The opening of Joan Didion’s famous essay—Goodbye to All That—always exasperates me.
Didion describes how she moved to New York City, twenty years old, awed and intimidated, and for the first three days, lay in her hotel room shivering and ill, with the air-conditioning at a frigid 35ºF, too frightened to call the front desk for help, because: “I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you I was.”
I too moved to New York City, alone, twenty-one, for my graduate studies. Before that to London, alone, seventeen, as an undergraduate. And I am here to tell you, I have never been as young as Didion.
Perhaps what others would forgive as Didion’s embarrassment, I’m stubbornly diagnosing as her pride. I want to refer her to my college professor who liked to say, “There is humility to accepting you’re not the worst.”
Or perhaps the elder sister in me takes over. “Joooaaan! Just call the front desk! If you’re feeling cold, you’ve got to call them. I can’t believe you’re overthinking this.”
Or perhaps it’s just that Didion and I have grown up in very different cities.
She: Sacramento, California. Population: about 500,000.
Me: Mumbai, India. Population: 21 million.[i]
London and New York City, with their 8.5 million population size, feel almost quaint in comparison to Mumbai. Medium Apples.
It’s only when I compare my life to Didion’s that I realize I have never moved from the country to a big city, or even from a small city to a big city. I have moved only from one monster city to another.
Although a government census would place London and Edinburgh, or New York City and Miami, under the same tag – ‘metropolis’ – you know better. These cities don’t fight in the same weight category. Mumbai, London, New York City, Mexico City, Tokyo, Delhi, Moscow, Shanghai, Karachi, Paris, Istanbul, Bangkok, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo: these are monstercities. There’s something dark, crazy, surging, ambitious, horrible and bewitching about them that their prettier, politer, saner cousins – Philadelphia, Atlanta, Geneva, Vienna, Cairns, Pune – lack; or have escaped from. These monster cities seem to exist atop the pivot between anarchy and order, see-sawing, now threatening to tip into chaos, now barely held together by tenuous fibres of governance and civilization. More verb than noun, they’re always moving, changing, transitioning, like amoebae, or loose globules of mercury. They seem impossible to extinguish. You feel even if you were to cut them off, they’d grow spindly spider legs, skitter away and survive independently. If you bombed them into oblivion, they’d be back the next day, with a glint in their eye and fabulous, ridiculous outfits. They’re like the best movie villains.
This is my lineage. This is who I am: a monstercity kid.
My friends and I have spent our twenties hopping from one monstercity to another. One moved from London to Hong Kong and is now eyeing New York City. Another from Budapest to London, and now perhaps to Sydney. A third from Mumbai to Tokyo. There’s always a reason—university, our first and second jobs—but by now, we’re used to being global nomads. We’re restless.
Even though these cities have such distinct identities, they’re surprisingly easy to move between. As long as you speak their tongue, and have some initial cash, you can quickly choreograph your routine within them: your room, friends, runs in the park, happy hours, groceries, discount cinema tickets, bargain huts, your favourite secret street. . . they have everything.
And yet, we keep picking up and moving out, only to find another monstercity where we’re sure of but one thing: “I love this place . . . but I don’t think I could settle down here.”
Where will we settle down?
Unfortunately, my generation shares this dubious distinction: almost none of us can afford to buy homes in our home cities any longer.
It was possible up until the last century to purchase an apartment in Mumbai or New York or London. No longer. We’re a generation of renters. If ever we’re able to lay roots and buy a house, we’ll have to sally forth with the spirit of a Vasco de Gama or Amerigo Vespucci, searching for a new land to call home.
But, if you’ve grown up in a monstercity— the kind of city into which everyone else immigrates—where do you go?
Sometimes, I think I’ll always be a renter in a big city. Or maybe I’ll move to the suburb of a monstercity. Or a town that’s somehow simultaneously quiet and busy. Sometimes, I feel there’s no solution but to move to ‘the countryside’, though I couldn’t name where.
Whilst I haven’t reached a decision yet, there’s a series of little dabs and dots accruing in my mind, like an impressionist painting. Things I’ve read, or heard people say, that continue to rattle inside my head.
Isn’t that how all decisions are made? We accrue enough little dots; are rattled by enough little thoughts?
Here’s the list of things that might, one day, help me choose the new land I call home:
- The Henry James quote: “Try to be someone on whom nothing is lost.”
For artists, or anyone who prides their intellect and creativity, the first goal is always to become a better observer. To be awake to life’s beautiful and funny details and to draw upon them at will.
James’ advice sets a sadistically high standard, of course, but even more so, I believe, if you live in a monstercity.
In my final year of university in London, I was walking down Kingsway one summer day, a wide, lively main street that I’d walked up and down every day that year. It was atypically sunny. I walked along as I always did, admiring the styles on the street, gazing at myself in the reflective surfaces I passed, surveying the shops going by: Prêt-à-Manger, Sainsbury’s (I have to buy more eggs), Pizza Express, Waitrose, NatWest, HSBC, The Body Shop (ooh, fifty percent off).
I don’t know what was different about that day. Perhaps it was the lack of drizzle, and the absence of an unwieldy umbrella. But—and I remember this vividly—for the first time that year, I suddenly tore my eyes off the sidewalk and looked up. For the first time, I found myself admiring the white stucco of one building, the fancy windows of another, giant clocks on third-storeys and gargoyles glowering down at the street corners. It was beautiful! Rich, creamy-white buildings standing with their backs to a panorama of bright blue sky and cloud. It was the kind of majestic watercolour that would be commissioned by French kings to place in their children’s nurseries.
You can imagine my subsequent distress. What other life-changing vistas and details had I missed? How was such carelessness possible? My own vanity while walking, and my obsession with street fashion had to be considered, of course. But surely, the primary culprit was the city itself? It had dazzled me, distracted me, with its cheap, street-level wares. There was too much, always too much going on around me. No wonder I couldn’t be someone on whom nothing was lost—there was too much to lose. Who could observe everything in this monstercity?
That was in 2011. I’ve long since suspected that the secret to reaching Henry James’ standard, and the secret to becoming better at just about anything—a better writer, a better thinker, a better person—is simply to move to a tiny hamlet.
There, I wouldn’t have to rush. Like William Henry Davies, I’d have all the time in the world to observe where “squirrels hide their nuts in grass,” or marvel at “streams full of stars, like skies at night,” or sometimes just “stand beneath the boughs / and stare as long as sheep or cows.”
My stories would be peppered with the kind of perfect little details that would make people underline them and gasp, “How beautiful! How true.”
And at home, I’d make jam, like on Masterchef, watching the berries’ slow bleed, watching them bubble with sugar.
In the countryside, nothing would be lost on me. Because isn’t there less to lose?
- The “Wenzel” wrap at Yale.
A few years ago, I’d travel to Yale University every other weekend to visit my boyfriend. It seemed to me, then, the perfect habitat: a small, manageable 300 acres within Connecticut, full of culture and big ideas. As towns go, it was more Frick than Met.
There were certain items or experiences at Yale that were shared by the entire student body. One of these was the “Wenzel,” a thick wrap full of chicken and sauces sold by Alpha Delta Pizza. I didn’t get what the fuss was about when I tried it. But everyone on the campus was united in their love for the Wenzel. The Wenzel meant Gluttony. The Wenzel meant A Late Night. The Wenzel meant you were likely Piss Drunk. And it meant this to everyone.
And when I visited the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, I found fast-food brand Chick-Fil-A received the same unanimous love. You’d just flown into town? Grab a meal at Chick-Fil-A! Just climbed a Smoky Mountain? Get a Chick-Fil-A shake! Gone fly fishing early one morning? Chick-Fil-A?
And my friend from small-town Indiana had the same shining eyes and bright voice when she exclaimed, “You’ve never been to Dairy Queen? Oh my god, I must take you.” Come, sister, let me introduce you to the other Wiccans.
I’m amused by how these brands mean the same things to everyone in a small town, how they become a shared allegory—I envy it slightly.
What one entity ties together every New Yorker? The New York Subway? Central Park, perhaps? It would take something gigantic …
But though I yearn sometimes for cults and communities, for their sense of belonging, I’m aware of the flipside too: the scrutiny and judgment of small towns, where reputations have the shelf life of a can of baked beans. The Town Miser. The Village Bully. The Hamlet Whore. . . The Unsuccessful Writer. You can’t even escape your reputation by finding a brand-new circle of people, as you could in a larger city.
In fact, one of my favourite things about New York City is that you’re never the biggest freak on the street. Even if you skip down the sidewalk yodelling, “Let it go, let it go!”, even if you wear a skirt that’s thin as a ribbon, even you sit on the subway with silent tears trickling down your face all the way from 113th to Canal Street; you’ll get the few curious glances and catcalls, but that’s it.
The next freak appears—the cowboy in a thong serenading tourists at Times Square, the old man ranting about pigeons, the couple at war—and you too glance at them, once, briefly.
- John Ruskin’s essay “Fiction, Fair and Foul.”
John Ruskin was not a fan of cities.
In his essay, “Fiction, Fair and Foul,” the English critic says city life can’t naturally delight or soothe the human soul. He questions how one can live in a place
“where summer and winter are only alternations of heat and cold;
where snow never fell white, nor sunshine clear;
where the ground is only a pavement, and the sky no more than the glass roof of an arcade;
where the utmost power of a storm is to choke the gutters, and the finest magic of spring, to change mud into dust;
where—chief and most fatal difference in state—there is no interest or occupation for any of the inhabitants but the routine of counter or desk within doors, and the effort to pass each other without collision outside. . .”
Ruskin was writing towards the end of the Industrial Revolution, when urban life was still in its first draft: a smoky, smudgy charcoal sketch.
Even so, his writing preys on me. It fans my smouldering anxiety that urban life is not really life, is it? It’s shallow, cardboard. Why is it that the most deliberate moments of my day—when I take the proverbial step back and breathe deeply—are always near nature instead? The bridges over the Thames, Riverside Park at sunset, the vast grey sea beyond Juhu Beach…
Even when we photograph the moments that awe us, that silence us, we fall back to the same themes: height, light, water. Perhaps we’re subconsciously substituting mountain ranges with our skyscrapers; Everest with the Eiffel Tower; the glitter of the night sky with the glitz of LED screens at Piccadilly Circus.
Our favourite things about big cities also seem to be small. You can trace our desires through apartment prices, for instance. In Mumbai, some of the most expensive apartments are at Pali Hill, a small mound in the city with steep, twisty lanes and no place to park. But its lanes are thatched by old, thick, green trees; small, cutesy cafés tucked into corners sell macaroons and bagels. Mountain chic. Wealthy, stylish families and film celebrities own apartments at Pali Hill.
Ditto with West Village, one of the fanciest neighbourhoods in Manhattan whose primary draw seems to be that it looks like small-town Europe: cobblestone lanes; short, three-storey homes with flowerpots on their sills; tiny dogs; coffee shops newly renovated to look older and more vintage, with antique typewriters in their windows.
Perhaps we prize these niches because they make us feel special through their smallness and intimacy.
On the other hand, consider cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Vegas: their scale and vision is jaw-dropping. They’ve truly built for us a life from the future. And yet, people complain of their artificiality. They seem, to many, like a movie set or a show apartment. Could it be that most of us, even the monsterpeople, are actually villagers at heart? These cities lack littleness.
- My partner’s uncharacteristic wisdom.
It was 2014’s best summer evening. My boyfriend and I, subletting a studio near 96th and Broadway, were trying to find an answer to that most persistent question of a privileged life: “What should we do today?”
“We could work out in the park,” he suggested.
“It’s Saturday,” I groaned. “And we already worked out yesterday.”
“Early dinner at Xian’s?”
“. . . ”
“Soup dumplings at China Town?”
“Too far . . . Do you want to go to this book reading in Harlem?”
“No, man. You do that with your friends during the week . . . movie?”
“There’s nothing good . . . Froyo?”
“Long walk in the park?”
I couldn’t think of an objection to this.
“Um, let me check the weather.”
Damn, it was going to be pleasant.
“We should decide soon, haan, it’s getting dark.”
I was losing the day, this beautiful day. I pulled on a sock. Hadn’t I bookmarked some great blog about “Things to do in NYC this summer”? Or should I go to the book reading alone? I didn’t attend enough literary eve—
“You know,” my boyfriend said, suddenly, “it’s a fantastic evening. The air is warm. The sky is that. . . European late blue. The breeze is fantastic. And we can quite literally do anything we want in this city. So—let’s stay home, lie in bed, and watch Ocean’s Twelve.”
In that moment, the idea seemed revolutionary.
We could ignore the city.
We could disobey, shirk, take a day off.
It takes a special kind of person to say no to a monstercity. It’s like walking past the cornucopian breakfast buffet on a cruise ship and picking just the one egg-white omelette with green tea—who has such strength? I married the guy.
Moments like those seduce me into believing that I could live happily in a monstercity, rented apartment and all.
As the French essayist Montaigne writes, solitude, peacefulness, an unshakeable Zen: all of these are just states of mind which can be cultivated even “in the midst of cities and the courts of kings.” Montaigne advises that we reserve “a back shop all our own,” an inner, mental sanctuary where “our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves.” This is all you need, he writes, to be at peace with yourself, no matter what your surroundings. His essay includes this quotation from Horace, the ancient Roman poet:
“Reason and sense remove anxiety,
Not villas that look out upon the sea.”
I love that quote; I’ve underlined it. But I am not a man from ancient Rome. I am a modern, monstercity kid, and these cities are at my core: their roar, their frenzy, living hundreds of feet above the ground on the thirtieth storey, looking into someone else’s life from my window, and having them look into mine, their parade of people and opportunities and frustrations. They are within me. So, I think I need the villa by the sea. Because to change myself, I’d have to change my city.
By the end of her essay, Didion and her husband left New York City and moved to Los Angeles. A “golden rhythm was broken,” Didion wrote, “and I am not that young anymore.” My husband and I will also be moving, this summer. His new job made the decision for us: a two-year contract in Denver. Denver city is home to less than 700,000 people, and I can’t wait to see who I next become.
[i] Population size of Mumbai, London, and New York City are as per 2014 ‘city population’ counts. Does not include their ‘greater metro areas.’
Sukriti’s piece is accompanied by photographer Jim Dow’s image ‘Dairy Queen’. Here he explains a little of how he came to take this photo and his artistic process:
“My first photographic road trip was in 1965 and I have continued to make them ever since. Back in the day I had a van, stopping to cook and sleep in campgrounds. Now it generally involves an airplane flight, a rental car, places with good beer and chain motel/hotels with a gym.
While the logistics may be different, the actual routine of taking the pictures rarely varies: a walk or drive by something, a stop to look, perhaps a peep inside, then ask permission, get into a conversation, set up the old, creaky 8×10, explain what it is, more conversation, take the picture (sometimes five minutes, at others a couple of hours), then move on, maybe a few yards, but often a hundred miles or more.
By way of example, at the Iowa City Dairy Queen, I spent over an hour talking with the owner who, it turned out, had a fully equipped wood-carving studio under the soft-serve machines. As his teenage employees dispensed cones and burgers above, he hewed large hunks of wood below decks. After the visit, the exposures took at least another hour, talking all the while.
My process is as much social as artistic. When I began to photograph, my equipment was the acme of the trade, a little bit threatening for its’ seeming technological complexity. Today, it appears antique and outmoded indeed, I describe the whole procedure as the visual equivalent of “slow food.” What I do and the way I go about it offers more curiosity than potential problem.
In his introduction to my 2011 book, American Studies Ian Frazier wrote, “What I like about Jim Dow’s photographs is that he’s not kidding.” And this is true. I don’t intend nostalgic irony or condescension towards my subjects, rather a hard-won celebration, in their sometimes faded, disused, generally less than perfect state(s). They are, to quote a colleague, “the last ones standing.”
There are no people in my pictures, yet everything I photograph is the result of human conception, ingenuity and effort. And, despite the emphasis on the vernacular, there is a consistent, creative individuality at play that makes the pictures portraits of ideas, perhaps even ideals, as carefully constructed installation photographs from a gallery without white walls.
Someone once described me as being “dumb, in the honorific sense of the word.” I take that as a compliment, at once personal, but more to the point, in stylistically mute service of the content of my pictures.”
© JIM DOW 2017