Darwin Leaves New York

The First Essential Scary Truth


New York used to be a town full of grit.  From Wall Street to Inwood at the tip of Manhattan Island, the arrogant swagger New Yorkers are infamous for was busy being beaten into its residents.  Whether that attitude came from being living too close to your neighbor or the general oppression of the city streets, it became something the denizens of the city celebrated as much as it was loathed by the rest of the country.


Any admiration of New York and New Yorkers included that sense of swagger.  When I arrived at New York University 21 years ago, it was that very attitude those of us matriculating for our degrees wanted to emulate and eventually call our own. 


The RA on my floor at Brittany Hall, Kerry, called the whole floor into a meeting.  Ostensibly, it was a get to know your neighbors affair.  There were supposed to be cookies and coffee and general meeting of your fellow students for an hour; the usual college day one stuff.  In actuality, the meeting was a ten minute affair because several parties were being held in the dorm and in various apartments on and around campus.   It did, however, including a two minute New York City survival guide that went something like this:  don’t walk on Houston, 14, 23, 34 or 42 Streets after dark by yourself.  If you find yourself on the Lower East Side, in Alphabet City, the Meat Packing District or Harlem, hail a cab or a police officer.  Don’t look anyone right in the eye, don’t walk close to buildings and do not look down the subway tunnels for a train with someone behind you.  If someone mugs you, give them what they want and try no to get hit over the head.  Any questions?  Good.  Have a good semester. 


And thus we children of the affluent suburbs whose parents were paying for their progeny to be educated in one of the top schools in the country and thought their babies would be looked after by New York University, were sent forth onto the unforgiving, dog shit laden streets of Manhattan.  At the time, I thought it was a lazy way to indoctrinate the student body into the ways of New York City.  I remember telling my friend John Ott they should have given us a full on class in city survival.  “You can’t teach common sense, Alex,” he scoffed. 


After a semester, I realized exactly what I had signed on for, aside from the courses needed for my BA in creative writing and philosophy: an education on a campus spread out in an urban neighborhood.  The city itself was as much as a teaching tool as my classes or textbooks.  If you couldn’t learn to survive in New York City, maybe you should have gone to a different school.   Survival, of course, is as much about observation as it is lessons learned.  The most important observation I had those first few days and weeks was about energy.  New York, like any other major city, has its own pulse and energy.  If you attempt to buck that force, it will run you over again and again sadistically.  The lesson is to let the energy of the city wash over you and propel you along.  If you want to be a real New Yorker, complete with said attitude, learn it now.


That lesson, however, is a tough thing to comprehend.  Five years ago, a friend moved to New York from Austin, Texas.  Erica’s intent was to become the top sommelier and take the New York restaurant world by storm.  As she began to jump from job to job and bed to bed, obviously fighting against her knew environment, several of us that knew Erica begged her to sit quietly and let the intense, idiosyncratic, energetic rhythms of Manhattan become part of her.  After eight months, she had burned out and left to rejoin her people in Texas.  Erica’s story is far from aberrant; call it New York City’s application of Darwinian Theory. 


Unfortunately, even Darwin has left New York.


I found myself wandering around my old school in Village on Friday.  Directly across from the Stern School of Business and the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU had set up a Wellness Tent so large it closed down West Fourth Street for one block.  To get away from the tough schedule of macro economics and the proper way to use the method in a play, NYU employees were offering massages, dental advice and all sorts of other counseling services.  I can see why we do not need the college students of the United States to look like British sailors but back rubs?  Does trying to think like an orange create that much stress?


New York is no longer the lean, mean city that forces its own selection process on you.  It hasn’t been that way for a long time.  But group coddling of an entire student population?  There are many harsh realities waiting for the country in the next few months, more banks will fail, more unemployment, more misery on a scale the country hasn’t seen since the great Depression.  Although I am jealous of the hand holding my alma mater does these days, I can’t help but wonder if these next few classes to come out of NYU and colleges all over the country will be emotionally ready to handle the challenges of survival that will be thrust upon us all.


On the other hand, there should be some great up coming posts to the Darwin Awards.


How do you intend to survive the coming (deep) recession?





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