We do not live in the same New York as Jay-Z. His anthem, “Empire State of Mind,” speaks of New York as a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” with “big lights that inspire you,” an apt description of a well-lit parking lot. Fortunately, last Sunday’s “Big Apple in Six Words” panel discussion at 92nd Street Y has allowed us to reclaim New York from the non-specific lyricism of Jay-Z. A more naunced description of the city comes from panelist and The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World author A.J. Jacobs: “Duane Reade, Citibank, Duane Reade, Citibank.”
There is a reason why we can learn more about New York in six-words than we can in nearly fives minutes of song. SMITH Magazine‘s Six-Word Memoir anthologies have been successfully consolidating human life by publishing the six-word life stories of both famous and obscure writers. Brevity is a virtue. As panelist and Memoir: A History author Ben Yagoda reminds us, “B.S. may be harder to (believably) pull off in the six word form.” Surely, the same strategy can be used to define the Big Apple.
“We’re a wordy culture, but getting it down to six words, you have to think hard to get it down to your essence,” admits SMITH Mag founder and Six-Word Memoir editor Larry Smith. Co-editor and Senior SMITH Mag writer Rachel Fershleiser backs this idea up with an example of a memoir published in the first Six-Word Memoir installment. “If you want to be interesting you use the strongest words,” she explains, “There’s no space for ‘he’d had some hard times and fallen in with the wrong crowd’ if your memoir is ‘After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.’”
Jay-Z isn’t totally to blame for a lack of concision. The amount of words in a verse are, in part, determined by the beat, melody and preceding rhyme; at the expense of their meaning, the music can dictate the lyrics. And, unless you are Michael Hearst, who performed “flash-song” musical renditions of the six-word memoirs, lasting several seconds each, conciseness is not a priority in song-writing. But if we use the winning entries of SMITH Mag‘s “The Big Apple in New York” to translate, or rather, memoir-ize the verses of “Empire State of Mind,” we see our beloved city relish in new-found clarity.
“A lot of the memoirs are a little bit negative, like New York is really hard and that kind of thing, more than ‘this is the best.’ It’s more like ‘New York is my Mount Everest,’” says Smith. The six-word memoirs remind us that New York is not just any place where “half of y’all won’t make it,” but specifically, where talented subway performers can make more money than a college grad (especially if you pursued journalism). It is a place that is not just “blind with casualties.” In fact, we had a record low number of murders this past year. The day’s worst causality might sometimes just be a rightfully elbowed and bruised E train groper.
“Empire State of Mind” is just that — a state of mind, the mythological New York we all like to imagine. “I do think the bright lights, big city New York still exists,” explains Amy Sohn, author of Prospect Park West: A Novel and the third panelist of the night. “But it is more like a big-box store now than it once was and a lot of the memoirs spoke to that – A.J.’s ‘Duane Reade, Citibank, Duane Reade, Citibank,’ and a few about there no longer being hookers.”
The six-word memoirs capture a less classically romantic city, but one that regains its romanticism in the way “The Big City in Six Words” entries choose to accept and embrace its flaws. The city is not Jay-Z’s kingdom “where dreams are made of,” but it is at least a place where, somewhere beyond the four-story, ten feet wide McDonald’s, those dreams might still reside. New York is our Mount Everest. And during the climb, we’re happy to ponder the eternal: “Does the Naked Cowboy get cold?”
Main image via Ork Posters.