I found myself heading west on Delancey Street last week, and as I approached the Bowery I was stopped dead in my tracks by a billboard high above the intersection. Glowing over the Bowery, it read “Where have all the junkies gone?” –The Village Voice. Was it a genuine lament, from a paper once known for its countercultural/drug-cultural tendencies? A pathetic attempt at I-remember-when-ism, by a once-cool, now conglomerate-controlled “alt” weekly? Or a thoughtful effort to get passersby to consider the plight of those displaced by the recent wave of luxurification across the Lower East Side?
The Bowery is the most shockingly transformed street in the most dramatically changed area of the city. Perched across from the schlock condos that have obliterated once-beautiful vacant lots and decrepit old buildings, just down the street from the soon-to-be-retail CBGB, the billboard is well sited, if unclear in its purpose. Pondering its “message” as I turned uptown, I drank in what had become of my beloved Bowery (I lived there for a while in the early 90s, when it was still largely populated by artists, photographers and the indigent).
It was a Friday night. Black cars lined up in front of generic clubs, in which, it is to be supposed, a good deal of snorting and sniffing, and even shooting, was taking place behind bathroom-stall doors. Drunk and otherwise intoxicated young men and women staggered into the street, simultaneously texting and attempting to hail cabs. Thousand-dollar handbags slipped from the shoulders of nasty fur-trimmed jackets, iPhones were brandished, braying voices rang out loud (“DUDE!” ) and not one person I passed seemed to notice anyone else. They were looking at their tiny screens, or trying to find their car-service rides, or lost in who knows what reverie, but none of them seemed to actually be present, there on the Bowery.
I’ve been noticing this more as I make my way through the city: on any given block in any neighborhood, a solid 75% of the pedestrians are talking into, or scrutinizing, their telephonic devices. Phone zombies stroll aimlessly while talking outside bars, restaurants or their own houses, then abruptly, illogically change course, causing collisions and near misses with the “real” pedestrians. They walk into the street without looking up, scaring the crap out of drivers, at least those who aren’t themselves engrossed in cell phone conversations. People pool at the entrances of bars and restaurants, or just stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious to the people who have to squeeze past. Stroller pushers seem incapable of accommodating the rest of us, who have places to go and things to do, and don’t really want to have to jump into the street to circumnavigate the giant piles of child-carrying plastic crap they so obliviously pilot. And garbage cans in all the “cool” neighborhoods overflow with endless plastic water bottles and giant disposable coffee cups.
Junkies are alive and well, more plentiful than ever in the streets of New York. Unfortunately, they’re no longer of the nodding quietly, occasionally barfing variety. The vast majority of New Yorkers are high on themselves, their stuff, their clothes, and their own needs. Like “real” junkies, the pursuit of their lifestyle has obliterated the need to be thoughtful, considerate, or even aware of others. Ruder than heroin addicts looking for a fix, scarier than barf-splattered bench sleepers, the New Junkie nods endlessly over his tiny screen, lost in communication with another world. He blocks entrances and sidewalks, talking and smoking in front of bars and on the stairs to the subway. The New Junkie’s pursuit of pleasure is not considered a crime, but his profligate use of resources and willingness to place the “need” of the individual over the common good should be. The New Junkie yells loudly in the street as she walks to a bar, heedless of sleeping neighbors. The New Junkie takes her coffee to go, in a bag, with three plastic stirrers, eight packets of sugar, and a stack of napkins, all of which she will throw in the garbage because she can’t be bothered to think. The New Junkie buys new clothes and throws the old ones in the garbage because it’s too much trouble to donate them to charity.