Fran Lebowitz is one of my favorite New Yorkers. She’s produced two collections of essays called Metropolitan Life (1978) and Social Studies (1981), written for Interview magazine, appeared as a judge in several episodes of Law & Order, and was profiled by Martin Scorsese in the HBO documentary Public Speaking (2010). So what makes her a gem? Her wit. The way she blends intelligence and creativity into conversation. In short, she’s the friend who’ll kiss you and kick you in the same breath, but you go on loving her anyway. She’s just too sharp and endlessly self-deprecating to hate.
Last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), I got to hear Ms. Lebowitz in person for the first time. Primed by friend and moderator Martin Scorsese, she disposed of New York-related topics at such an acerbic rate that the great director was drowned in wave upon wave of laughter. Half the joy of being with them was to discover just how far she could get him going.
Here’s a few of the exchanges I remember:
Martin Scorsese [MS]: So what’s a good thing about getting older?
Fran Lebowitz [FL]: You know everything. You already know everything you are capable of learning. So hearing other people talk becomes much more annoying with age.
MS: What did you think of [former Mayor Michael] Bloomberg?
FL: The amazing thing about Bloomberg is I never thought I’d get the chance to vote against him three times! *
MS: What do you like about [new Mayor] Bill de Blasio so far? **
FL: That I haven’t heard the word ‘tourist’ come out of his mouth yet.
MS: How do you feel about the new ‘pedestrian plazas’ opening in Manhattan? ***
FL: I mean, what are all these plants doing in Times Square anyway? And on the Bowery — everywhere. Trinkets, planters, lawn chairs! New York looks like my grandmother’s living room. I keep expecting to find glass dishes filled with sour candies and photos of dead relatives between the bushes.
MS: You really don’t like Whole Foods [the one the corner of Houston and the Bowery] do you?
FL: Well, what you have essentially at Whole Foods is a grocery store with its own foreign policy. It’s one of the worst places in all of New York. When you finally get to the check out line the girl asks you — with contempt — ‘Do you want a shopping bag?’ Like me refusing a shopping bag is going to stop carbon emissions. I don’t own a coal mine! So I’m saying to myself, ‘No, I’m just going to juggle these 27 cans ten blocks back to my apartment!’
And, finally, these two questions posed during the Q & A segment with the audience:
Audience Member #1 [on crutches]: Hi, Fran! I just moved here to New York from Spain. I’m on these crutches because a police car hit me in the street and now I’m suing the City. You live in New York. So what I want to know is: How long will it take me to get my money?
FL: You know, people ask me this all the time…
Audience Member #2 [seemingly able-bodied]: So, at this point, is there really any difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan?
FL: Yes, it’s further away. Thank you very much!
And with that, they left the stage.
Image by Rick Stachura. January 19, 2014.
Mr. Scorsese, left, and Ms. Lebowitz on stage at the Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music.
(This story was originally posted to my old Tumblr site on January 21, 2014.)
*Bloomberg was a three-term mayor.
**Bill de Blasio had just started his first month as mayor.
***The Department of Transportation introduced pedestrian plazas near the end of Bloomberg’s third term. They’re still here.