Friday, December 2, 2011

Never take the advice of those who say "never..." (or "always...)

I hope you get the ironic intent of the title to this blog. My college roommate was the first person who discouraged me from being absolutist in my thinking. I have continued to aspire to a more openminded and less pedantic approach, although it can be hard. For, as my title suggests those who take an absolutist stance about being non-absolutist are also being absolutist.

Confused? Let me back up a bit. I was intrigued to discover that Anthony Bourdain, for the second episode of his new show on the Travel Channel called "the Layover," would be covering my hometown (which is also his hometown), New York City. I am always amused when I hear the advice that people give to those who are going to visit NYC, and sure enough, I found a couple laughable suggestions on this week's episode of the Layover.

Not far into the episode, Bourdain says, "Never make eye contact with anyone on the New York Subway." The reason to do it, he suggests, is not that you will put yourself in danger by doing so, but merely that it is impolite! Well, as a long-time resident of New York who often does make eye contact (and even conversation) with people on the subway, I can tell you that as long as you follow common sense about whether you do or do not, you will be ok.

Bourdain tends to take hardline stances on things about New York, sometimes just to be controversial, sometimes because he is being a bit of a crank. For example, in a recent episode of "No Reservations" he stated that New York has not street food to speak of, because it has been replaced by food trucks. First of all, I'd like to know what his definition of street food is, since when I walk through midtown, all I see is street food, and according to numerous street food ratings, the quality and variety of street food in New York City is greater than it has ever been. But some element of edge or danger or underground is missing from it for Bourdain, so what the rest of us call street food doesn't speak to him or something.

Similarly, on his Layover program this week, he declared that dive bars are disappearing in New York City. Now I suppose that the many quirky colorful (and sometimes strange) places in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side don't qualify as dive bars to him. But traditionally, no one set out to open a dive bar. The status of dive bar is something that got conveyed to certain establishments when they had been around long enough that they would acquire the edgy, lived-in feeling we associate with a dive - something doesn't have that falling apart look right out of the cracker jack box!

So in that sense, yes, dive bars are going the way of the dinosaur, but in another sense, dives are more popular than they've ever been. Take, for example, the Essex Street Ale House, where I have been a few times. It has a lot of things I associate with dives: a drunk who begs for money to buy another beer and only leaves when noone will any longer support his habit (which one gathers, on most nights, to be never), bar tenders and clientele who know each other on a firstname basis, lights too dim to see how dingy the place is and music too loud to allow anyone to exchange any useful conversation without shouting, a bathroom so dirty that rather than try to clean it, the proprietors would be better off letting in a scientist to study what diseases are growing there.

Bourdain's only problem is that he lives in the Upper East Side, a place that has never been a home to dive bars, diners, or any other sort of place that regular folks will frequent.

Of course, when prompted, Bourdain himself doesn't hesitate to bite the heads off of others who make absolutist statements in his presence. For example, when a young guy says to Bourdain that "there is no sushi in New York City," Bourdain doesn't need more than 20 seconds to prove to the fool that New York is in fact one of the greatest cities for sushi outside of Japan. I haven't eaten at some of the best sushi restaurants that Bourdain mentioned, and yet even I could tell you that that guy was completely in the wrong.

It was good to see this young fellow sticking his neck out so that Bourdain (and me in absentia) could chop it off, because this was the sort of person we are used to hearing making absolutist comments - young hipster types who usually have come to New York City for college or grad school, graduate, get a job in which they are overpayed to have no life, and then after reading Time Out magazine and maybe an issue or two of New Yorker, consider themselves to be experts in all things New York and therefore the envy of all those who wish they could live in New York City and get overpayed to have no life. We (those of us from around Bourdain's generation who have lived here long enough that we should know not to make dumb statements about what is or is not), we hear these youngsters put their feet into their retainer-laiden maws all the time, and we chuckle and shake our heads.

I know two such people myself very well, my daughter and her boyfriend. They are constantly talking about how they went to the number one rated this and ate the number one rated that. That ratings may be publicity designed to lure gullible ratings believers into eating at certain eateries never enters their heads. Only time will change the tint of their impressionable idealism from robins egg to tooth decay yellow.

Perhaps I am wrong. My philosophy when it comes to New York City is that I can't hope to see and do everything, but then again I don't really want to see and do everything. Things like the Bodies Exhibit and the Teddy Bear Museum are never going to make it onto my schedule. Maybe people like my daughter and her guy haven't settled for a percentage of New York's glories yet. Maybe they still feel like they CAN see and do it all, and they want to start at the top. Which is cool. I just can't buy into the certainty with which they proclaim to have figured it all out in the time that it took God to create the woodthrush. For those of you keeping score at home, that would be a nanosecond.

Which brings me back to my initial point. I guess hipsters are no more wrong to make blanket statements than I am right to cast aspersions at them just because I don't agree with the conclusions they've come to. I know that it doesn't matter whether I eat the best whatever sold at the number one whomever. Throw a pebble in any direction, and it's going to hit someone who has spent their life perfecting some craft or technique. We are a city of number ones, eating and drinking number ones. But if it makes some people happy to believe that they have discovered the needle in the haystack composed of needles, that's fine with me. Just never declare to me your discovery at the top of your lungs. Because I will always scoff and write you off as the number one doofus in a city also full of those.

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