My Kind of Town

There is nothing sadder today than to be from New York City. Sure, it was a lot of mythology, a river of illusion but it gave you more than it took. And it always took a lot.

From the outside, it is just not readily explainable. America has no Paris whose sensual beauty cannot be resisted. It has no London where past is made relevant. America had New York, the only place I know of where two am was just the same as two pm.

The tough guys were the Soprano’s, the bad guys –good guys. Every one played at being a bit “ made”, always acting on edge but understanding you really did not need to be. You walked down the streets like it was always High Noon. Defined, unique. Today, streets take you straight to the gates of Hell.

There were rules and people in New York understood them. Rules about bagels, no mayonnaise ever, rules about pizza, the secret was in the New York tap water, and the trick was in folding it. A book of New York rules, rules that made you feel like understanding them was the secret handshake.

Now, the madness is no longer fun. It is ugly, senseless, and foreign. People are pushed in front of subway trains. People are randomly “ knocked out”, as a “ game”, disfigured and some dead. It is hard to write but used needles and excrement are teaching kids a new hopscotch.

I do not have to detail what anyone can readily see, in any paper, on any channel. A guy from Hell’s Kitchen, a mid town area west of Broadway and a light year away, expected this summer to be the ‘ night of the living dead”. It was an apt phrase. The confluence of legal and illegal drugs will redefine what times you venture out, how far away from the locks on the door you go, how many people you look in the eye. Ray Charles said, “ When you leave New York, you ain’t going nowhere”. He did not mean when you leave your apartment.

When you are from someplace else, New York misleads. In reality it is a collection of thousands of small neighborhoods, the boundaries being set by the dry cleaners, the food store, a restaurant or two, a church of some kind. You felt known and safe and welcome. No more. It is so much the small town that each crime is identifiable. It looks like a city of strangers but it is not.

Mid-town is now a desert. Broadway theaters may re-open but there is no sense of safety there anymore. Remote work would have been unthinkable if you were going to miss the new dumpling place, the unique buzz of feeling city-alive. Home is not just where the heart is, it is where the fear is not. Spilling out of a theater after a play was life in a great city, felt in the animation around you. Life was really being lived.

New York was always a bit of a dreamscape. People who lived it willingly made a trade. Rent was high, the food was not. Just the other day, a crowd, in Brooklyn, was screaming at people at an outdoor restaurant, “ We do not want White people here, Get out”. Many left their tables, some just left. Not a good epitaph.

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Joel B. Levine MD

Joel B. Levine MD

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Professor of Medicine , essayist, practitioner, basic research and education ; reflections on medicine and modern society