Leaving New York

Bohemian New York

Leaving New York

Bohemian New York

Leaving New York
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 4 2005 7:17 AM

Bohemian New York

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George Grosz's depiction of a bohemian party in Greenwich Village, in Ben Hecht's 1001 Afternoons in New York.
George Grosz's depiction of a bohemian party in Greenwich Village, in Ben Hecht's 1001 Afternoons in New York.

Bohemians are useless at saying goodbye; and they never want anyone else to leave. So, they don't say goodbye; they vanish, or they cease to be bohemian, suddenly or gradually assuming responsibilities they have for a long time postponed.

New York can famously kill the bohemian spirit, and moving to New York from Europe has turned many a bohemian to respectability. George Grosz, for example, the German painter—who illustrated a favorite book about this city, Ben Hecht's 1001 Afternoons in New York—said some time after his arrival in Manhattan at the end of the 1930s: "I became a kind of conformist in America. I didn't want to stand out." He lost his rebelliousness, his enthusiasm for radical politics.

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On the other hand, a bohemian could point out to many New Yorkers that many inhabitants' complaints about the city aren't as important as they may appear—despite the seriousness bohemians can find in themselves, they're not bad at recognizing absurdities in others, because their own lives, when self-examined in rare objective moments, are mad, just as lives lived too objectively are utterly, excruciatingly, unbearably insane.

You often hear it said that New York has become uninteresting now that it's no longer the world's art capital, though art is without capital and without one defining style. ("The chief mark of contemporary art … is its extreme and total diversity and openness" said Arthur C. Danto in After the End of Art.) You hear how expensive it all is, though it's a hell of a lot cheaper than London, where the cost of taxi journey from Heathrow Airport into the city is about the same as the transatlantic airfare. It's said of New York that it's not as pleasing now that old 42nd Street, with its porn theaters and seediness, is no more, and how the arrival of large supermarket chains is a further indication of the city's endless downward spiral into insufferable commercialism, radical stupidity, or how New York is no more than a suburb of Chicago on the Hudson. I like Chicago, and if New York is a more American city than it was, and less of a European one, so what?

I've heard about the imminent death of New York for as long as I can remember, though I think I first read about it in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. I've lost count of how many books, novels, and articles I've read on the decline of New York, or the fall of New York, or the end of New York, or the death of New York. A few months back, A. A. Gill, a Londoner on secondment to Vanity Fair, wrote that New York, once a city of intense pleasures, has become an expanse of great loneliness.

A New York newsstand
A New York newsstand

So much lamentation and unnecessary cultural despair. Take absolutely no notice; this is probably as attractive an era to be in New York as any. Maybe better, because it's an era without definition. And after years of anxious boasting about being the greatest of all cities, the most modern, the most thrilling, the most interesting, the most fun, the most buzzing, etc., New York is, thankfully, neither and none and not at all. Without the gloss, the heady excitement, it's the intense ordinariness of life in New York that makes this city remarkable. Millions of people doing things; here and there a bohemian or two not doing enough, or not doing anything, or doing something that makes sense only to themselves.

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New York has always had a deep-seated preoccupation with departure, with the end of things. In London, people are forever returning. I was stunned when, after almost a decade away that city, I went out to a dinner or a party and was greeted as if I'd never been away. This is not true here. In New York, someone is always about to leave, the experience of imminent departure is felt acutely among the city's thousands of scientists, many of whom are not American and whose years are studded with goodbye gatherings.

Why leaving New York should be sadder than leaving any other city, I don't know. Some people who visit or who live here leave New York believing they never made the most of it, and a visitor is usually inclined to think the same. Unless you were miserable in New York, regret at how little you did or saw is a part of departure. I once heard a British professor say that New York was an old lover and that he hated the next farewell so strongly that he preferred not to visit again. He said this with genuine feeling.

Such sadness is by no means exclusive to foreigners. In his book Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan, Phillip Lopate writes that New York is the saddest of cities—saddest because of its incompleteness, the feeling that nothing there is finished or fulfills its potential. Such an observation might seem a bit overdramatic; aren't other cities equally sad—how about Havana? And just how do you measure sadness? Yet I know what he means. Perhaps it has something to do with New York having once been a port, where there was all this coming and going. And yet the port is no more, and the arriving and departing is now invisible, and it's sometimes difficult not to be nostalgic for another time, when you could watch your boat come, or look back at last summer when life was better than it is now. Sitting on a bench on Hudson River Park starring at the sunset can be unbearable, the light inspiring an overpowering nostalgia, which encroaches even more strongly in the fall, as evening approaches, when colors caught in turning leaves resemble stained-glass in a cathedral or another place of mourning.

The interior at Balthazar
The interior at Balthazar

I asked someone where in New York they would say goodbye if they knew they wouldn't be back for some time. They had no answer. I couldn't think of a place myself, except for Balthazar, the place I go to when I arrive in New York, as well as the place I go to before I leave. Balthazar isn't cheap, nor is it unbelievably expensive, but if you had a choice between taking a taxi to the airport or having a last drink, or maybe dinner, at Balthazar and then taking the subway to the airport, then there's no choice, is there? Who cares how you get to a bloody airport? Balthazar is a brasserie, and yet it has the theater of a station, and above the entrance there's a the large clock to remind you how much time you have in New York before you take that subway to the planes and begin to know the regret that you won't be sleeping or walking through this city tonight.

Inigo Thomas lives in New York, though from time to time he considers living elsewhere. He is a journalist, an editor, and has worked for Slate, George, and the London Review of Books. He has an enthusiasm for voyages of exploration and for 18th-century natural science.