January Distractions

Imagine having spent most of your life in the public eye. Imagine having been catapulted to stratospheric celebrity without possessing any skills except for that of tireless self-promotion. Imagine having prepared for a shocker for months and then, just as you’re about to go live with your bombastic piece of spectacle, your president steals the show. Kim Kardashian probably has to stay being married to Kanye West now, as no one gives a shit about their divorce anymore.

You might or might not have made peace with the fact that there will not be any leisurely travelling for the foreseeable future. I sort of have, intellectually, but am emotionally crushed at the prospect of being stuck in Brussels forever. Everything could be worse, always (the compulsory pandemic disclaimer), probably not very much, but here we are. (Also, I actually do like Brussels.)

Over Christmas I did my usual ritual reading of The Secret History, but this time indulged in also some New York -specific reading. I found a nifty vintage collection of NYC-stories by Jack Kerouac, John Cheever, Truman Capote, Edith Wharton and the likes, and thought that it would be nice for the holiday season. It was. Is this what people did in biblical times when actual travel was not within reach for the masses?

I also found Mapping Manhattan, a love story in maps by 75 New Yorkers. The inventive book has been edited by Becky Cooper, a journalist and author of the brilliant true-crime We keep the dead close.

Mapping Manhattan is a collection of maps of Manhattan, into which New Yorkers have drawn their favourite spots and memorable events. It was such a fun read, and reminded me of a conversation I had with a Brussels shop-owner earlier this week.

From Mapping Manhattan by Becky Cooper
From Mapping Manhattan by Becky Cooper

Last year’s lockdowns have wrecked havoc for small enterprises everywhere, but this shopkeeper told me that the turnover of her boutique in 2020 equalled that of 2019. This, she told me, was because her shop has never been dependent on tourists. Its client base comes from those who live in the city, and the Bruxelloises have diligently and loyally supported her business through thick and thin.

None of this is shocking, but interesting all the same. It has long felt like city centres no longer serve those who actually live there. It’s all hotels and restaurants selling bizarre, sub-standard rip-offs of “local cuisine” at extortionate prices. In Brussels, I can buy all the fancy chocolate and expensive antiquities of this world on any given Sunday, but buying, or indeed selling everyday items such as contact lenses solution or hosiery on Sundays is illegal.

As put brilliantly by Fran Lebowitz: “(After the big protests) In SoHo, I saw a reporter interviewing a woman who was a manager of one of the fancy stores in there. The reporter said to her, “What are you going to do?” And she said, “There’s nothing we can do until the tourists come back.” I yelled at the TV and said, “Really? You can’t think what to do with SoHo without tourists? I can! Let me give you some ideas.” Because I remember it without tourists. How about, artists could live there? How about, let’s not have rent that’s $190,000 a month? How about that? Let’s try that.”

Which brings me to Lebowitz, my forever totem animal, who now has a Netflix special out. It’s her collaboration with Martin Scorsese and in the various episodes she wanders around in pre-pandemic New York City and holds uninterrupted monologues about the city and all kinds of things.

The series is called “Pretend it’s a City” and while it sounds very poetic, it has a fun backstory: Lebowitz says she used to frequently bump into herds of tourists on the street corners of Manhattan. The immobile groups would be blocking other people and sometimes stop others to ask directions. To these tourists Lebowitz would mutter “Pretend it’s a city”.

Big recommendation to the series if you have any nostalgia for traveling and enjoy life advise from an acerbic, sardonic and extremely funny septuagenarian. Lebowitz covers most relevant topics: sports, culture, politics, money and fashion. Plus of course, it’s all about New York and how it should be done right. (This all seems weird now, of course, but she gives a hilarious rant about people cramming their belongings into suitcases, then cramming themselves onto airports for hours, then cramming themselves into tiny seats in an airplane, then cramming themselves into small hotel rooms, packed beaches and overbooked tourist restaurants – “I mean, how miserable must your everyday life be if this is what you do for fun?”)

Here’s the trailer:

Photo of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise: Jonathan Becker, 2000.

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