October 13, 2009

NEW YORK-They found this place 400 years ago this year among the Indians in the marches, and no one’s looked back since. Some of the Dutch descendants are still around but you wouldn’t know it by reading the gossip columns or celebrity blogs. This is immigrant paradise, and the less European one looks and sounds the better. It’s the nominally post-racial New York, no longer the Noo Yawk of my youth, with its mournfully tender streets of kind-hearted Irish cops, Italian small-time hoods, black hipsters, and Jewish merchants. Manhattan was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the heartache, fear, ambition, and joy of the city pulsating in its rhythmic and soaring score. Not any more. “What has happened to this place where I used so happily to pound the sidewalks?” mused John Cheever, “where has my city gone, where shall I look for it?” Drunker and drunker, Cheever never found the old place, staying mostly in Ossining where he wrote Falconer before drinking himself to death. I often ask myself the same question. What’s happened to the Plaza and the Sherry, Radio City and the Waldorf? They’re still around but, like Gordon Brown’s smile, they ain’t real any more. The Roxy, El Morocco, the Stork, the Biltmore, where we met under the clock, are gone forever, a culture of runaway consumption having killed them off. As it has glamour. Socialites are now hawking wares on cable TV, and movie stars look like homeless people wrapped in expensive rags.  Politicians no longer wear fedoras or gold chains in their waistcoats, and their voices are as false as ever but not stentorian. The beautiful jukeboxes are gone, as have the colorful Packard taxis waiting in rows in front of the Plaza. Now it’s all black limos with fat drivers dressed in black and talking in their cell phones. It’s all texting and twittering now, a place of female Woody Allens seeking help.

New York is now a city full of quacks prescribing water and more water to their neurotic, menopausal clients, who lurk around like Myrmidons, out-confessing each other in an endless game of exhibitionism and one upmanship. There is a lust for social networking, twittering and status updating never seen or experienced before, bringing society’s self-absorption to its boiling point. It has made walking the streets harder to do than dribbling past ten Italian defenders in a European Cup final, all eyes riveted to that God-awful blackberry, the worst curse to hit us since the Black Death.

Self-help gurus preach their new age spirituality in Greenwich Village studios, anointing their hands in fragrant oils and playing inspirational music. This is a place full of Trinny Woodalls and Trinny Woodalls wannabees. Emotions and slogans concerning emotions have replaced rational thought and speech, with non-sequiturs such as “Hang out in the light” warranting one hundred bucks an hour per pupil. “Tap into your spirituality” is the slogan that has replaced diet and exercise fads, and counseling women is now a very big business. Self-transformation is what we once upon a more innocent time called a wet dream. Everyone wants to be an Indian swami, just like they did back in the Sixties. Which shows you how much originality there is to go around.

I remember the first time I heard someone talk about “being spiritual.” It was from that truly beautiful actress Jennifer O’Neill, of Summer of 42 fame. I had just met her and had tried to get into her knickers before we sat down to dinner and she got angry and said that had I been a bit more spiritual she might have said yes. To which I replied that if she were truly spiritual she would have understood my plight, having just returned from Vietnam and all that. Jennifer carved herself up with a hunting knife after an unhappy marriage and when her looks started to go, which I guess goes to show that spirituality only goes so far where the Hollywood fair sex is concerned. Give me some good lipstick and make up any day.

This power of positive thinking is hardly new. It began in the 19th century, but as always, Americans had to reinvent it in female terms. This hodge-podge of philosophy is a good earner for those unembarrassed enough to teach it. Personally it makes me laugh when I overhear such nonsense. Especially in this town where people talk loudly and where writers as well as normal human beings try to out-confess each other. What is it about New Yorkers and confession? I well remember the times when the only person you confessed to was a priest. Public style back then was understated, modest and self-abnegating. Then the clowns of the Sixties convinced us that self-effacement was somehow linked to conformity and repression, and all shame has since disappeared. We are all Trinnys now, egomaniacal and self-indulgent, strutting around zonked out and brain dead by too much trash TV exposure. Like that poor John Cheever, I wonder where my city has gone. I guess I need some spiritual help, and I know just the lady to go to. Except that it’s more than 100 bucks nowadays.    


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