In a recent New York Times piece entitled “Sartre and Camus in New York,” Andy Martin expounds on the influence New York City had on the two French thinkers. According to Martin, they each had very different experiences of the city that ultimately helped further differentiate their points of view. Reading the piece prompted my realization that as a native New Yorker I would never be able to objectively distinguish this city’s influences on me in so far as I am part of it, its otherness something I can never know with an outsider’s perspective. My efforts to gain perspective in that regard have always involved leaving New York. This has, over the years, developed into a complex relationship, an ongoing process that serves as marker for various periods of my life.
A first generation Cuban-American, I was born on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The things I most recall were Central Park, especially the trellises sheltering the benches near the West 72 Street entrance; the wrought iron figures of Neptune and accompanying sea serpents outside the Dakota, the castle-like edifice of the Museum of Natural History; the dark and musty, carpeted stairs of the brownstone we lived in. These marked what I first recognized as my environs. My first distinct memory of leaving what I knew as New York was in 1960 when I was seven years old. Having gone to Cuba once with my parents when I was three, this time they put me on a plane solo to Havana, assuring me that family would be waiting to pick me up there. Not that I was worried. I felt no anxiety that I can recall, either over leaving my parents or leaving New York—I was too thrilled at the prospect of flying on my own. I sat by the window, enthralled by the clouds, and fascinated by the imaginative explanation the man sitting next to me offered on how they formed. At the Havana airport I was indeed met by my relatives, and, although I hardly knew them, I readily accepted them as my temporary keepers. I never missed New York while in Cuba. Neither can I say that once back in New York I ever missed Cuba. No doubt this was at least partly a testament to childhood’s wondrous sense of immediacy. It wasn’t until considerably later in life that I would actually begin missing New York, a process involving all manner of non-immediate factors such as memory, habitude, and ideation. As for Cuba, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and ensuing embargo would keep me from going there again for over 30 years.
My next significant departure was during my sixteenth summer when my best friend and I hitchhiked cross-country to San Francisco. There I got a lingering taste of the summer of love that would prove fateful. At eighteen, I left home and soon moved to the East Village. Then a student at the School of Visual Arts, my life was highly colored by the Warhol Factory scene, LSD, and the birth of gay liberation. Still, all this wasn’t enough to keep me in a city that seemed relatively monochromatic after the West Coast, and in 1971 I moved to San Francisco just in time for that city’s gay cultural explosion. Harvey Milk, Sylvester, The Cockettes – it was an incredible period, and while the first gay march had indeed been a New York event, San Francisco significantly pushed the parameters of the attendant lifestyle, culture and politics. Through all this I somehow managed to finish college, and as soon as I did I knew I was done with SF, having gradually come to recognize that my predilections for smart-ass banter, urban fashion sense and a good slice of pizza distinguished me as a New Yorker, whereas I longed for them to be the norm. Rather than move right back, however, I went to Europe for my first time, and after considerable roaming ended up living in London at the peak of punk. By the time I returned to New York in ’78, it had taken on an edgy new allure too, spawning a vibrant downtown scene that flavored its brand of punk with considerable irony, more freely mixing it up with art, fashion, and musical elements outside the hardcore canon. London’s class-consciousness had fostered a punk scene that was belligerent about authenticity, but New York’s class-crashing postmodernism invited transgression. Thus I could begin my evening at disco palace Studio 54 and end up at punk haven Mudd Club, its ostensible antithesis, without any sense of betrayal. It was this kind of non-stratified cultural mobility that proved so exhilarating and fecund to the burgeoning scene.
Dots can certainly be drawn between the depressed economy and real estate market, and the rich alternative cultural scene that flourished in New York in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but from my point of view as an inspired participant, it is most aptly summed up as a “zeitgeist.” This prevailing spirit allowed for a synthesis of otherwise incongruent elements of class, race, sexuality, and style, while actively blurring the parameters between nightclub, art gallery, and performance space. The most exciting clubs of the time were “mixed” in every sense, and for a glittering moment, New York nightlife represented a classless, multicultural, sexually free ideal of the city that fostered it, a city where anything could and did happen. Then something completely unprecedented happened: AIDS. It decimated the New York scene with terrifying ferocity, and by 1987 I’d lost so many friends that I remember walking down Broadway one day and wanting to throw myself onto the sidewalk, pound my fists and howl. Instead I became an activist, but no matter how much we raged at President Reagan and a government that did nothing while our loved ones perished, the New York we had known would never be the same.
In 1991 I accompanied photographer David LaChapelle on a magazine assignment to Cuba, where I hadn’t been since that boyhood trip. In the interim Cold-War embargo years Cuba had been literally erased from US airline routes. (I remember the shock of looking at an in-flight map once and seeing that the Caribbean had been reconfigured to fill in the missing island of Cuba.) From the moment I arrived at the Havana Airport, I was overcome. I recognized the air, smells, sounds, and clouds. Most fundamentally, I recognized a part of me that had been embargoed for three decades. Elated, and angry too, I never wanted to lose this part of myself again, and I continued visiting Cuba on my own a half-dozen times through the 90’s.
During those years I also traveled to other parts of the world I had longed to see, most notably India. It was after a month in India that I again felt I had outgrown New York, that I was trapped in a cycle of working and making money just to get away. Seeing as many of the places I escaped to were lush and tropical, I decided it would make more sense to live in such an environment. So in 1994 I moved to Miami Beach, specifically South Beach, where a number of interesting and creative New Yorkers I knew had already migrated to. At first I was so entranced, I’d actually walk around humming “Bali-Hai.” But after four years I came to detest South Florida, for outside my idealized little beach community of ex-New Yorkers were segregated neighborhoods, gated communities, and status-quo indifference – not at all my idea of a city, meaning not at all like New York. I fled from Florida with a sense of the fervor I imagined my own parents had fled Cuba and Batista’s despotic reign.
Returning to New York in 2000, the ironies and contradictions of my relationship to the mother city were by now established. The city I constantly tried getting away from was the city I repeatedly returned to. Still I persisted traveling – Italy, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina – enamored with my search for a next city to live in. Finally I narrowed down to a couple of contenders, Buenos Aires and Barcelona, spending some months in each to get a better sense of life there. I would include Berlin, but for my atavistic longing for a Spanish-speaking culture. Nonetheless it was in Berlin where I perhaps felt the closest thing to a “zeitgeist” like that of New York in the 80’s. There I met many young, creative Americans and Brits who had moved there because they could afford to do what they were passionate about without having to struggle. I recognized them as young people who in the 70’s and 80’s might have flocked to New York. Now it wasn’t even a consideration. Berlin, they felt, was the cutting edge of music, art, and progressive culture.
Not too long ago, at the nightlife awards of a magazine long considered a staple of downtown Manhattan culture, as I looked around at the attention-grabbing outfits and plastic surgery, it seemed to me that not only was there no discernible “zeitgeist,” but that rather than “making the scene” in the sense of creating it, the term had been reduced to its most superficial sense. Everything seemed to be about striking a pose. The music was conventional to the point of indistinguishable, and I might have thought I was simply being an old fart had I not been there with a group of young DJs who were equally disenchanted by it all. Interestingly enough, the latter all lived in Brooklyn. Lately, I find myself going to Brooklyn sometimes weekly to catch some interesting music or art event, and it indeed feels like I’m visiting another city – a quick shot of leaving New York, or rather of expanding the markers of the city as I’ve known it.
In my most platonic reveries about New York, it has seemed to me that were the edifice of this city to vanish, the idea of it would still hover vibrantly overhead. In those moments I believe that there has to be a New York, an arena for the world to come together, clash, experiment, fuse, even explode in. Perhaps more than any other city New York is a template—the more one knows the world, the richer New York becomes. Whereas cities such as Paris, Alexandria, and Buenos Aires, have often been written about in the context of memory, New York retains its aura as a city of possibility. Even if no longer the mecca of cutting-edge culture, people continue coming here to make their careers, their fortunes, find themselves, lose themselves. It’s dizzying. Arguably the most self-centric city in the world, it’s paramount to leave New York to garner perspective. Yet it is the undeniable standard by which I measure all cities, the center from which I measure how far I go. And go, I perpetually must. Once my parents immigrated here, they never considered living anywhere else. Perhaps it is an inherited trait that keeps me looking for a city I could move to – my alternative New York.
For the few months in which I had decided to move to Barcelona, my life in New York seemed richer than ever, heightened by the imminent prospect of leaving. Then, after only a few months in Barcelona, I returned, hungry for that high again. I have come to accept that “leaving” New York makes me appreciate it ever anew – like newly falling in love with the lover you’ve determined to leave. Leaving gives me that heightened awareness of living. So I will, in all likelihood, continue leaving New York for the rest of my life. In contrast to the likes of Sartre and Camus, who came and spent time here that significantly influenced the way they thought about the world at large, it is leaving New York that has come to most define my worldview – as a New Yorker.
More about Boulevardier Jorge Socarras, here.