Saturday, November 14, 2020

Quote of the Day (Joan Didion, on New York as ‘An Infinitely Romantic Notion’)

“I am not sure that it is possible for anyone brought up in the East to appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South. To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always has an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live. But to those of us who came from places where no one had heard of Lester Lanin and Grand Central Station was a Saturday radio program, where Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (‘Money,’ and ‘High Fashion,’ and ‘The Hucksters’), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and the perishable dream itself. To think of 'living' there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not 'live' at Xanadu.”— American essayist-novelist Joan Didion, “Goodbye To All That,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968).

For someone like me, who has spent all but seven of the past 42 years commuting to New York daily as student or worker, it has been weird not spending a minute in the city since early March, when my former company, like many other employers, decided to have its staff work virtually. But it was positively painful, at the height of the pandemic later that spring, to see the city gripped by fear by COVID-19, with much of its once-bustling downtown closed down.

That’s why I felt even worse than I have these last several months when I heard that the city’s infection rate is rising at worrisome levels again, so much so that all public schools may have to close starting Monday, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

I remember the dingy city of my college days, a metropolis still wobbly from its close call with bankruptcy just a few years before. The pictures I see on Facebook and the things that people tell me make me fear a return to that dark time.

It’s easy to say that New York bounced back from bankruptcy and 9/11 and that it can do so again. I’m afraid it’s also dangerously complacent to think that way.

COVID-19 has harmed its business base already, and without more funds from the federal government, thousands of more companies may go under before the end of this coming winter. Worse, the ability to work remotely means that people can live just about anywhere, with not even a reasonably close geographic connection to their companies. Which means: Why stay in the Big Apple anymore?

America needs its cities, and even more New York City. As Ms. Didion (and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose lush cadences I find echoed in the passage above) recognized, New York also represents America’s optimism. When so many of its businesses close and its residents flee, that sense of national possibility may be terribly difficult to recover.

(I took the attached photograph 11 years ago in Central Park, a site that I—and, I suspect, millions of others throughout its existence—have always associated with the “infinitely romantic notion” that Ms. Didion summons.)

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