The Fran Lebowitz/Martin Scorsese mash note to New York may be thrilling Netflix subscribers, but for those who live in the city, the reality is quite different.

 

 

Fran Lebowitz is having a moment. A very big moment. She has a top-rating, internationally successful seven-part Netflix series directed by the legendary film-maker (and good friend), Marty Scorsese. She “used to be a writer”, she says, yet her two books, Social Studies and Metropolitan Life, published around 40 years ago, are still in high demand.

And her new biggest fans are Millennials, the generation that mostly wants everyone to be nice to each other, who can’t get enough of this 70-year-old woman’s snarky takedowns of tourists, cab-drivers, dry-cleaners, the subway and anything or anyone else in New York that annoys or enrages her.

“Move! Pretend it’s a city!” she used to yell at tourists blocking sidewalks in New York. Hence the name for the Netflix series. But in humour, as in life, timing is everything, and the timing for this series could not have been worse.

While the series has engaged appreciative audiences around the world, especially those who have visited Manhattan, many of us who live here have reacted differently. Many New Yorkers, dazed and embattled, are the ones who are having to pretend they still have a city.

It’s precisely a year since the shutdown began. I was at the hairdresser and read on my phone that the Mayor had ordered Broadway to shut down, and all restaurants to reduce capacity by 50 per cent. Both Mets, Opera and Art, closed their doors. The stock market fell 2400 points. There were then just 100 confirmed cases of Covid in New York and no deaths, but the city knew what was coming.

A year on, 30,068 New Yorkers are dead from the pandemic (and we are still losing people every day, 79 just last Thursday (March 11), almost 600,000 (or 1 in 12) are still out of work and, annoying as they might be, the absence of most of the 66 million tourists who were due to descend on the city in 2020 has caused total economic devastation.

Employment in the arts, entertainment and hospitality sector, so very dependent on tourism, plunged 66 per cent in 2020. And some 400,000 New Yorkers have upped and left.

Those with money to their upstate or Hamptons getaways, others deciding this was the time to just get out, and purchase new homes outside the city, and all those aspiring actors whose waiting jobs had just disappeared had no option but to return to Ohio or Kansas or wherever they once called home.

Who knows how many of them will ever return.

The city has hollowed out. Working from home has left office blocks deserted; crowded midtown streets are just a memory. Lebowitz could traipse to her heart’s content and not encounter a single annoyance. It would be boring television.

So many New York institutions are gone – Lord & Taylor, Barneys, Dean & DeLuca, Century 21, Gem Spa. Among the estimated 40 per cent of the city’s restaurants that have closed their doors forever, are the fabled 21, Gotham Bar and Grill and so many other favourite joints.

 

The city has hollowed out. Working from home has left office blocks deserted; crowded midtown streets are just a memory. Lebowitz could traipse to her heart’s content and not encounter a single annoyance. It would be boring television.

 

I walked through the Village a few weeks ago past shop after shuttered shop along Sixth Avenue. It was the same on Seventh. Once, Lebowitz says in “Pretend”, she’d make an 80-block detour via Harlem to avoid going through Times Square to get to a Broadway theatre.

Today there’d be no need. Times Square is deserted and Broadway is still closed. Not just the theatres but the hotels, restaurants, souvenir stands and pedicabs and all the hustlers that made up the ecosystem of the Great White Way.

Scorsese says reshooting made no sense. “We tried it. We edited sequences. It was OK, and then a week later, the city changed again,” Scorsese told the New York Times. “All these stores were closed and they had boards up (following looting in SoHo – Ed). A week later, something else changed. So I said, ‘Let’s just stop it.’”

Lebowitz agreed with him: “We’re not journalists. We don’t have to be on top of the news.” The trouble is, however, that you can’t pretend this hasn’t happened. Pretend it’s a City is about a city that is no longer there. And who knows when, and in what form, it will come back.

While we wait, the past is definitely a place to visit. My favourite parts of Pretend were the old footage: Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein talking jazz and symphonies, the pimps and gangsters in their finery arriving for the legendary Ali-Frazier fight at the Garden in 1974.

And Lebowitz telling stories of jazz icon Charlie Mingus – leaving during a set at the Village Vanguard to chase her down the street, earning her mother’s approval as a “good eater” for devouring an entire turkey at her parents’ place one Thanksgiving – while we watched him work his magic on the double-bass.

Local reaction to the series has been mixed. Pretend it’s a City is an exercise in nostalgia, says the New York Times somewhat diplomatically. The New Yorker’s Rachel Syme found it rather tiresome: “The series is at times a potent valentine to a city lost, but you can only listen to someone kvetch for so long.”

Lebowitz’s agent thinks of it as “a love letter to New York”. It is, in a way, although Lebowitz herself is the first to admit that the New York she once loved is gone. Like the rest of us, she is upset about what the virus has done to it.

She’s described standing in front of the New York Public Library during shutdown and yelling for it to open its doors. She misses eating in restaurants and, like me, won’t risk doing so yet.

Smoking, which she describes as her “profession”, is impossible while wearing a mask. But the thing she really misses is happenstance. “I didn’t realise until the shutdown,” she told New York magazine late last year, “how much of my life was just running into people”.

 

 

This piece was originally published by Plus61J, and is reprinted with permission.

 

 

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