New York State of Mind | The Nation


New York State of Mind

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Much of what Whitehead sees as the New Yorker's group psychology is a negotiation between conflicting responses and desires, neither ever fully accommodated. "Ire and compassion have been neighbors for years," he writes. A central pairing of dualistic traits is the opportunist and the stoic: First the New Yorker uses gamelike coping methods, which, when ineffective, yield to bemused resignation. In the subway, for instance:

About the Author

Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate is the author of Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (Anchor) and editor of the anthology American...

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On the platform there are strategies of where seats will appear when...you get off, of how to outmaneuver these impromptu nemeses. So many variables, everyone's a mathematician with an advanced degree.... Can I make it to the seat before she gets there. Their eyes meet and they calculate distance. Stared down once again he gives up, such is his lot, and he leans against the conductor's door.

This pattern is repeated on a rainy day, trying to hail a taxi:

All over town the available number of cabs shrinks as thin fingers tilt and quiver at the edges of traffic. The bastard one block upriver gets it before you can stick a hand out, just as you are someone else's bastard one block downriver. Epithets are tossed against the flow of traffic, upon the unbeknownst. Everybody just wants to get home, so they can make calculations and jockey. What's a better block for a cab. East or west, up a street or down. Schemes multiply and divide the longer you stand there. The super-computer of cab-catching.

Yet some New Yorkers submit to their rained-on fate: "The best of them cease stooping, stand up straight, stop dodging, take it as it comes. Apparently they are supposed to get wet, so they give in. It is like letting go of something and a small miracle wrung from accident." He calls them, tongue-in-cheek, "citizens of a better city."

The typical New Yorker is portrayed as addicted to self-invention: on good days, the star of his or her own musical ("Dance over prostrate bodies as music swells"), on bad days, constantly adjusting ill-fitting masks. "Pull the next personality out of your back pocket. Maybe this one will work.... somehow you made it through the day without anyone finding out that you are a complete fraud." John Henry Days had explored this theme of fraudulence through its protagonist, J., a burnt-out African-American journalist who is going for the world record of public relations junkets. Whitehead, himself a Harvard-educated, acclaimed African-American writer, seems sensitive to the vanity of ambitions and the perils of inauthenticity and celebrity-hunger.

Though his two prior books had worried questions of racial identity, here he takes a perhaps-needed holiday from such concerns, making no mention of race. Nor is there much said, for that matter, about social class, or the economy that has so polarized New Yorkers in recent decades. Neither the rich nor the poor are in evidence, except for a few stray references to "the homeless," who are treated more as angelic presences than hard social facts. Whitehead seems intent on presenting the typical New Yorker as one coherent social construction: a lower-middle-class or middle-class city-dweller, subject to the democratically leveling discomfort of a debased public realm. Newcomers entering Port Authority bus terminal "are delivered into dinginess," a condition that is soon internalized: "His brain gets so dingy sometimes..." Occasionally the lonely millions experience a communal moment, like the first springy day in Central Park. But mostly, they are alone in their ill-at-ease responses. Like this anonymous woman Whitehead shows us crossing Brooklyn Bridge: "Remembering that disappointed feeling she gets each time she reaches the other side, then feeling that disappointed feeling."

Perhaps this anticipation of disappointment, which the author sees everywhere, is a way for big-city dwellers to gain a measure of control in the face of sensory overload. Perhaps, also, it helps to mute the frustrations of an eroticized city that offers so many squandered opportunities, crushes on passing strangers. "Probably not the right time for a sexual reverie but the view argues otherwise," Whitehead writes. His New Yorkers are always hiding unexpected erections or fantasizing about making out on a desert island with someone in the subway car. They are pulled out of the present into intimate sensual recall ("Her smell still on him"). Often the memory begins in pleasure and ends in rue: "So nice to wake to your spouse's hip but then remember last night's disagreement and decide you are still angry." The insistence on lament having the final word is also something Whitehead views as New York-tribal ("To complain is to belong, possess property") and consumerist ("Wait your turn, there's enough bitterness to go around").

When not divining the crowd's thoughts, he dives into the city's psyche, through anthropomorphizing metaphors. Since the crux of the charge against New York as neglectful parent is indifference, Whitehead stands the idea on its head: "Wouldn't it be funny if the city actually gave a damn about you.... The city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone." An animistic imagination imparts to everything nonhuman its momentary voice: "The wind is a harsh critic, renowned for sardonic turn-of-phrase..." "The bridge pants, exhausted."

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