It’s cliché to point out that people in the United States now exist in completely different realities, typically broken down by political leanings. Just hop on any social media platform and you can bear witness. For one faction, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton are eating babies and guzzling adrenochrome in the basement of a strip mall pizza parlor. Or drag brunches are secretly convincing your kids to become agender pansexuals! For another, Elon Musk has singlehandedly turned Twitter into a virtual white supremacist rally (I can’t tell you how irritating I find friends on the left acting as if Twitter wasn’t a complete cesspool before it was even a $44 billion twinkle in Musk’s eye. You should have entered the ring during the peak Trump era!). Even with these disparate realities, you’d think there would be a few facts—a few self-evident truths—that could still join the ever-growing divide.
One of which has to be that 2020 was the worst fucking year imaginable. For the world, yes, but especially for the residents of New York City. More than 30,000 people died in New York City in 2020 alone. Of the even more that got sick and survived, many were blessed with new chronic illnesses. Trucks were repurposed as mobile morgues. Mass graves were dug on Hart Island. The streets were desolate and devoid of life, eerily quiet with exception of the ever-present whine of ambulances and that eventually tiresome, feckless 7 PM clap for essential workers. Speaking of, these essential workers were forced to put their health—and the health and welfare of their family members—at risk. Many people lost their jobs. Others lost their hard-earned businesses. Restaurants were forced to close for lockdowns that have now been proven to not have even worked. Schools went remote and kids that didn’t have adequate access to technology for remote learning just lost key years of learning. Mental health suffered. Domestic violence rose. Sure, there was a newfound surge of activism filling the streets, but it took senseless brutal murder for it to happen. I’m sure the families and loved ones of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor would rather have them here than the enlivened activism that followed. 2020 was a nightmare that we’d all like to never, ever, return to, right? So much so that even reading about it now, you’re considering abandoning this article, right? RIGHT?!!
Apparently, wrong. For Jeremiah Moss in his absolutely baffling memoir Feral City: On Finding Liberation in Lockdown New York that had me scratching my head and wondering if W.W. Norton has editors, 2020 was just fucking amazing. 10/10! Wouldn’t change a thing! Why? Well, he attended protests! He biked the wrong way with abandon! He disrupted people’s dinners with the Stonewall March! He bought a “New York Fuckin City” T-shirt and wore it as his “signature”! He talked to wacky NYC types on the street like the Joker of NYC and the Jesus of Washington Square! He wore BLM buttons that he would later consider taking off! He looked at people in the eye again! He shouted “Fuck” at Victoria’s Secret! He slept out with Occupy City Hall for one night then continued to eat their free breakfasts! He saw looted stores and liked it! He saw looted stores closer to his rent-stabilized apartment and didn’t like it as much! Feral City reads as if Eat Pray Love was set at the Tompkins Square Park riots.
I should note before going much further that I tried to approach Feral City with an open mind. Or at least as open of a mind as I could muster given 2020 was one of the worst years of my life after getting COVID in March, infected days before lockdown, and spending the rest of the year trying to regain health and strength while dealing with Long Covid. For much of 2020, the most energy I could muster was going to the grocery store and then, laying in bed, in abject pain and bone-crushing fatigue, for the rest of the day. I, for the record, did not find liberation in lockdown. Yet, because of my respect for Moss’s writing in the first place—I always enjoyed his Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York blog and the following book, I bought Feral City even though the mere thought of the premise made my vision go white with blinding hot rage. It, to be short, steamed my buns. But unlike the rest of the Internet, I want to actually read the material before publically getting my panties in a twist. Certainly, I thought, Feral City had to be better than I imagined, especially with the praise heaped on it with book jacket blurbs by other writers I respect like Sarah Schulman and Eileen Myles. In reading the book, my anger did lessen, but only as I became more and more amused by the satire Moss unwittingly published.
Because, even though Moss’s bizarre memoir is mostly a personal exercise in self-delusion, Feral City strikes me as an unintentional parody of a certain kind of urban white liberal mentality, one in which uprisings, plagues, economic crises, and general misery are only a quirky backdrop for someone’s individual self-discovery and navel-gazing analysis. If you lived through 2020 in certain areas of the country or spend any time on the Internet, you, like me, witnessed certain “well-meaning” white liberals losing their goddamn minds, scrambling to try to prove that they were, in fact, one of the “good ones,” particularly as the discussion turned to racial justice after the public murder of George Floyd. We all got those emailed letters from arts organizations and museums. Or saw those social media posts. Or got those reading lists. Ultimately, Feral City stands as a desperate testament to attempting to identify as a “good one.”
How does Moss achieve this? Through creating an entirely new group of people to project upon and define himself against! Though on paper a book about activism during a pandemic, a whole lot of space in Feral City is devoted to an extensive ethnography of an urban-dwelling creature Moss terms interchangeably “The New People” or “the hyper-normals.” His study of these “New People” begins immediately with the first chapter set sometime pre-pandemic in 2019, an uproarious account of Moss peering out his peephole, which for some reason he thinks his neighbors don’t notice despite the enormity of said peephole, and cooking up half-cocked theories about the “hyper-normals,” an impulse he continues through the text.
Who are these New People and what do they do? They forget things! They like smart doorbells! They don’t lock their doors! They have an “absence of mind”! They run into you on the street! They smirk! They’re too loud! They look at you with empty eyes when you greet them! (Hey, I’m spitballing here, but it may have to do with being the creepy guy who stares out the peephole at them.) They call old-time residents “The Leftovers”! (Nobody has ever uttered this.) They give Moss IBS! (“I find the New People so distressing that just writing about them, in this moment, makes my sigmoid colon shudder.”) They all flee during the pandemic because they’re bored and then suddenly reappear, sparking more IBS flares!
Of course, this all works in Moss’s favor. First, by othering these New People, it excuses any of his own bad behavior like, for example, kicking their packages. “I only know the New People’s names because they appear on packages that accumulate in the hall where there never used to be packages. Now I’m always tripping over boxes. Sometimes I kick the boxes. Amazon, Amazon, Amazon. Sephora. Vineyard Vines with the smiling, pink, preppie whale. Kick, kick, kick,” he freely admits. Dude. If we’re going to go here, that’s incredibly ableist. Some people get packages because they can’t go out to the store. Or like me for much of 2020 and 2021, I had to ration out my energy. I know Moss would answer that’s not why THESE people are ordering online, but how do you know that?
Secondly, by invoking the New People over and over again, Moss shields himself from the inevitable observation: There’s nothing at all to distinguish him from these New People other than he remembers Mars Bar or something. He’s not a native New Yorker. He’s got a nice stable job as a psychoanalyst (one that luckily sustains him remotely through the pandemic). He’s middle class, or, as he terms it, “a class climber.” He just came to New York City before the New People did and apparently, that’s enough. Oh, plus, he just KNOWS he’s different.
He also uses these New People as straw men to shirk and avoid any opportunity to question his own privilege or responsibility. This becomes clear in the sixth chapter “The Cop in My Head,” which details how all these New People act as cops to police “the deviants.” Here this expresses itself in Moss feeling weird about riding his bike through Washington Square: “This is what happens to me in Washington Square when the cop in my head stops me from getting on my bike and riding around the fountain, but—and this is important—it only happens when the number of normals perceptibly exceeds the number of deviants. In a crowd of deviants, I am free to ride. Because the normal are the cops.” Yes, that’s it! It’s those OTHERS! Those NORMIES! This is not to say Moss doesn’t question his own white privilege in parts of the text. He does, but this line of questioning usually disappears as quickly as it arrives.
Does it not seem particularly screwy, at a time when we’re more divided than ever, to construct a whole new Other upon which to dump your own hangups and insecurities? Yet this isn’t all that uncommon. I see it all the time online (or, you know, through my entire graduate education at NYU) with a certain batch of self-convinced radicals that scoff at others who are absolutely on paper indistinguishable from them. There’s a certain kind of social cache to dunking on people you see as “normative” (whether homonormative or heteronormative) rather than trying to empathize with others and bring them closer. And that’s exactly what is missing here: empathy. While I too live in the East Village like Moss and recognize some of what he’s talking about (Santacon is coming…), these New People are just 20-somethings trying to figure it out in New York City. I have empathy for them (I was once a 20-something moron in NYC), which is something Moss has clearly avoided by grouping them together as if none of them have individual personalities, agency, or consciousness. It’s hard not to read his bile-soaked screeds and wonder if YOU were one of these New People giving him IBS!
Moss seems to have a lot more empathy for, to use his phrasing here, “the deviants”—the activists, primarily people of color, the queers, the eccentrics, the unhoused. I say seems because that empathy is shown to have its limits and a lot of the time something about his interactions with these people comes off as if they exist solely to act as twee bit characters in his Rent fantasy. Much of this has to do with the book’s style, which sees Moss doing his best Maggie Nelson impression, weaving critical theory, queer theory, literature, and psychoanalysis in between—and mostly to bolster—his own observations. In some parts, that comes off insightful, particularly when he’s addressing his own experiences as a trans man. In others, it really does not, especially when he’s analyzing people on the street. Take, for instance, Barbie:
“Barbie stands in the center, dressed in a grimy glitter dress and bunny slippers, her hair a long, woolly Niagara of matted ropes the color of wheat bread, reaching past her knees. She’s a homeless white woman, beyond middle age, and bears a resemblance to one of my maternal aunts, making her feel like family. She wears clotted blue eye shadow and red lipstick, rolls her own smokes, and performs a spectacle that transfixes me. Carrying a busted guitar she whangs with a fist, Barbie opens her mouth wide and thrusts to the sky a yodeling howl of pain and joy, wordless and without tune, the cry of being human in an animal body. The howl consists of two sounds, Oh and Ay, so it goes, “Oh, oh, oooooh” and “Ay, ay, aaaaay.” And “Oh, ay, oh, ay, oh, aaaay!” Where one vowel collides with another, there’s a glottalization, a throaty throttle deep in the vocal cords that makes the sound stagger as Barbie sings herself hoarse, hurling her barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. I too am not a bit tamed, Walt Whitman. I too am untranslatable.”
I dunno…For me, Barbie did not consent to have her, likely very tough, life analyzed through Walt Whitman as if it’s cute. Rather than considering her as a fully-formed person, Moss transforms Barbie into a symbol for his book’s central thesis: New York’s return to wildness. “In empty New York, a feral energy is returning to the streets. The word feral does not mean wild, but rewild, a creaturely life once free and then tamed, confined, and broken free again,” Moss enthusiastically gushes. Now, something about using the words feral and wildness (yes, I realize he’s drawing on Jack Halberstam) feels more than a little problematic here and I’m not the only one to think so. The Washington Post briefly tacked on criticism of this linguistic choice at the end of their largely laudatory review: “Moreover, the language of wildness and ferality is an odd — even poor — choice for a book that is so primarily about a movement for racial justice and that so prominently features the voices of people of color. Even as Moss shows up for protests, documenting them with the faithfulness of a student, critically aware of his own role in them as a White trans person, it’s a glaring oversight to use language that has so often, and to such violent ends, been weaponized against people of color.”
In this, Feral City reminds me of Bruce Benderson’s 1997 essay “Toward The New Degeneracy,” which has not, shall we say, aged well. In “Toward The New Degeneracy,” Benderson celebrates the “street people” he hangs with and cruises in Times Square as a source of creative inspiration. Nevermind the very real poverty and related challenges they face. For Benderson, it’s all about what he gets out of these exchanges, such as his novel User: “My identification with the people of the street allowed me to immerse myself in monologues that I could imagine taking place in their voices and their mind frame.” He even goes so far as to propose: “Street people speak of appetites and aggressions that artistic middle-class people can help them articulate.” Though Moss never goes quite this far, he, like Benderson, clearly envisions some sort of narcissistic opportunity for self-discovery within exchanges with people from a lower class. “I sometimes worry about romanticizing the gutter from the safe distance of my relative privilege,” Moss wonders in a startling moment of clarity, which is rapidly dismissed by a dive into Lady Chatterley.
Things get interesting when certain people get a little too wild for Moss’s tastes and we see him clutching his proverbial pearls. For example, after the budget vote, Occupy City Hall transformed into the more lawless Abolition Park, including “large numbers of unhoused people, mostly men” who, Moss hilariously describes as, not subscribing to the politics of Abolition Park. I think they’re mentally ill, not politically incorrect. He continues, “Day after day, I watch the occupation lose air as it changes shape, working to accommodate the unhoused population, to provide mutual aid, health care and meals, trying to heal generations of trauma. The task is overwhelming. I volunteer as a clinical social worker at the Mental Rest Tent, but when I see what’s required, and how little structural support is available, I chicken out after one day. I’m not proud of this. As a young social worker, I counseled homeless people, but it’s been a long time since I’ve de-escalated an angry psychotic and I don’t want to do it during an airborne plague.” Well, what about the untamed! The untranslatable! In a somehow even more telling later passage, Moss describes Avery, “a bohemian traveler I met on the pier,” who invites Moss to his hotel, which, subsequently in a spiral of anxiety, inspires an extended musing about a brutal murder of a man at the hand of two teenagers in Central Park in 1997. Moss gets so caught up in this man’s disembowelment that he, then, visits the exact spot of the murder. I think Avery was probably just trying to be nice. Jesus. Don’t visit his hotel then.
All of which reveals that Moss stands apart from this crowd too, though he drinks a whole lot of their nutcracker. He has the privilege to flit in and out of protests, strikingly never getting arrested or assaulted, and always able to use his rent-stabilized place as home base. So where does Moss fit into his own rigid social NYC hierarchy? That’s never quite clear. One thing is certain: definitely not with the essential workers who barely exist in this paradise of liberated New York! All those people who couldn’t take to the streets with newfound freedom from working remotely or collecting unemployment (which Moss mentions repeatedly) like nurses, doctors, restaurant workers, and delivery people are barely a blip on the radar of this over 250-page account of 2020. And when they do appear, it’s mostly in passing like the delivery workers who don’t, unlike the hyper-normals, yell at Moss for riding the wrong way on Broadway or a contractor who appears ready to plow through a protest march to get to work.
Like the latter example, these working people are treated with a dose of barely disguised scorn for not understanding the life-and-death activist mission, though these people are also mostly just trying to survive and keep their heads above water. A worry that Moss notably does not have. This comes to an almost satirical head during a Stonewall March in which they took to the streets to harass diners and struggling restaurants, shout “Fuck your dinner!” and twerk in people’s eggs benedict. For trans lives…I guess. Unsurprisingly, this action eventually turns sour when one restauranteur has enough. Moss recounts:
“In the cold, business is down and the last thing they want is a crew of protesters enlightening their customers about racist and transphobic violence over plates of charred octopus and escargot. At one French bistro, the owner grabs a protester by the arm. ‘This is my restaurant,’ he screams, ripping off his COVID mask, spitting with rage, ‘You people are so fucking stupid!’ In her silver ball gown, Joela intervenes, urging us to move along before the conflict can turn into a fistfight. As we march off, the restauranteur shouts, ‘We’re dying here! We are dying!’ He means his business is struggling, and while that is reason for distress, the word feels wrong in the presence of ghosts, a disavowal of the actual dead.”
Now, I’m not denying that keeping the names of murdered trans people in the public’s consciousness isn’t important. It is. And yet, targeting struggling businesses during an economic downturn seems like a particularly unhelpful if not downright mean approach, even if Moss quotes a political theorist in order to explain the action. Speaking personally, my food gets touched and someone’s getting impaled with a fork. Sorry. Regardless, all through Feral City, there is not much sympathy afforded to business owners who worked their asses off only to lose everything or somehow managed to make ends meet. Instead, Moss waxes poetic about consumerism disappearing. How anti-capitalist! His one gesture towards a counter opinion comes from his friend T who is upset at looting because comically: “Prada was my safe space…My happy space.” Quoting this absurd statement is woefully disingenuous on Moss’s part. There are plenty of other reasons to be against looting, such as it hurts workers who have to clean up others’ messes and may eventually lose their jobs as corporations decide the loss of inventory at a particular store isn’t worth it. Come on. This isn’t rocket science.
This willful ignoring of others’ suffering at the expense of his own radical white liberal fantasy traverses the entirety of Feral City. Are you wondering why I haven’t mentioned COVID at any length since the beginning of this review? Sure, Moss travels to gawk at the mobile morgue trucks, a ghoulish act of voyeurism that he manages to explain away by quoting Nora Ephron: “Death happens to be one of life’s main events.” “Should we turn away?” he asks. Yes, apparently. Other than mentioning hearing his neighbors coughing and wheezing down the stairs, worrying about dying for a piece of pizza, and giving a perfunctory nod to the dead, COVID disappears almost entirely after the first few chapters. The only time it rears its head is for Moss to point fingers at the New People for not wearing masks or quarantining. In contrast, the protesters, as he repeats three times, always wear masks. Every. Last. One. Of. Them. They’re the good ones, remember?
Notably, by the end of the book, Moss feels grief. Not for the tens of thousands of New Yorkers that died, mind you. He feels grief “for receiving joy and having it taken away, for watching my city come back to life only to vanish all over again.” The mind reels at the idea of writing and publishing this line. And the thing is I understand what Moss was going for. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue really did a number on a generation of writers (and readers) who just want to discover that same freedom Samuel Delany did in the sleaze of pre-Disneyfied Times Square. But doing it while floating past profound suffering just isn’t the way.