Going West is an adventure. Maybe not as much as was when you had to take a covered wagon and float across the Mississippi and shoot bison along the way for food, but still, it’s a thrill. My wife and I decided we’d had enough of New York City. She’d been there almost fifteen years, I’d been there ten, and as ostensible creatives it seemed foolish to work 90 hours a week before we even began our “real work.”
Before we had any idea how dangerous it was to bolt human beings to exploding tubes and launch them into space, when inventions like the lightbulb and airplane and telephone were warping the planet at a ferocious pace and escaping the earth’s gravity well suddenly seemed possible —we imagined that exploring the Universe would be a lot like the famous expeditions we had seen before.
“BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.” It was a horrid thought, but Shashank Tripathi’s (i.e. Comfortablysmug’s) infamous Hurricane Sandy tweet had panache. Tripathi mimicked the style of a breaking news tweet perfectly. The image of water sluicing into the New York Stock Exchange was too good to be true. An irresistible nugget of news distilling the potent emotions stirred by the storm: Sorrow for afflicted New Yorkers, fear for the future, the thrill of seeing history unspool in real time, and a dose of snickering glee at the idea of cuff-linked financiers wading through filthy water.
Graduate school is hard for couples to endure. Temptation abounds. You live in penury among ambitious young (for the most part) adults, speaking a peculiar argot, attending what feel like mandatory social events and excursions steeped in alcohol, with superstars dropping in and strutting among you. Plus, there are all those fraught moments that only a fellow student—another insider—can help you soothe. Meanwhile your significant other is likely supporting you, often at a less-than-ideal job in a less-than-ideal place. Resentment builds. Sloughing a partner is easy and commonplace.
The shelves of America’s bookstores do not accurately represent the inner life of their customers. Where are the Tea Partiers dreaming of libertarian utopias? Whence the poets who howl for the rights of the unborn? The Mormon missionary comedies of manners? American literature seems to want for authors of a Republican slant.
America should be more open than ever. Women and minorities are no longer excluded from high-earning professions and, if you are willing to take on the debt, a university education is more accessible than ever before. But if anything America is less egalitarian than it once was. The income gap between rich and poor has been growing since the 1970s. More worrying than that, a permanent class system seems to be calcifying into place: people born rich are getting richer, while the poor stay poor. America’s elite has found a way to protect and perpetuate itself within what should be an inclusive system.
In the 1970s it was unusual to see wealthy families on television. The Jeffersons with their deluxe apartment in the sky, the occasional rich couple flitting over to “Fantasy Island” or booking a cruise on “The Love Boat”—these were the exceptions. But as the economy accelerated, mass culture was suddenly inundated with images of affluence. The wave hit around 1981, as the economy slowly recovered from the stagnant wages and inflation of the 1970s. Rabbit Angstrom, John Updike’s scampering everyman, began to make serious money on his appreciating property and selling Toyotas on his father-in-law’s lot in Rabbit is Rich; Joan Collins joined the cast of “Dynasty” as the splendid and venomous Alexis; and the second edition of The Official Preppy Handbook came out, gently mocking but also instructing a peculiar subculture of well-coiffed, pastel-hue wearing teenagers who wanted to look as if they summered on Cape Cod and worked on Wall Street.
Hot, smoke-fouled air is a powerful mnemonic. As the sun set over New York City on the 4th of July, my fiancée, Amy, and I took a break from comforting our shell-shocked cats, to stroll through our neighborhood. We live in a decaying industrial area perched on a scarp between the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens. By peering down one of the avenues we could just make out the puffs of incandescent orange exploding over the East River. We climbed the hill into Ridgewood. It was dark. New York had had one of its wettest summers yet, and a dank hot fug lingered beneath the foliage. All around us explosions rocked the city as families fired bootleg fireworks off their balconies, and the air reeked of sulfur and smoke.