When I was a kid, my dad used to listen to a radio station that told the time this way, “In the greatest city in the world, it’s 3:00 o’clock.” Since I was small, New York’s supremacy as the greatest city in the world was never stated as opinion, impossible to prove or quantify, but as pure fact.
Growing up just outside New York is an interesting experience. The city, like a massive, throbbing heart, controls everything around it. If it’s in a mood, it ruins traffic like a giant clot, trapping millions of people in its bruising traffic. When it’s time to have fun, all eyes turn to the city, the mecca for music and art, restaurants and nightclubs. Teachers tell you at the start of the school year that as a treat you’ll get to go to the Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They explain to you how lucky you are to live within a bus ride’s distance from beacons of culture other people only dream of all their lives.
When you’re old enough to sneak into New York, its pull becomes hypnotic. It’s full of what looks like freedom – purple hair, cheek piercings, scant clothes, crazy clothes, street performers, rickshaws, bikes hurtling at breakneck speeds, noises, smells, sculptures, fountains, dazzling stores, models roaming the street during Fashion Week like lions in the wild. It feels like a place where everything important is happening, the place you have to be. You get a job there. You save your pennies to go to the theater there. You wander its street fairs and buy a handmade purse made by a punk-haired woman in combat boots and a shirtdress whom you later see featured in Vogue as a “find” and you tell yourself, “I’ve arrived.”
The song says, “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.” New York has a gladiatorial feel to it. When you begin to feel churned up by its unrelenting pace, you tell yourself that you’re failing to be the cream of the crop you were meant to be. The idea of moving any further away from New York to escape its obscene property taxes and cost of living feels like a capitulation. If you can’t make it there, then maybe your guaranteed place in “making it anywhere” is less assured too. You can’t quit New York, because then you’ll just be a cast-off, a has been, just one of the multitudes who want to come here but can’t.
I went on a trip for a few days this week to another city on the water – Seattle. I’ve been traveling a lot these last two years, more U.S. travel than I’d ever done before. I had great fine dining experiences and enjoyed wandering around the laid-back town. This morning, back home, I got in my car and the radio sparked to life. A DJ was announcing a contest and reminding people of the station call letters. He said them, then added, “in the greatest city in the world.”
It’s familiar, and I’ve been hearing it all my life, but I heard it anew today. While I was growing up, it sounded like a title, a thing we’d won and deserved. I’ve never heard it said in any other city, so surely we must own it. This morning it sounded a little needy, like a guy with a comb-over who needs to tell you about his yacht every time he sees you.
I drove contentedly as the music came on the station, until in my mirror I began to see a flitting gray car way too close behind me. I was on a road with one lane in each direction, but he was trying to find the way around me because I wasn’t speeding up to the red light with sufficient haste for his taste. He beeped at me, then drew up close to my bumper again, like a caffeinated squirrel. I waited for the light, then made the left turn, but apparently not fast enough for him. He beeped again. He made the left turn too, clearly enraged to still be behind me. He tried passing me on the right, then zoomed back behind me in frustration. When the road finally widened to two lanes a little further ahead, he rushed ahead of me, got in front of me, then slammed on his brakes to force me to stop and to demonstrate his supremacy.
He was clearly “the greatest driver in the world.”
His extreme road rage was shocking where it would usually be normal to me. People around these parts are wound pretty tight. So am I, normally, except when I go somewhere else and soak up the vibe.
I still love my precious New York and New Jersey, this giant megalopolis I call home, but I do wonder about the dogged insistence at staying in a place that needs to remind itself that it’s the best place ever, in the whole world. What insecurities is it hiding? What things is it trying not to see by speeding around so fast? With less and less to prove, I find myself peeking behind the curtain and wondering what really drives all this ambition and greed.
Does a city need to be the greatest in the world? Of course not. It’s ludicrous to even suggest it can be. There’s no such thing as the greatest city in the world, just the spot of the Earth that you decide to call home. I’ll take a deep breath and remember that more often.