Beyond the Bubble: Heart of Parkness
Wandering into the Sinclairian jungle that is New York after a life in the rural reality of Yankee New England — a place where each house is still known by the names of families that moved away decades ago — can only be called a mammoth experience. This time in the city reminded me of a stanza in John Milton's “Paradise Lost” (1667):
Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave—
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,—
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
New York is certainly nature’s grave. I can’t remember the last time I saw a tree, and there are simply no sheep here, no birds of prey, no deer, foxes or rabbits running wild on fleet paws. But there’s one thing that stands out, something that has always hit me about New Yorkers and that has become clear to me: direct, obvious measures of success are more plentiful here.
I’ll go back to the beginning. In New England, everything is more subdued than in New York. The Yankee sensibilities of its populace prevent the ostentatious display of wealth. The town millionaire and the local farmers and fishermen go to the same pub after work, they drive the same beat-up Subarus, they read the same papers, they wear the same tattered barn jackets. Even in major cities like Boston, Providence, Hartford and Manchester, these lines are blurred, indistinct. Wealth (or the lack thereof) hides itself, shields its very nature behind New England’s winter winds, its autumn colors, its spring mud, its summer heat. And when (as in my own home, Nantucket) wealth is ostentatious, it is almost never the community’s natives that are show-offish.
But then there’s New Yorkers. My apologies to my New York-based friends at Dartmouth: this judgment is not all-inclusive nor is it universally true. With that said, it’s the New Yorkers who show off, with their clothing, their manner, their sunglasses, all of it. It’s New Yorkers who walk across the street swaddled in $1000 coats, sporting haute couture rainboots, wearing [insert name of sunglasses brand too elite for me to have ever heard of it here] and toting designer jeans that cost more than your car. You’d never see someone from Richmond, Guildhall, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Chatham, Blue Hill or Berlin doing that. No, because there’s a shame in New England. Our Puritan forbears taught us well. When they have success, New Englanders are ashamed of it. They do not flaunt it. It’s an embarrassment if your house is too large, your car too new, your shoes not muddy enough.
Here in New York — on the streets and in the subways, in the office where I work, just about everywhere, really — success is measurable, quantifiable. Which stories are succeeding? There’s a huge list with page views for that. Who’s doing well? Well, you’ve got to have your surgeons cuffs unbuttoned in the subway so everyone knows you can afford them. And so on.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with these visual metrics of success, nothing wrong with looking out into the Miltonian abyss of consumerism and judging one’s route forward, but to me, it is foreign. That’s not an indictment on material culture, necessarily; New England’s foundation is a highly conservative one, a theocratic one. It rings more true to ideologies of clerical fascism than the establishment liberalism for which the region is today best known. But it is still dignified, still reserved and pensive. And not everywhere is.