Planet of the Guidos
Why Staten Island is New York City's most mocked borough.
A recent film offers a somewhat fresher and more complicated vision of Staten Island than we're used to: Big Fan, which came out on DVD last Tuesday after a limited theatrical run. Written and directed by Robert Siegel (who wrote The Wrestler), and starring the comedian Patton Oswalt as a Giants-obsessed parking-lot attendant, Big Fan is part of a tradition of films—lean, but a tradition nonetheless—in which Staten Island plays a crucial supporting role. The landmark of this genre is Mike Nichols'Working Girl, from 1988, which concerns a Staten Island-based Wall Street secretary (Melanie Griffith) who sets her sights on big-city glory. Staten Island allowed Nichols a fresh twist on the age-old tale of the diamond-in-the-rough hero who yearns to escape her nowhere hometown: In Working Girl, the nowhere hometown is part of the greatest city on earth. Griffith's ambitions are captured in an early scene on the Staten Island waterfront when she gazes hopefully at the Manhattan skyline: The harbor becomes a moat, the twinkling kingdom so close but so far.
Big Fan captures a different side of Staten Island: the one that wants nothing to do with its neighbor to the north. Oswalt's Paul Aufiero has one friend, lives with his mother, and likes it that way. He's barricaded himself comfortably among his obsessions, and his happiest contact with the outside world comes in the form of nightly calls to an AM sports-radio talk show. Big Fan nods not just to Staten Island's McMansion-studded topography—Paul's brother is an ambulance chaser who lives on a gaudy, stucco-drunk street—but also its unique brand of semi-urban decay: the crumbling warehouses, empty storefronts, gas-station mini marts, and run-down houses that line formerly industrial waterfront neighborhoods like Stapleton and Port Richmond. Early on, Paul takes a disastrous trip to Manhattan that threatens to draw him out of his world, and he spends the rest of the film hiding out in his bedroom, pretending it never happened. The harbor is a moat in Big Fan, too, only the kingdom has switched shores.
The longing, Manhattan-ward gaze and the stiff-armed big-city rebuff: this duality is key to Staten Island. But the latter is the borough's dominant attitude, especially as you get farther and farther south. In True Life: I'm a Staten Island Girl, one South Shore teen puts it nicely: "Nobody in my family has really left. I have everything I've ever wanted here. I drive a Lexus truck." Several parents of friends of mine lived lives in which the city at large pointedly played no part. I remember one mother describing Manhattan, with a theatrical, revolted shudder, as crowded and gross: She liked to leave Staten Island on weekends, but preferred to head for the air-conditioned confines of New Jersey's Short Hills Mall. Provincialism can be sniffed out in suburbs everywhere, naturally, but it's jarring to find a chunk of the stuff bobbing, intact, within the so-called melting pot. There's something of the chicken-and-the-egg to the issue, as a systematic inferiority complex shades into fierce, hermetic pride. The borough's geographic remoteness at once mandates isolation (the ferry is a hassle to build a life around, except perhaps as a 9-to-5 commuter) and caters to isolationism (the present-day population remains nearly 80 percent white).
The stiff arm was ratified in 1993, when a majority of Staten Island residents voted to secede from New York City, tired of paying taxes to a city that rewarded them with megatons of waste and megatons of scorn. The State Assembly swatted down the resulting bill in 1994; secession talk resurfaced in 2008, though its chances of success are as slight as they were 17 years ago. The isolationist spirit is there, too, in a different way, in the music of the Island's greatest cultural export, the Wu-Tang Clan, which challenged both the supremacy and strictures of Bronx- and Brooklyn-based hip-hop—from which perspective Staten Island was taken about as seriously as Peoria, Ill.— and refigured Staten Island as "Shaolin," a proud, kung fu fantasyland.
Other New York boroughs claim strong self-reliance, too, of course, but Staten Island does so in a way that is more oppositional, and less appealingly "exotic." Urbanites take foodie trips to Flushing, Queens, for authentic ethnic cuisine and can relate, at least implicitly, to the striving-immigrant narrative that animates a community like Jackson Heights or Sunset Park. Staten Island is much harder to assimilate into the fabric of New York. Politically, culturally, and sociologically, it is the strangest bedfellow in the city's ménage à cinq, regarded as a little red state full of orange people who seem to have crash-landed on our blue planet.
In this light, the Staten Island Guido is the most vivid, visible (and, some might say, grotesque) reflection of the borough's psychology. He turns "Guido" from a slur to a badge of honor and wears his déclassé otherness as proudly and aggressively as a punk rocker. (In its snob-scandalizing powers, the blowback is a far more radical hairstyle today than the Mohawk.) "The Situation" is exemplary: part insufferable rooster, part underdog. Kind of like his hometown.
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Jersey Shore's Mike "The Situation" © 2009 MTV Networks.