Trying to think about what I won’t miss about New York, Frito Pie comes to mind

The thought that in a few days I will be back in the land of WH Smith instead of PJ Clarke’s makes me feel as though all the air had been let out of me.

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I’m reaching the end of my stay in New York. Whenever I travel anywhere, I entertain the possibility of living there. For a long time these were no more than fantasies – dreams of escape, of an unreachable alternative life – for I was tied to London with children. I was also highly selective in my fantasies: Paris, Los Angeles, Florence… I even thought of haunting the canals of Venice like some shade, as the city sank around me. I never thought of living in, say, Bristol. (For some reason Brighton always felt viable, which is just as well, since I’ve ended up there for the time being.)

But New York… New York is the one. I first came here in 1966, when I was three, and it kick-started my memory process, so vivid an impression did the place make on me. I returned in 1980, when the city was a wreck and the taxis were checker cabs driven by Travis Bickles, but I felt like Snake Plissken, in a good way (even though Escape from New York had yet to be released). On that visit I bought a Joy Division single (“Atmosphere”) from Bleecker Bob’s without even knowing that Bleecker Bob’s was the hip record store in Manhattan. (Actually, now I come to think of it, I looked more like Bickle than Plissken, what with affecting an army surplus jacket at the time and having neither a beard nor an eyepatch.) Periodic visits since have not dimmed my love of the city.

Well, it’s dimmed a bit now, because oh, the prices. Twenty bucks for a Maker’s Mark on the rocks? Jesus, what’s going on here? Am I buying a drink, or an out-of-world experience? Is there manna in the ice cubes? And the rents, God, the rents. If you want to listen to a pair of New Yorkers talk for an hour without stopping, ask them about the rents or whether there is anywhere affordable left in the city.

Long story short: the Bronx is your best bet, but unless you’re pulling in 60 grand a year, fuhgeddaboudit, and even 60 grand is going to leave you skimping on trips to the bars, cinemas, diners, well, everything, really. A smoked salmon beigel – oh, I don’t know how to spell it – costs, I am told, $20 in Russ & Daughters deli in Houston Street. I could pop around to the White Horse for a large bourbon and hole my bank balance below the waterline.    

In WH Smith in Brighton I bought a copy of the New Yorker as part of preparation for my visit, and marvelled at the price – eight quid or something like that – but when I bought a copy in New York, it was nine bucks, which isn’t really a whole lot cheaper.

That said, as I type the words “WH Smith” I am overcome by an overwhelmingly powerful sense of British dreariness. The thought that in a few days I will be back in the land of WH Smith instead of PJ Clarke’s makes me feel as though all the air had been let out of me.

For it is hard to have a lousy time in New York, if one has a nice place to stay and friends in the city; I have been blessed in both regards. My host has refused to let me pay for a thing here. (Although I have to say that one day, she said she didn’t feel like taking the subway into town, and spent $45 on an Uber, an extravagance that made me feel a little queasy. That she and the driver complained about rents all the way from Queens to Greenwich Village struck me as mildly ironic, to say the least.)

She has also given me use of the bed while she stays on the sofa; and every couple of days I’ve suddenly remembered another friend who lives here. Last night I saw my old friend N—, whom I first met in 1980 and is now a professor living in splendour near Union Square, and has a beautiful and clever wife, a car space in a heated garage and a house in Long Island. I have a dim memory of offering to look after the place when they weren’t there.

As I look at that list of ingredients of the good life, I think of the Talking Heads song, and I ask myself: how did I not get there?

But it’s back to Blighty soon, which will seem colourless in comparison. I am trying to make myself feel better by thinking of all the things I won’t miss. That dish made with Velveeta and Ro*Tel (Velveeta: a kind of cheese, I suppose; Ro*Tel: chopped tomatoes and jalapenos from a can) into which you dip specially shaped tortilla chips. And Frito Pie, in which corn chips, sour cream and God knows what else are cooked and presented to you in the bag the chips came in; even the corn dogs tasted wholesome next to this mind-bending dish. (My host has a weakness for junk food.) Actually, after last night’s excesses, thinking about these things isn’t making me feel better at all. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 17 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing

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