Has it really been thirty years since Tama Janowitz’s collection of short stories Slaves of New York was released? I read it a several years after its initial release, and to me, a young girl who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, Slaves of New York and Janowitz just defined the Big Apple to me, the way her WASPy peers Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney and their literary offerings never did. But then again, as a dorky, most definitely non-WASPy kind of girl, this shouldn’t surprise me.
Imagine a Pre-Guiliani New York of the 1980s. This was before Times Square was completely cleaned-up and Disney-fied, Donald Trump was just a loud and tacky business man, not the GOP candidate for president (yes, a much kinder, simpler time), “greed is good” was the mantra of every yuppie sporting slicked back hair and suspenders, the World Trade Center defined the Manhattan skyline and “Sex and The City” and “Girls” weren’t notions in the heads of Sarah Jessica Parker and Lena Dunham.
Slaves of New York is a collection of intermingled stories of struggling and hustling painters, designers, performance artists, writers, and other creative types. One creative type we meet is Eleanor who is in her late twenties and trying to make it as a jewelry designer. She lives with her boyfriend, Stash, who is a graffiti artist, temperamental and only fleetingly devoted to Eleanor, sometimes going for days without speaking to her for some minor infraction on her part.
As a jewelry designer, Eleanor feels she is a failure and is frustrated by her lack of artistic and professional success. Furthermore, she desires more of a commitment from Stash, marriage, but that is isn’t about to happen any time soon.
And even though Eleanor knows she should fully break free from Stash, find someone better and concentrate more on her jewelry designs she doesn’t. Her relationship with Stash isn’t just about love; it’s also about having a place to live. Eleanor can’t afford to pay rent all on her own; yes, the rent is too damn high!
Another slave of New York is Marley Mantello, the protagonist of five of Janowitz’s tales. Marley fashions himself of a genius painter, on the verge of being the “next big thing.” What he lacks in actual talent and skill, he makes up in sheer bravado and being a legend in his own mind. He pays no mind to those who merely orbit his universe. Yes, Marley is unbelievably obnoxious and best to be ignored if one runs into him. But there are times when tragedy befalls him, and he shows a true humanity that makes you feel a smidge of compassion, like when his sister commits suicide.
Other stories between the covers of Slaves of New York include a man who claims to be rich and takes unsuspecting women “jewelry shopping “at Tiffany’s. Why he does this, he can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s just easier to pose as an eccentric man of considerable means, rather actually be the poor guy he actually is.
Other tales told include one of man, Victor, who suffers from a cocktail of ailments, neuroses and acid reflux being just a couple of them. Cora gets involved with Ray, not for love, but through him she can a cop a decent meal now and then and some free furniture for her new apartment. She should feel guilty, especially considering she’s graduate student of women’ studies; but hey, she’s just trying to survive. And in another tale, a spoiled, rich girl, after getting expelled from college and enduring a brief marriage, dabbles in prostitution and heroin (haven’t we all?).
But for me, Slaves of New York, is Eleanor’s story. Like me, Eleanor is from a small town, both befuddled and in wonderment the city and all it has to offer. She’s desperate to fit into the artistic, creative, madcap world that surrounds her, but finds herself coming up short. She’s such a naïve lass that she doesn’t realize a fashion designer she has coffee with is gay, which reminded me how shocked I was the first time I saw two guys making out at a party even though I had no problem with gay people. And I can only imagine the look on my face when I saw some ladies snorting coke in at a dance club bathroom; I’d seen Scarface on cable, for goodness sake! And aside to my mother, I have never done coke, okay?
We now live in very different time that existed in 1986. Business moguls are now rock stars, and rock stars aspire to be moguls. Google is a verb, people don’t want to be artists, but instead they want to be brands, and we let our social media define us. Yet, Eleanor’s tale is eternal. We want to be independent, desire success, express ourselves in a creative matter, and still want the stability and security we think only a marriage will offer. Sure, at times Slaves of New York is sentimental, dated read, but I still found it entertaining and can still relate to Janowitz’s debut.