They were dashing through the snow, thousands of young men and women dressed like Santa Claus or his elves, shouting ‘ho ho ho’, leaving pools of vomit and urine on the white pavements. I’d found myself in the midst of SantaCon, a pre-Christmas ritual that brought approximately 37,000 people into town dressed in red vestments to crawl (often literally) from pub to merry pub across the city. They were united in their pursuit of uninhibited revelry. SantaCon, the official website explained, is a “non-commercial, non-political, nonsensical Santa Claus convention that happens once a year for absolutely no reason”. Participants were urged to donate $10 to charity and were informed about the route by text message as they staggered through the day. The organisers laid out the rules quite clearly: 1. Don’t F*ck with Kids 2. Don’t F*ck with Cops. 3. Don’t F*ck with Bar Staff. 4. Don’t F*ck with NYC.
The first SantaCon was held in San Francisco in 1994 and in 2013 events were scheduled in 300 cities across 44 countries. The New York edition, by far the largest, has come to be greeted with horror. In the run-up to SantaCon, signs began to appear in some parts of town telling Santas they weren’t welcome. “Alcohol-soaked Father Christmas-themed flash mob not welcome here,” said one. “Take your body fluids and intoxication elsewhere.” Politicians denounced the event and urged police to keep a close eye on the booze-soaked participants.
In the end, a heavy snowstorm ensured that the festivities were chillier than the previous year’s. But everyone I ran into for days after that seemed to have saucy stories about the drunken participants and their public emissions. Despite the 4Fs, the Santas, it seemed, were more naughty than nice.
Gotham City Noir
SantaCon wasn’t the only thing casting a shadow over New York. Civic activists fear that seven new towers emerging in Midtown Manhattan, the result of rezoning decisions by departing mayor Mike Bloomberg, will throw long shadows into the iconic Central Park, causing freezing winters days to turn even colder. Michael Kwartler, the president of the Environmental Simulation Center, a laboratory specialising in 3D visualisation, calculated that the shadows of the largest of these skyscrapers will fall 0.8 km into the park at noon on the winter solstice. As the day progresses, they could darken areas 1.6 km deep in Central Park. Kwartler told the New York Times, “The cumulative effect of these shadows will be to make the park less usable and less pleasant to be in.”
Life, Death and Taxis
The taxi trade is always a reliable indicator of immigration trends in New York: 84 per cent of the city’s cabbies are foreign-born. I learnt that Bangladesh had replaced Pakistan as the number one country of origin for cab drivers. The country provided 18 per cent of the city’s new taxi-drivers, up from 10 per cent in 1991. That’s no surprise. Bangladeshi immigration soared 74 per cent in the decade up to 2011. Bengali is often the first language of the people who staff newsstands and operate the halal food trucks that seem to have sprouted on every street in Manhattan, selling hot dogs, falafel and spicy chicken with rice. In addition to serving up snacks and driving cabs, Bangladeshis have also come to form a significant part of another, rather specialised group: the people who issue parking tickets. Between 10 and 15 per cent of the city’s 3,000 ticket agents are Bangladeshi, the New York Times reported recently. Salaries start at $29,000, but are topped up by generous medical insurance and pension benefits. The job has proved so attractive for Bangladeshis, the paper noted, that some cabbies are giving up the wheel to become ticket agents.
First World Rifts
The high point of my trip were excursions to the outer boroughs in the company of my generous host Suketu Mehta, who is hard at work researching his book on that other Maximum City. We braved the freezing weather to explore new condominiums along the waterfront in Brooklyn, an ancient cemetery near the wholesale markets of Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, and parks in Elmhurst in Queens filled with Chinese men playing mahjong. While the city’s diversity is the key to its success, Mehta, like so many other New Yorkers, is worried about New York’s dramatic inequalities. “The top 1 per cent of the city makes more money in a day than the bottom 10 per cent make in a year,” he said. “And it’s a city that’s growing more unequal by the day, which is why Bill de Blasio just got elected mayor, with his talk of ‘two cities’.” The wage gap, immigrant struggles, cops, gangsters and crooked hedge fund managers will all animate the pages of Mehta’s megabook, which goes by the working title of City of the Second Chance.
Your Own Unending Book
I ran into Salman Rushdie and asked if it took longer to write a novel or a memoir. Writing Joseph Anton did not take much time, he replied, but living the life that informed it did. Yes, double life and all.