I was in Manhattan recently and thought, “I could double my income if I lived here.” Everyone I observed over four days was hustling to make a deal—to get a kid into the preschool, to be elected or re-elected, to diss their neighbor, to get the best table, to raise the money, to sculpt the abs, to keep the pensions, to hammer the opponents. To put bread on the table. To stay alive.
You say, “Yup. Same as everywhere else in the world.” Right. But in New York, nothing is masked. The Dance is not formalized. It’s basically the “Dirty Boogie,” every citizen for themselves, dancing faster than anywhere else.
My first business appointment, on my first morning in the city, was in a tall building on the West Side, off Broadway. After the obligatory security check, I was standing at the elevator bank when the two uniformed guards, one man, one woman, started screaming at each other. “I’ll show you respect when you show me respect.”
“I’ll show you respect when you deserve it!” All this at a high decibel, with dozens of people near them, averting their gaze, not wanting to make eye contact. “Every day’s an adventure,” a woman said to me. “Most of the people pissed off, most of the time.”
In the 1970s, crime was a real problem in New York. With Bill de Blasio coming in as the new mayor, I heard lots of conversation about backsliding into this era. “We’ll see the squeegee men back in force,” I heard. One man told me, “Back then I got mugged while I was staring up at the Plaza Hotel, remembering that I was married there. This is what tourists do, and I got caught acting like one, an easy mark. ‘Keep walking fast’ was the rule then. And I’m afraid we’re going to go back to that. I had friends who went out carrying squash rackets to deter dangerous characters.”
There’s been a lot of rhetoric in the media recently about the income disparity in America, that haves and the have-nots. Quite a few people in New York talked to me about this, and not in a dismissive way. “After Hurricane Emily,” a money manager told me, “I waited in line for an hour to get gas one day, and I saw at least two serious fights between people waiting in line. It was getting ugly, and scary, too.” The man, now in his middle 40s, had grown up poor in a big family and worked his young tail off to get his slice of the dream. He told me that he hated to see publicity about apartments in Brooklyn that get snapped up in a day for over $2 million. “I’m afraid that if things get bad enough in the job markets, people are going to pour into the streets. Like in Egypt. Or Syria.”
And I thought I was down there for catching up with friends and some great theater and dining. Not gearing up for the revolution. Everything is exacerbated in Manhattan, the highs higher, the lows lower. But at the dawn of 2014, the natives were definitely restless.
At dinner with a lawyer and his wife, lifelong New Yorkers I’ve known for more than 30 years, he said, “I’m a Democrat. Always. And I’m on several nonprofit boards. But this new class-war rhetoric makes me think for the first time that maybe it’s time to head for the mountains of Busch. Or at least out of this city. Do I have to feel guilty for having busted my tail to achieve something, to have my family benefit from what I’ve created? I hate the idea of Florida, or Texas, or the other tax-free states. But this is America, and I dreamed the dream. Maybe it’s time to move west.”
I heard a lot of anger during this trip, from up and down the economic scale, anger boiling up the scale and anger pointed down.
But we are still an aspirational society in America. Recent immigrants I talked with in Boston universally want the good life for themselves and their children. Many of them—here from Brazil and Bulgaria, Ethiopia and Algeria, Cambodia and Vietnam—are working several jobs at once, and they’re convinced they can do it. “That’s why we came here,” a young man from Algiers told me. “So my girls can be American.”
And the bright lights of the Big Apple remain a beacon for many. Broadway still shines with shows like Kinky Boots and Wicked, and you can wander the great Frick Museum and the constant surprises at the Brooklyn Museum. Have a planter’s punch and a burger at P.J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue, or taste the originality of any of the Blue Ribbon restaurants. They are model of how smart owners, in this case the Bromberg brothers, can build a brand.
On this trip I tried something I had made a bet about. I told a friend, “How about we get in a cab and put blindfolds on? And we tell the driver, ‘Drive around for 20 minutes in any direction and drop us off.’ ” I bet my friend that wherever we were dropped, we could find a restaurant within a block that’s memorable. We drove around. The driver stopped on the West Side, right next to a market. Above it was a delight of a restaurant, the Fairway Cafe, the kind of place tourists never really go, where you can taste the neighborhood’s sights and smells, and watch the locals, who, if pressed, wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world.