Only in New York

Jonas Hassen Khemiri

Photograph by Sherman Ong

Hi, you've reached New York. New York can't answer right now but it's NOT because New York is sleeping, because New York never sleeps. New York is too busy living life as it should be lived. New York is sitting in a zooming yellow taxi and watching Manhattan glow in the sunrise. New York is floating in the air after having fired off a perfect jumpshot on the basketball court on West 4th Street. New York is hanging around on the pier below Christopher Street with the rock-hard hip-hop gays who skip rope and greet each other with kisses on the cheek. New York is standing on a flat twilight roof in Green Point and looking out over its own blinking skyscraper silhouette and thinking: New York is unbeatable. And as you see New York always speaks of itself in the third person. Leave a message. (Beep)

Uh...hello? Hi, it's me! We met in the spring of 1997 when I visited you after secondary school and worked under the table at that shabby clothing store on Broadway. The one that sold pastel suede tank tops. You remember how much fun we had, right? How we shared every second? How we wandered up and down endless avenues? How we hung around roof parties at dawn? Damn, I miss you. And us. Anyway. I'm going to write a piece about you and I have some questions. Call me when you get this.

Hi, you've reached New York. If you want you can leave a message after the beep but New York will never listen to it because New York doesn't have time for nostalgic deserters. New York is dancing itself sweaty on Santos' humid dance floor while Sunday night turns into Monday morning. New York is at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, booing out nervous tap dancers. New York is standing in line at a post office in Midtown, being struck by the fact that the nine-person-long line is made up of nine different ethnicities and nine different religions and nine different hairstyles and nine different shoe sizes and New York is smiling to itself, giving itself a clap on the back and whispering: Only in New York. Only New York has its own smell that is tacky asphalt, cooking food, perfumed dogs, and organic exhaust. Only New York has its own taste that is cooling iced coffee, fresh bagels with lox, and artificial versions of specialties from every part of the world. Only New York has that air that makes your feet constantly hover over the ground and walk to the beat of the world. (Beep)

Hi again. Wow, what a...short and modest message you have. But joking aside, you haven't called so I thought...That I might as well...yeah, you know. Because you haven't forgotten me, have you? Surely you don't have so much turnover that you would forget someone who...No, we had something special...And I hope you aren't thinking too much about the spring of 2002. I mean that was a strange time for us both. You had just suffered the most traumatic autumn of your life while I was going to intern at the UN and live for six months in that converted sewing-machine factory in Bushwick. While I tried to put the finishing touches on my debut novel you supported the war on terror and...We didn't connect like the first time. But on the other hand you don't have to feel and think the same about everything. You taught me that. And we didn't part as enemies, did we? Or did we? Call me.

Hi, you've reached New York, who can't answer because New York is out playing happy tourist. New York is buying I Love NY t-shirts and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge and spitting from the top of the Empire State Building and taking the Staten Island ferry back and forth. Then New York thinks: Oh, NO ONE has done this before me. This city and I have something special. Then New York plays angry tourist and complains that the sun is blocked by all the tall buildings and the coffee here is completely vile and the nationalism is obnoxious and the hotels are expensive and their damn doorknobs are totally idiotic (why the hell are they round?), American women's voices are unnervingly high and the vinyl seats in their restaurants cause sticky butt and itchy sweat and the TVs in their taxis cause headaches and their entire fucking capitalistic system is built up on people without papers who work for free and damn I'm homesick. But then suddenly it's time to go home and New York feels that special blueness in its chest that everyone who is going to leave the city gets, that emptiness, that painful insight that you're about to say goodbye to yourself. (Beep)

Hi. I mean I don't know if I'm being a little paranoid now but...Your last message felt like you were dissing me. Don't bother calling if you're going to be so childish. I guess I will just have to write my piece about someone else. There are other cities, you know...Whose basketball teams are better than the New York Knicks and whose customs agents DON'T welcome their Muslim visitors with twelve hours in a quarantine cell. There are other cities that still have their soul, you know. This is my last try. Goodbye.

Hi, you've reached New York, who on this particular day happens to be playing all its legends at once. New York is playing good cop bad cop. New York is playing Woody Allen and Jay Z. New York is playing business district and the Bronx. New York is playing the polite subway voice (please stand clear of the closing doors) and then the pedestrian who roars: Hey, I'm fucking walking here, asshole. New York is even playing just-moved-in middle-class hipster in expensive imported jeans who's sitting on Juliette's roof terrace in Williamsburg and complaining that the neighborhood was way more authentic before, before there were a bunch of commercial interest, before it was cleaned up, before a bunch of middle-class hipsters in expensive imported jeans moved in. The city has lost its soul, New York says, looks up, sees itself in the bar mirror, and begins to roar with laughter. The mirror image answers: Of course. You're right. But because New York is best at being worst, the soullessness suddenly becomes the new ideal, because whatever New York does is what the world does. New York initiates and the world imitates. (Beep)

WHAT THE HELL do you mean? That the middle-class hipster in expensive imported jeans is like ME? You're fucking crazy. Screw you, I have a bunch of new friends now. Paris, Istanbul...maybe even London. I barely know anyone who likes you anymore. Everyone just visits you because you're cheap, do you hear me, you're CHEAP, you're a bargain, your days are numbered and soon, soon you'll be a has-been. Go to hell.

Hi, you've reached New York's automatic answering machine, but New York can't answer right now because New York is having one of those laugh attacks that never seems to end and that causes cheek-muscle cramps. You see, recently there was someone (and I won't say who) who claimed that New York's position was threatened. Someone named a city called Paris and bragged, well, they have baguettes and cheeses and berets and some tall damn tower. Have you seen the cheese and bread section at Whole Foods? Do you know how tall the Chrysler Building is? Is there any hat in the world that can't be found in Manhattan? And when it comes to the "huuuge variety of cuuuuulture" in Paris, New York answers with the Metropolitan and MOMA and the Guggenheim and the Whitney. No one and I mean no one can challenge New York. The canals of Venice are smashed by New York's Canal Street and Berlin's broken wall is owned by New York's totally shining Wall Street and Stockholm's Sami lose to New York's Indians and Rio's Carnival is drowned out by New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade and Moscow's Red Square blushes when New York shows off the Lenin statue that stands with outstretched hand at the very top of the luxury complex down by Houston Street in the East Village. If London wants to brag about its historical castles then New York answers with its historic jazz quarter. If Singapore wants to brag about its clean sidewalks then New York answers: Cleanliness isn't always good, that's the difference between cities and toothbrushes. If Cairo wants to brag about its sphinx then New York answers: Get a nose job.

New York has everything of everything and a little more. Don't leave any more messages after the beep. Leave yourself and come here. (Beep)

translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Read the original in Swedish

Read translator’s note

Jonas Hassen Khemiri was born in Sweden in 1978. He is the author of three novels and six plays. His first novel, One Eye Red, received the Borås Tidning award for best literary debut. His second novel, Montecore (published by Knopf in 2011), won several literary awards, including the Swedish Radio Award for best novel of the year. Khemiri's work has been translated into more than fifteen languages, and his plays have been performed by over forty international companies. In 2011 Invasion! premiered in New York and Khemiri was awarded a Village Voice Obie Award for playwriting.

Rachel Willson-Broyles is a freelance translator specializing in translating contemporary literature from Swedish to English. She received her BA in Scandinavian studies from Gustavus Adolphus College in 2002 and her Ph.D. in Scandinavian studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013. Her translations include Jonas Hassen Khemiri's novel Montecore and play Invasion! She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

When I first translated "Only in New York," I hadn't spent any time in New York as an adult, but between my first translation of the story and my revisions of it prior to publication I got to visit New York City in conjunction with another Khemiri project—his play INVASION!, which I had the honor of translating as well. I was invited to attend the workshop for the play, and during my free time I got to "play tourist". And—despite my general fear of large cities—I loved it. I loved standing in front of iconic buildings and going to stores that have ten million kinds of cheese and riding the subway...all these things that are only in New York. What Khemiri captures so well in this piece, what made it fun to translate and makes it fun to read, is this strange personal relationship that so many of us have with New York City, whether we are from the American Midwest or from Sweden or from the city itself; even whether we've been there or not. In "Only in New York," we get to experience the other side of this usually one-sided relationship.