Better to be a surviving artist

The next time I move to New York, I actually want to be invited.

Slow down, you’re doing fine,

You can’t be everything you want to be before your time.

Too bad, but it’s the life you lead,

You’re so ahead of yourself you forgot what you need.

When will you realize

Vienna waits for you?”

– Billy Joel

I just returned from my first visit to New York since I had lived there in 2002.

You could say the circumstances were slightly different this time. Two years ago, I had dropped out of school and was ready to live in ferries and on bagels. OK – so only the media of ma vie pathetique has changed. I live in buses and on burritos now.

Still, the question clangs across the caverns of my punch-drenched, Halloween-candied skull: What’s the intolerable rush for artists to suffer a mostly illusory and utterly destitute existence in New York? Why did I do it two years ago?

Perhaps most sickeningly, why do I occasionally feel as if I could do it again in a heartbeat?

Every year, droves of artists – especially actors and dancers – make their premature pilgrimage to the mecca of Tribeca.

Many are without the necessary training to compete in this enormous amalgam of the world’s finest, but hope to meet the “right” people at night and wait tables or clean houses by day.

All such artists, it can be sure, are a unique kind of expatriate; an artistic immigrant, a dreamer who has grown too big for his or her provincial britches and needs that taste of the Big Time – if only to be around it and breathe it in, as if some osmotic transfer of creative achievement were chemically possible.

Disappointing to me is the percentage of “dreamers” who are doing their cavorting on someone else’s dime. I can’t tell you how many children are having Daddy pay the $900 rent and $100-a-month cable so they can party above a Dominican family that sends their own daddy to Jersey City, N.J., to dig ditches to feed his sick babies.

At moments like that, I feel a brief shame for myself and on behalf of the artists’ crusade to their Holy Land in this city, but then I remember that I was no trust-funder, but just another stiff crawling the streets to put up posters for Broadway shows for $9 an hour.

There is a certain impetuousness, an arrogance, about believing New York is your personal playground because your parents are doctors or lawyers. I mean, for every theater on 42nd Street you like to frequent, there’s an entire neighborhood in Brooklyn or Queens that has lost hope in the “economic recovery” they’ve been promised by their mayor and president.

I know, I know, you want to change the world with your art. So do I. I plan on living in New York someday too. But I’m going to earn my shot. The next time I move there, I actually want to be invited in. Imagine that.

It’s like what Billy Joel, one of New York’s favorite sons, sings about in “Vienna,” his classic tale of young ambition. “You can get what you want, or you can just get old.” Such is the animating force behind artists. Let’s go after what we want before we croak.

But then Joel reminds us, “When will you realize, Vienna waits for you.” This is the part we should heed. One thing we learned – oh no, I’m going to say it – Sept. 11, 2001, (damn it!) is that, now more than ever, New York will always be there. That doesn’t mean we have to be – yet.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]