March 18th, 2006



Getting on with a city is a bit like getting on with a person. Cities, of course, change from day to day and from district to district. Yesterday, for instance, New York filled up with Irish and pseudo-Irish celebrating St Patrick's Day, "the biggest collection of white trash I've ever seen in one place", as I heard a man telling his wife on the phone. But despite these variations, cities do have personalities. I'm a tender-minded, shy person. And New York is brash. Very brash.

New York hasn't really changed much since the days when the Irish clashed brashly with the blacks and the Italians in the notorious Five Points neighbourhood (now Columbus Park in Chinatown) recreated in Scorsese's "Gangs of New York". The other day I rode the subway into work as usual, ear-plugs screwed into my ears because the train squeals loudly as it rides the bend between Grand Street and Graham Avenue. The New York subway is twice or three times as loud as anything you'll encounter in Tokyo or Berlin. It clangs and squeals and roars. It also stinks; sometimes a homeless person who hasn't washed for months can make a whole carriage impossible to breathe in. So anyway, I stopped at Hunter College on 68th Street for lunch, because I like the canteen there. I tend to sit outside on the patio, next to the door. People come out here to puff on cigarettes. As well as clouds of smoke, I get clouds of "fucks" drifting across my lunch; the students swear like troopers. This particular day two women from the kitchen staff were there too, puffing cigarettes, complaining about a new chef who was making them cut onions. One was black, one hispanic. Every second word was "fuck" or "shit". I don't really mind hearing people swear, it just seemed unneccessarily vehement. A big effort. Brash just for the sake of being brash.

It isn't just poor, over-worked kitchen staff who swear. After lunch I was walking along East 74th Street between Park and Madison, a very tony and expensive street, and some rich lady who lived there was trying to park, and started shouting at a post office van for blocking her space. I felt sorry for the meek public employee who had to suffer her wrath, just as brash as the kitchen orderlies. Later, I passed a short, swarthy man on Lexington walking up and down, gesticulating into his cellphone shouting that he was going to "fucking crucify" someone, or get his lawyer to do it. Brash!

But maybe brash is hot and hot is warm. The old cliche is that in New York they say "Fuck you!" and mean "Have a nice day!" whereas in LA they say "Have a nice day!" and mean "Fuck you!" Sometimes I think there's some truth in that. This testy, brash head-on style is one I would never adopt, even if I lived here all my life. But I wonder if that isn't because I'm a bit of a cold fish, and would rather disengage politely than really get to grips with someone? Is brashness a form of engagement, even a form of "hard love"? The way a city educates itself about reality, even bonds?

The psychologist William James (1842-1910) distinguished between two basic temperaments, the tough- and the tender-minded. According to Hyperstructures, "the tough-minded individuals are those who are empirically oriented, those who 'go by facts'. By contrast, the tender-minded are rationalists who 'go by principles'. According to James, the history of philosophy is largely the story of the clash between these two temperaments: 'The tough think of the tender as sentimentalists and softheads. The tender feel the tough to be unrefined, callous, or brutal."

The Keirsey Temperament Testing website expands: "The Tough-minded are often accused of being "inhuman," "heartless," "stony-hearted," "remote," of having 'ice in their veins," and of living "without the milk of human kindness." In the same way, the Friendly are chided for being "too soft-hearted," "too emotional," "bleeding-hearts," "muddleheaded," "fuzzy-thinkers," and for "wearing their heart on their sleeve."

This breaks the brash and the brittle down to tough and tender, realistic and dreamer, is and ought, right and left, uncaring and friendly. But mightn't it be we tender, polite, principled ones who have "ice in our veins"? After all, we never lose our tempers. That's more icy than nicey, no?

I'm currently living with a bunch of Italian artists in Brooklyn, and when I get home after all these encounters with brash New Yorkers I hear the Italians through the wall, Skyping with their gallerists back in Italy. My Italian isn't great, so I have no idea what they're talking about, but what's interesting is that I can never quite tell whether they're arguing or agreeing. Their tone suggests they're veering weirdly between blasting and bonding, between anger and excitement. There are lots of rich Italian obscenities (culo this, culo that), and the tone sounds brash, but maybe it's a kind of macho bonding.

I think there's a real gulf between tough and tender-minded cultures. Something that always disturbed me about living in Paris, for instance, was that some people expected you to be brash. You'd often be expected to have some tug-of-love tussle with a taxi-driver, a landlady or a neighbour, a conversation full of violent expletives, which would then be resolved in some kind of semi-erotic reconciliation (if you didn't both die in a crime passionel). In Paris, a slap was never far from a kiss. Trouble is, these altercations were with people I neither wanted to slap nor kiss. I just wanted level-headed, cool, civilised neutrality. New York is more like France or Italy than the countries I spend most of my time in, Germany and Japan, where people maintain exactly the sort of cold-fishy, neutral distances I'm used to, and enjoy.

It may be that the brash, like chronic alcoholics, attack people only because they love them, and turn their pathetic fights with strangers into love-huddles at the first opportunity. Perhaps if I lived in New York, Dublin, Paris or Rome (perhaps even more so in Hong Kong or Sao Paolo), and drank heavily, I would learn to scream at people that way, scream with a warm heart, scream only to back down later and give a big hug and a big tip. But that's not my way, and it's not the way of the cool, cold, tender-minded cities I frequent.

What do they say about Aquarians again? "Do you only care about the bleeding crowd, how about a needy friend?" We're both tender-minded and somewhat aloof, somewhat abstracted. Maybe the cities I love and choose to live in -- Berlin and Tokyo -- are somewhat Aquarian cities, chilly and tender like me. Brash is something I can't do, and fuck you if you even make me try!