Wednesday, May 9, 2012

New York, New York

It was a year ago today that I interviewed for my current job.  I fell in love with the school immediately, but worried that I would not be able to make the transition to high school teacher, or that my lack of experience in the field would prevent me from getting hired.  Thankfully I got the position, and have been rewarded with a wonderful work environment and the chance to teach some fantastically engaged students.  It also meant escaping from my own personal hell in Texas, where I had been laboring within a tyrannical, bullying department at an almost comically reactionary institution located in a backwoods crudhole of town.  I wrote the following back then as I contemplated going to work in the Big Apple, a place I had a long and complex relationship with.  A year on, I must say I love the place even more despite the fact that its familiarity has eroded some of its mystique.

I am a very happy person this evening. I got offered the job in NYC, and have officially decided to take it. Obviously, I am overjoyed at finally being able to live with my wife, and with being able to work for a school that really seems to share my values (i.e. giving a damn about real education and treating students like human beings instead of slabs of meat.) However, I do feel a certain special giddiness about being able to get up and go to work in New York each day.

It's a city I have really grown to love first hand over the past few years, after decades of admiration mixed with an inferiority complex from afar. Those who are from the city or its surrounding area probably can't understand the bundle of emotions that the Big Apple invokes in the culturally advanced children of small heartland towns. For those in the provinces without cultural aspirations, they see New York as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" to quote Obi Wan Kenobi. To them, it is the ultimate foreign island within the United States, a space of constant transgression full of homosexuals, immigrants, and effete intellectuals. This is why I find it so ironic that the people who seem to hate all that New York represents are the ones most likely to claim the legacy of 9/11 and get their knickers in a twist over the supposed "Ground Zero mosque." (I love Buck Owens, but even I can't forgive the following song.)

If you grow up in the cultural fringe but want to rebel against it, there is perhaps no better way than to embrace the city most reviled by rural America's most reactionary denizens. Growing up I had a certain obsession with the city that grew out of movies, books, music, Saturday Night Live, and broadcasts of games from Yankee Stadium. Taxi Driver was one of the first truly artistic films I saw as a teenager, and one that stamped a certain image of New York on my mind: a dangerous, sleazy, violent, yet exhilerating place. I got much the same vibe from one of my favorite bands, The Velvet Underground, whose junk-sick sounds were inseperable from Manhattan's dark heart. If you asked me when I was 21 to describe New York City, I would have played you "Sister Ray." On a similar, gritty note, back when I was 16, I would have spun "The Streets of New York" by Kool Rapp G and DJ Polo.

There was another New York of my imagination, of course. This New York was the cradle of culture, the epitome of the modern world at its most modern, from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was the place where all my favorite writers seemed to have lived at one point or another. It was jazz, art deco, and subways. It's where Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and countless others came to make there mark. Even though the city intimidated me in its distance, its size, and foreigness, I secretly harbored a desire to "be a part of it," as the song goes.

At the age of 19 while attending a college debate tournament in Princeton, I was lucky enough to have a couple of days to play around in the city. The first day was kinda touristy, we hit Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, and yes, the World Trade Center. I still remember standing in the observation deck looking out over the city, an endless undulating maze of skyscrapers stretching on to the horizon. The buildings seemed like giant file cabinets where people were stored, a thought that profoundly disturbed me at the time. Still, to this day, despite my love of the city and ease with which I move about it, I get a certain feeling of extreme alienation, of being but a small, insignificant blip in a startingly fast-moving, indifferent panorama.

Our second day in the city was more fun. My debate partner was quite the social butterfly, and she made quick friends with a Jamaican debater attending an Irish university who had done an internship on Wall Street. I've forgotten his name, but he was a good guy and a great guide to the city. We got under the surface of the city and strolled through places like Greenwhich Village. I was more of a goofball in those days, and while I am embarassed to admit it now, I must report that on the subway I got some of my friends to join me in a chorus of "New York, New York." Some the passengers threw loose change at us, I think as a compliment, or at least a slight recognition of our outsider's enthusiasm for Gotham.

However, my attitude about New York got a bit resentful as my twenties went on. Much of this had to do with my years spent in Chicago and my great love for the City of Broad Shoulders. (Even today I feel like I am cheating on Chicago by making New York number one in my affections.) Chicagoans are loathe to admit it, but they have a certain inferiority complex when it comes to New York born out of decades of condescension. I also resented the very real snobbery I was forced to endure over the years from people who would cast aspersions on my home state without ever having been there. New Yorkers seemed to me the most provincial people in America, all the while claiming to be the most cosmopolitan.

And while that "everything is better in New York" attitude still bugs me, I've learned to get over it. There are many wonderful ways that my wife has made me a fuller and better person, but one of the best has been her rehabilitation of New York City in my eyes. Our first real date was there, and even if the city wears me down, I will always think of it as the place where the greatest love of my life was kindled. Come to think of it, I am not going to "be a part of it," but I am really coming home.

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