The recent death of Joan Didion caused me to visit my local bookstore and buy her essay collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I couldn’t find my old copy so I made a pilgrimage to McNally Jackson in Soho and picked up the book from the shelf they’d prepared with copies of all her work. Few essays have left as deep an impression on me as “Goodbye to All That,” the final essay in the book. It’s opening line is haunting: “It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.” Her essay was written after she’d left New York, driven away by the city’s intensity, but it is a tribute to all the things that every year draw young people to the Emerald City – ambition, pain, loneliness, and excitement.
I too came to NY after college, lived in some dangerous places, observed many bizarre things in the 1970s and 1980s, and often walked on the sidewalk looking up, not ahead, thinking about the history in the old buildings. I have lived in New York most of my adult life but I still don’t think of myself as a New Yorker. I am of New York, but not from New York, and I still consider myself an outsider who has not found a reason to leave.
My feelings toward New York are conflicted. I am appalled by the tyranny of celebrity, awed by its creative spirit, frightened by its power to belittle, and endlessly entertained by stories of the people who live here. My heart wavers between wanting to stay and urges to leave. The only time I miss New York is when I’m considering moving away.
Many other prominent authors have written essays about their conflicted feelings toward New York, and I am a collector of their wisdom. Rivka Galchen, the novelist and New Yorker contributor wrote her version of the Didion essay in 2021, “Living in New York’s Unloved Neighborhood.” It is a touching account of living in far west Midtown with her young daughter and husband among loud trucks and ugly mid-century office buildings.
My New York is a mash-up of Herman Melville’s New York, Edith Wharton’s New York, E. B. White’s New York, and the New York of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. All these characters and personalities are ghosts on the streets – and they are there if I look close enough as I pass a place that has not been changed by the forces of development that always remake neighborhoods. I walk the streets and I imagine people who made New York their own – Warhol, Madonna, and De Niro – I see them in the crowd with sunglasses. But Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That” is the masterpiece.
Ian Fleming also wrote a New York essay, which appeared in his collection of thirteen travel pieces, Thrilling Cities, written for The Sunday Times in 1959 and 1960, on assignment for a trip around the world. Fleming’s comments on New York were so cutting that when the book was published in the US, his American publisher asked him to tone down the wording. Fleming refused, but instead wrote a short coda “007 in New York” that was included in the US version by way of recompense, which depicts James Bond in New York and makes him an aficionado.
Fleming brings a particular British disgust for New York’s hoi polloi – the impoliteness of cab drivers, the rude rush of people on the sidewalks, and disrespect for tradition. He preferred the Peninsula of the old Hong Kong, or the Dorchester of aristocratic London. But his take on New York is interesting for its contrariness.
My favorite New York observation from among these writers is the sadly beautiful and chilling opening sentence in E.B White’s essay: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.”