We went to New York City recently, my wife and I, to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary. It seemed a good idea at the time.
The nightly rate of our hotel room was about the same as the monthly payment on our first apartment and our anniversary meal at a good restaurant cost as much as my first car.I go to New York fairly often, perhaps four or five times a year, and each time it seems to get a little harder, a little more expensive, a little less welcoming.
It was once possible to imagine a lower-middle class life lived in Manhattan, a small apartment for cheap in a shabby but charming neighborhood. No more.
A one-room "apartment" that might bring $100-a-month in most American towns will now sell as a condominium for $150,000 in Manhattan. To do better than that you have to move to one of the outer boroughs and face a subway commute to and from work, or risk your well-being by living in a slum.
Even the slums are disappearing from the lower half of Manhattan. They are being reclaimed by young couples who make enormous amounts of money and spend most of it on the privilege of living in Manhattan.
That's good in one way; the city looks better than it did when I began going there. Give yuppies their due: they're clean. But it's become a less diverse, less interesting city - at least the part you're safe in - and less friendly.
I spent one whole day walking around trying to talk to people. I went to museums, the park, stores, using ice-breakers like "Nice day, isn't it?" And "My, that's a fine-looking baby. What's its name?" I not only didn't start a conversation, I didn't get a reply. Not one.
People of all ages, races and genders stiffed me. I'd make my little banal remark, smile and they'd look through me, or past me, or away from me.
I think that daily life in Manhattan has become so unpleasant that people are sealing themselves off from it; they're protecting themselves against experiences they can't control.
While we were there, my wife went to a movie with some friends. About 20 minutes into the showing the film broke and the screen went white. After a long delay it began again, then broke again. It happened a third time.
So my wife, along with most of the other patrons, demanded her money back.
"We cannot give you your money back," said a young woman who answered to the title of manager. "It is against the rules. We can only give you tickets for future performances of this film."
"When is the film scheduled to close?" asked a patron.
"Tomorrow,"said the manager.
After a good deal of arguing and yelling and New York histrionics, which my wife and friends stood back and enjoyed, getting their money's worth from the local color if not the film, it was agreed that the patrons could get their money back if they filled out a "yellow envelope" the chain had developed for such emergencies.
"Where are the envelopes?" a patron asked.
"We don't have any," the manager said.