New York is buildings and money, food and drink, glances and remarks. It is streets, not roads. It is filth, not dirt. It is noise, not sounds. It is highways, not freeways, five-hour drives of one hundred miles in stop-and-go traffic instead of five-hour drives of four hundred miles doing 80. It is rats, not gophers, pigeons, not herons, roaches, not moths. It is weather, not natural disasters, humidity, not fog.
In New York, money flows in and out at high volume. Everything costs at least $4, and more likely $8, or $15, or $35, or $80. The background panic of New York very often has to do with money, and if not money, time. But bears never cross my mind.
New York is appointments, constantly being made, rescheduled and pushed back in increments of fifteen minutes. In the West vague plans are made and rarely spoken of until the moment of their execution or expiration. In New York, someone might send a preliminary email, text, or Facebook message (rarely, these days, a phone call) inquiring as to one’s availability this week or next week. Or someone may simply express the desire to get together, followed immediately by a statement of the impossibility of getting together. Negotiations are then open. Should it be dinner or drinks or coffee or brunch? Who has work and where and when? I’m free after 9. I’m free until 7:45. Call me when you finish rehearsal. Call me when you get out of work. Still at work! Still uptown! I’m supposed to go to my friend’s reading/opening/show. Maybe I can get you on the list. I’m at the show, where r u? It was so great to see you, sorry we didn’t get to talk more because it was my reading/opening/show. Sorry we missed your reading/opening/show, but let’s get a drink after! Text me when you’re done! Now I’m tired, going home! Would love to see you but I’m filming/recording/performing/on tour/on call/working nights until Sunday, until September. So sorry, I’m running half an hour late! Order without me! Get me some to go! Meet us inside! We’re in the back! We were there, but now we’re not! The show got canceled! The party got moved! I fell asleep watching The Wire! We’re leaving for Oaxaca! We were just in Tulum!
On the West Coast, planning is more like this. Let’s go camping/hiking/rafting next week. Is it time to go camping/hiking/rafting now? Oh, sorry, I’m five hundred miles away camping/hiking/rafting somewhere else. Yes, it is time. Okay, where do we meet? Three hundred miles from where you are. Start driving!
Or alternately, people live in small towns where you never lock your door and everyone’s recently or long-ago ex-boyfriend or -girlfriend comes in at any moment to borrow tortillas and you never text or call or make plans because everyone is going to the same potluck, bar, show or party, where plans can continue to not be made and local gossip can be discussed. Or no one is even going anywhere at all, they are just being. But if you get the urge to camp, hike, climb, raft or surf it can be accomplished very nearby, often before dinner.
People go to a lot of festivals out West, where you camp and there is music and many types of vegan and non-vegan burritos. By the time I came back East, the Oregon Country Fair was a distant memory and Stringfest was over a month ago. The Organic Planet Festival had just gone down in Eureka and Burning Man was about to draw so many people from the Bay Area that the city decided it was an opportune time to close down the Bay Bridge for construction. Earthdance was on the horizon and everybody was making plans for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.
In New York there are film festivals I have little hope of attending since my one seriously connected film friend went to grad school in the Czech Republic. There is no camping at these festivals. There are celebrities and interns and laminated badges and panel discussions with glasses of water.
Time and space are very different on the West Coast. Traffic is hardly a factor. In the eight weeks I spent in the West I was stuck in traffic for exactly one hour, trying to get over the Golden Gate Bridge on the 101 on a Sunday afternoon. Once outside the cities there is very little traffic. There are instead very evocative and terse road signs that say things like “ROCKS” or “ELK” or have graphics depicting sharp curves or steep grades, which are redundant to the three-dimensional versions of these things on which you are currently driving.
In New York, you do not wear Chacos, fleece, zip-off hiking pants, board shorts or belts made from the webbing used to rig rafts or climbing routes unless this gear is actively in use. People are not routinely covered in a myriad of healing scars and abrasions of unknown provenance. The most common scars of unknown provenance are bruises to the head from crowd surfing and really vicious injuries from urban bike accidents.
Most people in New York are quite thin. Most of the white people are quite pale. Tans are remarked upon with and combination of suspicion and admiration. Everybody knows you didn’t get that extra melanin here.
In the West clothes have a purpose. If they convey something to others it’s often one’s activities as much as subculture, and everyone gets naked sooner or later anyway to jump in the swimming hole or soak in the hot springs.
New York is outfits, not gear. The time and attention given to one’s outfit in New York can only be appreciated by leaving New York. In New York dressing is a performance and a form of self-expression. New York is an aesthetic experience and your job here is to contribute to the aesthetic. Even when you think you’re not, you are. Though the L train fashion show effect is often contemptuously lamented, there are days when I walk the Lorimer platform like a catwalk and then stand in awe of the collective effort this group has expended on dressing. There is a deep satisfaction in being part of such a fleeting, superficial moment, in being one of several hundred people standing stonefaced and uneasily posing in a public space, engaged in the activity of being ourselves. It’s so exhibitionistic and narcissistic it becomes beautiful in its singularity of purpose. It’s like one of those sand paintings Buddhist monks make, the ones their masters then sweep away.
Many people are drawn to New York by a desire for self-creation, to remake themselves before a captive audience of millions. There is a tacit agreement among the citizens of New York to work on some undefined project together, a project of seeing and becoming and watching and ignoring.
The old story of Western migration is also one of re-creation, but often through achieving mastery over or oneness with the land. In the West the land is so big and we are so small it feels at times like it’s all headed toward dissolution. In New York it’s distillation. The final product is the self, and the outfits. The personality of the lifer New Yorker gets bigger and bigger until he or she can be drawn with a few broad strokes, like a Hirschfeld cartoon, or summed up in a single pithy remark, like a New Yorker caption.
New York is a performance rather than an experience. Sometimes you are on stage and sometimes you are a spectator, but someone is always watching or listening. Even if you don’t leave your apartment you’ll hear death threats, stock tips and an average of one stranger’s orgasm per week. In a single block you can field a compliment on your outfit, glare at a dirty remark, sneer at a bad driver, refuse two beggars, give generously to a third, feel guilty about your arbitrary nature, and read the headlines of three major newspapers, while reporting all of it to the internet on the phone, while also talking on the phone. Out West your phone will lose reception and then it will die before you can charge it.
On the West Coast people are brought close by sharing experiences as much as by talking. You DO things, often in places where you can’t even talk, because of the high winds or rushing water or the fact that you are separated from your buddy by hundreds of feet of rope. Rather than talk about other things they did, thoughts they had and things they saw, people do things together. I suppose they talk about them during and after. I certainly did. But no one on the West Coast talks as much as I do.
Everyone talks more in the East, and louder and faster. Everyone is visibly more nervous. Everyone is more actively interested in getting the last word. New York is first and foremost and always and forever a battle of wits.
In the East more people are on psychotropic medications, or speak freely of being so. In the West more people are getting stoned, or speak freely of doing so.
In the East when you smoke at a height and contemplate the moon you’re out on the six-story fire escape. Out West it’s a giant boulder. In the East when we settle in to drink we stay in one place. Out West just when you think we’re really unwinding with our drinks and our smokes and our lounging positions, someone jumps up and commences another wilderness activity, or goes to bed in preparation for an upcoming early-morning wilderness activity. No one stays up all night, hardly ever. Plenty of perfectly healthy able-bodied young people go to bed before midnight.
You can pee at will in a hell of a lot more places out West. In New York your outdoor peeing options are limited to the space between the fenders of two parked cars, the middle of the Williamsburg Bridge at night and the odd dark alley. But of course there are almost as many bars in the city as there are trees in the woods.
Out West people leave the house with a full set of camping gear in their cars because they may at any given moment spend the night up a mountain. Out West you can decide to go camping at the last minute, because you don’t have to rent a car and borrow a tent and drive three hours in summer Friday rush hour traffic to get to a litter-strewn campground full of various youth groups. Out West many people have beds or the makings of beds in their cars or trucks or buses or vans. Out West many of the cars are trucks or buses or vans.
Out West people really do say “rad,” “gnarly” and “sick,” and these words have specific and apt meanings. In New York no one says “rad,” “gnarly,” or “sick.” This may be because nothing in New York is “rad,” “gnarly” or “sick.” Things in New York are “crazy” or “awesome” or “interesting” or “a nightmare” or “totally fucking insane.” Out West they say “rage” when they mean “party.”
I am out of my element out West. I don’t know if there really are bears or snakes everywhere or everyone is just fucking with me, I don’t know until I find out that you can drive up that steep dirt road, that you can jump in that river, that you can climb that tree. I don’t know where the secret trails and swimming holes are. Back East I know things. I know where you can get a cab, and how to dart ahead in the crowd to make the train, how to tell who is getting off at the next stop so I can have their seat, which trains run local after rush hour, which trains don’t run at all, which subway transfers are labyrinthine and which are expedient, where to cross the park when, how to get the bartender to notice me, how to sneak into certain venues, when various restaurants will be fatally crowded and when you might get a table, where to find just about any kind of food at any hour, and where all the delis are. This knowledge is of no use to me out West.