The TikTok video shows a group of young Venezuelan migrants dancing salsa in Times Square after a long and treacherous journey through the Darién Gap and the Rio Grande.
“Winter is coming,” comments someone implying the summer clothing-clad youngsters should go somewhere else before the Big Apple chews them up and spits them out.
Like the rest of us, they followed the brochure. “The whole If You Can Make It There business,” as Colson Whitehead wrote.
“King Kong” climbing the Empire State Building, “Friends” sipping coffee in Central Perk and the Schuyler sisters looking around in “Hamilton” are part of the brochure.
With a virtually infinite list of cultural references, all the brochure’s roads lead to New York City. But is it the real or the fictitious one? Walker Percy would say the latter.
In his 1975 essay “The Loss of the Creature,” he described the traveler’s “symbolic complex.”
Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon … and see it for what it is … the thing … has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind … by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.Walker Percy
Percy says travelers are set for disappointment as the real thing will never live up to the expectations set by their books, songs, movies, etc.
El George Harris uses the politically incorrect language of stand-up comedy to make the same point.
He jokes in Spanish that his New York City movie-induced fascination shattered when he first saw “the ecosystem of crackheads, prostitutes and homeless persons.”
Similarly, David Sedaris shares Big Apple reality check stories throughout his work.
Raised in North Carolina, he moved to New York City dreaming about working as a writer for his favorite soap opera on day one.
Instead, years before becoming a published author, he made a living as a housekeeper—and a Christmas Elf in the department store Macy’s Santaland.
I didn’t know it at the time, but rock en Español band Mecano’s 1998 song “No Hay Marcha en Nueva York” (“No Party in New York”) also illustrates Percy’s “symbolic complex.”
After fulfilling their lifelong dream of visiting the Big Apple, the band’s frontperson grew disappointed, blaming the TV series for deceiving them all along.
But the mythology is so strong that these counter-narratives do nothing but increase the gravitational pull for some of us.
My brochure was heavy on “Sex and the City,” which my Miami friends and I binged in the pre-Netflix years.
The more episodes we watched, the more obsessed I became with Carrie Bradshaw’s town and the crazier they thought I was for wanting to trade a tropical paradise for “crazy” New York City.
“You’ll freeze in the winter,” “people are rude,” and “the streets smell” were just some of the things they said from their experience.
And (for the most part) they weren’t wrong. But neither was I. The City That Never Sleeps is not for everyone. And all those things that drive some away pull in others.
It all depends on the story in which you’re bound to star.