By the time I publish this
column I assume the New York Yankees will be resting comfortably atop
the baseball world for the guzzillionth year in a row; or at least have
taken their 40th pennant in the last hundred years. I have made peace
with this fact while others from my fair city (official slogan:
"Baltimore-- the other city on the east coast that begins with a
B.") are still grinding their teeth.
I'll probably lose points for bragging about it, but
I believe I've achieved a kind of enlightenment about this sort of
thing, and the fact that the Yankees are destined to win the pennant
forever and ever amen while the rest of us play a 162-game exhibition
season every year is all beginning to seem like some kind
of shadow-play. It toucheth me not. Maybe it's because I know New York's
dirty little secret. They're not innately superior to the rest of us.
They're just really big.
I like New York in small doses. I wouldn't want to
live there. A short visit is an adventure. If you have been fed on
the stereotype of pushy, argumentative New Yorkers you might be
surprised to learn that some of that is actually true. My last handful
of visits to New York all began with such encounters. Within the first
five minutes of my arrival--if that--a couple of citizens would have a go at
each other. You will of course suggest that it is my fault for riding
the subway. One time a guy held up the train for at least five minutes
because he had managed to get his hand in the door as it was closing and
he was determined that the door be opened so he could get on. The
operator of the subway was equally determined not to let him on even if
it meant holding up the train in perpetuity. With the tired but resolute
manner of a grade school teacher he kept coming on the intercom at
intervals saying "sir, we're not going anywhere until you get your hand
out of the door." (If you thought he was going to drag the man along
with the train you grossly underestimate the compassion of New Yorkers)
What is characteristic about this encounter is that both parties felt
that they needed to be on constant alert in order not to be taken
advantage of. They thought if they gave an inch on anything it would be
not just a sign of weakness but of the chaos that ushers in Armageddon.
New Yorkers will battle over anything, great or small, with that kind of
intensity, and stubborn resolve. With that kind of a mindset it's
a wonder more New Yorkers won't be voting Republican this year.
I've witnessed an argument over whether a person
needed to purchase an extra token to get a stroller through the
turnstile. Again a battle to the death. Five minutes of shouting. Once
you get into a taxi cab, fuggedaboudit! New Yorkers seem to hold it as
an article of faith that they must push their weight as far as it will
take them because, God knows, nobody else will give them an inch. Of
course nobody else is giving them an inch because they attend the
It may seem strange that such a defensive position--"I'm all alone out here
and I've got to look out for myself"--so quickly and seamlessly becomes "I'm
going to see what I can get away with" but I would suggest that if we took
the entire population of Baltimore and crammed it into a square mile, we'd
get pretty much the same result. This kind of insecurity may be sad, but
like most creeds, it makes up in one place what it lacks in another. In
exchange for the daily battle to survive in New York, New Yorkers just know
that they are better than all the rest of us. So while their status within
their own city is in constant jeopardy it is a foregone conclusion that
anything in New York is better than anything anywhere else. I am in a good
mood today and am prepared to forgive this nonsense, particularly since it
is so entertaining to go to New York every once-in-a-while and watch those
little battles for supremacy comfortably from the sidelines.
There are plenty of great things to see in New York
besides all the verbal abuse; the city boasts quite a bit of artistic
excellence. It should--jam that many people onto a small island (I'm
talking about Manhattan) and there ought to be some measurable results.
I would contend that there is also more mediocrity per square mile than
just about anywhere else. But the Symphony, the Opera, the Museums, the
colossal cathedrals, go a long way toward justifying New York's opinion
of itself. I don't happen to believe they have a monopoly on greatness,
but there is plenty of it. I've also been told you can get some killer
All this makes New York a pretty fascinating town,
and we'd all readily admit that they are entitled to their civic pride,
but then they have to go an brag about it endlessly, calling themselves
the greatest city in the world, and calling the rest of the nation
"flyover country." It should give you some indication of the New York
mindset that the insult "Who's Your Daddy?" meant to openly flaunt
Yankee dominance over the hapless Redsox caught on in that city like the
next big fad. Nobody likes being openly scorned, particularly folks from
Baltimore, who only wish they could be openly scorned because it would
be a step up from being completely ignored. Our city gets buried between
New York and Washington and nobody ever does stories about how our city
did during the last snowstorm or hurricane; Philadelphia steals what
press coverage we had coming. Our Orioles are so bad the Yankees don't
consider it a rivalry--but oh would we love to beat them. Just once.
And then we come to the biggest problem of all,
which is that all this braggadocio is working! Can't we even take refuge
in the proverb "pride goeth before a fall?" But it never works that way;
not in New York. In New York they brag about it before and after.
Because they can. And they know it well.
As I said, there really is no mystery to this. And
the Yankees provide a great illustration of how this syndrome works. A
couple of decades ago, a Clevelander named George Steinbrenner bought
the Yankees. For years poor George tried to make his team into the
powerhouse that it had always been, but despite pouring his heart, his
soul, and his baseball savvy into every stratagem he could muster he
managed only to do something many had thought could never be done by a
mere mortal--he ruined the Yankees.
Then George woke up one day and realized something
important. He had been living in New York long enough to be a
naturalized citizen, and with that its philosophy had rubbed off on him.
He realized he needed to stop thinking like a Clevelander--like a guy
with loyalties to some little corner of flyover country--and just start
pushing his advantage to the utmost. He had one, it turned out. It
wasn't his baseball knowledge. It wasn't his ability to inspire, or to
find talent, or to back off and let the baseball people in his
organization do that for him. But by gum, he had money. Fortune had
landed him in a market in which the television revenues alone outstrip
the gross national product of several small countries and in a sport
where the Lords of Baseball have decided that the wealthiest teams
needn't share a dime with their poorer competitors. It was capitalism
So George bought himself a team. Everybody else's
team, actually. Now, when somebody gets really good and starts demanding
the money that is supposed to come with such talent, George snaps him
up. Because only George can afford him. The Yankees' payroll is now
roughly equal to that of the four poorest teams in baseball combined.
A couple of years ago someone proposed to remedy
this inequity with a luxury tax that would kick in once a team's total
payroll reached a sufficiently exorbitant number. The Yankees complained
with all the righteous fury only the truly rich can muster in financial
matters. It was implemented, and not only did the sky not fall in, it
hasn't bothered them in the slightest.
This is an instructive example of what makes New
York great. It sucks talent from everywhere. People who are under the
impression that they will only be sufficiently appreciated, or
financially rewarded, in the great capital of capital.
Actually, one of my favorite stories in this regard
is what happened the night a soprano colleague of mine and myself were
lucky enough to win a competition in New York which resulted in a
concert at Carnegie Hall--you know, that place that everybody thinks of
as the premiere concert hall in all the land; growing up everybody told
me maybe I'd get to play there some day (how many other concert halls
can you name?)--anyhow, sitting next to me at the dinner after
the competition was over was a young woman how was talking to the lady
across the table who worked for some record label. She was explaining
that the reason she hadn't won the competition was that she hadn't
gotten all the wonderful opportunities she could've had in New York.
Keep in mind, a woman from a small city in England and a young man from
a suburb outside of Cleveland who were both studying in Baltimore had
managed to beat a field that included--in the final round, which was the
one open to the public--about a half-dozen singers who claimed residence
in New York City. But this woman was convinced that she had been wasting
her life in the cultural styx and now seriously needed to get to New
York where there was actually something going on in the arts. As I
recall, she was studying in Boston.
If you don't find that funny, you should move to New
I've run into quite a few mediocrities of the
artistic persuasion who exuded truckloads of superiority; it was part of
their creed. I can't establish definitively whether New York did that to
them or whether it was part of their character. Maybe that's what
attracted them to New York in the first place. Someone ought to do a
scientific study on the matter.
Strangely, most of the truly talented people I've
met are of a humbler sort. Plenty of them hail from or live in New York,
and plenty do not. Possibly they figure it was tough enough getting
where they got; it wouldn't have killed people to be nicer to them on
the way up, and they are putting their own wishes into practice. It
isn't impossible to be talented or successful and nice at the same time;
it isn't even impossible to be decently modest and live in New York at
the same time.
Which is why I'm not directing this diatribe at
everyone who lives in New York. Or the city itself. If you love the
bustle and urban rhythms of a big city, I can't think of a better place
to experience them. The sheer size, the diversity of people and
experiences, the lavish accommodations and the out-of-the-way mom and
pop stores, the cultural haunts, the transportation system, and the fun
of people-watching--all plenty of reasons for going to New York. And if
you want glitz and razzle-dazzle, well... where better than Broadway?
It's just a shame when people start mistaking the glitz for the real
thing. New York has plenty of that, too. Enough that it shouldn't be
necessary to puff itself up like it does.
So why do you do it, New York? I've lived in Charm
City a while (that's Baltimore, by the way) and I've seen the results of
that long-ingrained inferiority complex the folks around here suffer.
Our Orioles lose to everybody but when they lose to the Yankees it hurts
a lot worse. Somehow it feels like being up against some super-colossal
bureaucratic machine that always wins and then laughs its hollow Goliath
laugh and does its classless dance on your head or being a poor guy in
court against an incredibly rich fellow with a team of super-lawyers,
There is a sense that we're defeated before the match even begins.
A lot of it is just plain advertising. It's B.S.
And yet somehow, people buy into it. I don't get that any more than Mark
Twain did when he was writing The Prince and the Pauper (Twain
realized that the vast economic gulf between the pampered royalty and
the average destitute citizen could only exist if the poor bought into
the mythology of "superior classes" of men as well, since, in terms of
sheer numbers, there was no way those in power could hang onto their
wealth without the cooperation of the masses). Your
city wasn't named twice on account of its niceness, it's because people
remember it better upon repetition. It's an advertising stunt!
I find it pretty funny, myself. I can see through
all that baloney and as far as I'm concerned the Empire City can keep
showing off its new clothes. But your braggadocio is having a
deleterious effect on some from my fair city and I think we need
counseling. Since I am not a licensed counselor I will make a mess of
it, but here's what I want to say to my own peoples. Successful
people--by whatever cockamamie terms you define it--are successful
anywhere. Mediocrity is still mediocrity, even in New York. In fact, it
looks more pathetic there than it does in other places because it
believes it has found a location where there is no such thing as
second-rate. If it helps folks sleep better at night I'd rather not poke
holes in their theology but it doesn't hurt if the rest of us recognize
it. Snow may be beautiful but it is nine-tenths air. So is New York. The
other tenth might include the Yankees but they won't go on winning for
ever. They'll have a bad season eventually--probably in my lifetime. And
the more they go on with their brand of
in-your-face-what-a-bunch-of-losers-you-guys-are the bigger jackasses
they'll feel like when they don't win. I guarantee there will be plenty
of people to help them feel that way too. See, you want to be nice to
people when you're on top, just in case someday you aren't. Probably I
learned that from a guy named Aesop.*
I don't care if you want to root for your team, or
your city. I draw the line at trying to make hundreds of millions of
people feel inferior simply by reason of geography. Many Baltimoreans
gnash their teeth at all the success their northeastern neighbor's
long-running self-promotional campaign has had. Personally, I find it
pretty amusing. So while you New Yorkers continue to make smugness your
chief export, you have to realize that somewhere in an insignificant
little city on the eastern seaboard a man is laughing at your vanity.
You say it doesn't bother you. But I know better.