Having become jaded by years of phony multiculturalism, which in Australia has led to cultural ghettos, dual citizenships, victimhood and endless whining about white privilege, I was initially surprised when I arrived in New York. On the subway, the streets, in bars and restaurants, I am struck by the unconscious harmony with which natives of all colours and ethnicities exist.
You can even see it in the businesses they run. Around the corner from where we stay, in East Williamsburg, is a cheap diner selling some weird combination of Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisine. The local hipster groceries selling organic and gluten-free food are mostly run by omnivorous-looking Indians. In Greenwich we spend a few fun nights at Arturo’s, a neighbourhood bar that is famous for both pizza and jazz. Shop assistants, from boutiques to corner stores, are infallibly courteous in a myriad of accents. It’s like the social equivalent of nuclear fusion. Meld or there’s going to be an awful explosion.
But after a few days you realise that ‘multicultural’ is the wrong word. If anything, New York is a wonderful, glorious monoculture. I realise this on about my third day when I see a working-class dude in a tee-shirt that says, ‘No hustle, no cash’. Sure, New York is full of different accents and cuisines, but its true culture can be reduced to one thing: hustle.
Even the beggars do it. In groovy Greenwich, I see a bloke sitting on the sidewalk with a hat out and hunched over an old paperback, pretending to read, hoping the literary passers-by will be fooled. Late one night on the party streets of the West Village, a crazed-looking beggar holds a cardboard sign saying, ‘Family killed by aliens’. On the subway, where beggars operate by verbally pleading to their fellow passengers, a young man tries a more honest approach: ‘I won’t lie to you, ladies and gentlemen. I’m not a war veteran. I haven’t been sacked from my job. I don’t have a terminal disease. My family didn’t abuse me. I’ve just made a lot of stupid mistakes in my life and now I need your help.’ Everyone hustles, some better than others.
On the plane to the US I read psychologist Jordan Peterson’s best-selling 12 Rules for Life, in which he says species have been forming themselves into hierarchies for hundreds of millions of years. It’s an unavoidable aspect of life on Earth, and humanity is no exception, despite what naive leftists think. And nowhere else on Earth is this hierarchy more in your face than New York. New York is ruthless. There is no safety net for those who fail. But at the other end of the scale, the rewards are extreme. It’s why Frank Sinatra didn’t just want to just wake up in New York, he wanted to wake up at ‘the top of the heap’.
We attend a show at the Comedy Cellar, one of the best comedy venues in the world. Every performer on the bill is introduced with ‘…and he/she has a new series out on Netflix, ladies and gentlemen please welcome…’ One unannounced comedian’s CV is slightly longer and includes a string of Hollywood hits. He’s in town because he’s shooting a movie here and has decided to pop in for a couple of stand-up gigs. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Judd Apatow!’ We can’t believe it. His name’s not even on the bill. It’s like the top of every heap is right here in this city. Apatow is effortlessly hilarious, as are the Netflix stars. The only disappointment for me is that the few political gags are safely anti-Trump. Then one of the Netflix stars, whose name I forget, cracks the joke of the night. ‘What I like about Donald Trump is he’s unpredictable,’ he says. ‘He likes to take risks. I mean he had sex with a hooker (Stormy Daniels) and didn’t wear a rubber. Think about that. Four billion in the bank and he didn’t wear a rubber! Now there’s a man who likes to roll the dice! Did you notice it wasn’t long after that story broke that Kim Jong-un backed down and said, “Whoa, I’d better do what this crazy man says!”’
Of course, Trump is New York’s ultimate hustler. But even his success has its limits. One of the things I planned to buy while in the US was one of Trump’s signature Make America Great Again caps. They are almost impossible to find, and by the time I do find one, in Times Square, the idea seems gauche, if not provocative, especially where I am staying. One sunny Sunday I am buying some groceries on Morgan Avenue, East Williamsburg’s main strip, which is lined either side by grim-looking housing projects. There are no drug deals going down that I can see but any seasoned traveller can tell it wouldn’t take many inquiries to make one happen. The mood on the crowded street is jovial in the way that all downtrodden neighbourhoods tend to be. Then I imagine what would happen if an Aussie tourist strolled down Morgan in a MAGA cap. He wouldn’t make it two blocks.