About a month ago, I bought a small coffee-table humor book called “I 😐 NY” or in non-emoticon English, I feel relatively neutral about New York. I was at a little gift shop in Tarrytown with my mom who was visiting from Wisconsin, and I couldn’t resist buying this book. New York memorabilia abounds across America. If slapping an Eiffel Tower on everything from a soap dish to a secret diary serves to evoke a life that is romantic, nostalgic, and exotic, then putting a Statue of Library or the Brooklyn Bridge on the same trinkets is to brand oneself in American exceptionalism and over-marketed cool.
The “I ♥ NY” logo itself is more than just local tourism: it’s become a national emblem. I remember my dad had a coffee cup in our old Subaru that slid into a plastic holder glued to the dashboard. The cup said “I ♥ NY.” The irony of that– and the fact that of all the feelings my father had towards New York, love certainly wasn’t at the top of the list– was lost on me at the time. But a couple years later, when we moved to Richmond and saw “Virginia is for Lovers” plastered on the same billboards, license plates, and coffee mugs, my burgeoning bullshit-odometer intuited that there was something fishy going on. People love New York– yet Virginia is for Lovers. Does everyone love their state? Is there a state for haters? I was learning the lies that advertising tells us. What’s more, I was learning that if my family could move from one state to another, professing equal love so capriciously on keychains , then maybe a state was not something to be loved at all.
And so my nomadic, homeless existence began. And although I circled back to Ohio and New York, retracing the progress of my grandparents and parents to wind up only a handful of miles from the harbor my great-grandparents landed in, home has nonetheless evaded me. It’s not that I don’t believe it exists or that one city could be the beginning and the end of a person’s spiritual and physical world. I just haven’t found that place. I’ve lived in cities that I absolutely adored as well as towns that I disliked intently. But here I am, one year later, still puzzling over New York.
The T-Shirt slogan is apt: People love New York. New York begs to be loved. Demands love with obedience while pretending to care less. If Paris were a person, she would be that knock-out vixen who seduces you but lets you know with a wan smile that it’s not going to be forever. New York is the guy at the club who checks you out from across the room, sizes you up in a minute, then refuses to give you a second glance. New York won’t let you down softly like Paris.
So easy to personify, this city. I respect the personality of New York and New Yorkers. I find it endearing, if not appealing. It’s a persona, really. New York has a persona that it works hard to maintain. Tough, edgy, fashionable, enlightened, gritty, cosmopolitan, working class, nonplussed.
I do love parts of New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The New York City Ballet. The Kandinskys at MoMa. Dancing under the stars at Lincoln Center. I love the maligned subway, although it’s unnecessarily complex, but this is only as an extension of my peculiar admiration for subways in general. (The Paris Métro is infinitely more efficient, and the London Underground is spotless). I love walking past the New York Public Library and Bryant Park. I love Grand Central Station and the cupcakes from Magnolia in the Dining Concourse. I love the Strand Bookstore. Yet all these parts that I admire do not add up to a whole for me. I have friends who, upon moving to New York, fell in love with it. Living in cramped quarters on the dodgy end of Park Slope, Brooklyn has no downsides. The treks up and down the subway tracks are welcome sacrifices. For them, the city breathes and spreads out like the infinite opportunity it has represented to generations of immigrants, Broadway hopefuls, and politicians.
I’m more wary. I don’t trust the neon lights of Times Square. I certainly don’t trust the jingling coins of Wall Street, although the Occupy Wall Street protestors give me hope. No city could be all that New York promises. What does it say that citizens wear their love (♥) so literally on their sleeves as well as the asses of their sweatpants? But I’m not a naysayer, either. I have friends who extol the quiet of the Big Woods, of hiking, kayaking, and farm life. Visiting New York makes these friends almost physically ill. I love the bustle of the city– sometimes. What I’m trying to say is… I feel relatively neutral about New York.
This little book is a little too precious at times, but for the most part it is legitimately funny in the satirical style of the Onion. Small enough to fit in a mega purse, I keep it in a place of honor in my bathroom. Each page presents something about New York that the authors feel fairly neutral about. It presents pros and cons, often focusing on the not-so-great aspects of city life that are usually overlooked by Manhattan zealots. The entry on Times Square suggests that a new ticker tape be created stating: “You are overwhelming! You are overwhelming!” Another page asks you to match images of pizza to the cities they are from: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnatti, etc. All the slices are identical. Yet another compares the Empire State Building to “other fairly large things” including Shaquille O’Neal standing on Karem Abdul Jabar’s shoulders.
One of my favorites is the entry on “dangerous holes in the middle of the sidewalk.” This is something that I didn’t know about until I got to New York. There are, at regular intervals along sidewalks across Manhattan, gaping entries to basements that resemble a Kansas root cellar with their corrugated steel doors flung wide open–in other words giant holes positioned exactly where a reasonable person might be walking. These are to facilitate loading and unloading from curbside delivery trucks, but as the authors of I 😐 NY point out, a lot of faith is put into one solitary orange cone’s power to prevent passersby from tumbling into the abyss.
This book reflected my feelings about New York in a way that no other interaction I’d had with a New Yorker had. Strangely, it made me feel less alone. It was validating to purchase it, like at last finding a name for a mystery disease. One doesn’t have to love New York or hate New York. There are good and bad aspects. This is not a city of fantasy, nor of nightmares.
Today, I happened to be reading the back pages when I came across the sarcastic author blurb. For some reason, I’d never remarked upon the author’s name before. (But I did read the Forward written by the Statue of Liberty). Not only did the name, Avery Monsen, sound familiar, but a specific face and bright yellow T-shirt appeared in my mind: Improv comedy, the Sunshine Scouts (or was it Primitive Streak?) in the Cat n’ the Cream. Oberlin. 2005. Avery Monsen was a hot-shot improv kid and actor at Oberlin. I remember reading in the alumni magazine that he wrote a book called “The Pirate’s Handbook” shortly after graduation. That Avery Monsen. I didn’t know him well, and I doubt he knows me at all. But I remember going to a party at the apartment of one of the members of his acting troupe. An FTL (Failure To Launch in Oberlin lingo) who went by the incongruous name of Mooch. Instead of a Boston gang-leader, Mooch was the sensai of the Oberlin Improv scene (ok perhaps those two ARE one in the same). And Avery was a disciple. In fact, Avery was legitimately funny in the satirical style of the Onion. I wish I had some great story to tell about Avery standing on a table in the DeCaf or running naked through the library, but I don’t. I’m just as likely to walk blindly by him on the streets of Queens as I was not to notice his name on the book I bought until two months later. So I guess this is the story. So many Obies were from New York or longed to move there, belittling Cleveland as if they’d been sent to purgatory. And for at least two of us, getting here has not been the mind-blowing experience we were told to expect. Sometimes feeling connected is as simple has having two things in common. I don’t know Avery Monsen at all, but I know two things: we both graduated from Oberlin and we both 😐 New York.