Among other things, during my fifteen years in the navel of the universe I learned the following:
1) That it is impossible to succeed in New York without beauty, money, and/or connections, and that reports to the contrary are lies;
2) That the long hazy summer sunsets on cross-town streets are of a rare beauty and possessed of an ancient melancholy reminiscent of the Adriatic coast of the Habsburg Empire;
3) That no New Yorker really cares about the outside world;
4) That I both loved and hated the place.
Yet I went on putting up with it, as millions do. Where could I move to?
Well, for a start, away from the bleak and blasted slums of Alphabet City. A drinking chum was getting married and moving to Brooklyn. He let me in on a sweet deal on a rent-controlled apartment he’d lived in for years on Fourteenth Street, hardly the Champs-Elysées but more congenial than East Third. Accordingly, in early’80 I moved from the boulevards of chop-shops and broken dreams eleven blocks uptown to East Fourteenth, squeezed into a moving van alongside two burly East German brothers who’d started a moving company called 2 Krauts 4U—one of the numberless New York stories of striving and desperate ambition, if not of actual success. One was a would-be actor, the other a former Trabant mechanic from Leipzig. They were good movers: hefty, silent, diligent, and soon gone. Left alone, I looked around my new postage-stamp empire and felt happier than I’d been in almost exactly two and a half years, since my return, or migration, Stateside.
The new flat, although it was really just another little top-floor walkup, was safer and better-lit and in better repair than the one in the Lower East Side, and it was in a slightly more salubrious neighborhood, near Union Square of working-class legend. Rich were the ambient memories of New York’s dense and compacted history: the site of Tony Pastor’s theatre, featured in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, was a block away; Leon Trotsky had lived on the same block as I, possibly in the same building, brewing strong tea and muttering over his émigré journals and crossword puzzles; Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall had sat just down the street, toward Union Square, on the site of the massive neo-Babylonian Con Ed building that filled the night sky in that direction. From the living-room windows, over on Third Avenue I could see the Metropole Theater, the oldest extant movie house in America, where D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had had its premiere in 1916, now, or at the time, showing such masterpieces of the seventh art as Anal Intruder II and Rx for Sex. Looking past the Metropole, across the old tenement buildings of Greenwich Village with their wooden water tanks and scrubby roof gardens, I had a clear view of the mighty Twin Towers anchoring the city’s uttermost end, their jeweled scaffolding of illuminated office windows and winking red warning light atop the North Tower radio mast clearly visible at night: a visible symbol of the city I was condemned to live in.