I went this week to Queens. I came to visit with people and in order to write in the mornings while laying down. It is too hot in my non-AC apartment to do such a thing, but the Long Island City Courtyard Marriott was perfectly suited to horizontal writing. Out my window I could see a bunch of people doing construction, but if I walked right up to the window and look out of it at a very steep angle I could see the skyline of Manhattan.
I used to live in New York, where I was underemployed and because of this I really, really enjoyed taking a long time to get places. That was my time as a native peripatetic; now that I only come to visit, I still basically do the same thing. My days visiting are underbooked; I get off the Q at Union Square and walk to Prince Street. It was less fun these last few days in the heat, but not so much less fun that I knocked off doing it. Few subjects are as well trod (ha) as the great mystery of walking around in New York, and so even before I started writing this, even before I thought up of which, of the many New York City-centric sentences that I know, ought to serve as this post’s pith (and I’ll get to it in a bit), I begin to think a lot about cliches.
New York cliches seem to me to be the most prevalent cliches; partly because they are very represented (there’s a book of essays of people leaving New York, and a companion book of essays of people deciding to stay; I am sure either one could have multiple successor volumes), and partly because I am sure of self-selection bias (the runners-up for cliches that I recognize are Buffalo and Boston, two other places I’ve lived near). So because New York cliches are ubiquitous, and because I am riddled by what George Saunders would stylize as Acute Cliche Anxiety, I think about them a lot.
Cliche anxiety depends on an anxiety about iterability, about whether one is doing the same thing as something else correctly. There are lots of things that both the philosophical tradition and contemporary thinkers have to say on the subject of whether anything has ever been the same as anything, even once. Much of peoples’ lives are spent — or anyway much of my life is spent — trying to determine if I am doing things correctly by being like the people I wish to be like and then trying to back off at least, say 15%, so that I have not become a dreaded cliche of something (like somebody writing his heartfelt appreciation of walking around in Murray Hill). No one likes being a cliche.
But of course no one wants to be unintelligible, either. The sentence itself is of course a unit with a deeply vexed relationship to its iterability, much more analyzable than my general commitment to only carrying myself 85% similarly to Richie Tenenbaum or Prof. Plum from Clue or whomever else I had decided represented the way of being in the world that I most wanted to take up. Unlike place-specific experiences, the whole point of sentences is that they need to be in some way portable, if anyone’s going to know what the person saying the sentence means. (Imagine saying “you had to be there” to not only describe why a sentence were funny or impactful or good, but what any of it meant at all; that this kind of thing does happen, is dire). So every sentence, when it’s working, is wrought out of the stuff that we all already know about.
And that’s why I’ve picked as a sentence to think about, while thinking about my time in New York, I thought of one that as far as I know has never been written down; despite the existences of John Updike and EB White and Patti Smith and Hilton Als and all the other famous New York people, I thought of the sentence I heard one day while walking, to kill time, from 23rd and Broadway to the NYU library, which was:
“If I could come back as any animal, I would come back as a human, because humans can talk and shit.”
That sentence certainly starts with a cliche — the sort of icebreaker exercise of a putatively, but almost certainly not, revealing announcement of what animal you’d like to be — and then pays it the bizarre compliment of taking it seriously, of not wanting to stop talking in order to fly or have super-smell or whatever. It does not, as I did, attempt to overcome a cliche by sprinkling in just enough of what’s supposed to be originality (aha, but does Buddy Glass wear a HAT?!?); it transcends the cliche by paying genuine attention to it.
I told my friend — in Madison Square Park — this sentence I was thinking of writing on, and she smiled and said, “He’d have to come back for that?” This drew my attention, as it had not been drawn, to the coming back. The original sentence I overheard was of course based on a kind of pop version of reincarnation, but: coming back as any animal/coming back as a human can also describe the whole circling around cliches that I’ve been trying to describe. Even though millions of people have done it, even though at least tens of thousands of people have probably written about doing it, I keep going back to New York and doing the same things, which — since it’s mostly walking around and talking to people, might not be things to be so anxious about. It’s good to come back to New York, as a human; because humans can talk and shit.