Babylon, U.S.A: Or Why I love NYC
Frankenstein fell asleep on the R train next to the lady with the wart on her nose. He wore a suit, and carried a bag, and had a watch, and in about 5.7 minutes would be passing directly underneath an old hobo, who lay knocked out on the steps of a strip club. The club was closed for the night and the hobo was in bad need of a shower and shave, but Frankenstein wasn’t aware of this because in a second he had passed them and was zooming into the city.
He’d wake up there, and get off the train, and go to work in one of those tall Midtown office buildings, and eat lunch, and get back on a train and zoom past the strip club again. The club would be open now, and the hobo would be kicked out of his nightly spot, but soon enough it would shut its doors, and the tramp would reclaim his territory, and the whole thing would start over again like a synchronized clock.
There is only one place in the world where something like this is possible, and if you have half a brain and any sense of logic at all, then you already know what it is, and the fact that all of this is true says enough about the place already.
It’s the place that’s historically New Amsterdam, and technically New York, but I always like to think of it as something epic and biblical, like Mecca, or Atlantis, or Babylon. I like Babylon.
Even so, I used to hate it. I hated it for all the reasons most people hate it. New York is loud. People scream, and curse, and blast music, and rev their cars, and honk their horns, and none of it’s in the same language.
New York is annoying. The subways reek of garbage and homeless man piss, and you can’t spend thirty minutes on an R train without running into a mariachi singer who can’t sing, or a breakdancer who nearly kicked you in the face.
New York is crowded. It was like that old cop show, Naked City, that always ended with: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Well, by the time I got there it was nearly nine million, and my story was that I couldn’t wait to leave.
The problem, however, with leaving Babylon after spending a lifetime there, is that Babylon has effectively become the norm, and anything outside it is simply a desert. A place like Cleveland, Ohio, for example, is an absolute desert, but because of family obligations, I spent a vacation there once. For future reference, I strongly advise against it.
But there was a young girl in Cleveland, and to me, that was all she was, and I was just a visiting New Yorker. But to her, she was a dumb native of the desert, and I was a Babylonian. She worshipped New York, reveled in the fact that she spent two hours waiting for a connecting flight in its airport once, and grew increasingly jealous that I called its filthy streets and noisy landmarks home.
But in my haste to decry it, it seemed that I had ignorantly neglected to notice something. It seemed that the problem with leaving Ohio after spending a lifetime there, is that Ohio has effectively become the norm, and a trip to a strip mall is enough to stir cries of Babylon. And New York, in comparison to that, becomes bigger than Babylon. It becomes the Promised Land.
It’s the Land of Milk and Honey, and everyone else is an Israelite wasting 40 years in the desert just to step foot on its hallowed ground, but I, I had no choice but to be born right on it. That thought alone, is enough to ward away the subway smells for a while.
Yes, New York is loud, but New York is vibrant. Listen to the noise and it plays like music. The honking horns of the cabs and cars devolve into a symphony of the avenues. The mariachi guitarist and the Chinese duang player momentarily blend their tunes into an intercontinental duet across subway platforms.
The bustle of businessmen, waitresses, actors, writers, and the like, move at the tippy-toe grace of ballet dancers across the streets of Manhattan while the Dickensian wit of their cell phone conversations play over one another until a New York sound is born.
Yes, New York is annoying, but the annoyance builds character. It gives you a sixth sense, a New York sense. It tells you how to jaywalk on a red light with a bus charging at you, and cross the street without a scratch.
It lets you sit on a subway car while a lunatic standing five feet from you screams about Jesus, and not bat an eye. It allows you to walk down a street in double-time, while circumventing and navigating past people, poles, and all other obstacles, in your own choreographed New York dance, that methodically combines with nine million others.
That’s why a tourist is so easy to spot. They haven’t learned the choreography. They bump into all the dancers.
And yes, New York is crowded, but it’s crowded with life. Everyone has a story, and a purpose, and a character. It’s a city of nine million, but no two are the same.
New Yorkers aren’t merely people, they’re Frankensteins, and old hobos, and ladies with warts on their noses, and mariachi singers, and breakdancers, and Chinese duang players, and businessmen, and cab drivers, and struggling actors, and singing waitresses, and religious lunatics, and mafia men, and millionaires. In Cleveland there are men and women. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a dog.
I don’t love New York in spite of all these things. I love it because of them. I love it because you can simply say “New York” in Delaware, or Paris, or Shanghai, or Timbuktu, and anyone with half a brain and any sense of logic at all will know exactly what you’re talking about.
You’re talking about Babylon, and as we all know Babylon was not infinite, and neither is New York. Someday, like all stars, it will burst in a supernova, and then it will be a myth, and exist only in legend and faint memory.
But for now, it is glory. And I think you should be crazy to want to live anywhere else.
– by Alec Inagamov ’20