Just a New York Conversation

POSTED — December 31, 2013 — Column, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

About ten years ago, after living in New York for three decades, I took a short vacation at Kvikne’s Hotel in Balestrand, right on the Sognefjord. Kaiser Wilhelm II summered there before World War I, and fittingly, the hotel felt very casually regal, or should I say kaiserish. Before dinner the first evening, overlooking the long deep placid fjord through which Kaiser Wilhelm must once have arrived with his entourage, we ended up having drinks with a couple from England. But, as the hour progressed, I grew increasingly perplexed by the conversation. Early on, I had volunteered what I did for a living, but my volunteering was not reciprocated: the gentleman of the couple never once mentioned what he “did.” I kept waiting for him to identify himself, feeling puzzled at his avoidance of the topic. Eventually, I asked him point blank: “What do you do?” He turned out to be an interesting fellow: he lived somewhere in southern England and made a living taking people on guided fly-fishing and grouse-hunting tours, and had, he said, recently hosted President George Bush père in just that activity.

At dinner, when we were no longer sitting with the English couple, my wife pointed out my faux pas, telling me how un-European it was to tell them what I “did” and to insist on finding out what they “did.” I had lived in America for so long that I had forgotten that people in other parts of the world don’t always do that. I thought I had simply been describing what I did, but perhaps it was really an unrequested unveiling.

Like most things American, I suspect this habit will go global.
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In New York, you are what you do. There’s something harsh and pragmatic about that; when you don’t have some classy category to fit into, you may feel uninteresting and defensive. People take a brief moment to classify you as a success or a loser, and then decide how much time to waste on you. New York is a life-long cocktail party, where everyone who talks to you is simultaneously looking over your shoulder to see if they spy someone they can move up a notch to, and you’re lucky if you can find a quiet corner where you and your friend-of-the-moment can talk without having to compete.

The one-dimensionality of this metric isn’t totally bad — being judged by who you are rather than by who your family is, or once was, has some sociological advantages. In New York, and in America, your background pales into insignificance compared to what you “do” and of course how much money you make. When I was in France once an East European hotel check-in clerk confided to me how she felt she didn’t fit in at all. That doesn’t happen in New York. Everyone’s a foreigner, and being one is interesting to other people.

It’s not a bad thing to have one’s past be irrelevant.

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Why indeed, does the simple word “do” — as in “What do you do?”— refer so unquestionably to career? Why is what one “does” so important? And why did I want the English grouse-hunting gentleman to “identify” himself, as though [identity] = [job description]? Why can’t one talk to people about life and situations without needing them to fill in their background, status, achievements?

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Logically, if you are meeting people for the first time, it would be more interesting to hear their views without prejudging their authority, without knowing who they are and how much their views confirm or deny those you expect from their background.

If you think of people as novels, it’s better not to know the author’s biography before you read his book. Once you’ve read it, if you like it or hate it sufficiently, then it becomes interesting to learn more about him or her.

If you think of people as movies, it’s better not to read the reviews until after you’ve seen them. Better to find some critic whose taste you trust, see merely whether they like the movie, and if so, go see it. Some of the movies I’ve enjoyed most — Jackie Brown, My Dinner with Andre — were great unexpected pleasures because they were seen with no advance knowledge of their plot.

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In financial models stock prices are often taken to be a so-called Markov process, a random path in which every future step depends only upon the present, but not at all on the history of the stock before that. Future is linked to past only through their intersection in the present moment. It’s good to imagine that human life is like that too.

In My Life as a Quant, I described the sometimes off-putting but nevertheless admirable character of Fischer Black, the intuitive co-discoverer of the Black-Scholes option pricing model that revolutionized the financial world. He died in 1995, a few years before his colleagues received the Nobel prize for their part of the joint work. I wrote of him: “You couldn’t easily guess his attitude to one question by knowing his previous opinion about another, though what he said was always thoughtful and sensible. But over subsequent years I learned that he was a rarity, one of those people you only occasionally meet, someone whose character is a coherent whole even though its parts seem uncorrelated.”

He looked at everything afresh in the present moment. I think that’s a good way to be.

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Nevertheless, previous accomplishment is not irrelevant. I’m partial to politicians who have been successful in the nonpolitical realm before going into politics: I think you need to know the world you’re trying to mould, and have shown that you can do well in it. Eisenhower was a general. Merkel was a physicist. Bill Bradley, a Senator from New Jersey and an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, was once a professional basketball player. Lifelong solely political activity is mostly a dubious profession, though there are exceptions on all sides. Bill Clinton’s entire career was politics, Reagan’s and Bloomberg’s wasn’t. 

New York now awaits Mayor de Blasio, whom I suspect will be OK, but scaremongers here worry about New York returning to the grim graffiti-riddled 1970s. The city in those days was full of disturbed people roaming the streets. An English journalist I read at that time once wrote, I recall: “In NY you see people on the streets in the daytime who wouldn’t dare to come out until after dark in London.” It was true.

Though New York was then less gentrified — there were big economic and social variations from block to block — that was counterbalanced by the fact that I used to look over my shoulder, even late into the 1980s, whenever I heard footsteps behind me at night. That was when taxis invented bullet-proof partitions between driver and passengers; then they were always kept locked, now they are idly open. I once saw a taxi driver open his glove compartment to pull a gun on another taxi driver who touched bumpers with him. I was robbed several times on the street at night, the last time by three young men who maligned my relations with my mother and told me to throw my wallet on the ground. I did and then ran away. In 1993, when I was in Zurich, I marveled to see computers in public phone booths, knowing that in New York they would be smashed within an hour of being installed, as were public phones themselves. Now there are no longer public phone booths to smash, but large flat TV screens at the entrances to subway stations show ads and no one smashes them. Some people claim it’s because of the surveillance cameras, but I don’t think that’s the reason. New York has changed.

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We go into the holiday season now, so I end with these few lines from the late Lou Reed’s New-York-centric song High in the City:

Don’t wanna talk politics today
I feel too good, let me have my way
High in the city, high in the city

and also with the concluding lines of his New York Telephone Conversation:

For I know this night will kill me if I can’t be with you.
If … I … can’t …be …with … you…

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