What Happened to the City I Never Knew?

I freely admit that I was born and raised amidst the sunshine and leisure of Southern California. But even as I reveled in the carefree attitude born of endless sunny skies, I always envied, if only subliminally, the dark paths trod by New Yorkers and their alternative ways.

I was young in the 70’s and came of age in the 80’s. Though we were far away, the local newspapers regularly engaged us well-tanned accolytes of the Beach Boys lifestyle with post-Apocaplypic tales of Andy Warhol and CBGB’s and gay people creating art and living out their hedonistic fantasies. Even AIDS, as terrible a scourge as it was, informed us of a freedom of sorts. Perversely, without risk, there is no excitement.

You see, to grow up in the suburbs among similarly white people, was — and is — to be safe. Crime happens elsewhere and the police are there to serve. One’s parents protect you and there’s a sense of privilege that, so long as you play by the rules, everything will be okay.

And yet, to me, “okay” is so boring. Though I didn’t think much of it at the time, the tales of New York City always seemed so alluring. Raunchy yet exciting. Dangerous but freeing. The grungy black and white photos of exotic citydwellers walking the trash strewn streets and dancing in seedy clubs and doing drugs in public and crossdressing in gaudy fur all seemed so wrong — yet such the perfect antidote for a bland suburban upbringing such as I experienced.

Without boring you with the details, I’ll note that I spent my college years in a perfectly antiseptic university located in Santa Barbara where all the black students were safely confined to the basketball team. Afterward, I moved to the ultimate beach culture paradise, San Diego. Without question — nor complaint — I’ve lived a comfortable existence. Yet, even as I’ve flourished in the safety of the familiar, I’ve often envied the grit and potential of the New York City life.

All of this is (perhaps) an overly long overture to my actual point. As I write this, I’m in New York City. I’m residing, if only for a short while, in the center of it all. For the past week, I’ve been visiting the various neighborhoods and taking in, as best I can, the art and culture — and the alcohol — of the place. I’ve been out until the wee hours and walked streets made famous through prose and song. I’ve visited neighborhoods where prostitutes and drug dealers and artists once eked out a living. Sad to report, they’re mostly transformed into some wealth-ridden Disneyland.

Where once there was a countercultural story to be told, now these streets are lined with galleries, restaurants and bars and young people paying $16 for a cocktail “crafted” from Tennessee rye and fancy French mixers with names too foreign to recall. The streets of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village are overrun with educated young busybodies, the ones we used to call YUPPIES back in the 80’s, doing shots and drinking craft beer in speakeasies imbued with false character.

While one might occasionally see the odd crossdresser and homeless hippy, the streets of Manhatten have been secured and prepped for urbanites and suburbanites alike. All is safe. Even the historically gay bars are overrun with straight educated people cheering on the token drag queen entertainer onstage. Sadly, I see little difference between the tourist trod bars of San Diego’s Gaslamp District and the popular drinking establishments of New York. They’re all bland and normalized.

As I walk the Manhattan streets late at night, I feel sad. Sad that I missed this place back in the day of its edge. Sad that I arrived too late. Sad that there’s no place in the city for those without wealth to frolic and create. Sad that cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a former poor man’s staple, have dissappeared from behind the bar. Sad that only overpriced India Pale Ales are on the beer list — and not just because I don’t like hops!

There’s the old saying about being a day late and a dollar short. I guess I’m both. Perhaps I’ve been too timid to venture out when the moment is unsure but too adventurous to accept a scene that is too certain. Whatever it is, I guess I’m still in search of it. Perhaps I’ll find it in Brooklyn or Harlem or… who knows where. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll find it in Manhatten.