This is the first in a series of guest posts hovering around the question Why Do I Live Here? I asked the question because I'm interested in hearing about the impact NYC has on others. The question has other questions swimming with it, baby questions, like: is there a lot of pressure in their work lives? How do they deal with the lack of space? What are their coping mechanisms? Are there more substances involved, whether legal or illegal, than when they lived elsewhere? Has iPod usage increased to drown out subway screech? Do they jog or yoga to maintain peace of mind, and filter out the Borg-like nature of competing stimuli? Does the city shatter their life's bones, but enrich their creativity? Or, do they simply thrive on it? Appropriately, the first in this series is by a nativist New Yorker, Richard Prins, who sometimes lives in Dar es Salaam. He received his MFA degree in poetry from New York University, and now is hoping to spend time translating Swahili poetry. His work appears in Los Angeles Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Rattle, Redivider and Transition Magazine. (See Poets and Writers directory for more links to examples of his poems online.)
When I was fourteen years old I experienced a personality crisis. I couldn't decide whether I was Jesus or Charlie Manson. It was a strange time. The Twin Towers had just been toppled, on my second day of high school. I was rapidly becoming aware that I was a deviant leftist poet freak, and felt I wouldn't have many friends in my overwhelmingly preppie school. So I spent my free time sleeping under benches in the student lounge, listening to Leonard Cohen on my discman and shouting his lyrics at anyone who passed. I began a quick and confusing relationship with a lady who was addicted to heroin. When my parents forbade me from seeing her, I declared war on them, snarls and silence my preferred mode of battle. Meanwhile, she checked into a mental institution. I could have told my parents I would stop seeing her, a harmless surrender, but decided on a hunger strike instead. They sent me to a drug counselor with a bobbing ponytail whose name sounded a lot like Carlos Castaneda, the peyote guru. I pissed in a cup every Tuesday after school for a couple months, and came up clean. Because, I wasn't "on drugs"; I simply couldn't figure out whether I was meant to be Jesus or Charlie Manson.
David asked me to write something for New York Peristalsis fielding the question, "why do you live in New York?" My gut instinct is to retort, why the fuck would I live anywhere else? and leave it at that.
I've lived here all my life, except for several stays in East Africa, a year and a half, taken cumulatively. My girlfriend also frequently asks me why I insist on living here. She's seen how much more alive I am, dancing all night to a live soukous band in Dar es Salaam, guzzling Safari lagers and making friends I'll never forget, even if I never see them again.
But there's a simple fact that keeps me here: New York is who I am.
I suspect it's a logic--an inherently conservative logic--that keeps a lot of people in a lot of awful places. I was lucky enough to be born into an identity that doesn't feel conservative, no matter how stubbornly I cling to it.
* * *
I was considering becoming Jesus because I had marched in the West Indian Day Parade, carrying the banner for a progressive political candidate. I was dispatched to bring placards to Al Sharpton's contingent, who had recently endorsed us. But the crowd was a bulging, insurmountable knot. I was lost, a lanky hippie kid in pre-gentrification Crown Heights, arms loaded with political placards. I felt like a hapless tourist in my own city. I sat down in front of a bodega to gather my bearings. A man with a flute in his hands, a deep trill in his voice, and a Jamaican flag bandana wrapped around his ropy dreadlocks, took a seat next to me. He used to be a rich man with his very own truck, he told me, but he gave it all away because Jesus told him to--it's in the Bible!
I was in the habit of collecting mentors. I immediately decided he was the wisest person I had ever met, and that I should listen to everything he said. He told me I have peaceful eyes, and that peaceful eyes are a blessing; after all, Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
I wanted to be a peacemaker. So why not be the child of god? But later it occurred to me that Charlie Manson had the same name as Jesus, and looked quite a bit like him too. Except his eyes weren't peaceful. Neither were mine, ensconced as they were in social anxiety and teenage rebellion. So maybe my dreadlocked hobo friend was mistaken, and I had to become a psychopath instead.
Back at school, I dressed in black and called everyone "sheep" to their faces. I imagined it was exactly what both Charlie and Jesus would have done.
I could have suffered a similar existential crisis in any American suburb. But could I have survived it? I don't know. High school is such brutal solipsism; it's only possible to believe there's a world beyond it if you're actually interacting with that world.
In New York, all I had to do was hop on the subway to expand my consciousness and carve myself an alternative identity. After school (if I didn't have to proclaim my innocence in urine) I could hand out flyers or stuff envelopes for any sufficiently radical cause, while collecting wisdom from assorted wingnuts. Or I could lounge with a book in Tompkins Square Park until I bumped into some disaffected and possibly drug-addled youths I knew from antiwar protests. Or I could go to an open mic and read my poems, which ran the gamut from antiwar slam pieces relying heavily on images of George W. Bush masturbating an oil spout, to cryptic nonsensical Burroughs imitations which also frequently conjured the president masturbating an oil spout.
Back at school, I was still a freak, but I was becoming comfortable expressing my freakishness.
What would I have done if I lived in the suburbs? start a Live Journal?
I realize I'm setting up a false dichotomy -- "New York" vs. "the suburbs", as if there's no other place to live in the universe. Sue me, I'm a parochial bastard.
* * *
My rant--already inelegant--is about to skid and veer into territory that's inherently problematic. I'll feel safer if I quote James Baldwin first: Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated – in the main, abominably – because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.
For good luck, I also want to quote Jamaica Kincaid:
An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just passed cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness...So when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
Rubbing those quotes together, I realize something in the friction: A tourist is a freak! A privileged freak. No wonder I have such a great time in Dar es Salaam -- I get to play freak 24/7. But I always have to come back to New York, where I'm still a freak, but a native freak, with a comparatively pleasureless existence.
I can't count how many times, somewhere hip in North Brooklyn, I've been asked where I'm from, and when I say I'm from here, my interlocutor thinks I've misunderstood the question. No, where are you really from, they ask, drawing out the word "from" as if I don't know the meaning of a simple preposition, as if it's impossible to actually get born in this place.
And I can't help spitefully imagining they'll be free, one to ten years from now, to pick up and leave. When they have a nervous breakdown. When they give up on affording the rent. When they're hired for a dream job in some podunk town like Palo Alto. Or when they have kids and can't imagine raising them in such a feral playground. The only thing binding them to this city is their own two feet; I'm still attached by the umbilical cord.
I pity them for not growing up in New York. But I also envy them. They seem to be having so much more fun than me, truly relishing the joyride my city offers. They remind me of ex-pats in Tanzania, flocked in their exclusive clubs with a house band churning out endless Bob Marley covers, the only visible locals a chic mix of faux-Rasta hustlers and excessively-lipsticked, anglophone prostitutes.
The only thing uglier than a tourist is an ex-pat who still acts like a tourist.
* * *
Nobody comes to New York because they want to be happy, unless they're fucking deluded. They come seeking thrills and truth. But there must come a time when you're too jaded to just consume and enjoy what thrills and truth the city has to offer. As a bona fide New Yorker, you have to cultivate your banality and boredom and offer it up like an aphrodisiac for all the tourists and newcomers and weekend pubcrawlers. You perform New York. Because at the end of the day, their unseemly giddiness is what proves New York great, and New York's greatness is your own greatness.
Is that really the moral of my rant? Since I was fourteen, I've tried so hard to be radical. But take away my dashikis and knee-jerk politics, erase my hedonistic explorations and lustful globetrotting -- at heart I'm a conservative, a loyalist, a New York nativist -- taking comfort in what's familiar and expecting to be rewarded for it.