New York is a fiction of course, a construct, a story, into which you can walk at any time. All stories are love stories in some respect. Drunk and sober, high and low, up and down, this is my city. I came here first, almost thirty years ago, when I was eighteen years old, from Dublin. Naivety can overcome reality—I didn’t even mind the cockroaches that littered the floor of the tiny room I rented in Brighton Beach for $120 a month. I worked in Manhattan, a runner for a press syndicate, dropping off envelopes and getting sandwiches for the bosses. I came home every night on the D train, heroic with beer and cocaine and youth. I was either too stupid or too broke to get mugged.
I recall standing transfixed in the middle of the pavement one night, people stepping blithely around me as I stared up at the Time-Life building, watching the lights flicker on and off in the upper floors, thinking if there was nothing else in my life there would always, at least, be this. A gorgeous rubbish heap of a city.
I left after six months but returned twelve years later, in the nineteen-nineties, married. My wife and I had been living in rural Texas and in Japan. I didn’t like the city quite so much the second time around. I needed space. Stars were infinitely more interesting to me than ceilings. I began to crave the wilderness. I wanted to get away.
One afternoon I was in a downtown bar, Chumleys, famous among writers. I had spent my very last dollar, and when I got outside the rain was skittering down. It was a five-mile walk home. I took off my shirt, wrapped it around my head, and started walking quickly through the crowds—soaked to the skin, angry, pissed off, confused. I began to talk to myself. Nobody seemed to notice. I began talking louder, until eventually I was almost shouting. I barrelled on and then a strange sense of calm and relief washed over me. This is a fucking wilderness. Nobody cares. You can do whatever you want. Satori. I had shed skins. And I could now make whatever I wanted of the city. And since then I have. It has become my town simply because anything is possible here.
There is something wondrous about walking through a city, any city, but especially this strange island on the edge of the continent. Perhaps my own favourite walk is the trip across the Brooklyn Bridge. There aren’t many feelings so acute as when I step in the early evening from the Brooklyn side of the river. Ahead lies Manhattan, the sun disappearing behind the rows of glass and steel. All that seperates my feet and the water hundreds of feet below is a thin wooden plank. I become acutely aware of the sheer improbability of this: it feels as if I am floating in the air. The full architecture of human desire and folly is on display: so many dreams and brute realities are held in those skyscrapers.
To the south, the Statue of Liberty. To the north, the river bends towards Harlem.
In the middle of the wooden walkway I often get the sense of how overwhelming this city is and I wonder who built it and why. But I feel charged, electric, alive with possibility. I am, for this one moment, living the life of a nineteenth-century immigrant: and it is an instant when anything seems mesmerising and possible.
There is an attitude in the city, a sort of swaggering that occurs in the head and the heart and the mouth. I don’t know of any other city in the world where you go and immediately feel as if you belong—and yet still also be true to your home country. I am a New Yorker and an Irishman and I see absolutely no contradiction in this. In fact, most of the city is an immigrant culture. You can walk through the borough of Queens on any given day and hear a dozen different languages being spoken on the same street—a true Babel.
And so it is a city not so much of America, as of the world: a mirror to the pure anarchy of the human condition. New York’s grandeur is that it has the unique ability to allow cultures to co-exist. And its beauty is on ground level—in the people.
One of the city’s enduring qualities is that it is characterised not so much by its ability to remember, as by the fact that it easily forgets. The great New York phrase is fuhgeddaboudit, three words (forget-about-it) sandwiched together in the hard music of the city’s accent. Most New Yorkers (while acutely tuned in to the grief of the World Trade Centre attacks) now simply want to move on. It’s a decade. Let it be. The national and international grieving all became very saccharine. New York used to be hated by the rest of America and in a strange way it was almost embarrassing that it was no longer reviled.
The fact of the matter is that New York likes to be rude. Shop clerks are notoriously blasé. Drivers are famously arrogant (the phrase ‘A New York minute’ is defined as the time it takes between a light turning green and the car behind you beginning to beep). But this maverick rudeness is also laced with humour. On my street there’s often a car parked with a bumper sticker that reads: ‘Jesus Loves You—everyone else knows you’re an asshole.’ And there’s a beggar on Seventh Avenue who says to passersby: ‘Hey, man, you got a quarter?’ Then he pauses a second and adds: ‘Or any multiple thereof?’
The best place to find this humour is in the bars. It’s said that New Yorkers like to drink twice—once when they’re thirsty and afterwards when they’re not. I hate to admit that I’ve left my mark, my wallet, and my good sense in many of New York’s watering holes: Jimmy’s Corner, Milano’s, Swift’s, Puck Fair, Ulysses.
They say you know where you’re from when you know where you want to die. And while part of me would like to be scattered in Dublin, or the West of Ireland, or even Texas, or Mexico, I think I’d like most of me to be thrown into the wind over Manhattan and to end up wherever the breeze happens to take me—the corner of a room in the Chelsea, the dark of a Second Avenue bar, in the dust of the paths of Central Park, in the spin of a Coney Island dodgem car, in the grime that settles on the fire escapes of the Lower East Side.
In the end it hardly matters. Living here is what lifts the skin.