“New York, New York” Is Not A Sad Song
Move to Brooklyn the morning after Whitney Houston dies. Snow lines the ground, ruptured blood vessels line your eyes. Reason with yourself: if you move to New York in February and live to thaw out in the spring, then you can love this city in the best and worst conditions. It is a concept borrowed from the most beloved song of your youth—“(The Theme From) New York, New York.” When Sinatra promised making it here meant making it anywhere, the notion stuck to your ribs like oatmeal.
Take a temp job at a television production company. You work in the accounting office alongside two Albanian women despite having no aptitude for mathematics or the Eastern Bloc. They purr unsolicited advice at you: enjoy your life, buy fine china, eat more arugula—arugula will make you beautiful. When they converse in Albanian, it feels like two children in the schoolyard tossing a Spaldeen back and forth over your head. “I’m right here,” are the words you keep behind the dam of your teeth.
Board a conspicuously empty subway car and learn why you should never repeat this mistake. The car is empty at rush hour for a reason, and it will take you three days to recover from the smell.
“What’s life in New York really like?” a friend asks you over the phone. “Are you a Harry or a Sally?” She is 3,000 miles away and plotting her own big move to the city.
“I think I might be Harry,” you tell her, “but I’m as high maintenance as Sally.” What you really want is to be Carrie Fisher safe in bed with Bruno Kirby. You have faked several orgasms—in and out of delis.
When dragged against your volition to an improv show, down two whiskeys in ten minutes then point to one of the comedians on stage like Babe Ruth’s called shot.
“How deep in Brooklyn do you live, anyway?” he asks you after the show.
“You know where Peggy Olsen lives in the first season of Mad Men?” you ask him. “I live there, basically.”
At midnight, after two bars, go back to his apartment. At dawn, after three orgasms, he confesses his nagging fear from earlier in the evening that you had preferred his tall friend. He is not tall like his friend. He is feeling insecure about it.
“I hadn’t noticed,” you tell him coolly.
“Maybe not, but you would have noticed if I was tall,” he says as the dark corner of the night is peeled back by Sunday morning. “If I was tall, I wouldn’t have had to take you to a second bar.”
Every time you leave your jewelry on a stranger’s nightstand, an angel gets its wings.
Before you moved to New York City, you pinned a large portion of your geographical desire to the ease at which you could attend Yankees games. Your father says it’s in your blood; that when you take the 4 train into the Bronx, you are just being borne back from whence you came. Like Kennedy once said about the sea. He says you have cell memories of the greats that escaped you—a personal history inextricably steeped in the beauty of the game like tea.
They play “New York, New York” at the end of every Yankees game. This was a staple of your upbringing—part of the lore that brought you to the depths of the Bronx your whole life. When the Yankees win, Frank Sinatra’s version blares over the stadium sound system. When they lose, the Liza Minelli version plays.
Sometime between your reign as a tiny fanatic sitting third row in the old stadium and your grand return as an adult and freshly minted New Yorker to the new stadium, Liza Minelli complained about the Yankees policy—insisting they either play her version for a win or not at all.
Now the Frankie version of “New York, New York” plays as you file out of your seat at the end of every game, regardless if the Yankees win or lose.
You consider kissing a friend on New Year’s Eve, but someone else gets to him first. You are not Harry or Sally or Carrie Fisher. You are deeply intoxicated.
A celebratory firecracker hits you on the street shortly after midnight, leaving a scar on the webbing of your right hand. When you look down at it, you think of it as the place where a little bit of starshine left you that night.
A mass market paperback calls out the trope of the cool girl and gives permission to stop reaching for it—but you have already retired that facet of your personality.
A paperback anthology filled with congratulatory essays about leaving New York garners attention from a spate of press outlets. It becomes en vogue to write about why you left New York—to crunch numbers as Meghan Daum once did, clutching at the insanity of identifying as a New Yorker. You take the essays personally, in the bratty self absorbed way a twenty-three year old is wont to do.
Good, you think, reading another Didion-esque essay in the collection, there’s not enough room on the subway for all of us. If you don’t like it here, there’s the fuckin’ door.
Switch vocations. You wind up at a low rung of an advertising agency where you are the only white girl in a conference room that looks like Benetton’s sexiest campaign.
At an internal meeting, the strategy team invites you to brainstorm ideas for a client seeking to distill the very essence of New York City so they can alchemize it towards generating millions of dollars in revenue. Everyone in the room is free associating—what they love about this city, what they claim makes it electric, what they miss about the old New York.
Eloise at the Plaza. The big keyboard at FAO Schwartz. Annie Hall. Water towers. The Manhattan Bridge. Trinity Church. Twin Towers. Saturday Night Live. Counterfeit bags on Canal Street. The bull on Wall Street. The East Village. Paul Simon. Dollar slices. Penny Marshall sitting second row at the Yankees game. Derek Jeter. Frank Sinatra. “New York, New York” playing in perpetuity.
“None of that,” one of the strategy directors cuts in, lowering his glasses and waving a dismissive hand at you. “‘New York, New York’ is a sad song. We’re not using it.”
He asks if you have ever seen Carey Mulligan perform the song—claiming that when she sang “New York, New York” in the movie Shame, it instantly became the saddest song on earth.
You ache to defend it. You gesticulate wildly. The glamour! The panache! The rallentando! The glory of the 1998 Yankees! But he refuses to revoke the status he has deigned your favorite song to.
“Face it, Coco,” the other strategy director tells you, desperate to move on from this argument. “Listen carefully to the words. ‘New York, New York’ is a sad song.”
No, it’s not, are the words that rise from your throat.
Your brother calls to check in on you, but you are preoccupied watching a nature documentary on BBC. Onscreen, the male birds are fussing mightily over creating a perfect environment in order to attract female birds.
“How is it that bird men are working harder than human men to impress women?” you say aloud between swigs from a cobalt wine glass.
Your brother replies: “Birds don’t have Facebook.”
A homeless man on the F train cries Mayday, mayday, we’re going down! loud enough and often enough that you half believe him by the time you hit Delancey Street.
Every time you masturbate to an ex, an angel dies.
Some of the establishments you have grown accustomed to fade into oblivion, frightening you with the notion that what you considered permanent fixtures against the backdrop of Manhattan have been reduced to ephemera overnight. First it was your preferred dive on St. Marks, then it was Mickey Mantle’s bar by Central park.
You knew he was a fast talker, so you wanted to see what else he could do with that tongue. You find out on the 14th floor of a hotel. Take your headband off before your trench coat. He gives you water in a wine glass. Kiss him like you have been waiting years for this.
“I have been waiting years for this,” he says to you when he has you on the bed. You are spread out like a subway map. He is a tourist deciding where to go first; how to get there.
The bedside radio plays a song about a man with magic hands and when you laugh it unnerves him. You murmur things into the curve of each other’s collarbones, into the thick of each other’s hair. He speaks alien alphabets between your legs until the night bleeds into the morning. In the milky honest light of 6 a.m. he asks to do something blush-inducing.
“But it’s Easter Sunday,” you tell him in an act of insincere protest.
You do it anyway. There are church bells ringing down in the square.
When your roommate leaves to move in with her boyfriend, she does it in phases. Soon enough, all of her appliances are gone from the bathroom and her mugs are gone from the kitchen. All she has left behind is a small book by the microwave: The Joys of Cooking for One. You hurl it across the apartment like a fastball.
On a coffee date with a white whale, he asks how you’ve been in the years since you’ve last sat across a table from each other—where you work now, what your day entails. You indulge him, tell him about the agency you work at now and what you do there.
“So basically you’re Pete Campbell,” he says reductively.
“No,” you pout. “I’m Peggy. I’m Peggy Olson.” He’s getting it wrong all over again.
At work, your co-workers have taken to crafting the narrative of their personal lives and trading origin stories. After downing a glass of 21-year-old scotch, tell them yours.
In the second grade, you choreographed an original dance to “New York, New York”—the version Sinatra sang alongside Tony Bennett on his ill-received Duets album—in preparation of performing it in the class talent show.
On the day of the talent show, you slipped just as Frankie started spreading the news and Tyler Mooney howled from behind the fortress of his front row desk. He was unable to contain his steady laughter throughout the rest of the set, despite dusting yourself off and carrying on.
“We told you ‘New York, New York’ was a sad song,” your co-workers retort, but you dispute them still. You had another chance to perform in the sixth grade musical—a new choreographed number on the big stage in the cafetorium to the very same song—and your slip-free rendition garnered you wide elementary school acclaim. The glory of the song is upheld.
Upon waiting in line for thirty minutes to purchase a fifteen dollar salad, you decide that, like love, living in New York City is a socially accepted form of insanity.
When the summer comes, claim it is too hot outside to bring anyone home and have sex to your new Chet Baker vinyl. That doesn’t mean you can’t masturbate to it.
There is a spot outside your office on Broadway that seems to court bizarre circumstance. One morning a man leaps from the roof and blood leaks from his dead body in a steady stream out onto the pavement. They cover him with a sheet by the time you approach the scene, but his Nikes poke out from beneath.
Another morning in the same spot you find a rare long beaked bird—dead but showing no signs of trauma. You send a photo to your brother, the ornithologist of the family. He identifies the bird: a bar-tailed godwit, likely blown off course making his annual migration from Europe or Asia. The lack of trauma indicates he died of sheer exhaustion.
“He must have gone through a lot to get here,” your brother says in a text message.
“Think of what he must have seen on his trip,” you write back. Then you think about it, and then you cry.
In lieu of birds and broken bodies, there is a homeless man who constructs an altar out of cardboard every morning and prays for hours in the castle he created. Among his possessions are a tattered bible and a pair of trophy hands, clasped alongside his in a parallel prayer. He asks for nothing of the passing traffic. You pass him and wonder what he asked for in his prayers.
When the winter comes, you travel so far uptown that you have officially gone out of your way in pursuit of sex. When you get to the venue, you wait for him in a pit of young strangers. One stands in front of you for thirty minutes wearing a shirt that says: when we’re good, no one notices. You murmur under your breath: baby, I know. Promise yourself you’ll never go that far uptown for a man again.
Allow yourself to wonder where the homeless man will go when Broadway freezes over for the winter. Before he packs up his altar for the night, ask with a string of frozen breath between you: what do you ask for when you pray?
His answer floors you.
When your roommate moves back in, it feels like a cross between a slumber party from your youth and a lover returning from war.
When the emergency brake goes off on the F train one morning, it sends you sliding down your seat and straight into a pole. The train announcements come in a murky set of three. Each time the voice pipes in over the speaker, you strain to hear what it was saying—never gleaning more than one word from the conductor. The word is “emergency.”
“Like, they pulled the emergency brake by accident, or something,” a woman seated across from you says, fluent in the language of subway mumble.
How many minutes will go by before I have to dry swallow an Ativan? you wonder as they make the final announcement: “This will be the last stop. Everyone must walk up to the front car and evacuate this train.”
Once you are off the train and onto the platform, you think the flock of fellow passengers pointing at the tracks, murmuring that something’s wrong is nothing more than an allusion to the emergency brake that was indeed deployed and holding the train in place. You look down, too.
But what are you looking at? The emergency brake looks like one of those long red boots that police affix to the wheels of a car to keep it in place. Then the red mass doesn’t look like a brace anymore, it looks like a dead deer on the side of the road. It looks like a dead deer pinned beneath the wheels of the train. Then you see the shape of a man’s head.
Your grandfather dies on 63rd Street on a Monday. He was a flawed man. When you were a child, he was a very wealthy man with salacious stories—a man whom you projected all the black and white glamour of your old Hollywood fantasies onto. You are the one who waits in the apartment on the Upper East Side with his body for hours until the dispatch from the funeral home arrives to take him.
Walking around his apartment, running your fingers across the leather spines of his books, reflecting on familiar faces in sun-stained framed photographs, looking at yourself in the mirrored entryway, you realize: this was your very first impression of New York City. Manhattan, to you, was once a nine-story 1200 square foot concept. Manhattan was once as big as this apartment.
The funeral is held in the cemetery where Basquiat is buried. As you prepare to take the casket back down the church steps, they play Frank Sinatra and his voice fills the chapel. It is the voice you have known all your life—the voice you associate with your grandfather and your team and your city. It is the voice that compelled you to dream of New York in the first place; the voice that made you sink your heels into the ground.
There are certain songs you can recognize in an instant. “We Will Rock You,” by Queen. “Start Me Up,” by the Rolling Stones. “Baby One More Time,” by Britney Spears. They are songs that make themselves known within the first second. “New York, New York” is one of these songs. That opening horn, those first five notes: they are an announcement. They are a celebration. They are the gold flecks in the streets your great-grandparents fantasized about when they boarded boats from Odessa to Ellis Island.
They are a cavalcade. They are a welcoming embrace: you are here now; you are home.