Heidegger: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Morgenbesser: “If there were nothing you’d still be complaining!”
So, nu? I’m coming up on the year anniversary of hanging in New York City, living out my childhood fantasy in a brownstone neighborhood with a stoop and a cafe on the corner and fuhggedaboutits, all of which, in 2012 means, of course, Brooklyn. Which is to say the NYC that I came to live in is gone and I’ve known it’s gone for decades but I’m OK with living one more lie in the name of a romantic adventure. I’ve gotten pretty good at that and it serves me well and no one is directly killed or injured by my doing it so here I am.
Of all the things Fran Lebowitz is right about, the relevant one here is that everybody, always romanticizes earlier eras in New York. There can be no doubt that new arrivals in 1812 were greeted with nostalgia for the glory days of the 1790′s. Like Lebowitz, I don’t miss the crime of the 1970′s but I miss something and Lebowitz’s litany sounds close: it was less boring, you could smoke, you could find a butcher on Times Square, and it was affordable for folks besides the super rich. “You can not say that an entire city full of people with lots of money is fascinating. It is not.”
I’ve been casting about trying to figure out what’s changed for me and I now suspect that it involves Lebowitz herself: a smart, deliciously witty secular Jew. I can relate. I mean, I can aspire. And, my God, New York was the best place on Earth where I might have a shot at being the best version of that. Here was a place where being all the things that I was born into was valued. There was never a question of whether I would “fit it” in the NYC of the 1970′s.
The trouble started when the cabal of “three guys” as Lebowitz describes, set out to save New York from bankruptcy in 1980′s and decided to turn New York into something to look at, into one big tourist attraction. They were on a mission to strip away actual New York and leave the idea of New York. Naturally that idea would not be Scorsese’s dystopic nightmare, but instead a version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s where Holly was a party planner at Barney’s, not a $20 whore. If they were to make NYC an “attractive” place for American tourists they have to get rid of the “icky” parts. Welcome to Epcot New York.
And really, what could be more icky than a city full of blacks who speak Yiddish. You could say that Giuliani’s cabal finished the job that Travis Bickle started.
Yes, New York was more dangerous and icky for most of Americans, but it was safe and a haven for a “stupendously Jewish” Columbia professor and ex-yeshiva bocher Sidney Morgenbesser who summed up the whole of Jewish ethics and philosophy with “If P, so why not Q?”
Professor Morgenbesser died in 2004. The New York City that made him a star died 20 years before that. I’ve spent the last year celebrating the memory of both and basking in some downwind version of what used to be and grateful for the little nuggets that float by.