New York in 2001 before the Twin Towers fell had weight, history, and was full of commerce and activity. New York during the Aughts was a place that kept becoming more sensual and spiritual. But New York by summer 2019 had been reduced to a tourist version of itself. Recollections from July 26-28, 2019.
The cab driver raced us down the highway toward Manhattan. On the right, high rises loomed. Great shiny monoliths.
I pointed out the window and asked if that was Brooklyn. “No!” the cab driver exclaimed, “that’s Queens!” Queens. I couldn’t believe it. It was built up beyond recognition. The glass high rises went past as we flew down the highway.
What has it been like living in Queens during all this? I remember apartment-hunting in Astoria. A coworker was from Queens. Working class to middle class. Queens was food and families to me.
Back home, I was glued to my laptop most days as the sun beat down, oddly frozen. I had no energy and in hindsight, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Anxiety filled my chest all the time.
Summer 2019. It was blindingly hot. The sun beat down our house oppressively and forcefully like it had never done so before. The world was hot with anger and tension, and the heat burned through everything. I could barely think. I had planned for months to make a trip to New York, and that weekend, July 26th, felt right to me. Unfortunately for me, and lucky for me, it was the weekend after that summer’s heatwave.
I made small talk with the cab driver. He had come from India just a few years ago, to be part of the cab company of a relative, I think. We made careful and unspoken diplomacy in every word and also in every movement. Every shifting in my seat, breathing, volume and tone of our voices, all calibrated. We were both very careful, and also, in those tiny movements, overt in our message. “It’s ok. I’m friendly.”
After I checked into my AirBnB, I walked around the Lower East Side and East Village and found that New York had become a strange mix of both a completely unrecognizable city and a tourist version of itself. Was New York cosplaying itself?
There was also a strange bombardment of the senses. This was New York in 2019, but it felt more like New York in 2019 trying to be New York in 1999, or some places not even New York at all.
I stumbled across an art gallery in East Village. They had a show funded in part by Kahlua, yes, the drinks brand.
A man was hanging around outside getting folks into the gallery. As I walked in, he said, “Thank you, sweetheart.”
Inside, a young guy, artistic, cute, was answering questions. I looked around. It was an exhibit on random Instagram photos collected by the artist that all had zero likes. Soft, sad-sounding music was playing. I dug it.
The gallery dared to have a little artistry during that summer. You couldn’t say anything true. Everyone was scared. This was an old school approach. A sweet effort.
In East Village, there were a million hipster coffeeshops, all with the same “tropical” plants and dark metal and over-varnished wood furniture. Same designs, same vibes.
Accompanying the hipster coffeeshops were women’s clothing shops, also with “tropical” designs.
Florals. Florals. “Florals.”
The last time I had been in New York was in 2009. And even before I got to New York that weekend, I knew some things had gone very wrong. It wasn’t just that New York real estate news had become bombarded with talk of building walls off Battery Park, instead of the usual chatter over apartments that New Yorkers delight in doing.
The diversity that was there during the Aughts was gone. The Thai restaurant I liked just north of Midtown, gone. The coffeeshop that my friend went to on a regular basis, replaced by the hipster coffeeshops. The bars that I wanted to go to in 2009, 2010, gone, gone.
Everything was both burned through and had become a sweaty mess.
Even Rockefeller Center had become diminished.
That was my first real job out of college. A law firm in Rockefeller Center. “I need to get to… 30 Rock?” I said something like that to the cab driver as a 21-year-old, hurrying to get to my job interview from Port Authority. I had no idea that was the main building at Rockefeller Center.
Inside 30 Rock on July 27, 2019, I immediately recognized that old bronze smell. But it had also changed. The Rockefeller building, which used to feel strong and sophisticated, was permeated with an oily smell. I went down into the basement level, which I remembered to be lined with shops. There was a good panini place. Were they still there? I was excited to see.
They were not, probably long closed. Other shops I remembered, like Papyrus, were also gone. The shops that took their place felt stale and cold, and yet filled with drama. Not inviting. But this was the new kind of exhausting work had become common in so many restaurants.
Somehow, everything had been reduced to a tourist version of itself.
When I came back outside and walked around, I saw what had gone wrong. F.A.O. Schwartz had moved to one of the most prominent side storefronts of 30 Rock. And on the opposite side of the ice-skating rink (an outdoor restaurant in summer time), up the distinctive set of statues and fountains, where Macauley Culkin’s character was reunited with his mom in Home Alone 2, they had built sandboxes. And kids were playing in them. Kids, playing in sandboxes, with a view of 30 Rock.
Yeah, I don’t think so, kiddies and your over-indulgent parents who think the entire world is their sandbox.
30 Rock is for cutthroat female attorneys like the one I remember who triggered anxiety, among all the legal assistants, whenever you saw their name on caller ID. And she turned up on caller ID a lot. 30 Rock was for a hit TV show with whip-smart writing and comedic timing. 30 Rock is for 21-year-olds starting their careers who look up at the building, walk inside and feel like, “Wow!”
After Rockefeller, I kept walking up Fifth Avenue toward Central Park. During the Aughts, the best shops in the country were on that stretch, including the best H&M store. It was four stories, all decked out with merchandise. All the different categories were laid out in the most retail-instinctive and natural ways, and you could analyze and catalog exactly what they did, but why when you can walk through the store and always manage to find something? It was the most fluid, instinctive, fun – the most perfect store.
That H&M was gone, and the Zara that was a couple blocks up on the opposite side of Fifth had moved in instead. This was awful.
At Central Park, there was a booth for The Strand bookstore at Central Park. I perused. There were the usual, expected authors – too expected. Frida Kahlo. Haruki Murakami. I picked up a book by David Sedaris. The folks manning the booth looked like the kinds of people who would work at The Strand. Did they really work there or were they there to create “tourist version Strand bookstore”? Was this what they really wanted to do?
At Rockefeller and walking up Fifth Avenue, I realized I had reverted to my “New York in 2004” walk. I couldn’t stand the slow-walking tourists.
In summer 2019, I had somehow become the most aggressive walker on a New York sidewalk. This was a joke!
Near the Plaza Hotel, a cab was trying to veer onto a street through all the tourist traffic. The light was green for the cars, red for people, and I watched aghast as the cab slowly moved through the crowd painfully, with much patience.
Was this New York? Where was the city’s famous attitude? Could the cab driver please roll over the feet of some of those tourists like New York cabs have always threatened to do instead of being so un-New York and… nice?!
Could New Yorkers please yell at some tourists and show them who this town belongs to? What was going on?!
Walking back down Fifth, I stopped to talk with a man who was protesting and selling buttons opposite Trump Tower. I wondered if Trump Tower, because of Trump, had been protected from what was affecting the rest of burned-out, sweaty and oily New York. It was not. It felt just as worn out as the rest of the city, trying to hold onto its ‘80s glam and verve.
Because the man was closing up for the day, and because I stopped to talk to him, he gave me a free button.
On the third day, I met up with an old family friend in Chinatown for lunch. On my way back to the Lower East Side, I got turned around and walked too many blocks north and found myself in Soho. There wasn’t much time before my flight, so I hailed down a cab.
“Oops, I forgot to turn on the meter,” he said, looked back at me and grinned. “These things, they happen. I just don’t know how I forgot.”
Yes, how convenient that just happened.
In the summer of 2019, if you couldn’t hustle someone directly, then you did it passive-aggressively. The cab driver, experienced as he was with the comings and goings of New York, knew young people were too nice – and honestly, young people were probably too scared and in that part of New York, too spoiled – to haggle with a near elderly man, a Baby Boomer, over a meter he “forgot” to turn on.
He knew I was likely going to give him more than the actual fare, as probably many other young people had already done so, throwing some extra money at him and getting out of the cab a little disgusted but just glad to leave it behind.
Summer of 2019. The city had lost its attitude, but not its hustle.
“Cut the crap with the fake ‘nice-ness,’” the cab driver’s actions said. “This is New York.”