Spare me your theories about Big MAC and little Beame, about blackouts and strikeouts and 42nd Street on a blue weekday.
Ya wanna know what's wrong with New York? I'll tell ya what's wrong with New York: It's lost the capacity to intimidate.
Intimidation was always the secret weapon of the city, New York, like Simon, SAID. And Non-New York imitated.
New York was In and Non-New York was Out, and everybody knew it. When Non-New York came in from out of town, it was dressed to the hilt, but it hit Manhattan with a thud. Non-New York became incurably dowdy. It was Mr. and Mrs. Frump in Fun City.
New York's waists were niped and vents were doubled when the rest of the country was leisure-suited. New York was dry-cleaned when they were polyestered. New York was pant-suited when they still skirted the issue, and then dressed when they were slacked. An out-of-towner always looked like a parochial school student in a plaid jumper with a hemline that see-sawed up and down against the fashion tide.
Non-New Yorker's were intimidated by New Yorkers, and that was the point. It kept them in their place.
At regular intervals, New York spoke. New York couldn't believe that they were still eating quiche at dinner parties in Minneapolis! New York was stunned to find that they were still reading Saul Bellow in Chicago! New York was aghast to discover that they were decorating in yellow in Denver! Yellow was Last Year, New York was always This Year.
The Cultural Imperial City overpowered the country with its certainty. It never asked questions, it cross-examined. It never spoke, it asserted. It impressed us with its size and its money, the counters full of $100 sweaters, the skyscrapers filled with $1,200-a-month apartments, the limitless price tags tripping off of its tongue.
And now, unforgivable, New York has become ordinary, mainstream. The "in" seems to have moved out of the city, and the "out" moved "in." There is a fuzzing of the border that once separated the leader from the pack.
The Washington men, who used to look as if they lived in a suitcase and washed their shirts in a hotel sink, have had their wrinkles removed. The women in Boston, who only wore suits they'd inherited from 100 per cent tweed grandmothers, have traded their ancestors for designers. Broadway has gone on the road and skyscrapers have come to the suburbs. And New York finally overwhelmed itself with its own price tags.
New York was always impressive rather than friendly. It was like an emperor who was never especially loved, but accorded a measure of respect. It had the rest of us convinced, as the T-shirt said, that everyplace else is Hartford.
But New York without intimidation is like Rome without force and South Africa without fear. It's like the Social register without a pack of social climbers, and elitism without envy. Doomed.
Take the elitism out of New York and all you see is the hassle. The taxi-cab drivers flaunting their off-duty signs in the face of the people. The lame-duck mayor counting his municipal bonds. The strike in search of a union.
Take the intimidation out of New York and what have you got? I'll tell you what you've got. Millions of new Yorkers who haven't heard the news yet. The First City is the last to know.