Commissioned by a student publication during my exchange stint in Korea. I knew then that other folk would be paying attention, so I did a roundabout way of name-dropping the previous foreign locale I’d lived and worked in.
Small Worm, Big Apple
I could have been one of the many jinxes that started upending the Paradise that was New York City since the nineties. The World Trade Center was first bombed a few months after I arrived and collapsed a few months before I finally left for home. A demented tourist shot a number of sightseers at the observation deck of the EmpireState building – a structure that loomed right outside the office where I worked for almost eight years. An unemployed immigrant also shot several passengers on a train leaving the city for the suburbs. The stock market plunged twice, first because of the Asian economic recession, then because of the overvaluation of dot-com shares.
In all instances except the last, foreigners were considered responsible for what happened. Yet this was one of the contradictions about living in that city, as opposed to living elsewhere in North America: everyone there was a foreigner, or had descended from one. Of course virtually all Americans are non-native, but it seemed that only when they get to New York do they care to point out how, at some point in the past, they actually belonged elsewhere.
The place had a certain way of exacting payback. I was supposed to be able to finish my studies, my share of the all-American dream, through the all-American method of working hard. What didn’t show up in the equation was that the money I’d earn, the largest I’d ever make in my life up to that point, would amount to less than nothing in the face of the exorbitant cost of living. I eventually wound up with my graduate degrees, plus a few thousand dollars’ worth of student loans.
In the face of such an unwelcome and unmitigated disaster, how did I manage to muddle through? If I thought then, as I do now, that the place was just as badly (or even worse) hit than I was, that would have been no consolation. Once I left the city, I’d have to wait out two years working in the Philippine national university before I could find a job that paid decently enough to pay off the loans.
The answer would be self-evident enough to anyone living in New York. The place itself has enough talent and diversity to make even the poorest resident occasionally feel lucky to be alive. A master violinist from a major Chinese orchestra, a black doo-wop trio with remarkable timing and perfect harmony, a female performance artist who could assume unusual poses for long stretches, Peruvian musicians invoking the Andes through their charango and panpipes, and so on … and these were just the characters one could encounter performing for loose change in the subway.
When the major opera houses announced their new seasons, I’d be in line for my student-priced tickets, each one a tenth of what a Broadway musical would cost me. One of the little secrets of long-time “cultured” New Yorkers is that they never go to Broadway, only to the opera, although my reason for attending was that I was a student of the spectacle (of cinema, but before that, historically speaking, there was only the stage). When my out-of-town friends would insist on Broadway shows then complain about how backward the stories were and how old-fashioned their politics played out, I’d try to convince them to try an opera, which would have the same brand of outmoded ideological positions, but with better music, finer singing, and grander staging. Besides, I’d say, Broadway’s origins lay in a lesser form, the Viennese operetta. No go, though; seemed like people in the rest of the world would not respect any of their friends who went to New York and spent their time on presentations that did not feature pop stars and current music.
I always envied those who’d been to the great museums of Europe, but every so often the New York institutions would mount retrospectives that would be the equivalent of the usually-dead artists coming back to rework their magic: Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, the circle of French surrealists, and of course the shock artists whose exhibits Rudy Giuliani attempted to thwart. In my specialization, I’d taken the number of free and discounted film screenings so much for granted that, when my home university asked me for my first-year viewing list, I was amazed to jot down, based on my notes, brochures, and tickets, over 300 titles of the widest possible array of movies, from high art to trash, from festival favorite to disreputable pre-Disneyfied Times Square run, from fun genre sample to structural-materialist cerebration (my favorite, which I made sure to watch twice in its entirety, was two hours of Michael Snow whirling his camera on various axes from atop a Canadian mountain).
There’d be food my friends and I would treat ourselves to when we had the spare funds, categorized according to nationality: Greek (authentic but also occasionally the code word for all-around New York diner), Italian, Mexican, French, Spanish, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Indian, Korean, and the always-reliable Chinese. Wines could be found for as low as $3 a bottle, so I could indulge my alcoholic depression by pretending I was learning vintage and vinification.
All in all the range and breadth of distractions would be enough to make you believe the place was worth living in despite its inadequate services and pugnacious population (and hey, I was one of them too for a time). Enough to sometimes forget what you originally came for, in fact. The first time my late father saw me again, he said: “I can’t believe it – I never thought I’d live to see the day when you grew old.” He said I reminded him of Rip van Winkle, a New York character created by a New York author. And at that point I knew the dream was over. I was finally back home.
[First published May 2, 2005, as “Growing Old in New York (Or Small Worm, Big Apple)” in The Hallym Post]