the skies are full of them, and they’ve all got the trots: Once in a while, you’re going to get dumped on. Even for trust-fund babies, these things might as well be as immutable as the weather. Consolidated Edison is a nightmare from which we’ve all been unable to wake up. Taxi drivers and bicyclists seem like two rival armies of pedestrian-hating gremlins who’ve managed to arm themselves. It stinks in the summertime. The cops only come into your life when they’re hassling you about something—you’re on your own for protection. The subway system seems like a social experiment dreamed up by the Taxi & Limousine Commission that eventually gained sentience out of sheer disgust. It still hasn't made up its mind about whether its passengers are parasites or prey, so it abides us. For now.
There’s next to nothing you can do about most of it but take your lumps or leave. But at least, as New Yorkers go (and it seems like I should have DeNiro in here somewhere), there are a lot more Archibald Tuttles running around than there are Travis Bickles.
The City that Always Everything
Every time the taxi pulls out of LaGuardia—every single time—en route to my place, I get a little thrill that I get to come back to all of this. It's never been like that anywhere else. Ultimately, it’s home. None of the handful of other places I’ve lived in my adult life has ever deserved the name. This one more or less demands it. This collection of favorite neighborhoods, habitual walks, the screeching J train overhead, the smell of barbecue and roasting pavement underneath, the reggaeton clouting me in the gut from passing traffic, the bars where they don’t measure out the bourbon, the ones where they let you smoke in the basement or after last call, the guy who cuts my hair and sounds like Chico Marx, the hipsters and all the ways I still can’t bring myself to hate them, the view from the Williamsburg Bridge of a Saturday morning in early October, the smell of roasting chestnuts on 42nd outside Grand Central a couple weeks before Christmas, the first time it gets warm enough to have brunch outside and stay there all day just for the hell of it—all of this somehow adds up to a world I can create for myself here and no place else.
Maybe when I decide the world deserves another Nolan or three, I’ll have to pull up stakes to afford a big enough place. And if you ask me what I think in mid-July or so, you’ll want to make sure there are no children around. But for now, I’m sticking around, and despite everything, I feel lucky I get to make that choice.