High Life: Taki


Things that I once loved -- Fifth Avenue & 57th Street, brownstone terraces on hot summer afternoons, cold beer and fried eggs at 5 a.m. after a night of carousing, the Sherry-Netherland -- and now miss have grown ever more monumental upon reflection. I suppose that it's normal to miss things you loved when young, yet I still can't get over how the people have changed -- for the worse, needless to say.

The city is at its best very early in the morning, the asphalt glistening after the rain or the water trucks that occasionally wash the avenues, the streets empty and still as a movie set. In the old days, on muggy nights, people used to sleep on the fire escapes in their underwear. Returning from a nightclub, especially when up in Harlem, I'd see those we then called the 'wops' and the 'micks' sleeping in their shorts and bid them goodnight. You'd get the occasional F-word in response, but that was rare. Now the F-word is a verb, an adjective, an adverb and a noun.

The Italians and the Irish are now gentrified and have moved to the suburbs, and if they saw their children sleeping outdoors in their underwear they'd scream bloody murder. Everyone has air-conditioning nowadays, and the only reason for sleeping al fresco is to get away from the chill.

The current runaway bestseller is a gem, Hillbilly Elegy by Scots-Irish Ohio native J.D. Vance. Vance grew up poor in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been haemorrhaging jobs since the 1970s. He became successful in Silicon Valley after serving in the Marine Corps and in Iraq. I loved it, especially the bit about pajamas. Poor people don't wear pajamas, he writes; they wear underwear or sleep naked. Rich people wear pajamas. I concur. I never saw anyone wearing pajamas sleeping on the fire escape when I was young.

Fire escapes are still around on the houses that greedy individuals haven't destroyed and replaced with glass, but the Latinos, blacks and Asians who live in them now have air-conditioning. And they have television and headphones and lots to complain about when their cable breaks as Con Ed digs up the streets to repair old wires. Of course nothing has changed more than the small-town feeling the old New York had in spades. The city used to be a collection of small villages and different ethnic communities. There was Germantown, Little Italy, Chinatown and Harlem, all connected by wide avenues and drives along the banks of the Hudson. (I'm talking about Manhattan.) Then untalented, stupid, butcher-like architects and city planners decided to improve the place, displacing storefronts and other points of congregation where a merchant could sell his wares and keep an eye on the baby sleeping inside. …

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