Chapter One. He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle-bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles. Ah, no. Corny, too corny for a man of my taste. Mmm, lemme, lemme try and make it more profound.
Chapter One. He adored New York City. To him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of individual integrity that caused so many people to take the easy way out was rapidly turning the town of his dreams into ... nah, it’s gonna be too preachy. I mean, let’s face it—I wanna sell some books here.
Chapter One. Maybe Woody Allen was on to something with his stuttered introduction to “Manhattan.” How do you introduce New York? What could possibly precede New York? New York is the introduction, the context, and the chaos from which all order arises. It has a personality so big that it spills into three states and a transcontinental ego. New York, as a place and as a myth, is too much for anyone to digest in a single sitting or even in four years—and Columbia students, like everyone else, have to struggle with making some sense out of it.
To accompany the unbounded wonder of living at the center of the universe, there is an endemic sense of guilt for not taking advantage of it. Every minute in a dorm room or a library is time that could have been spent trying to take in the seemingly endless variety that forms New York’s character. The eight Chinatowns, the farmers markets, the cronut. No matter how long I stay here, I will probably never be in with the Ethiopian community, hit every speakeasy, learn Korean, or set foot on Staten Island. These are all upsetting realizations. I don’t think the human mind is meant to observe so many things it will never get to know, and this is probably the source of the trademark city-wide neurosis.
I was once accused by a friend who lives at Bleecker and MacDougal of not living in the “real” New York. When I get on my bike, I can feel myself being pulled to the Village by a supernatural hipster force. Lower Manhattan is magnetic, I know. But the truth is that most peoples’ New York experience doesn’t involve French bulldogs, MePa, or NYU. The “real” New Yorker works a job just walking distance from his duplex in Queens and has never visited the Met. He speaks Gujarati and dabbles in English. New York is a conglomeration of bubbles like his: the Orthodox of Williamsburg, the blacks of central Harlem, the Dominicans of Washington Heights. The uptown college student is just another subset of the population, another demographic. We are not somehow removed observers peering into an essential, unconscious New York. While we have the self-awareness to realize our special circumstances, we’re not self-aware enough to realize how ordinary it is to have those special circumstances in a city filled with immigrants, diplomats, homeless people, businesspeople, starving artists, and star-crossed lovers. Leave it to Columbia students to think they are exceptions to the rule. New York has no essence other than its variety. Even the mayor is from Boston.
E.B. White conceived of three New Yorks. He wrote, “There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.” I have had the good fortune to be all three of those things: born in Queens, raised in Westchester, and returned to Manhattan for college. As much nostalgia as I have for the quintessential New Yorker—maybe for a Brooklyn hot-dog vendor who can’t pronounce his “r’s”—the real New York isn’t any one thing. We have four years, and hopefully more, to make a narrative that is somehow representative of the effect New York has on its children, as an experience rather than as a place.
Jake Goldwasser is a Columbia College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. Thinking Twice usually runs alternate Thursdays.
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