The Origins of American Excess And Enoughness

I was visiting New York for the first time since the 1980s. My friend Gambu is an immigrant from Nepal living in Queens, so he picked me up and took me to his flat for a warm Sherpa welcome complete with multi-family homemade meal, and precious idle time spent communing slowly over spicy brown food. More about the time I spent with him here. But after a quiet family-oriented evening in a very modest, two-family flat, he dropped me off in Times Square at my hotel. And it felt like I’d eaten an entire chocolate layer cake. Alone.

That’s how it felt to go from Gambu’s flat in Queens, to Times Square. Gambu’s family and another family share a two bedroom flat on the second floor of a row house. It’s decorated only in a few wall hangings – Thanka – or Buddhist monk paintings surrounded in silk cloth, and the family shrine above the TV. We’d just had a handmade Nepali meal: While Gambu and I entertained the other family’s young daughter, I heard the slam of a meat cleaver repeating on a wood board in the kitchen, cutting fresh pork into pieces for curry. The smell filled the house as much as bubbly conversation and laughter. Gambu’s teenage son joined us for the meal as we ate from the simple seating, off our laps in the living room. It was comfortable and genuine and unpretentious.

Gambu1

When it was time, Gambu took me back to my hotel in Times Square. Right in the middle, on the 19th floor, overlooking the bright lights, digital activity, sensory overload. Overlooking the giant advertising that shouted its way into my room. And it felt horrible. Like someone scooped me up off the sidewalk of my childhood and dropped me in the original pool of excess.

There is so much visual overload in New York, it’s hard to know what to be overwhelmed by. The million theaters, the giant screen with flawless models walking toward you indefinitely, the stacks and stacks of playbills, animated advertisements, the masses of tourists gawking, camera snaps, selfie sticks, the repeating vertical columns of window squares up almost to infinity, and the light reflecting off of everything metal and glass.

But I also thought about the core of this place. This giant city with people from everywhere, built from dreams and desires of generations of hopeful people. I think of the hundred-year old photos of workers on I-beams high over the city streets, when the buildings were just going up. The history of taking immigrants into open arms, from homeland to island to new home. And what does it now display? At its heart, giant electric billboards of excess. Too much of everything. It’s what taught us to eat American portions, and want McMansions and then fill them with all that American-sized stuff. It was born here among the hopes and dreams.

New York is beautiful. It transcends everything that’s ever been said about it, and every song that’s ever been written. From what I remember of thirty years ago, it’s become immaculate since I was there last. Its people are friendly, proud, hardworking, especially the public servants. Adversity and diversity has made it a very strong and tolerant city. During my most recent subway ride a NYPD cop boarded at the stop after mine. I watched his demeanor as he entered. He was acutely aware that the gun on his hip carried a myriad of messages, and the passengers dictated what it conveyed. He made eye contact with everyone who noticed him, a relaxed smile on his face. His body language said so much in a single second. At that moment I took a relaxed breath, and thought, every city should train their PD like the NYPD is trained to interact with people.

The city is so easy to navigate. A glorious, numbered grid. A haven for logical, orderly people like me, who can keep 46th Street straight from 146th and 64th effortlessly. I live in Seattle, whose numbered streets change every few blocks, and randomly shift from north-south to NE-SW while intersecting with several other roads at once. I think we love roundabouts here because we can just go around and around until we can snatch a view of the water and guess which way is correct.

But New York is full of everything. Every imaginable kind of food, every sort of shop, lights, activity. It’s hard not to want to buy, eat and own the whole entire thing. But I think about Gambu, about many of the immigrants who have come to New York and settled, and what they might think about America, if they use New York as their barometer. There seems to be never enough in New York. That’s part of its mystique. It never sleeps because there is so much, that if you slept… you’d miss it. You’d miss your bite of the Big Apple… how could you do that?

While it’s not the only place in America full of excess, the empire city flaunts its excess without the passive aggressive tendencies that Seattle does. While Seattle may ramble on in a dry whisper from behind the log home near a hill that was recently covered in pine trees, and from behind a wall of smoke from a joint, pausing only to nod and take another toke, NYC just says it in a brazen Brooklyn accent, like, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!”

So by example we’re teaching excess when we should be teaching enoughness. The articles are endless about filling our simple needs with artificial, purchased band-aids. Instead of a weekend with friends, you’re running to appointment A, meeting B and obligation C. No time for simple people interaction. No time for making your own food. The city beats and we pace to match it. So we acquire more and more superficial content – a closet stuffed with more Prada, Gucci and Armani than we could ever wear, because we deserve it, from working so hard. A fridge stuffed with more food than we could ever eat before it goes bad, because all it takes is money to do that. And then we go out to eat anyway. And water. The way we use simple, gift-of-life things like water from our tap, electricity, gasoline, air. We don’t have time to think about that. And it’s killing us. We’re ignoring it and chasing excess instead.

My friend and photographer, Cristina introduced me to the idea of enoughness. The idea that things which make us most fulfilled, most happy, are the basic, life-giving necessities: A simple meal together, an unhurried conversation with friends, a roof over our heads that doesn’t suck resources from the earth, or endless money from our pockets. Growing our own food. Raising our children as a village. Things that developing countries still do. People who leave their country to come to the US leave those simple, beautiful, life-giving things for Times Square. And I won’t say I don’t see the draw. But I also see the damage that it has caused us. As a society of unhappy, depressed, underemployed, overworked people, we’re sick from excess. And we seek more of it instead of remembering enoughness. It’s not taught here. It’s taught back there, where we all came from. Before we decided to chase excess.

I only hope we can re-learn enoughness before it’s too late.

 
 Reflected flawless models (complete with handbag and shades) walking toward me on the 40-foot high video screen.