A city and its people in our time
432pp. John Murray. 25 [pounds sterling].
PRETEND IT'S A CITY
Netflix, seven episodes
The New York hotel that set women free
336pp. Two Roads. 20 [pounds sterling].
Craig Taylor is one smart, hardworking writer. In the introduction to New Yorkers, his compendium of New York stories--a symphonic choir of voices rising from the five boroughs --he invokes E. B. White, whose classic Here Is New York, published in 1949, runs to only fifty-five pages. If White's book, with its sage advice ("No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky"), is a paean, a ringing of bells, Taylor's is a grand fugue for organ, with all the stops pulled out. It is a gift right now, when New York City is coming back from a pandemic winter that has been the ruin of many a favourite restaurant, bar and sandwich shop, and put the lives of anyone in the performing arts on pause indefinitely. Contrary to popular reports, New York is no ghost town. In New Yorkers the city is hopping, punching, reeling, dancing, thrumming, honking, thriving.
New Yorkers is a documentary, an oral history along the lines of Studs Terkel's Working (1974)--and even more along the lines of Taylor's own earlier volume, Londoners (2011). His method is to interview people--record them, befriend them, revisit them --and then transcribe and, I assume, shape their words. Either that or every subject is a poet. Taylor went all over the city and talked to a range of people that cannot be summed up in the simplistic A-to-Z formula. His book demands a catalogue. There are landlords and tenants and homeless people (including one bent-over Vietnam veteran whom I recognized as the man who camps out at night in front of the European waxing salon around the corner); there are elevator repairmen and window cleaners ("I'm an old-fashioned guy. I stick with the same squeegee"); there are bankers, designers, photographers, lawyers, car thieves; there is a nanny, a spiritual healer who "clears" people's homes, a tutor to children of the rich, a cop, a doctor, an electrician ("tower trained"), a hospice nurse. The opening section, styled the Overture, employs musicians: a blind singer who navigates Manhattan variously with a cane, a guide dog and a highly developed sense of smell (Port Authority, the bus terminal, is "nasty --sex, groin, and hair and underarm"). A dance producer views foot traffic through the lens of a choreographer. Open any page and you will meet someone who has figured out a way to live in New York. One guy gives tours of pizzerias. He explains the economic structure behind the culture of the slice: "get in, get out, fast on the go".
The city can be cruel (it "will drain you out of your last dollar"), and people are competitive and aggressive (especially the drivers), and did I mention it's dirty? Yet a...