August 22, 2008

Last week in this space I was grossly unfair to a vast swathe of our country, one of America’s most hard-working and patriotic regions. In mocking the Midwest as humorless—indeed, affectless—I surely offended many thousands of my fellow citizens. And I did it without thinking, or considering the effect my words might have.

That is what’s so great about writing for the Internet… you can get away with stuff like that. The outraged reader can’t storm into your newspaper office down on Main Street, and if he decides to line his bird cage with your column, there goes his $400 flatscreen. Best of all, of course, when you write a piece sniping at people for being humorless they are sure to write in really earnest letters contesting it…. Keep them coming, folks!

But this week, I’m going to even the score, to prove I’m not some arrogant, sniping Yankee who thinks that civilization stops at the Hudson River (if you want to get technical, it ends at 6th Avenue, then picks up again somewhere around Pittsburgh… But I digress….). As a native New Yorker who has gained some psychic distance from the place I’ll always call “The City,” I’ve reversed the American writer’s pilgrimage—a flight from the quaint restrictions of a small community such as Nashua, New Hampshire, to some metropolis like Manhattan. Instead of sitting in a six-floor-walk-up garret infested with tiny, scurrying critters and poking fun at my Podunk hometown and its quaint mores (as Garrison Keillor, ahem, used to do for years from Brooklyn…on public radio), I’m camped out in a large, spacious house in a town with fewer cultural events than my college offered every weekend, recounting the stranger side of life in a media magnet.

In fact, it was at a metroplex in a strip mall, in the course of the latest Ben Stiller movie that I came to a curious realization about New Yorkers. If in Lake Woebegone, every child is “above average,” in New York City every adult is “almost famous.” That is, they’re just “one big break” away from grabbing the world by the yarbles—from creating some artwork, writing a novel, releasing an album, performing a monologue, or founding an organization that will achieve World Historical Importance, and end up being taught in Columbia University’s core curriculum.

This reflection was occasioned by watching Tropic Thunder. I wish I could say it is one of those works which should join the Canon of Brain-Damaging Comedies, with the likes of Nothing But Trouble and Joe vs. the Volcano. Instead, Tropic Thunder is one of those movies where I feel like an Iowan. I smile thinly and say, “That’s funny.” Co-written and directed by New Yorker Ben Stiller, it has no excuse for being not much funnier than the Ketchup Council ads on Prairie Home Companion… but a whole lot longer. For a movie whose sense of “good taste” might be shared by cannibals, it doesn’t get much comedic mileage from trampling taboos.

Give Zmirak that budget, that cast, and permission to make fun of retarded kids, spew blood and guts everywhere, dress Asian guys up in bad drag, put Tom Cruise in a fake Jewish nose and Robert Downey, Jr., in blackface… and I’ll make you folks a movie. There will be people spewing popcorn across the theater, blacking out from loss of oxygen and crawling on the floor begging the projectionist for respite. That describes how I reacted to Stiller’s movie Zoolander… which is, of course, the Greatest Film Ever Made. (Number 2 is Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.) In fact, I judge every subsequent film on the 1-10 Zoolander Scale™. And Tropic Thunder earns a measly 4.

But the blackfaced actor played by Robert Downey—an erudite Australian so obsessed by Method Acting that he surgically pigments his skin and can’t stop talking like Samuel L. Jackson—got me thinking about New Yorkers. In most communities, young people start out hoping to change the world, to make their mark, to nurture their private passion until it blossoms in fortune and fame, acclaim and immortality. Then they fail, shut up, get “real jobs” and practice their talents as a hobby. This is specially true of Southerners, who might major in acting at Vanderbilt, move to Brooklyn for five years and work washing dishes or zipping around with bicycle messages—while taking classes and auditioning for roles, scanning Variety and hanging with other “actors.” But after a while, most of them get tired of ramen noodles, or get sick of explaining themselves to their parents, then go home and sell real estate in Marietta. They have some kids, do a little community theater—you’ll see them fighting attack-rabbits in Fort Worth’s Spamalot, mewling horrifically and hopping around like mangy crickets in the Greenville production of Cats—pay their taxes and grow old gracefully.

We don’t grow old in New York; that might entail growing up. Imagine a city where roughly half the population goes through life still somehow convinced that we really will someday end up as astronauts, cowboys, ballerinas, and princesses… we just need a better agent. It doesn’t help that the City is flooded each year with the scraped-off valedictorians of every community in the country, who pour across our borders, hike up the rents, get back at the “rednecks” in their hometowns by voting in Democrats to govern mine—and when they do succeed, settle into the apartments they’ve bid up to $3,000 per month, then condescend to us natives who live out in Queens with the term “Bridge and Tunnel.” (To which the proper response is always, “Yearbook Editor!”)

Those who don’t ever “make it” are driven to make it up. To carry on our life’s vocation of greatness entirely within the confines of our minds. And some of us get remarkably good at this, creating for ourselves entire critiques of our chosen fields, designed to explain why our talents have been frustrated. It often involves extensive reference to “the System,” which freezes us out because we are (variously) Catholics, Jews, conservatives, progressives, women, veterans, Italian-Americans, ex-cops, or straight albinos. I’m sure that somewhere in a basement in Maspeth, Queens, there’s a floundering fiddle player who blames his blunted career on discrimination against the Slothful. But I shouldn’t use the “S-word.” I meant “inerto-Americans.”

But these are only the pikers. The truly deluded, the absolutely expert New Yorkers, don’t blame others for our failure—because we never realize that we’ve failed. We can go on for years serving coffee at Starbucks, telemarketing, cadging sleep grants from the NYS Dept. of Labor in the form of unemployment checks, never working (much less succeeding) in our fields… and it makes no difference at all. We’re each really “brilliant” writers/critics/actors/activists/crusaders/mimes, and all of our friends are too. We meet up with them sometimes at diners like the Little Poland on 2nd Avenue, which serves up buzzing flies and a big bowl of “Meat Soup with Husks of Bread” for under $3, to talk about our “projects.” Which are somehow always “incubating.”

For instance, the following people, drawn exclusively from folks with whom I’ve traded delusions over the years:


  • The painter who hasn’t lifted a brush in seven years, who works as a tour guide, and introduces herself as “an artist.”

  • The opera singer who never made it past the chorus, who flounced offstage complaining about “misogyny.” She’s now a “former diva.”

  • The conservative journalist whose refusal to work lost him, over time, several primo apartments (they expected him to pay rent!) and most of his front teeth. He has planned for some 25 years to personally re-found the Jesuits.

  • The Irish-American violent alcoholic who fancies himself a Sinn Fein “freedom fighter”—which is easier since he has never been to Ireland.

  • The chef who got booted from kitchen to kitchen—and explained that her cuisine was simply too sophisticated for New York City. While working as a maid, she would tell people, privately, she was one of the four best chefs on earth.

  • The therapist who plans to form a private Catholic army (made up of his male patients) who will fight for the Church around the world, and “subdue the global sex slave trade” using martial arts.

  • The museum employee who dresses for Sunday Mass as Cardinal Richelieu—complete with a real, live goatee. Bless her heart!

  • The Bronx kid who lived in Ireland in his 20s for 18 months—and has talked with a full-on brogue ever since.

I really could go on all day. And I’ve have to, if I shared with you the delusions that used to keep me going.

To people who’ve never lived in the City, this phenomenon is hard to explain. Or as my Southern Fried Beloved likes to say, “What is wrong with you people?”

I’ve offered various theories. Is there some kind of delusional cloud that hangs over the City? Maybe a mild hallucinogen the landlords add to the water to keep us from begrudging our rents? A curse cast by the Manhattan Indians on their way out of the island? No, I think it’s the pressure exerted by the huddled masses of National Merit Scholars sneaking across our border that pushes the rest of us over the side. The East River washes us out into the Long Island Sound. Then we wake up in Atlantis—where each of us gets to be emperor.


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