Midcentury UFO literature, anemoia, and bitterness: Part 1

a halftone illustration of a UFO and the NYC skyline with the words "anemoia in NYC, feels bad, man"

A quick heads up: I’ll be on a livestream tonight at 8:30 pm along with the rest of the cast and crew of the two new queer paranormal shows we’re currently funding on Kickstarter, so tune into the New Blood TV YouTube channel to watch that! (In the YouTube app, you can even set up a lil alert for it to notify you.)

When I started writing this post, I titled my draft "John Keel and nostalgia." And I will talk about John Keel (in part two, which I'll publish tomorrow). I will talk about nostalgia.

But mostly this will be about the ugly flip side of nostalgia: bitterness, jealousy, and discontent. I'm writing about the feelings that nostalgia is supposed to soothe. Sometimes nostalgia does soothe those feelings. But the emotions never really go away—they simmer, they fester.

Before I moved to New York City, almost half my life ago, I had a specific mental image of what I thought it'd be like.

I had a teenage obsession with the beatniks and other midcentury literature. In my mind, the city was the New York City of the mid-20th century. I knew all about cold water apartments, where artists could live affordably in exchange for mild discomfort. I knew about the hangout spots of the 1940s and 50s, the vital gravity of certain neighborhoods that would draw artists to them and build community.

I'd read so many books set in the city. I don't claim to have offbeat tastes: two of my favorite books were (obviously) The Great Gatsby and Salinger's Franny and Zoey. And of course I loved Kerouac, despite his limitations and his, frankly, not-so-great writing. What I loved about these books wasn't just the stories that they told. Rather, I fell in love with the places they depicted. When you read them, you felt like you were there.

Despite being a teenager, I wasn't completely consumed by daydreams when it came to what my experience of New York City would be like. After all, I was moving to the Bronx, not the glittering Manhattan of my books. And I was moving here in the late 2000s, which even my romantic mind understood was quite different from the time that I was familiar with from books from the 1920s to the 1970s. I didn't expect to feel like I was living in the midcentury version of the Village when I moved to the Bronx of the 2000s. But I hadn't expected that the Manhattan I'd take the train down to visit would be nearly unrecognizable when compared to my favorite books.

While I quickly grew to love my neighborhood in the Bronx (much like I love where I live in Queens nowadays), my visits to Manhattan starkly showed that the city I had daydreamed about was long, long gone.

What happened? Well, the story of NYC is all about money, so of course this isn't any different.

In my books, artists were able to eke out a meagre existence by making sacrifices. You could choose: be a starving artist and live somewhere shitty, or sell out and live somewhere lustrous.

But living here, I quickly learned that that option was long gone. There were no shitty, cheap places where aspiring artists could live. You could "sell out" (what a quaint term) and still starve. You'll live in a shitty apartment and pay through the nose for it.

Even in the Bronx, even in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the living was not cheap. The cold water apartments that William S. Burroughs and co. wrote about have technically been illegal for a long time[^1], so forget getting some sort of discount on your rent for roughing it. You'll pay handsomely to rough it.

I have always lived in relatively cheap apartments, and Manhattan has always been far out of reach. There was one exception to that, during the height of COVID, when everything was shut down and all the benefits of living in Manhattan had vanished. What were you going to do in the city? Everything was shut down, and everything that made it desirable—the people, the museums, the restaurants, the parks—had become a liability.

So, for the space of a few months, I could hypothetically have afforded to live in Manhattan. I thought about it and realized that there was no point. Sure, in 2020, my wife and I could have rented a one bedroom in Manhattan for a year, until they raised the rent—but why? As rents have skyrocketed year over year in Manhattan, artists and people who do creative work can't afford to live there. Who and what is still there?

Any kind of artist community that there might have been in the city has long been concentrated in outer boroughs. And even in my beloved neighborhood in Queens, one of the more affordable places you can live here, rents are still steep.

Last year, I ordered a rent history on my apartment. I was shocked to find that, in 1984, as far back as the rent history went, our apartment cost about 37% of what we pay for it today—and that's adjusted for inflation.

Our apartment is considered very affordable by NYC standards, despite having just about trebled in cost. (And before you try to claim that this has something to do with NYC having changed a lot since the 1980s—we live in Queens, in a residential neighborhood that had changed far less since then than the rest of NYC.)

Of course, rents all over the United States are incredibly expensive now. But that just means that artists, creative workers, and anyone else who doesn't take home a huge salary (which is just about everyone these days) struggle to live anywhere, not just in New York City.

Manhattan has become a land of office buildings and banks. Now that I work from home, months go by when I don't venture aboveground in Manhattan—I just pass through on the subway, making my way from Queens to Brooklyn or the Bronx. Why would you go to Manhattan? What would you do there?

Over the last decade, I have watched more and more stores and restaurants close, their storefronts sitting empty because the people who own them charge exorbitant rent.

I have watched the pay for creative work—and everything else—get lower and lower. (I keep bringing up creative work specifically because that's my focus here—both when talking about midcentury writers like John Keel but also in my own adult life and teenage daydreams—but I know everyone's struggling.)

The financial crash happened shortly after I moved to New York City. That was a final nail in the coffin when it came to the hope of . . . thriving . . . financially in America.

The 2008 recession, all those years ago, made me realize that the Manhattan that I had idealized in my head, based on the books I read, wasn't a place that I'd daydreamed of visiting back when I was growing up in Texas.

That is to say: It wasn't a place. It was a time.

And it was a time in which I had never lived and could never live.

To be continued in tomorrow's post.

[^1]I suppose that technically I once rented an apartment in the Bronx that only had cold water for part of the summer and I did get a partial refund. But I have also rented from a slumlord in Brooklyn who often denied us heat and hot water with no reduction in rent. Super illegal, but she got away with it.