I still think that one bad day in Boston is like most days in New York. And despite the saying ‘If you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere,’ The Big Apple seems to me often like a giant hick town. Why? Because of the superiority syndrome which beneath the surface makes for so much insecurity. This is true on the Upper East Side particularly, and in all of the high-end restaurants, the jockeying for table location, the tipping at every level of doormen, maitre d’s, concierges, the bribes to contractors, to service people of every stripe. The fives, tens, twenties disappear into hands and pockets as if by magic. We don’t have Siberia at any restaurant in Boston. There are no ego sections. Universally, we sit where we’re seated. We don’t count the presumed net worth of the people near us, sick at heart that they’re worth more than us. Here’s my favorite story about this insecurity: My wife and I came to New York to go to a college pre-25th reunion party. It was being hosted by a classmate who owned a number of businesses and was always featured in the press at charity blasts and cultural events, holding his champagne or wine glass up to the camera. ‘Clink.’ He generously wined and dined New York and Connecticut classmates at his Fifth Avenue apartment, loaded with modern art, jumping at you from every wall, including the bathrooms. “Wow,” I said to the host, “you have fabulous paintings, incredible sculpture.” He looked at me in that New York way, not only wanting to impress, but to really impress. “You should see what’s in storage,” he said, thinking it would be the ice pick in my heart. There’s more to the insecurity syndrome: I have an old friend, in the real estate business in New York, CEO of a public company. I only talk to him several times a year. But every time I talk to him he says ‘It’s all over. Sell everything; it’s all going to hell.”
“Real estate?” I asked, “Or everything?”
“The deficit, the clueless politicians, billions coming due in commercial real estate loans that won’t be rolled over. There are 38 states that are virtually broke in America.”
“How are you and your business going to do?”
“My business” he said, “my business is gonna be great; we’ve got it all figured out.” There is another New York syndrome for you: It’s not enough that you’re really successful. Everyone else should go down the toilet, particularly your competitors and often various family members as well.
Dating New York women has provided me with interesting ammunition as well. New Year’s Eve, senior year in college, I was fixed up by a friend with a senior at Vassar, whom I was told came from Manhattan, but spoke with a Russian accent. We went to a party at my friend’s parents’ apartment. The parents were out of the country and we had the place to ourselves, eight of us; one friend with his steady girl, two other classmates all with three fix-ups. Fantasy lives, of course, especially with a Park Avenue pad, bar fully stocked, packed fridge, four bedrooms. The evening didn’t start well. My date, when asked, ‘What would you like to drink?’ said, “Scotch is my drink.” The well-stocked bar had no Scotch. “We’ve got Bourbon,” the host said. “Brands?” she asked, with her vague Russian accent as if she had arrived in a sleigh from Moscow with wolfhounds running alongside.
“Uh…, Early Times’? My host said, reading the labels from the bar. “I almost never drink Bourbon,” my date responded. “But when I do, it’s only Jack Daniels.” I could feel myself shriveling up. The evening disintegrated from there, I thought, with the Vassar noblewoman seeming to sneer at me, the serf, until it was time to put her in a cab. After the taxi door slammed, she rolled down the window and said, “You could have kissed me.” And the cab drove off. ‘If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.’
Just a few weeks ago, I was in Manhattan seeing clients and was taken to lunch at one of the classically pretentious high-end restaurants where the maitre’d’s knew that they were so superior to you in every way that they could afford to spurn your $20 and only give you half a smile when you palmed them a Benjamin. The place was only 10% full, sign of the times, until we were leaving, around 1:30. At that point, a parade of women were seated, perhaps fifty or more, covered in furs from jackets to full length, and bling of all sorts; rings, earrings, bracelets, jeweled pins, designer clothes, all air-kissing each other and flinging compliments as if the bubble days were with us in spades and greed and conspicuous consumption were back. “The ghosts of Christmas past lives,” I said to my client.
“Denial,” he said. I thought that every single woman I passed on our way out had had big work done; lips, eyes, noses, chins. It was a dreamlike sequence, as if Fellini or Robert Altman were doing an Upper East Side peek at the decline and fall of a part of the American Empire. I asked two of the women standing together, “What organization is this?”
“No organization, it’s a girlfriend’s birthday bash.”
“I thought we were in a deep recession,” I said, not being able to resist. The other woman said, “It’s horrible. But if we dare admit it to each other, we’re done for, no one will invite us anywhere.”
Not wanting to bring up how much responsibility for financial chaos belonged to the New York mentality, I’m trying to put a nostalgic twist on the theme. My father had a woman cousin, a new Yorker through and through who loved the era of the 1920s, and 1930s, particularly the literature of those times. When she died, at the turn of this century, she instructed that her ashes be scattered in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel…because, she said, “that’s where F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda cavorted drunk one night, dressed to the nines, dancing in the fountain.” Her daughter carried out her Mom’s romantic wishes, dodging Christmas shoppers and cops. “The cold wind was howling, and”, the daughter said, “I’m sure some of the ashes blew into F.A.O. Schwartz.”
I say, “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” After you pay all the taxes, and keep deluding yourself.