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Abstinence and the Village – The Anti-Guide through New York

It all started when Carrie Bradshaw first reached the island. Now, you may imagine the island to be a circular patch of land in the middle of the turquoise sea, filled with swaying palms, but what Carrie Bradshaw is referring to when she says “the island” is actually a rectangular surface surrounded by muddy waters of the Hudson and the East River with no palms whatsoever, crammed with steel buildings where humanity sadly whiles away. These inanimate objects strive for the sky, leaving behind them piles of garbage in the street, the homeless packed like sardines and the smell of ammonia in the air.

“I love this city, regardless of what they say about it”, Woody Allen once said looking down at Manhattan at dusk. I love it too, regardless of what I will say.

When Carrie Bradshaw reached the island, she was a young, somewhat shy and clumsy curly-haired girl from the suburbs. Somewhat provincial, as one of our singers, Balašević, would say. Carried by the desire to become a writer, she hastily enters New York City, tripping on her own suitcase at What’s-it-called Avenue and the Broadway Street. She hadn’t yet learned to walk in high heels and the suitcase was too heavy anyway. She improved later, maybe by practicing in front of the mirror. With time she also learned to blow smoke like Audrey Hepburn did, to eat without making a pig out of herself and to carefully sip Cosmopolitan without getting drunk. After all, that’s what a lady is.

In her desire to become a writer, she limited herself to superficial topics we usually stumble upon in glossy magazines about health and beauty and we cannot help but wonder whether one really needs to be a writer to pen those. I guess we are simply used to seeing writers as elderly bearded men, whose eyes are always fixed on something in the distance, and whose thoughts we try to decipher in literature classes. Anyhow, Carrie Bradshaw may not reach school reading lists, but she did reach the flat on the 5th Avenue, the luxurious limo of one Mr.Big, rooftops and front pages. She will even pen several books, you know the ones, with pink covers and 16-pt-sized text with double spacing filling about 100 pages, which can be found in shops next to chewing gums and condoms, but not in libraries. Not that you would want to look for them in libraries anyway.

I wonder what happened to Carrie Bradshaw. She used to be a cool curly kid in sneakers who wanted to learn to snorkel and listened to the Dark Side of the Moon for hours on end in her room in the New York suburbia. What happened to her? Well, New York, that’s what.

Hordes of manic people of all nationalities, colors, mother tongues and religions stream down the Manhattan like a river, always in a rush. And if you ask them why they’re in such a rush, they won’t have a clue, but what matters is that they’re rushing. When you rush, you’re saving time. And if you ask them what they’re saving all that time for, they will still be clueless, but you won’t: they’re in a rush to save more time for rushing. I’d say they’re in a rush to die, but those who are not alive cannot die either, so I’ll hold my tongue on that.

They rush in different ways too. Men honk irritably behind the wheels of their expensive cars chaffed with the traffic lights – as if the lights care. Then they proceed to run across streets in their shiny patent shoes, fixing their ties and clutching to their matching briefcases. Women stumble on their heels, fixing their skirts as their perfumes get mixed with the smell of ammonia from the homeless person they had just stepped over. They all drink their “to go” coffee from Starbucks, with their skimmed almond milk, from Styrofoam cups, never knowing the feeling of smelling the freshly made coffee scent oozing from the porcelain cups bespattered with flowers. They will never know it tastes even better with Turkish delight and good company. Why? Well, because they have no time.

When they finally get to their workplaces, they slave away what is due, wasting hours in the cage of capitalism in order to earn the money they will never spend, because – you guessed it right – they have no time. They spend their lunch breaks in restaurants pasted against streets where cars race and under which subway lies spreading its exhaust fumes right into those very restaurants.  I guess that’s why they forgive the waiters for serving food on dusty plates. Food is expensive and tasteless, which usually goes together. That “excursion” into the asphalt costs way too much to eat a slice of meat off a cow which had never seen a plain in its life. And if those restaurants are crammed, as they usually are, our hasty people will grab a piece of that very cow to finally take it to a “real plain”, i.e. the Central Park, where they will ruminate it until their break is over. Now, isn’t it true that all cows go to heaven?

The famous Central Park is indeed full of green surfaces and a lot of squirrels – or rats with bushy tails as we like to call them – but also, real rats with ordinary tails. They tend to remind me of Master Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who originated from New York sewers. We cannot really say that the park is full of fresh air because there are also roads and buses meandering through it. Horse feces add to the overall freshness of air, scattered all over the place, left behind by poor animals dragging fat tourists in carriages. The same ones who take loads of photos to impress their social media followers. Kids don’t play catch in this park, nor do they know about hide and seek, but they do thunder around with their cells, chasing some Pokemon. The older ones smoke weed hidden in the bushes.

Once you mix up the smell of public transport, horse feces and marijuana you get anything but a real park. Then you season all that with the smell of hot dogs baking on the stands of disputable hygienic standards, which will also end up on social networks, because tourists like to take photos of themselves chewing poor pigs that had once led equally miserable lives, crammed with other animals in some dark pens on farms. People chew themselves as they chew on those pigs to the tune of the Pig Funeral March.

And our Carrie Bradshaw sips her cocktail looking upon all of this from some cosmic perspective, as you could only do from some New York rooftop. Of all existential and metaphysical problems of the world, the ones bothering Carrie the most concern shoe sales and relationships, which, you must admit, are essential to the planet Earth. Still, she considers herself to be the writer as long as the number of books she’d written doesn’t par with the number of shoes she so neatly stacks in her flat.

It is true that New York is the city that never sleeps. And mind you, you won’t be either while you’re there. You will be, without exception, woken up by bums hobbling along the streets, talking to themselves and the sounds of high heels worn by suspicious women in search of rich husbands, but also folk music reverberating from the cars belonging to Turks and Greeks. So there’s not much hope for you if you escaped Serbia because of its folk sub(un)culture. They don’t listen to Bob Dylan here, as you may have hoped, but rather some old new folk music. Some of these tunes will sound quite familiar too. And if all of this doesn’t wake you up, some crazy neighbor  will, for sure, or the music from the bar next door, or maybe even the cleaners, who may be among the highest in numbers when it comes to employment and whom you’ll see the most of. So, yeah, if you do want to live in New York, you can always become a cleaner.

But, back to our rushing crowds – let’s call them Rushers. I wouldn’t call them New Yorkers, because the real Newyorkers do not exist. The real ones had fled New York long ago, taken to plains and farther. They have huge backyards with lots of grass, trees and flowers, as any normal person would want to have. They make barbecue in these backyards, but not from those poor cows, which had never seen the sun, but the organic and six times as expensive ones, dear me. As they spread around the outskirts they created a small elite sub-state for themselves, their relatives and friends, the state which is off-limits to mere mortals.

Although they do know their neighbors, their yards are so big that they have to call out to each other, like people in Bosnia and Šumadija do, across the hills like back in the day when my grandpa had made the eyes at my grandma across three hills to the left from the country road. It is ironic that Carrie Bradshaw escaped precisely one of those settlements where Newyorkers take refuge from the city in order to get into the thick of New York. This all reminds me of Belgrade and people who run off to the countryside from the peasants who had fled the country to come to Belgrade. The same thing all over again – life doesn’t change across continents.

When real New Yorkers fled the city and left it in the hands of lost souls from all over America and the world, who had come there to seek happiness (as if it could be sought anywhere except within oneself), new generations mushroomed in some strange mixture of advanced cosmopolitanism and primitive nationalism. Despite the whole world being in New York, they somehow take in less and less of any foreign culture, seemingly preserving their own. I get the feeling that no-one grows as an individual there, but that they all dumb themselves down by protecting their own space. Hardly ever do I see a group of mixed nationalities – they all keep themselves to themselves. I’m thrilled to see a Chinese, Indian, African American, Hispanic and European people sitting together – but that happens rarely.

When real New Yorkers fled the city, the Rushers became quasi-New Yorkers, so convinced of their own superiority, culture and power they had over other citizens. They do have better conditions to develop as individuals, considering all the educational institutions, libraries, museums and galleries they have at their disposal. But, unfortunately, these seem to be frequented far more by tourists than these quasi-New Yorkers, and we cannot take these visits as the bar because the majority of tourists don’t make a difference between a museum and a McDonald’s.

Even the exhibition in museums are often bland and dull, so they may not even merit more. I had been greeted by the same display I had already seen in Australia, so I just stood dumbfounded at the fact that the same art collection traveled across the globe just as I did, although each of us had different goals in mind, only to meet me in New York three years later. It was kinda sweet, but also sad. I started getting bored, so that milkshake from McDonald’s did not seem like such a bad idea anymore.

More often still, I remember the works of my beloved Kant, that natural beauties evoke more moral feelings in men than artistic ones do. I remember Heidegger too, as he describes at length the blue in the eyes of some peasant and the rosy cheeks he sported as he fervently worked in the fields. I get the feeling that I have more to see and experience in the fields of Durmitor than the metropolis, and that I can learn more from some old woman who knits doilies and makes apricot marmalade than I could ever from all of these quasi-artists and intellectuals trying to interpret masterpieces before them. I used to eavesdrop curiously on others’ conversations in museums as they discussed artworks, but now I just walk down streets, carefully selecting what to play next on my headphones.

I try to run from it all into the nature but nature is gone too. I had grown tired of the “natural beauties” of the Central Park and its artificial grass, so I tried to find solace in the Brooklyn botanic garden. No sooner had I reached the cherry blossom and immersed myself in the velvety softness brought on by cherries in the spring than I realized that they had no smell at all. My brain instantly darted back to Serbia and I played the “Srem in March” episode in my own backyard when I was picking flowers on my bruised knees and I myself had become the smell of spring in the air. I proceeded then to smell the tulips, but they too were without any scent that I remembered mine having – my tulip princesses which we never picked or held in vases because that would have been a sin against them. But my dad never failed to pick the neighbours flowers whenever he noticed that I had become edgy before Sunday lunches and even taken new white tablecloths and crystal glasses instead of the old pots and pans. Ah, my home.

I left these sad flowers, pitying them and wondering what good a flower with no smell was at all, and what good the city with no soul was. I kept running, looking for a piece of life in the stuffy metal box called New York City, the box with no sun nor air. I feel like a lonely fish in a tank, like a caged parrot or a man in Alcatraz. I feel claustrophobic in one of the biggest cities on earth as they  walls are closing in on me, threatening to crush me in consummate self-destruction.

Silent beaches by highways, where you can escape the sound of cars rushing do not bring any hope either. The sand is hot and the ocean ice-cold, so you cannot enjoy either. There is no solace in the promenades either, because cycling is forbidden, bars and cafes are not in the shade and the choice is limited, expensive and dull. This all, again, takes me back to the days when we went to beaches as a family and my dad who always knew exactly when to pull out fresh fruit he had just picked off a tree and provide refreshments in the heat.

I still take fruit with me to the beach, because I was taught that way, but fruit here mostly tastes like bricks. I still ponder on whether I’m gnawing on an apple or bell pepper or some other piece of cardboard  because everything tastes the same here. I sometimes sit on the Coney Island Beach, only to feel the energy of Europe brought from afar by the Atlantic Ocean. I think about the Adriatic sea where I had learned to swim and imagine it flowing into the ocean and coming back to me. And I dream away, about that water flowing towards Cuba and Puerto Rico and becoming cleared  and bluer before turning into a completely new body of water in the Caribbean and Mexican bays. And I flow along with it.

There is a sea world right next to the beach. For only 10 dollars, you can enjoy graceful movements of one wonderful seal selling itself for a piece of fish, the same one which had been starved in order to do that trick. This poor seal performs her act every day making a fool out of itself, completely indifferent to the applause and focused solely on that fish it’ll get at the end. Its family was thankfully not caught and is still peacefully diving in the depths of the ocean, while one of their kin wastes away in slavery, performing tricks for the idle audience, myself included. I’ve recently seen the movie Cove about dolphin hunts and I am riddled with guilty conscience for all my trips to zoos and sea worlds, for all my unknowing contributions to the organised and legalised crime against animals. For the same reason I don’t go to the biggest zoo in America in Bronx although I had planned to. I’ve had enough of guilty conscience.

So I had to wonder what else was I supposed to do. What could I have in this city once I stripped it of its museums, galleries, zoos, fake parks, restaurants beaches and rivers? What could I have except for stench, dirt, rushing and desperation?

Carrie Bradshaw could have spared herself from all of this if she had gone to live with Aidan and bake pies as he builds her a wooden home. But she can’t bake a pie, nor can she wear her heels in the mud and there is also no wifi in the woods. She preferred to tread the piss covered pavements and eat pies from McDonald’s while the certain Mr.Big, who by the way cannot build a wooden house, buys her a flat with the wardrobe bigger than a library.

My dear Carrie, I would like to write like you too, about ointments, bags and eternal and transient loves, but I am more concerned about, as the Miss Universe puts it, world peace. I am more concerned about all those dolphins and seals and all the pigs and cows you gnaw on and these furs you wear and the fact that the wages in McDonald’s are 8 dollars per hours. And I am more concerned about the fact that even bums and beggars have a higher doles than I earn by grinding day in day out and also tulips with no smells and apples with no taste. I would like to write, but my conscience is waiting and so is planet Earth. And a plane. Goodbye Carrie Bradshaw.

Goodbye Rushers, may you be as hasty, irritable and angry as ever. Keep spilling your Starbucks with skimmed almond milk over someone else’s clothes, keep cramming yourselves into stinking subways and queueing with someone else. There is one fewer of you now, you’ll manage.

And as my plane takes off, leaving all the steel buildings, where people sadly while away, behind along with bums, stench and garbage, I remember the excitement I felt when I first landed here. Oh, how much has this place changed, how much I have. Maybe I used to be a bit of Carrie Bradshaw, a bit of a rusher, one of the lost souls looking for a city tailored to fit their needs and waiting to embrace them and give them a tribe of their own. A city where they would find what they’re looking for.

“And so I went on, looking for new troubles to get into, or whatever it was that I was looking for. I found troubles, for sure, but the other thing – not yet. Maybe we never do.”

I remember Bukowski as I leave and conclude that maybe I’m not meant to find what I was looking for. Maybe there isn’t a city, which will reflect me like a mirror and have the infrastructure build according to the structure of my soul and maybe all my journeys will be in vain. Bukowski then goes on: “I used to know a young man in his twenties and full of ideals …and where did I go off to?”

Where did I, myself, go off to?

Yes, I went to New York. I went there like Yesenin with Isadora Duncan, torn away from the peace of Russian mornings where he found pain in the cry of a dog deprived of her pups. He was torn from his village where flowers still had smells and fruit tastes and pushed into this artificial world of luxuries. Where would he find a person, among all those lost to greed and lust, to whom he could tell about the dog’s cries. Defeated and desperate he wrote the following letter to his brother:

“Oh, I’ve seen America! I’ve seen that America of theirs. And believe me, I would trade it whole for a piece of land in mother Russia.”

This reminded me of a Serbian song which says something like “The whole of America is nothing to an inch of my home”. After a couple of years I was looking for those words in Yesenin’s poems, but I never found them. I rattled through the book a hundred times over, kept poring over the same lines but these words were not there. I was forced to wonder if I had made them up.

And while I stand with one of the Rushers, who has been in New York for 10 years, on the rooftop of a building giving view to the hotel New Yorker where Tesla had lived and died, he proudly drones on and I ask: “So what’s tying you to this city then?”

“The city is not tying me, it’s holding onto me , because you wait for something to happen every day you open your eyes.”

“Well, has it happened yet?”, I ask him as he thoughtfully looks towards the room where Tesla died alone, abandoned and forgotten by everyone and from which they took him to be cremated to the sounds of the old song “Away from here, away from sea, that’s where my home thinks of me”.

“So, has anything happened in these ten years you’ve been here”, I press on.

He never replied. I don’t need his reply anyway, but I think he himself might. And while a plate in front of the Bryant hotel bears Tesla’s name – The Tesla Corner – the rest of us, mortals, may only hope that some cigarette stub in a New York garbage can may bear ours.

If you ever go to New York, go and visit the Tesla Corner. Don’t pay 10 dollars to see a sad seal dancing for you. And don’t even bother trying to smell flowers and trees. And be careful if you make a picnic in the Central Park, you might sit in horse poo. And id you go to New York, don’t turn into a Carrie Bradshaw there. But the best piece of advice I can give you is “don’t go to New York at all”.

“I love this city, regardless of what they say”, Woody Allen chips in.

I love it too, regardless of what I said.

Author: Mirjana Vasiljevic 

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