Love it or hate it, the city occupies a special place in our imagination
By Michael Schaffer
ust over a year ago, on a warm and careless summer night, this was a typical New York story. On July 7, 2001, a woman named Lizzie Grubman, the wealthy daughter of a Manhattan entertainment lawyer, allegedly plowed a Mercedes SUV into a Long Island crowd. Grubmanwho worked as a Gotham City "publicist"was said to have argued over parking with the bouncer of a chic Hamptons nightclub. Witnesses said she called him "white trash" before hitting the gas pedal and pinning 16 people against a wall. As the injured begged for help, Grubman allegedly hopped into a friend's car and sped away. By the time the police found her, her lawyer was already on hand.
In the Hamptons, where locals have long seethed about New York fat cats who summer there, it became a story of unfair privilege. In the Big Apple, it became a media sensation. But out in the rest of the country, the incident was quietly filed away as something else: a New York tale, kind of gaudy and kind of glamorous, but kind of revolting, too. And in those days, before the 9/11 tragedy cast New York in a very different light, that incident provided one more reason to see Gotham as another country.
Not that we didn't have plenty of reasons already. Throughout American history, New York has occupied an uneasy perch in our imagination. One day, we send our most talented youth there in search of freedom and opportunity; the next day, we revile it as a land of welfare cheats and effete intellectuals. The disconnect is easy to explain: It's the most urban place in a country that's hooked on its rural roots, the cultural capital in a country that's suspicious of elites, the finance capital in a country that prizes economic independence. For generations, foes have derided New Yorkers as pushy and arrogant and amoral, as menacing three-card-monte tricksters or sacrilegious artists.
And yet we stay transfixed by books about New York, movies about New York, TV shows about New York, and even songs about New York. We sing along to lyrics that evoke the glittering Big Apple of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" and the desolate Gotham of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer." Each decade, in fact, seems to offer up tantalizing new New York archetypes, each more foreign than the last: The stagnant '70s gave us the frightening lunacy of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle. The booming '90s gave us the enticing promiscuity of Sex and the City's Samantha Jones. But the common theme of the scary and the alluring visions alike is that Gotham City is a long way from home. "The rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers," declares Woody Allen, that ultimate New Yorker, in 1977's Annie Hall. "I think of us that way sometimesand I live here."
Real life has been even better at creating New Yorkers we can't stand (but can't take our eyes off): Think Howard Stern and Tina Brown, Al Sharpton and Donald Trump, obnoxious New York motormouth and vain New York media elitist, race-baiting New York politico and rapacious New York capitalist. We imagined them sitting together over an overpriced meal at an impossible-to-get table at Elaine's, laughing at what rubes we all arewhile plotting more ways to shove their culture down our throats.
September 11 changed that. The attack was colossal in scope, but it turned out that the New Yorkers living and dying in the debris were distinctly life-size: mustachioed firefighters from Queens, overworked shopkeepers from Korea, anxious soccer moms from Battery Park City. Not one of them looked like someone who might rob us, or seduce us, or close our factory down. Americans everywhere responded. Quilters in Iowa sent 1,500 quilts. North Dakota high schoolers pitched in with 229,320 servings of macaroni and cheese. County fairgoers in Texas County, Okla., got the chance to sign "the world's biggest sympathy card."
In Macon, Ga., a New York firefighter served as grand marshal of the Cherry Blossom Festival parade. Everyone from Macon's junior high school students (who donated $320 in school dance proceeds) to a church group (which vowed to sell 30,000 chicken plates to raise money for attack victims) joined in the outreach. That's quite a change from a hamlet whose most famous interaction with New York had occurred in 1999--when native son John Rocker, an Atlanta Braves pitcher, compared a New York subway ride to a journey "through Beirut, next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids." Now, though, Mayor Jack Ellis says, 9/11 has helped put regional antagonisms in perspective. "What we realize is we are all Americans," he says.
The love feast was so intense that last October, as the Yankeesthat swaggering, pinstriped crew of Big Apple pretty boysplayed for a fourth straight World Series title, editorialists had to reassure us that it wasn't unpatriotic to root against them. The 26-time champs had once been easy to hate. No more. Now they were the firefighters' home team. And if the boys from FDNY were cheering on George Steinbrenner's millionaires, so were we.
War, of course, changes the equationcutting through stereotypes and forcing citizens to identify with fellow citizens' suffering. This isn't the first time war has brought New York back into the United States of our imagination. In 1928, the presidential campaign of New York's Al Smiththe Irish Catholic embodiment of everything Jazz Age America feared about immigrant-drenched Gothamwas wiped out in a nasty campaign that featured Ku Klux Klan cross burnings in the South, the Midwest, and even New York's suburbs. But just a decade and a half later, in the wake of Pearl Harbor and the Great Depression, New York's sons were dying next to kids from Alabama and Iowa. And no World War II movie platoon was complete without a plucky young GI from Brooklyn, like William Bendix's Cpl. "Taxi" Potts in 1943's Guadalcanal Diary.
Wartime unity even turns negative stereotypes on their heads. When Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca character, who wore his Gotham City persona like a cheap trench coat, told German Major Strasser that "there are certain parts of New York, major, that I wouldn't advise you to try and invade," audiences cheered. In another era, the New York gunrunner might have seemed like just a typical Big Apple cynic. But to the war-weary moviegoers of 1942, he was a feisty rebuke to a foreign bully. Sixty fractious years later, it's the same thing. When Firefighter Michael Moran told the audience for last fall's 9/11 benefit concert that Osama bin Laden can "kiss my royal Irish ass," his New York vulgarity elicited whoops of approval nationwide.
Sometime in the future, America and New York will doubtless get back to sniping at their unrealistic visions of each other. But for now, in the massiveness of ground zero, the differences between New York and the rest of the country seem pretty puny. And the people who live there seem refreshingly human.