New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time, by Craig Taylor, John Murray, 398 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 798-1848549739
It’s while being driven around New York by a personal injury lawyer that Craig Taylor learns how to sue the city in the event of a trip-and-fall “accident”. Don’t injure yourself on any old cracked sidewalk, Dan Bauso warns him: only trip on one that’s been officially acknowledged and mapped. When the relevant city authority has been notified, then the lawsuit can begin. Next, the advice on the fall. “You’re a good-looking kid, Craig, but your modeling days are over. So face first.”
Taylor wisely ignored the legal advice and continued interviewing New Yorkers for this book. Starting in 2014, the Canadian blow-in spent six years taping residents who had something heartfelt to say about their city. Some locals spoke to him briefly; with others the conversation continued for years. Not everyone was sure what Taylor was about, though. “So, are you looking for boldface names?” a woman at a party inquired. “No, he’s looking for the lightly italicized,” someone else replied. The seventy-five who made the final cut include a rapper, an elevator repairman, a Salvation Army bell ringer, a protester, a street photographer, a dog walker, a window cleaner and a homeless Vietnam veteran with whom he formed an enduring friendship.
Every interviewee offers a unique insight into their micro-New York, no matter how niche. The career car thief shares how to make a clean getaway on the city’s grid system (don’t drive straight, make a turn at every possible opening). The lice consultant – yes, that’s a job title ‑ with thirty-five years’ experience has noticed changes in the city nits. “Lice have gotten smaller,” Shayna Brown says. “They’re very, very close to the scalp, and it’s very easy to miss them.”
There’s a themed section devoted to stress in which we hear from a therapist, a Wall Street HR executive, a police officer, a meditation teacher, a dentist whose late father made dental crowns. Thirty years later, the dentist still experiences a familial pull when holding a crown made by his father, “and it’ll be in my hand and I’m like, Wow, this was in my dad’s hand. It gets a little spiritual for me.” Arthur Kent noticed a significant increase in worn-down and cracked teeth in the long aftermath of 9/11 and also after the 2007 financial crisis hit. Dental damage is still an occupational hazard for Wall Street go-getters and Kent’s examination of a young bond trader’s mouth revealed teeth ground into stumps. “I said, `You’ve got to learn how to relax.’ He said to me. `You don’t get as successful as I am if you relax.’”
In a terrific essay that serves as the book’s introduction, the author admits to being awed by what New York continuously offered up to him. “I loved the concentrate; I loved the proximity to strangers, how every day you were inches from weirdness, greatness, and everything in between. It was the greatest ongoing flicker of human life I’d ever encountered.”
Taylor had spent the previous decade working on books about other places, most notably London, using the same winning formula. Oral histories take time to gather. Or, as he puts it, you can’t just rush into a room and say to someone, Okay, your hopes and dreams, what are they?
His patience has paid off and there’s not one uninteresting voice here. The people who work for the very wealthy give the most loaded quotes, especially when propelled by rage, envy, or just disgust. A general factotum gives hair-raising instances of having to enable the “neuroses and psychoses” of his employers. A nanny sounds off about her “nightmare” charges, little horrors who live in a world without naughty mats. These children are being prepared for a “dark, evil money” lifestyle, says Maggie Parker, and she foresees a bleak future for many of them. “If you are nine and cavalier about having your own private jet, nothing is ever going to be exciting to you.” She also has something to say about their names. “Noble. Whistler. Atlas. Midas ‑ he’s going to be a great husband. What this says basically to the world is that this child will never work. Whistler’s never going to work at Starbucks. Atlas will not be a waiter – for better or worse. There are experiences you can guarantee those children will not have.”
In another part of the city, a wine waiter (and indeed not called Atlas) works in a restaurant frequented by a genuinely boldface clientele. Look, there’s Mick Jagger at that table over there. (As would only happen in New York, the Rolling Stone was dining that day with the editor of Rolling Stone magazine.) When Andre Mack was new, he recalls, a drop of wine from a bottle he was uncorking landed on a diner’s cuff. The restaurant had to pay for the dry cleaning and he was made to come in early for two weeks to practise opening a bottle of wine. The rude rich may be particularly trying but a well-trained sommelier is polite to all comers. This one notices whether the meal is just another dinner for some people or the experience of a lifetime. “I waited on this kid, him and his girlfriend. I asked him about wine and he’s like, `I’ll let you choose.’ He wanted to give me back the wine list. He was shaking. He was that nervous.”
While renowned New York landmarks are mentioned, they tend to be secondary to the people who work there. “That’s my work wife,” a security guard at the Statue of Liberty jokes about the giant green figure he safeguards on Ellis Island. An Empire State Building electrician is matter-of-fact about his world-famous workplace; even his kid just looked up and said, “Daddy, that’s the building you did!” when they passed by.
A woman whose adolescent son has served the first of his fifteen-year sentence at the city’s main prison complex describes her visits to the notorious Rikers Island, the repeating sequence of queuing and waiting, then the dispiriting time with her son. “Sometimes I visit him and I break down like a baby. I try to go with a straight face, I tell myself, I’m not gonna cry today. But once I see him in that situation I can’t help it.” She prefers the visits when he’s been put in isolation. “Those are the better visits, believe it or not, the cage visits. Because there’s more contact. It’s weird, but it’s true.”
The people behind the agglomeration of infrastructures that helps keep a city functioning – pipes, cables, tunnels, rails, road and marine traffic – don’t often get noticed, but here we see glimpses of their world and, on a number of occasions, their humanity. Sal Leone, a subway conductor and one of life’s good eggs, speaks of passengers coming over to tell him their life story. “They don’t have people,” he says. “So you have to listen … You’re a civil servant and you do as much as you can. You’re a psychiatrist, a bartender, a protector.” His subterranean workplace can also be dangerous: “You never know when a nut’s gonna get on the train.”
Leone once had an elderly passenger die in his arms on a station platform. “I didn’t know this woman from Adam. Our paths crossed at that time. Just happened to cross and I would’ve liked to let her family know that she didn’t die alone. Even though I didn’t know her, I was nobody, I was there with her. She didn’t die alone.” It upset him when an attending police officer looked down at the woman’s body and said, Well, Blanche, I guess you’re gonna be a little late for work today. “How cold can you be?” Leone wonders.
A few days after a fatal police shooting of an African-American man, Taylor meets up with a dejected Daree Lewis, who speaks of the kind of privilege the author can take for granted, being white, saying that her black skin will always inform people’s perception of her. When she’s angry she must conceal it. “Anger is a privileged emotion. It is only allowed to be displayed by the people who have enough skin privilege. Only the people who get enough forgiveness. And we don’t get it. We don’t. Our parents teach us not to show that anger to the world because they’re trying to keep us safe.”
Some locals were keen to tell Taylor he could never know New York like they did, no matter how long he stayed there. Others wanted to give him their personal lists of people and places, to record what was gone. A number of times he was reminded, I knew this place before it was nail salons. So far this century, New York has endured a catastrophic hurricane, a terrorist attack, financial collapse, Covid-19, lockdown, Donald Trump, upheaval and change, and Taylor sought voices that represented all experiences, those “emboldened by the city as well as those who’d felt its hard edge”. Residents vent about the changes to their neighbourhood. The accelerating gentrification, for one, was not welcomed. “Don’t listen to them,” someone else says. “Part of loving New York is just mourning the hell out of it. The mourning is the love.”
A nurse recounts the unique awfulness of her job during the worst of the pandemic, when people could not visit dying relatives in hospital. “It was just so hard. Their families are saying ‘Can you please tell them that we love them?’ And [the nurses] are putting the iPad next to their face so they can have their last goodbyes, even if the patient was out of it, just so they could hear their voice.”
Dan Bauso – who looms large several times in the book ‑ tests positive for the virus and in an emotional monologue tells how he was so ill in hospital he started planning the serious phone calls: to arrange his funeral, to say goodbye to his ex-wife and his sister; finally to his daughter, Nora. Then a second call to Nora, which she wasn’t to pick up, so she’d have a recording of his voice. The Queens lawyer says he wasn’t going to die without his people hearing from him first. “This is who I am. I’m a memorial type of guy. I’m a remembrance of times past. I’m Woodside, I’m New York, I’m the Boys’ Brigade, I’m fucking Saint Sebastian’s. I’m all of those things. That’s who I am.”
Bauso doesn’t die; he goes on to become the first recovered patient to leave the hospital that week, wheeled out to sustained applause from staff lining the hallway, and eventually back, presumably, to a life peppered with personal injury claims and non-stop showmanship. Of all the voices, I’ll miss his the most. Oh sue me.
Maura O’Kiely is an Irish Times journalist.