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The mythology of New York is known to anyone who has watched more than a dozen hours of television or skimmed magazines in a dentist’s office. But like ancient Greece, New York is too big to have a single, central story; its myth is carried by its demigods, or what in show business they call types.
Take a type we’ll call the New York Tough Guy. Now, there are tough guys all over the world; wherever you live you probably know at least one of them, and so the term “tough guy” will call him, specifically, to mind. This guy you know who talked about knocking a guy out as if it were nothing, and looked as if he could do it, is a tough guy, for instance.
But link these terms to New York and the focus shifts. The New York Tough Guy, for example, may be someone you saw perp-walked on the cover of the New York Post. Or he may be some actor who mugged a character on a movie you saw that was set in New York. He may be an antique figure with cross-hatched stubble, a lantern jaw, and a black eye-mask like the Beagle Boys wear in Scrooge McDuck comics. Maybe he’s tough in something other than a physical way. Some people (certainly not you, sophisticated reader) think Donald Trump is tough. Some people (perhaps you, sophisticated reader) think Anthony Bourdain is.
In any case, this image you’ve conjured matches the term New York Tough Guy more than the authentic avatars you actually know because there is Tough and then there is New York Tough, which may or may not be real Tough but which is certainly real New York. You almost have to imagine the Tough Guy standing defiantly against a filthy brick wall at night, harshly illuminated by car headlamps, and probably wearing shades, because all the New York Tough Guys wear shades. (Doesn’t Jay-Z? Didn’t Lou Reed?)
I’m not saying these people aren’t real tough guys, though I do think if somebody came at them with a knife a few of them might not react totally in character. I’m saying the Tough Guy, the Fast Talker, the Big Shot, the Wise-Cracking Waitress, the Hard-Bitten Journalist, et alia, are mythic figures. By that I don’t mean that they’re fake, though they often are, but that their usefulness is not to be found in the real world, but in the dream landscape that explains New York to the world and to itself.
This is why you often see people move to New York and immediately start conforming to stereotype. The pressure, whether overtly felt or only dimly sensed, of being part of something as overwhelming as New York blows the mind of anyone who does not have a perfectly solid-state personality, which is to say most of us. So citizens psychically run for cover under the robes and aegides of the demigods of New York myth.
(Where do you think hipsters — that is to say, New York Hipsters — come from? New York magazine? Pitchfork media? They come from Patti Smith via Marlon Brando via George Cram Cook via Walt Whitman via Edgar Allan Poe via some ur-Hipster whom Peter Stuyvesant had to keep putting in the stocks for shirking.)
You and I could sit here all night identifying the constellations in the New York galaxy, but I wish to draw your attention to the least acknowledged member of the pantheon, who is nonetheless as important as any other: The Out-of-Towner.
The Out-of-Towner, aka The Greenhorn, aka The Rube, belongs to the mythology, too. His is a special role. Because one thing is true of all of the other New York demigods: They are Wised-Up. So they are all pretty evenly matched, and also extremely motivated to get over on one another. If they had only one another to deal with, things would quickly get ugly and stale — like the Manhattan of Escape from New York, an island of madmen with whom the rest of the world cannot deal.
The Out-of-Towner brings some air and light into the action. For one thing, he can be a victim, and replenish the ecosystem with whatever the wise guys can get out of him. He can be a foil, a straight man to set up their jokes and set off their unique qualities, and an audience to flatter the endless self-regard of the true New Yorker. And on occasion and with sufficient motivation, the Out-of-Towner can stick around and, if he has the moxie, become a citizen himself.
Indeed, every New Yorker who was not born there enters the town in this role, and struggles to divest himself of it. Why, for example, do New Yorkers respond so positively to being asked for directions? Because this offers them the chance to show that they’re not Out-of-Towners. (This is especially important in front of present Out-of-Towners.)
But there’s a catch. Every wise guy in New York is in perpetual danger of reverting to Out-of-Towner status. For one thing, the town is always changing — hot spots, catchphrases, top Filipino lunch places — and it’s a struggle to keep up. But more importantly, unless he has become so jaded that nothing at all matters to him anymore, the wise guy will always retain a touch of Out-of-Towner about him. The things that excited him before still excite him — though he has become of necessity very good at concealing it, lest he over-effuse and give his roots away.
All this is to begin to say what I like so much about Michael Webster’s “New York.” I do admire the formal schtick of shooting it all from the top of one of those horrible tourist double-deckers that strafe the streets (ah, there I go, sounding like a wise guy). But it’s more what the schtick reveals that pleases me. The tour bus passengers — sometimes cheaply plastic-slickered against rainy weather — seem anonymous, ordinary, like the opposite of the thing they’re observing. (And those few observed New Yorkers who notice them seem surprised but unimpressed.) But the New York vistas and tableaux that Webster sees are lovely, specific and suggestive at the same time; you could write novels about the five folks waiting for the Seventh Avenue bus, for instance, or just bask in their ennui. And the wonderful thing is, they are as available to those bus-riding Out-of-Towners as they are to anyone else. Like those two well-dressed Indian folks in the front row: They certainly look like they’re enjoying the scene. Maybe they, too, see in New York what we see. Or maybe — you know, we can hardly admit it, even now — they see more.
— Roy Edroso
Michael Webster is a photographer currently living in Brooklyn.