How To With John Wilson is an ode to weirdo New York. But that New York may not exist for long, as Mayor Eric Adams is determined to sand down the city’s nonconformist edges in the service of economic elites.
Filmmaker John Wilson attends HBO’s “How To With John Wilson” season two screening on November 10, 2021 in New York City. (Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for HBO)
Amid the tumult of 2020, the arrival of HBO’s How To With John Wilson felt like a necessary corrective. The understated, hilarious, and surprisingly moving documentary comedy series, now in its third and final season, is a window into a vibrant New York City at a time when a pandemic forced us inside and ground much of urban life to a halt.
Each episode of How To begins with a simple question, like how to dispose of your batteries or how to appreciate wine. Wilson’s search for answers sometimes takes him down rabbit holes beyond the five boroughs, but New York City is the show’s primary nucleus. The question-and-answer format structures the show, and the eccentricities of everyday New Yorkers color it in. Wilson rarely steps in front of the camera, but his haltingly awkward narration propels the show along as he documents street performers, public proposals, off-brand mascots, Avatar fanatics, Wall Street bankers, construction workers, Kyle MacLachlan incessantly swiping a MetroCard, and a woman covered in pigeons. Wilson inspires sympathy for everyone he comes across, from inept moving company workers dropping their client’s furniture to a well-timed piece of detritus that resembles a face.
Wilson’s New York is one where anything can happen and surprising turns of events are not uncommon. Some “only in New York” moments can be chalked up to serendipity, but Wilson also possesses an uncanny talent for identifying the weirdest guy on the street and figuring out what makes him tick. In a dehumanizing society, How To is an exercise in rehumanization. It also reminds us that our neighbors are worth fighting to save from powerful forces determined to grind them down, drive them out, and drain the city of its character.
In the season one finale, entitled “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto,” Wilson contemplates how much his elderly landlady, whom he calls Mama, takes care of him. She does his laundry, cooks, and invites him to watch Jeopardy every night. Wanting to return the favor, Wilson sets out to prepare a meal for Mama, a task complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and Mama’s sudden hospitalization. The risotto plotline ultimately serves as a meditation on the fragility of human connection in a time of forced isolation.
Let’s be real: among New York City landlords, there are hardly any Mamas. They just don’t fit into the profit-driven system. Mayor Eric Adams and his elite allies continue to defend and pursue pro-landlord policy using rhetoric about mom-and-pop landlords, but in reality a tenant in New York is far more likely to rent from a wealthy management company with a deep portfolio of units. And even small landlords are often exploitative rather than generous, as the real estate market and the policies that shape it disincentivize everything but complete anonymity and utter ruthlessness.
Each of Adams’s predecessors chipped away at New York’s quintessential character, but Adams has made major headway in a remarkably short time. He has slashed public school and library budgets. Policies ostensibly meant to help the city’s unhoused population instead dehumanize them, with a “zero-tolerance” mandate in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) subway and frequent raids on encampments, all while Adams attempts to kill the city’s long-standing “right to shelter” law. A former police officer, Adams has emboldened the New York Police Department to target low level offenses like turnstile jumping.
All of these policies create an increasingly hostile environment for the oddball New Yorkers like Mama. In Adams’s New York, How To subjects like a man playing the flute while perched upon scaffolding or a friendly neighborhood card game might encounter a cop with nothing better to do, resulting in a ticket, a fine, or even violence.
In capitalism, anything misaligned with the interests of the uber-rich is superfluous and disposable. Adams, a self-avowed capitalist ideologue, unsurprisingly prioritizes the needs of wealthy donors and real estate titans over those of the working class. In the process, the city’s nonconformist edges get sanded down.
Construction ramps up on luxury developments while everyday New Yorkers search high and low for affordable housing. This process squeezes out the working class, particularly the black working class, and in turn dampens the city’s spirit. Meanwhile, empty storefronts get scooped up and turned into high-end retail or another automated coffee shop where the drink is made by a machine rather than a barista. Gone increasingly are the kinds of hyperniche businesses seen on How To, such as a sports referee store or one catering to men under five feet, ten inches tall.
Ironically, Adams’s various quirks and irreconcilable personality traits qualify him as a genuine New York oddball. He enters a room with a theme song. He loves taking bubble baths. A viral video he made on how to check your child’s room for guns could be pulled straight from the Wilsonverse. Instead of embracing his idiosyncrasies and working-class roots, Adams has firmly allied with the city’s capitalist class, leaving the future of the city’s weirdos in jeopardy.
If his administration stays the course, nothing interesting or poignant will be left for Wilson to document.Original post