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While it’s not always true to say that each city has its own style and charmsI’m thinking of Williams, Ariz.it is never a winning proposition to pit American cities directly against one another. Never winning, that is, for the city that isn’t New York. New York invariably prevails. It’s like the Joan Crawford of cities, explaining to weak-armed little Christina why she lost yet another swimming race to mommie dearest: “I’m bigger than you, I’m stronger than you, I’m faster than you, and I will always win.”
Even though it shouldn’t be, the decision to live anywhere in the U.S. is always a decision between that place and New York City. Once N.Y.C. is struck off the list, the choice is pretty much between places that snow and places that don’t. Washington, a place that doesn’t snow much but believes itself to be Yukon South, is the best of both worlds.
The problem with living in New York, of course, is that it’s unlivable. Its reputation thrives on the fumes of a previous reality. As it exists today, New York can only accommodate two types of people comfortably in its filthy maw: the very rich and kids just out of college. A sort of quaint bohemianisn drives the latter group to imagine a boss keen life in the Village (of which they believe there’s only one). They will find that the bohemianism of roughly the type they envisioned is alive and well, and that the Villages for all intents and purposes really are one entity, but their youthful vanity will still lead them to think that their introduction to the city has unburdened them of illusions. That the very rich can live anywhere insulated from whatever it is money-as-barge-pole keeps from one’s door isn’t news. And that New York is as magnanimous to the loaded as it is cruel to the un- is just one more symptom of the city’s rigorous romanticism.
For everyone in between, the usual justifications for living life closer to the core are trotted out mercilessly. Oh, I don’t doubt you can get all sorts of oddments there at 4 a.m.liposuction, a copy of Harlot’s Ghost, 1,000-year-old duck eggsbut why would you want to? Sure, it has the most resistant strain of nightlife in the country, but getting on the comp list at, like, the Sound Factory isn’t as easy as getting by the door at the 18th Street Lounge, where evening Birkenstocks will only keep you out if the socks you paired them with are black. What else? Oh, um, the buildings are tall and there’s an indefinable excitement in the air…
Anyway, the point isn’t why not New York but why the other place? Cities have a way of living up to their stereotypes, so if you’ve heard that Barstow is an armpit and Nashville really glitzy, it’s probably true. People claim that everyone in L.A. is good-looking (artificially so), but that is not true; to say that Southern Californians are all handsome is just a way of pinning down the indefinable glamour thatsorry, it doeshangs over the city. It means something to sit on the sidewalk of some La Brea restaurant in your shades and drink a Campari-soda. You can go through the same motions at Bistro Bistro in Shirlington, but the fact is, no one will care who you are. If they even notice. (Suggested slogan: “Washington, the city where no one checks you out.”) Particulars are nothing: Atmosphere is everything. Peg Bracken reports with touching honesty in But I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World that she spent a miserable Midwestern afternoon pitting and mashing supermarket olives in an attempt to re-create the magic of tapenade in the Tuscany hills.
Whatever its citizens want to believe about their home, some cities just can’t help themselves. On my first trip to Atlanta, I went to the mall. The big one, the one with the Niemie’s. Shopping for espadrilles in Laura Ashley, I witnessed what was either a horrific work of performance art displayed for tourists, or a horrific relic of the Old South rising like a gaseous bubble in a stagnant pond and bursting to repugnant life: A black man in his 40s came up to the threshold of the store and querulously summoned a salesgirl. I seem to remember a cap in hand, though that may be an embellishment, but anyway, he wanted her to tell Miss Vickie something about his time card or other and he’d be in later like he promised, please tell her that. The salesgirl was serene and slightly peremptory; she told him he could come in, but he declined, saying he only wanted Miss Gloria to tell Miss Vickie that thing would she please? Horrified, that night I asked my dinner companions, neo-boho native Southerners, what was up with that. Through their black eyeliner, my hand to God, they told me the thing never happened. Because such things aren’t supposed to happen in the South anymore, people who live there just won’t believe that they do. And these are people whose primary allegiance, interestingly, isn’t regional but aesthetic.
Sometimes you are who you pretend to be, but more often you’re who you really are no matter how hard how try to be something else. So stereotypical Washington awfulness will play itself out in endless loops while you sleep and dream that there’s a vital music scene here, that the Eleanor Roosevelt statue at the FDR Memorial looks nothing like Jimmy Carter, that Chesapeake Bagel Factory makes pretty good bagels, all things considered. Young lawyers on the go with their ties tossed over one shoulder will still get executive secretaries in little black dresses tiddly on Long Island iced teas at Georgetown bars. The secretaries will think they’re going to marry one of these thrusting young men; the guys think they’re going to get laid. This being Washington, they’re both right. You have to disregard both clichés and dreams and find your own reasons to settle down somewhere.
Unfortunately, the good reasons to live in Washington are the chamber of commerce reasonspublic transportation, the city’s masculine beauty, good cheap food, lots of accommodating public spaces, access to beach, mountain, battlefields, and, of course, New York. The negatives are just things you had in the place you lived before and didn’t appreciate at the timeMexican food, for example, or Jewish neighborhoods, or a skyline that isn’t completely flat, or a hair stylist who won’t give you a lawyer’s bob.
But the best reason to live here is so incontrovertible that people may actually have moved to Washington to be near it. I am speaking, of course, of Marlena.
In New York, there are between 4,000 and 5,300 Marlenasthe census hasn’t finished compiling the data yet. Imagine living in a city where keeping track of the Marlenas is like remembering all the dogs that played Lassie. But in Washington there is one. There can only be one. Marlenas rule the Washington moneyed-trash scandal-sheet social world like moghul conquerors, in succession, one at a time, and I have to say without false modesty that the one we’ve got now is the greatest ever.
In New York, some old broad with a neck like the Crypt Keeper’s and a wide-brimmed hat with little built-in staple hooks to hold her eyelift steady gets caught driving drunk in a swank part of town with Damien from the Follies acting as unwilling windshield wiper, and it doesn’t even make Page 5 of the Metro section. Why would anyone want to live in a city that doesn’t fret about the fate of Marlena’s supermarket card? If Anne Bass was told she was no longer welcome at Zabar’s, she’d just head over to the Greenmarket like the little people do, not get pro and con editorials on the Op-Ed page. No, it probably makes no difference to who you are, in the end, where you live. But if you won’t stay in Washington for yourself, do it for Marlena. She needs you. CP