Bidding farewell to an old sweetheart…

I was away for two weeks, went to San Francisco and New York.

I lived in New York for seven years during the 1980s. I had initially gone as a Fulbright scholar, so after going through many legal hoops to obtain permanent residency I was finally told that I had to fulfill my J1 visa obligations; in other words return to my country of origin for 2 years, after which point I could then come back. Thus, I returned to Turkey in late 1986, completely brokenhearted since I was leaving behind a life and a city, both of which I had come to care for very deeply. As things went, life took unexpected turns and when the 2 years were up I no longer wanted to return since at that point I was much engrossed in my new life here. But New York remained my sweetheart.

It was an amazing place. I recently told someone that I did not see some of the attire one would regularly see on New York streets back then even in Second Life – which is quite a statement, I know, but true nonetheless. Such as Rollerena, for example. That persona is of course a unique landmark in history, however the point is that Rollerena was not the only one, the city was altogether wild enough to house such levels of eccentricity as par for the course. Par for the course being the operative words here. Not “performance art” or whatever – but “par for the course”. Very important distinction that.

Of course older folk would tell us that what we were seeing in the 80s was but a pale shadow of what the city had been like during the 50s and 60s, its true heyday. For me however, what was around me was more than enough for me to fall in love with. And also I had wonderful friends, one funnier and more intelligent than the other. We had converged from all across the globe to be in the haven of crazies. Or so we thought anyway…

I have not been back very often. Last time was in 2006. Every time I returned I felt more estranged, the city was no longer what it was, which is probably why I was never terribly anxious to go back. But, nonetheless, it is hard to bid an old love goodbye inside your mind, so although I knew that New York was no longer ‘my’ New York, I hung on to my feelings for the place. This time, also exacerbated by the most recent version of the smoking ban (basically you can only smoke outdoors if you are standing up – you can no longer sit down and smoke anywhere), the loss hit me full bast.

How can a place change so much? What happened here for God’s sakes? Where is everyone? Where did the humor go? The tongue-in-cheekness? The off-the-wallness? The flamboyance? The in-your-face outrageousness? Why do all the young people look like little business persons? Where are all the crazy colored mohawks? The roller blades? God – where is the DANGER even? The danger that was the price for the pulse of the city? Gone… Hordes of clean-cut people. Two basic clothing types as far as I could make out: Business attire or urban outdoors casual. And then a small sprinkling of neo-conservative, highly toned down, quasi-artsy outfits, which are basically just a slightly trendier version of either the business clothes or the urban outdoors casual stuff. All very tasteful, I should hasten to add. Not a hair out of place. Smart phones clutched to ears, hands on i-pads… An army of 20something year olds (as well as their seniors and bosses of all ages obviously) decked out as entrepreneurs of various callings, including the ‘business of art’…

And what is really sad about it all? It is this myth that rests entirely on the past laurels of the city, and which is nonetheless desperately propagated by its present denizens, that this is still “the coolest place on earth to be”. With Banana Republic, Uni-clo, and American Apparel having replaced the likes of the Unique Clothing Warehouse on lower Broadway? “Cool” by schedule and appointment is very much what it appears to be to me. Sorry…

And then where did all the salsa music go that used to blast away on the streets? All those ghetto-blasters for that matter? Back then we didn’t ever plan to ‘go out’. We were ‘out’ all the time anyway, given that the place was cheap enough and accommodating enough for us to be constantly on the move hopping from place to place, even on our non-existent incomes. So, where did all the Greek Diners go? They used to be our mainstay… Which brings me to how expensive the city has become. Not that I am terribly well known for saving money, so normally I don’t even notice what I pay; however the change in prices in New York I did notice since they inevitably lead me to the conclusion that the city is simply catering to a new clientele that vastly prefers designer coffee joints to pastrami on rye places.

And then another strange thing: Listening around me on the subway I no longer seem to have heard much of the good old Brooklynese accent. What is that all about, I wonder? Are the natives leaving in droves then, or are they all taking elocution lessons in a final frenzied attempt to fit into their own city?

So, the love affair is over. It seems unlikely now that I will ever go back. Not that some of what I have been describing is not in evidence on this side of the pond either, I have to admit. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that there is still a discernible difference in degree between here and there. And then the really important difference is that no other city ever flew quite so high as New York, and consequently no other city has come crashing down as hard after the high either.

So, given the long flight hours, the ensuing swollen extremities, the horrible jet-lag – why would I put myself through the torture of visiting a lost old lover at all that cost? To lament on all that has been lost?

Well, there is one reason to go back and I will end this post on that positive note: My friend Dina. She is my oldest living friend, and I totally adore the woman, and so I would go just to hang out with her… Sitting at her old wood table, puffing away on our smokes like two disgruntled old Indian chiefs! That is totally great! But then, Dina really likes Istanbul – so…

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