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"Let us wander through a great modern city with our ears more attentive than our eyes, and distinguish the sounds of water, air, or gas in metal pipes, the purring of motors (which vibrate and pulsate with an indubitable animalism), the throbbing of valves, the pounding of pistons, the screeching of gears, the clatter of streetcars on their rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags. We shall amuse ourselves by orchestrating in our minds the noise of metal shutters of store windows, the slamming of doors, the bustle and shuffle of crowds, the multitudinous uproar of railroad stations, forges, mills, printing presses, power stations, and underground railways.  Nor should the new noises of modern warfare be forgotten."

--Luigi Russolo (1913)

 
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 Why they Really Named it Twice

As a nearly decade-long Baltimore resident I felt I would be shirking my duty if I didn't discuss our civic pathology regarding a certain city to our north. I wrote most of this essay during the  fall of 2004 in a fit of inner peace while the New York Yankees seemed certain to "win it all" in Major League Baseball yet again, but as we all know, that isn't quite what happened. Given my natural restraint vis--vis kicking somebody when they're down (which might be why I should never move to New York) I withheld the essay until a suitable mourning period should have elapsed for our friends in that sinful city. Now, with the opening of another baseball season upon us, I feel it is time to confront the issue head-on. Forgive the sentiments of the opening paragraph.

 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 same church!

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 pastries.

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. Please.

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 gone supernova.

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 York.

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.

 

michael@pianonoise.com