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New Yorkers talk the talk

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time Craig Taylor

John Murray, pp.398, 25

New York in a nutshell? No way. New York in a New York minute? Forget about it. The city contains multitudes: it contradicts itself, wantonly. Any attempt to summarise will fail. Not even Craig Taylor’s delightful cacophony of voices, dozens and dozens of them spilling their New York stories, can compass its vastness and variety. But what a tasty slice Taylor serves up! Until you can fly into JFK and see, hear and smell for yourself, savour the grit, sweat in the choking humidity and shiver in the canyoned midtown winds — until then, his New Yorkers is just the ticket.

This is Taylor’s second anthology of urban voices. It follows more or less exactly in the footsteps of Londoners (2011) which was widely and warmly praised. Here he interviews people from all over the city and from every point on the spectrum: banker and bum, window-washer and posh interior designer, subway conductor and private tutor, personal injury lawyer and lice consultant, painter and private cook, landlord and elevator repairman, cabbie and radio presenter, dancer and dentist, student and retiree. A few of the more eccentric individuals defy classification: one is a ‘healer’, another a ‘recycler’. Some are thrillingly articulate, others borderline incomprehensible. Almost all are weirdly compelling and weirdly compelled, as though each had a touch of the Ancient Mariner.

Taylor makes use of an unobtrusive framing device: a story, told in three instalments, of a difficult friendship with a homeless man, Joe, a battered Vietnam vet who hates New York but can never leave. Joe is not just a prop; he has his own rage, his joy, his humanity. An artfully understated storyteller with a compelling voice of his own, Taylor shows us just enough of himself to answer a question the reader can’t help asking: how did he get all these folk to open up?

The trick is empathy, clearly, and also knowing when to button his lip. He learns from his interviews:

All these encounters brought with them lessons on how to live. And also how to shut up. In these years of increasing volume I had so many great reasons to stay quiet and bear witness.

But the book, a succession of arias arranged like an epic opera, is emphatically not about him. He steps back to let his New Yorkers yak, and so should I.

A therapist revealing a perennial preoccupation of her clients:

They blame New York… Trust me, the city is involved in almost every session I have. It’s constantly in the room in a way that I’m not sure any other city would be… And always talk of moving, moving, moving.

A nanny ranting about the ‘economy of cool’ and its impact on her rich clients’ kids:

They have to be aggressively cool for the rest of their lives. That’s the option you give your child. ‘I’m really into pesto.’ ‘I import vinaigrette.’ You know, they’re gonna have some weird, niche, useless, empty job.

A cop:

Nobody puts makeup on their hands, so your hands are like a window to your inner health. The way people’s hands shake when they’re nervous… Fidgeting hands, hardworking hands, delicate hands. It’s amazing the shit you see. Articulating actions. They wouldn’t get their hands out of their pocket, they kept going for their pocket. If someone’s doing something bad, they’re doing it with their hands. The hands tell it.

A used-car salesman who used to work in sanitation:

Aristotle, or one of the fucking philosophers, said it’s better to be good than bad. I mean, I really don’t know what that means, but it sounded good.

A fellow described as a ‘pizza guide’:

A New York crust is a little bit more dry. When you bend it in half, it doesn’t snap on the bottom. There’s a larger crumb structure, cell structure. This is a little dense of a cell structure. There’s oil in this. Not a ton of yeast. It’s hard to really put words to it, but you know it when you see it. You know a New York slice when you see it.

A high-flying sommelier:

I don’t think I’d be able to accomplish what I’ve accomplished, or continue to do what I do, if I didn’t live here. It’s like some battery that you plug into. It’s charged. It’s amped.

A trans woman:

In my days I’ve met a lot of rich people through sex work. Wall Street guys love to get their ass beat. That’s a thing. That trope is real.

A volunteer at a soup kitchen:

In the city there’s people who don’t give a damn, and other people who do. But everybody has to leave by the sidewalk, right? So that’s where the real true human encounter happens. And so when you get acclimatised to the atmosphere on the street, or, jeez, in the subway… you begin to understand the city in a new way, and to see the people as they really are, each a kind of blossom. However fragrant.

Apparently Craig Taylor ‘lives in western Canada’, a phrase that’s pretty much the antithesis of New York City, and brings to mind John Updike’s bon mot about ‘the true New Yorker’s secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding’.

I’d say Taylor deserves the keys to the city.

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