Thursday, June 10, 2021

Quote of the Day (Eve Babitz, on Gossip and Why ‘You Have to Care in New York’)

“[Y]ou have to care in New York or you’ll die. It's not like L.A., where you can go around with your purse unsnapped or lost in thought even on the freeway. In New York, the gossip will get you if crossing the street doesn't: for the gossip is so dense and thick that it hovers over the entire city like an enraged bear, ready to snap its teeth on anyone who isn’t fast enough to cover herself with alibis, low profiles, or return red herrings aimed strategically somewhere else. The gossip is like a lightning game of backgammon with rolls of dice leaving behind broken hearts, the dissolution of entrenched power, and awkward guest lists. Everyone (who's left) waits for the next roll, eyes glued to the die. You cannot not care in New York. Even I know that. You’ll die just crossing the street. It’s exciting.” —American artist, author and muse Eve Babitz, “A Californian Looks at New York,” in I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz, edited by Sara J. Kramer (2019)

This paragraph gives a pretty good idea of the sit-up-and-take-notice quality of Eve Babitz’s prose. For anyone who hopes to get a sense of California from the 1950s to the 1990s (when a freak accident left her with third-degree burns and effectively ended her writing career), I can hardly imagine a more compelling guide.

But, reading this now, in a time of isolation (even as so many hope that era is coming to an end), the quote above feels disconnected from our time. Gossip thrives on society: not merely secrets shared between two people at minimum, but entire occasions that bring people together, encouraging loosened inhibitions and unexpected shared confidences. We have had little to none of that in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maybe New York will be returning to a recognized form of normality when gossip (as delicious as it is, in Babitz’s words, “dense and thick”) comes back, in the way we once remembered.

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