Your Misplaced New York Nostalgia Will Get You Nowhere

Things change around you. The new wave replaces the older wave, and it turns out the older wave is you. But if you've been around, surely you know there are more things to be sad about.

by Zachary Lipez
Mar 31 2015, 6:42pm

Someday, somewhere, in the not so distant future, on a social media forum not so foreign from the ones we know, someone is typing "RIP NYC." Someone is typing, probably in all caps, "I can't believe Darkroom/Motor City/St. Jeromes/that crepe place on Ludlow is gone! I did something there, once! RIP NYC!"

I understand this sentiment, mostly. My capacity for nostalgia is the same as yours, which is to say it colors how I perceive every little thing. Before basic human empathy and the occasionally (very) correct online scolds kicked in, I myself felt a cold fear that B&H Dairy might disappear in last week's Second Avenue disaster and with it my favorite square footage in New York City. Even if the wanting seems trivial in the light of actual suffering, it is not unreasonable to want everything to stay right where it always was.

You know, in your hearts and heads if not your status updates, that the world erodes. Even Chinatown will someday be replaced by one enormous Thai restaurant. I will go there, and I will tell my grandchildren that I did lines of cocaine where the peanuts on their papaya salad sit. My corpulent grandchildren will listen, the fat in their ears expanding. I am old and angry and can't be expected to remember that, by this point, everybody is allergic to peanuts. Probably the only thing they won't be allergic to is cocaine. Social mores change. I hope I won't bore them.

I remember the blackout of 2003, the big fun inconvenience of the early aughts, the great liberation from having to pretend that cops and firemen were our friends, whatever name history will settle on, maybe just "Goodbye to All That Ice Cream." I was talking to a long-past friend on a landline—he'd gone from a Robitussin problem to an American military problem to a God problem so I was relieved as hell when the phone went dead and not all that nonplussed to see that the relief had spread, all those problems avoided, on a citywide scale. Good for us! I remember how all the punks and the gays at Mars Bar were feverishly working together on their rapidly dying phones to find that last working coke dealer in Manhattan and huzzah, they found him and he had bags of special blackout paste for sale and well, whatever, if you closed your nostril long enough something happened for sure, so here's to unity. I remember helping hide Dash Snow behind the bar when the cops came. And then I remember how a friend and I crossed the Williamsburg Bridge together at 3 AM, no one around, no lights but those of the theretofore estranged sky, and it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

To live in the city is to be displaced by the city, to rage against market forces, to be sure that things were irretrievably better in the impossible-to-pin-down-to-a-specific-date "then."

Though I've spent so much time in the there that I've worked the door at Arlene's Grocery until I was fired for unfriendliness, I know that the McDonalds on Essex may be the most essential part of the Lower East Side. It's the first thing you see when you get out of the JMZ stop and you can look down on it from the blue building if you have terrible friends. It is the first and last choice you'll make before entering or leaving the LES. If you're so inclined you can read into it a link to your childhood or the rest of America, but I just like it because I prefer to start and end my nights with a "no, thanks." I don't know how sad people will be if it ever shuts down, and what will appear in its place? To ponder what could replace the McDonalds on the Lower East Side is to defy the limits of human imagination.

The "RIP NYC" crowd has been around—that's what that whole lament is about, things changing around you, the newer wave replacing the older wave, which turns out to be you. But if you've been around, surely you know there are more things to be sad about: the compromises we made to stay in the city, the people who died doing what we do, who we stayed up with for days with, whose names embarrassingly escape us right when we want to tell a good story. I'm also being willfully obtuse. I know the RIPNYCers are just basically announcing they'd rather not die. It's hard to hate them for it. Death is, after all, to be avoided. But it's also hard to not get annoyed at a nostalgia that seems one part fear-of-death displacement and two parts "death itself was cooler before all the new kids started doing it."

I've looked up Buddhism on Wikipedia, I know all compounded things are impermanent and that all emotions are pain. I also know that it's sometimes nice to have an extended discussion on how the bathrooms at Happy Endings are now used for their intended purposes and how tragic it is that you get to go on a field trip around the block in an Escalade rather than have to stand on a freezing corner on D and Second to score. We can do that, if you like. The past is a slippery fish. There will ALWAYS be a converted Chinese restaurant on the Lower East Side that you can wait to get into so you can have the human equivalent of party photographers tell you that they like you. We can always recreate our 20s and we can always be the people we made fun of in our 20s. I've been both, though as years go on and my guts hurt more, I certainly lean more toward the latter. To live in the city is to be displaced by the city, to rage against market forces, to be sure that things were irretrievably better in the impossible-to-pin-down-to-a-specific-date "then."

I'm optimistic. Twenty years from now, I will still live in New York City, though I'll have a second home in Space Newark or whatever intergalactic colony is priced for the upper-middle class, and I'll visit the gleaming boutique of the Lower East Side. I hope that Ludlow will be then Carlos D Way. The scenery will still be the same I'm sure though the terrible hats on high cheekbones will now be functional to keep out the ultraviolet, and the "edginess" of the neighborhood will largely be provided by ritualistic bloodletting between tight pants wearers and the tight pants detractors. Maybe real estate agents will finally give it a name with a bit more pizzazz—"Extended White Town" or "Money Till the Water"—or maybe it will just be a strip mall in the shape of Rudolph Giuliani bullying a small black child. Frankly, being a booster, I'm excited for all these options. I'll visit. I'll buy a drink and I'll tell the shop girl/gelato-bot about my powers of precognition, about how I knew before anyone, before the industrial mishaps or terrorist plots or Mole People/Above Dwellers War, before status updates became contractual agreements with public executions in Washington Square for violators, that the city was better then, and better now, and it was exactly how I remembered, and it would always be this way.

Zachary Lipez is a writer, New York lifer, and a member of the band Publicist UK, whose debut record is due out this year on Relapse. He is on Twitter.

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