New York State of Mind

This Month Natural Selections interviews Matthew Meselson, Visiting Professor from Harvard University. By May Dobosiewicz.


From: California

Been Here: Two months

Staying in: The Upper East Side 

What brought you to NYC?

We thought it would be warmer with not as much snow and rain as Boston, but we’ve had one really unusual winter here!

Do you come often?

Yes, pretty often. We have a son and daughter down here, and now we are introducing two of our grandchildren to New York. My wife grew up in New York. There’s something about the air here, she feels like she’s at home.

Do you remember the first time you came to New York?

Yes, it was 1949. I used to make rare earth chemicals and sell them to the AD Mackay Company on 198 Broadway when I was a kid in Los Angeles, California. I came to New York and wanted to visit the company, imagining it would be some fabulous place with all kinds of chemists, but instead it was just a little office and a room with shelves and shelves of dusty bottles. I was selling praseodymium oxide and samarium oxide—really pure stuff—for 60 cents a gram, and they were charging about ten dollars for it. A huge markup! The old couple that owned the company took me out for lunch, told me they were going to retire, and that if I wanted the company, I could have it for free. I was only 19 years old, and I thought, do I really want to spend my life doing that? I said “No” and got on a ship to La Havre, France.

What do you think of New Yorkers?

In experimenting on New York, I decided to smile at people in the tunnel of Rockefeller, where you cross paths with all kinds of people, and I compared this to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles. In LA, people are already smiling anyway. In the RU tunnel, people are not, but if you smile at them, they smile right back. In Cambridge, if you smile at them, they look frightened. I think it’s really significant—the n value is at least 100.

Do you like the New York restaurant scene?

Elsewhere, waiters do certain terrible things, like saying, “Are you still working on that?” I don’t work on my food; I enjoy it and eat it. Or “There you go,” as they serve something—I’m not going anywhere! But in New York, the waiters seem just right; they don’t intrude, more professional. If you want intrusive waiters, you want ones who are good at it. Go to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, where they take a delight in abusing you. That’s a place you remember going to.

How do you feel about New York politics?

That’s an exciting thing about New York. Bloomberg was pretty good at improving things for the upper middle class and making New York attractive to investors and companies. Without that, the city would die. On the other hand, there are a lot of people here who are not into hedge funds; it sounds like the right sequence of events that you should now have de Blasio. He understands that early education is really important. The whole country, maybe the whole world, will be watching New York to see how it works. If it can’t be done in New York, then it can’t be done anywhere except maybe little towns, and that would be very bad news for the country. I wish him luck.

Do you feel that New York has a huge class divide?

Huge, even though some like to think there isn’t. In New York, having money seems more important than in other places. It’s expensive to live here, and that may influence the ambiance. It’s harder to live like a bohemian here, I’d imagine.

Do you go to the opera?

Yes, we’ve seen every Met Opera that’s been on since we’ve been here. We also saw this terrific production of Twelfth Night and a Harold Pinter play, and we’re going to see Prince Igor. People say that’s fabulously good. And La Bohème, which everyone has to see over and over again.

If you could change one thing about New York, what would it be?

I would create here a lovely apartment for me.

Would you spend the rest of your life here?

No. From December to March, we escape Cambridge to the Bahamas and Los Angeles, with Christmas in Paris, France. If you’d give me a nice place in New York, I’d put New York right in there though.

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