You can hear the song in the air: "The murder rates up, the bridges are down, and the tax collector is the only public official that's ever around." New York, in verse, in story, and maybe even in reality, is falling to pieces. But, as any New York cab driver would respond -- if he spoke English -- "What's new?"
The truth is that despite the recent barrage of awful publicity, New York has been awful for not only years, but centuries, and that hasn't seemed to kill it. The city has many of the same characteristics as its real (if unofficial) mascot, the cockroach. Repugnant, individually crushable, but collectively close to immortal, and highly productive in its own, sometimes dirty, ways.
School children in civics classes are acquainted with a 19th century municipal planning study concluding the city faced the prospect of being swamped by the manure from horses, which at the time propelled carriages.
Due to the genius of a German engineer's invention of the eternal combustion engine, the city avoided that fate. And who knows but that now, the gross misapplication of Teutonic technology which has left East Germany a battered shell might just trigger a new wave of eager immigrants, carrying in their heads plans for the next generation of internal combustion engine. They will join the Russians, Irish, and other foreign-born residents who currently comprise more than a quarter of New York's population and are the best candidates for rebuilding New York.
That's how it works here. People who can't make it anywhere else arrive and make it better. Then, after becoming marginally prosperous themselves, they leave their squalid, overpriced, unlivable hovels and move to a comfortable suburb where their fully Americanized children can stuff themselves with junk food, not learn how to read, and buy imported cars and radios at bland malls owned by a really rich person who keeps a home in New York.
Think this is an exaggeration? Hardly. Famous people are always dying in Southern California and the Southeast who came to New York with nothing, collected accolades and ill health doing something clever, then left to die in warmer weather where unlike here, the graveyards have room for additional bodies.
Statistics, of which New York has a lot, suggest this has been happening for a long time. Some 40 percent of the U.S. population is descended from immigrants who first came through Ellis Island (in operation from 1892 to 1943) in New York harbor. They arrived, as the plaque on the Statue of Liberty notes, tired and poor, may have felt that way while they were here and then left, populating the United States and providing us with the Congressmen who can now vote against aid to New York.
And even these people weren't the first to think better circumstances may be elsewhere. As soon as the Dutch arrived in 1624, the Indians were ready to make a deal. They sold 'D Manhattan for $24 in trinkets.
Were those Indians, as a result, the first to be suckered in this town? Maybe. But the economics of the transaction make picking a winner harder than may be first supposed. After all, that's $24 in pre-inflation dollars. Peter Lynch, the Boston-based ex-mutual fund wizard recently stopped by in New York (brainy people always seem to be dropping by to give their insights, even if they don't care to stay) and said the Indians got the better end of the bargain.
His rationale works something like this. Invest $24 at 10 percent annually and in the intervening 366 years it grows to about $34 trillion.
And what about those trinkets? Until recently, New York had a surplus. But Washington, again, which has never liked New York (after all, one of the early defectors was Washington himself, who moved the capital south after his first year in office) recently decided that the Indian Museum now located in Harlem should really be on the Mall in front of the Capital.
The city doesn't expect sympathy, and it receives quite the opposite. People who have left like to think they did the right thing, and therefore an insatiable audience exists for bad reports from New York. The Miami newspaper carries about one a day. That is probably because the numerous New Yorkers now living down there question whether incurring leathery skin and even larger roaches was really worth it.
Not that anyone here would deny the problems cited. For despite their other faults, New Yorkers are not defensive about how bad things may be. In fact, quite the opposite. The people here seem to be proud of the city's terrible country-wide reputation and demand the right to have the worst complaints.
That's how New Yorkers psych themselves up for the day.
Although sometimes everything works perfectly, mostly it doesn't, and it's best to be prepared. Leave for the office with at least two tokens (to avoid token booth gridlock); prepare to -- for the exits if the subway breaks down so you can be the first to holler for a cab; quickly strike a deal with others to share if that's you in the back of the crowd; and consider stealing the bicycle from in front of the local Chinese restaurant if even that's impossible. (If the bike isn't stolen already).
It gets tiring. Writers often leave. Their friends grieve and the writers get to write long, moving orations that get reprinted in Miami and Chicago.
Soon (perhaps just a matter of seconds) those left behind begin to think: Maybe this will be a good thing. Maybe people I really don't like will leave. If George Steinbrenner departs, maybe the Yankees will win again (they haven't, but then again, George hasn't really left). If Mayor Koch loses, maybe all the problems he always shrieked about will disappear (they haven't, but he hasn't really left either). Best of all, maybe all this leaving will free up some space. If loads of people left, seats would be available on the rush hour IRT. Maybe mid-town traffic would decline. Maybe some garage space would open up and driving to work would become feasible. Bloomingdale's wouldn't be so crowded. In fact, maybe I could stay right here and New York could become really comfortable, just like a spacious suburb.