Five Years In Manhattan

This city will eat you up and spit you out if you’re not careful. There’s a saying that warns, “stay too long, you’ll grow too hard. Move west, you’ll grow too soft.” I admit, I paraphrased it, but you get the idea.

As of this writing I have lived in Manhattan for a little over five years. I was a west coast boy that was once overwhelmed here, and now I’m almost a full-blown New Yorker who walks too fast and has too little patience. Despite the often chaotic weekday morning subway ride – where you may be accosted by homeless men, rats, or pissed off commuters – there is undeniable beauty to this city. Through the pungent wafts of roasting garbage in the summer and the piles of black city snow in the winter, the city’s energy never fails to encourage, inspire, and impress.

A book I read recently captured these sentiments perfectly. In Rules of Civility, Amor Towles describes a depression-era New York City in the late 1930s. Much of what he illustrated then still rings true today. The story follows two young women – Katey Kontent and Evelyn Ross – as they race to climb the social ladder. By complete happenstance, the women meet a mysterious, wealthy, and handsome banker at a Greenwich Village bar on New Year’s eve in 1937. Tinker Grey, a Gatsbyesque character if I’ve ever met one, changes the lives of these two women forever. They’re soon running in aristocratic circles of both old and new money, and dining at sophisticated establishments like the 21 Club. A tripartite lovers quarrel unfolds, with a horrific accident that disfigures Eve and materially changes their relationships. The novel explores themes of love and betrayal, class struggle and identity. But what it excelled at most was its portrayal of New York City. It was as if Towles dressed up Manhattan in the finest haute-couture and chaperoned us readers to the most decadent gala imaginable. Rules of Civility reminded me why I love New York City, and then made me question why I needed a reminder in the first place.

The rat race of New York City – and I don’t mean literal rats, although there are plenty of those – can be a race that’s too intense for some. This city attracts some of the most competitive people in the world; people who will stop at nothing to climb the social ladder to get ahead. Towles sheds light on this intensity when Katey Kontent secures a job at a magazine, only to have her boss pit her directly against another woman. “May the best one win”, he said.

After some time in this city you’ll find there are a lot of chiefs running around, and not nearly as many self-professed followers. But what I’ve discovered more than anything is that while many think they’re equipped to be a chief, they often have at least one fatal flaw. Whether its interpersonal issues, a lack of leadership, overconfidence, or some other ego-fueled problem, many people in this town are makers of their own demise. If you can endure and ally yourself with mentors and friends alike, opportunities and riches abound. I guess it’s just like anything though – if you treat people like crap and consistently only look out for yourself, you will get what’s coming.

Enduring for an entire career here can drain even the strongest, however. After only five years, I keep feeling the need for a break. The sensory overload never pauses from the minute you step onto Manhattan’s streets. Dodging people is a lifestyle. And the city never slows. In fact, with each passing year, more people seem to come, the subways continue to swell, and walking skills increasingly deteriorate (if one more person suddenly stops while walking in front of me…). The dirt and grime cake to every public space in a way I’ve never seen in other major cities (London, Paris, etc. are spotless by comparison, but few are as condensed I suppose).

Yet through all of these nuisances, the city always pulls you back for more. It’s like that classic line from The Godfather, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Towles described this gravitational pull in Rules of Civility:

I went back to the living room and out onto the terrace. The air was cool and the lights of the city shimmered. The little planes no longer circled the Empire State Building, but it was still a view that practically conjugated hope: I have hoped; I am hoping; I will hope. I lit a cigarette and then I threw the match over my shoulder for good luck thinking: Doesn’t New York just turn you inside out.

There is something special about the majestic skyscrapers, the endless canyons of capitalism, and street after street of businesses, restaurants, and bars. Experiencing it does inspire hope; an ambition for something more, something better. If anything can encourage you to achieve, it’s seeing the seemingly successful people parading around Manhattan on a daily basis. Inevitably you will ask yourself – why not me? This drive will spring you from bed daily and power you through your work.

New York City ingrains in you an unparalleled intensity. It has a similar effect as what Ernest Hemingway famously stated about Paris, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” New York City ingrains intensity, for better or worse. The longer you stay, the more intense you get. Some thrive on it, others have to leave. Almost everyone has to escape temporarily. Rules of Civility captured the frequented hotspots, from mansions on Long Island (along the Gold Coast in Oyster Bay, in particular) to country retreats in the Adirondacks.

For me, the best part of New York City is coming back. There is nothing quite like it. Leaving the city, soaking in life outside it, all with the knowledge that you will return shortly to the bright lights and controlled chaos. After some time away, popping out of the subway or Penn Station – or shooting out of a bridge or tunnel if you’re a more sophisticated type – is enough to sweep your breath away. The intensity has a way of welcoming those back who speak its language.

Part of it could be the endless possibilities I think I’m returning to. And not all of them are career-oriented. Some of the scenes in Rules of Civility make you feel like you’re in that underground speakeasy-style restaurant in the Lower East Side or that smoky Jazz bar where the next note is always thrilling and unexpected. I also could not have put it better with regards to fine dining:

But for me, dinner at a fine restaurant was the ultimate luxury. It was the very height of civilization. For what was civilization but the intellect’s ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance and survival) into the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags and haute cuisine)?

There is nowhere that can satisfy superfluous desires better than New York City. As with most aspects of life though, and if I’ve learned anything these past five years, you must find balance, for as with Tinker Grey in Rules of Civility, you can easily find yourself climbing Manhattan’s invisible ladder to nowhere and suddenly realize you don’t feel alive. The gloss, glitz, and glamour have its place, but there is always someone richer, and always someone who is willing to take it to an even more superficial level. You must fight to stay true to your true passions and desires, and refuse to succumb to enticing materialistic ends for their own sake. Or as Towles described:

“One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements” 

Oftentimes simpler is better.

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