“Money” is a strange word. In English, two syllables: mon • ey. Say it! Say it aloud, say it nice and slow, let it sit on your tongue and take up space in your mouth…
Let it take over your heart and ruin your soul.
Money. We have a lot of synonyms for it and lots of ways of talking about it. Try some of those on your tongue, too: lucre, greenbacks, ducats, shekels, cash, stacks, bills, c-notes, dollars and cents, dosh, dough, bucks, moola, dinero, Franklins, or Krugerrands. I could go on for days and still not run out of different words to meditate on the silvers that slither between my fingers and fatten my wallet.
When it comes to cities, there is no city like New York City that sounds like money, that means money, and that runs itself on it. Welcome to Moneytown, USA, and if you can make it here you had better have the digits in your bank account to sustain it. Right?
Wrong. Because here is the little secret of New York: it looks like it runs on money and like it is all about the money, but it consumes and sustains itself on something far more valuable and ephemeral than something as fleeting as a couple of green-colored leafs of paper that serve as an exchange for goods and services. The ultimate “moneytown” subsists off of your hopes, your dreams, and your soul.
New York, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Berlin, Milan, Sydney, Tokyo, Rome, Stockholm, Shanghai, São Paulo: these gilded and skyscraper-junkie moneytowns that dot the globe are together more alike one another than they are to the regional cities and towns which surround them and feed them the lifeblood of their youth and power. These are the cities which give the fever dreams of wealth, beautiful creatures, and vice just pouring out, pouring forth like gold coins out of marble pitches inland with lapis lazuli, jade, and sapphires.
People don’t pray for access to Anytown, USA; people get down on their knees and beg for a chance to just visit This Town, USA.
And they are willing to trade anything, are willing to work hour after hour, and are willing to subject and submit themselves to whatever necessary to have just a chance, the smallest window of opportunity, to live here and to be something — to be somebody — and they think they have made a fair trade. They think it well-bargained.
I am here to tell you, if you are one of the young and so envisioned: it is not a fair trade. It will always be your choice to make and are fully welcome to not believe me, but this city is my city, it is my home, my tiny two-stoplight cow-town, and I have forgotten cracks in the sidewalks that you will never trip over and you will never know what they once hid. Make the trade, if you will, but know the cost.
Years ago, I was one of those somebodies, invited to all the great parties, photographed at some event sparkling underneath the city lights, and had a phone that was never silent. I had a great time and I was high up enough in the game to forget that it was a game. I earned my ducats. I remember the first year I made more than my dad did; I remember the first year I uttered the words: “I don’t even take a phone call for less than…”; I remember the chasing the title; I remember the hunt and the trophy.
And I also remember, one day, leaving a bar, stressed out, pissed on whiskey, and strung out on my own greatness. I remember looking at my hand, the one holding the key to a really nice vehicle that had my name on it, and I could see right through it. I could see the blue veins, the flinch of my pulse underneath the skin, the muscle, the tendons–
I was translucent. I had become a ghost.
Because, that is what Moneytown, USA does, and that is what it lives off of: you. The more you try to become part of requires you to give more, and the more you give the more you risk losing forever.
You forget about the care and feeding of the things that matter: your friends, your family, your real hobbies, interests, and pastimes, and your values. You have “friends,” or at least people that play the part. You still have family, but they don’t understand your day-to-day and they can’t because they are not living it. You do things and you have fun, of course, but do they feed your soul or do they feed your soul to the rapacious maw of this city?
I am not saying do not come to New York (or Chicago, London, Tokyo, et al.). I am not saying you cannot enjoy the things that are on offer here: fantastic restaurants, diversity from all the boroughs and the world, smart and talented peers, museums, cultural delights, and access to power which can change the world for good. There is no place in the world like New York and it can be worth it.
But, understand the risks. Know how far you are willing to go to become part of it. Know your limits because this sentient and living city in the sky will take you right to that limit and beyond if you let it.
And then, it will kick you right off edge of the castle in the sky, and you will tumble through the clouds and down to the bottom of the sea. For when it is done with you, you will be more bones than flesh, more ghost than bones, just a memory, a figment and a slip of what you were when you got here.
These days, I like the slow lane even though I still have a fast car. While I still maintain some of the external accouterments, I am not the same person. I still glitter, I still can be the life of the party, and while it would take lion-tamers, rushing elephants, and gladiators to keep me away from a good bottle of champagne and a surging, decadent crowd, I need no longer trip my limits.
I am solid. I am whole. I know where I have come from and where I am going. Quiet nights and a silent phone do not scare me like before; instead, they ground me and anchor me to reality. I am from and I am of Moneytown, USA, but that is not all I am.
I have traded that Venetian mask for something better: a real, full life that is measured not by cold, unfeeling digits. In fact, it is not measured by anything. My life priceless on its own, and my dreams are mine. They are so much bigger than just this city.
My heart to hold, my soul to keep? I have.