Commentary Magazine


Two Views of New York

The ex-American arrived in the city having just done thirty-five days of reserve duty in the Israeli army. He needed rest and recreation.

 

He required, in fact he deserved, a complete change from playing nursemaid to the mainly teenaged Palestinian rioters awaiting trial in one of the army’s many holding pens on the West Bank. He had had enough boredom, trouble, high alertness. Therefore he had headed for Manhattan.

Which it took him a few days to realize had greatly changed. That was how long the familiar, beguiling rush, triggered by exiting the Midtown Tunnel and sighting the tiara on the Chrysler Building, lasted.

He was in the mood to be fooled, to be charmed, by everything which was familiar, and some of what was new. Real pastrami. The steam curling from manhole lids at dawn. Sushi bars—when had they sprouted?

The ex-American, who was carrying a sleep deficit from the army, began by sleeping almost not at all. This energized him.

And more changes. The Koreans had taken over the groceries. The Israelis, his adopted countrymen, were the moving men. Sikhs and Hindus sold the greeting cards and newspapers. Regiments of women in the fourth decade of life raced to work lugging Mark Cross briefcases, neck and neck with their biological clocks.

He had abandoned the city as a young man in the Age of Aquarius, when to be from Israel was OK, and had returned to visit the big time in the age of something else, when the less said about where he was from the more comfortable people were with him.

The genuine, the important changes only began registering when he was making his way past a mound of garbage on Madison Avenue on a night with a serious wind chill factor, and the garbage asked him whether he could spare some change.

He could, and as he did he noticed that this human being had only one blanket to keep him from freezing. This was exactly four fewer than provided by the IDF to Palestinian detainees in a milder climate.

“Thank you, sir,” said the man to him. “I am not a bum. I just lost my wallet.”

The liberal ex-American went on his way shaken. “Fur Is Murder” he read stenciled between his feet at the next corner.

Incredibly, it was his first homeless person. He of course had heard about this and other problems. News gets around. Tom Wolfe’s novel reached Israel, which is not called the 51st State for nothing, after the briefest of delays, and reports of Trump split-ups and wildings in Central Park arrived as fast as they could be bounced off a satellite.

Hearing about the things happening back in the Old Country was one thing, however, and seeing them for himself was something else.

Now that he and the homeless had discovered each other, they were there wherever he went, homing in on him. They sniffed a tender-hearted newcomer from a kinder, gentler part of the world.

How could he walk on by a placard inscribed “Veteran With Aids”? He couldn’t, he didn’t, he gave the man a dime. He remembered that according to Jewish tradition, any bum, any panhandler, any homeless beggar might be the messiah in disguise. This was maybe the reason why beggars in Jerusalem considered themselves and were considered respectable citizens.

Nor did any of the unemployed or deranged Jews or Arabs who sifted through the garbage in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv have to sleep in the open. There were more of them than ever, due to the economic situation and the intifada, but like the Gazan guest-workers, they all had one sort of roof or another over their heads at night.

He kept a pocketful of nickels and dimes for distribution until he understood that this would never do. This way, he’d soon be out of funds himself and have to cut short his vacation. New Yorkers, especially women with good jobs and certificates-of-deposit, helped to set him straight.

“Don’t give,” counseled a young woman in publishing. “It only encourages them. Act tough and they won’t hassle you.”

Acting tough meant hardening the heart, switching into the deaf/ blind mode. The visitor managed it with ease. After all, as a veteran of service in the territories, he had learned how to be alert, and also how to play the kind of patriotic monkey which sees, hears, and speaks not.

He only made an exception for homeless women—there were few enough of them on the sidewalks of New York that he could give and soothe his conscience without savaging his budget.

_____________

 

Tough, yes—New York had always been a tough town, the ex-American remembered, a brusque burg, the town of Muzak in the elevator, the town of the livid cabbie. It tested you. This had been one of its virtues. But now that his initial kick was over, it seemed to him that New York had crossed the border from tough democracy to universal paranoia.

Had this move taken place before or after the focus of desire moved from groin to gullet? Restaurants were mobbed which were so handsome, so lovingly thought-out, they reminded him more of paintings or churches than eateries—and this was an ex-American who knew his Paris.

Not so high any more, he began looking up people from the old days. It emerged that a few had died of AIDS, and more had moved, with their children, to Vermont. Those remaining in the city were courageous and bereft of illusions or ideals.

“The scum should be cleaned out,” said a woman of the homeless pushers in conference around a fire in the park, visible from her window. “Ship them to the Catskills, I don’t want to see them.” And this was a woman who used to succor Black Panthers, etc. “Be alert at all times,” she advised.

Alertly, the ex-American caught a Woody Allen movie without subtitles. He then traveled downtown in a gleaming subway car, down to the municipal building, where an old friend high up in city government told him some of what was going on in the schools, the precincts, the hospitals, and was so dismaying it wasn’t even getting into the tabloids, much less the Times.

Yes, it was true, there were Uzis in Brooklyn. bystanders, unlike with the Mafia, were fair game. “Welcome to the real intifada, buddy.”

Skeptically, the ex-American rode the B train. The Upper West Side wasn’t Weimar-by-the-Hudson any more—time had seen to that. On the other hand, Columbia had contrived to save itself by becoming Asian-American, and the jazz was terrific.

A woman, another woman, told him with a mirthless smile that she had learned, after being mugged and injured in broad daylight, to wear her purse slung across her body, not down one side. This supposedly foiled would-be snatchers.

The ex-American informed her that, strangely enough, these were the same orders Israeli soldiers like him suppressing the Palestinian uprising got on how to wear their assault rifles.

The tourist soldiered on.

The Rising Sun illuminated Rockefeller Center. A squeaky-clean lesbian couple strode Prince Street. Gimbel’s was gone, as were the hippies, but Ralph Lauren was a wicked spoof of Waspdom, and it was noble of someone to have computerized and spruced up the library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Bicycle messengers—watch out!

Everywhere, fingernail salons and surveillance cameras. It seemed that even the strong and healthy, those with hefty salaries and a place to rest their heads, were obliged to radiate a modicum of menace to ward off trouble.

And who could disapprove of them? Who could blame the male bodybuilder, the black half of an interracial, heterosexual couple in a Ukrainian restaurant on St. Mark’s Place, for wearing steel-tipped boots?

Yet it was too bad.

_____________

 

The visitor from Israel refrained from mentioning any of the above when invited to a creamed crab brunch. It would have been gross, presumptuous, and wrong for him to go public with his perceptions—like a foreigner faulting Jerusalem.

So he just tried to enjoy himself, which he largely succeeded in doing, although the other guests seemed not to have anything to talk about except their recent and upcoming pleasures, and the terrible state of their city.

How nasty, how hurtful, it had become, they complained. It was becoming unlivable. It was no place to raise kids.

The more they grouched, and the more horror stories they told, the more doubtful he grew. He wondered at their disloyalty. Were they putting him on? Or maybe they were actually bragging.

If they were being sincere, then the truth, which the ex-American kept to himself, was that cities had always been pleasure palaces, ever since Babylon, dreams of anonymity and possibility, cruel places, almost as twisted as the countryside.

New York wasn’t, nor had it ever been, an exception—the New York of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos and Henry Roth was as vicious as that of Tom Wolfe. It was not only a mistake but egoistic to believe that the city had drastically changed.

The other guests were gobbling the crustaceans and talking about money and pleasure, fear and money. If two decades ago it took $50,000 per annum per couple to live well and safely in the city, now, what with the orthodontist’s bill for the offspring and other incidentals, it took twice that. At least!

Tenure, whatever its consolations, didn’t bring in that magnitude of money.

The stories got paraded—was it for the ex-American’s benefit? Of muggings and break-ins, homicide up the block and crack around the corner, flashers at the sandbox and breathers on the answering machine. Yes, they were recited with relish.

“It’s Koch’s fault.”

“No, it would have been worse without him. You’ll see now that he’s gone.”

“Sometimes I dream of calling Moishe the Mover and telling him to take us out of here, to anywhere.”

“Yes, to somewhere that’s more fun. This monogamy is getting to me.”

It was the excellent rose working, the ex-American judged, as he listened to the others agree that heterosexual AIDS was a lie, a myth, but such was the fear that the deterrent effect on straights, Marla Maples notwithstanding, was the same as if the plague struck everyone. Before even the tepidest sex could occur now, the hematologists and private eyes had to be called in.

_____________

 

What is all this? The ex-American thought to himself in a haze of food and drink. What are they talking about?

The homeless, the demented, the strung-out, the unlucky, the infuriated, the dangerous, the contagiously sick weren’t new on the scene, he was thinking to himself. It was Kitty Genovese’s city more than two decades before, and it was Mr. Sammler’s planet. Then as now, it was the place where the young came to make it and they and the rich lived it up.

The death of New York was like the death of the novel—often announced, never verified.

And if the city contained more casualties than before, they couldn’t be the most important thing about the world’s greatest crossroads, its powerhouse, the capital of the Free World at the moment of the Free World’s victory. The malcontents around the table were letting middle age and the cash crunch warp their perspective.

Besides, New Yorkers weren’t as hard-hearted as they liked to pretend.

The hostess noticed that the ex-American was lost in thought. “You’ve been away so long,” she said to him. “Do you see anything new?”

“Well, the atriums.”

“Yes?”

“And the keffiyehs.”

”The what?” said her husband.

“You know, the black and white checked scarves with the tassels. It’s the Palestinian headgear, a kind of signature. I see them everywhere.”

“Oh yes.”

A little anxiety settled over the company.

“Is it a political thing?” asked the ex-American.

The quick consensus around the table was that it was just a fashion statement.

_____________

 

Margot Terentiev:

Snootiness gets punished unpoetically. In the early 80′s, about to go to America on a Fulbright grant, I listened with disdain to the admonitions of a cultural officer at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw who was sincerely trying to give me an orientation course in the ways of her country. In the half-hour routinely put aside for, I guess, acculturation of visitors from behind the iron curtain, the nice bore was trying to impress on me how important it was always to show up on time. She kept talking about the necessity of maintaining personal hygiene and proper physical distance from people.

To a self-styled paragon of refinement like me, what she was doing was an insult, a pure example of cultural racism. A conscientious student of things American and a journalist with a graduate diploma in international politics, I felt I was well prepared to face the abundance of the United States and the sophistication of the New York I was about to experience. After all, New York occupies so much space in literature (I had majored in American literature) and there are so many movies set in New York (I had seen them all) that, if you learn anything of importance in life, you learn about New York. Theater buffs (guess who?) know the exact location of La Mama before they even set foot on the Lower East Side. One expects thrills, what else?

No culture shock for me, I decided early on, and arrived in New York with a firm resolution not to be impressed. Properly tutored in and guided to the tourist attractions of the city, I acknowledged them quietly, in a dignified way worthy of an East European politician (of the bygone era, who, upon encountering the breathtaking sights from the top of the World Trade Center, is rumored to have remarked gracefully: it looks very nice . . . from a distance). I did feel a little weak in the knees when I saw the price of a Gucci handbag at Saks Fifth Avenue. But I was totally unmoved by the Statue of Liberty. I swallowed the Guggenheim Museum in the crisp January sun, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Trump Tower, and even the joggers in Central Park casually wearing out their fancy sweat-suits and soiling Reeboks without any apparent worry about replacing them. Then, most appropriately, I was defeated by meat.

First, during dinner at a friend’s home, came the steak big enough, I thought, to feed a family for a week. The year was 1982. Back in Poland shortages of rationed meat were at their martial-law worst. I was quite unaccustomed to such luxuries as recognizable cuts, let alone marbled, juicy T-bone steak. But, determined to hold my own in the face of excesses of the consumer culture, I almost finished the monstrosity on my plate, as I formulated intelligent opinions on differences between the Soviet and the American ballet. Then came strips of bacon at breakfast, followed by the Metropolitan Museum and hamburgers at 21, and A Chorus Line and more steak and lobster in the evening. Grand Central, though impressive, was really too new to occupy my attention for very long (“by the way, didn’t they want to tear it down at one time?”), as I had to handle a hot dog dripping with sauerkraut. Throughout the liberal-arts sightseeing program, I held my head high. It was not until lunch on the third day that I finally conceded defeat to a rack of spareribs the size of a concert accordion. I got sick. Meat did not figure in my high-culture reckoning of the cultural capital of the world.

Nor did the embassy crash course prepare me for the neurotic energy of Manhattan. I kept coming back to New York from Philadelphia to augment my academic gains with the worldly perspective. Driving, I narrowly avoided brushes with ram-prow-equipped taxis. Strolling, I was constantly bumped into. I had to quicken my pace to keep up with the rush. I felt the charged, fleeting spirit of the city in a desperate solitary clown mimicking my gait in front of the Public Library on 42nd Street. I heard it in blues bands playing on street corners in the summer. I saw it in yellow cabs performing their disappearing act on rainy days. Even the high-strung quality of New York’s vice, which, I felt, was the direct physiological effect of crack, was magnetically different from the drunken stupor of the metropolitan netherworld in Eastern Europe.

_____________

 

I wanted to get on the inside, share the frenzy of crowds that spilled out of office buildings at lunch time, descended upon bars during “happy hours,” and filled the clubs at night. I knew that frantic work, creative, sensible, efficient, or otherwise, would exhilarate the manic and reassure the depressive in me. Not a Sunday city, New York worked hard even when it played. Where else in the world did lunchtime athletes exude so much doggedness? I, too, wanted to have fun if it killed me. Gertrude Stein’s elusive “there” must be here, where else? To become a New Yorker meant to have arrived.

Unlike Paris, which to the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz was unashamedly coquettish in its post-beauty ugliness, New York was no flirt. It was brashly assertive, mindlessly confident of its dubious charms. It made no effort to woo anybody. Yet people came in droves, leftist losers and small-time conservatives alike, drawn by the city’s hip image or by its take-no-prisoners business reputation, which for serious players of the game of power and money represented the ultimate in cool and sexy.

This was a city where an interior designer might charge $500 for a “custom throw” of a single pillow onto a sofa. A handful of strawberries in season was $8 at some upscale food stores. I went to Zabar’s and Balducci’s to gawk and learn, and then shopped for produce at the Union Square farmer’s market, where “organically grown,” blemished apples looked dangerously like those I remembered from childhood. My grandfather, the baker, who believed in minding the store himself and giving away leftover bread to the poor, would have been hard pressed to understand the logic of the power breakfast. He would have wondered at having to pay more for meat that had less fat.

Not I. In time, I became the condescending New Yorker who believed that, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” In fact, even barely making it was a victory. So I thought I was smarter, “savvier” than visitors from that world which, in Saul Steinberg’s quintessential New Yorker cover, occupied the territories between Newark and the Pacific Coast. I joked about New Jerseyans who come once a week dressed in their Saturday-evening best to strut along my St. Mark’s Place, posing as heavy-metal musicians and starving artists, only to be back in their three-piece suits and their banking and computer jobs on weekdays. Oh, the obnoxiousness of a native New Yorker is nothing compared to that of a self-congratulating implant.

_____________

 

Then I began discovering my own New York. There I found people and images and emotions that inhabited my grandmother’s reminiscences of prewar Warsaw. What a waste of energy. I had traveled 4,000 miles and thirty-odd years for bargains in fabrics on Orchard Street, for the real taste of bagels and knishes, for conversations with inexplicably familiar Jews who carried memories of Poland half a century ago, some good, some disastrous.

In Brooklyn’s Little Odessa, I found myself in a time warp. I realized that Brighton Beach, with its boardwalk on the ocean where overdressed young women stroll, munching on pumpkin seeds and listening to accordion music, is what Odessa would have felt and looked like had there never been a Bolshevik Revolution. Here, you won’t find pathetic services, still available in Russia, like mending runs in stockings or fixing cigarette lighters to make them refillable. Here, they pay for caviar with food stamps. But, with luck and persistence, you can still have dull cuticle shears sharpened and your fifty-year- old typewriter repaired.

My Ukrainian neighbors on the Lower East Side had also done their share of futile transatlantic traveling to recreate a home no less real than what they had left behind. True, the sidewalk in front of the Ukrainski Narodni Dim, the Ukrainian people’s hall, is strewn with bodies of drugged-out aging hippies from the decade I hadn’t caught up with. Yet the Ukrainians have staked out their stretch of Second Avenue permanently. As they walk to church on Sunday wearing heavy, beaver-collared topcoats and fedoras, their wives in perms as tightly curled as their astrakhan furs, elderly Ukrainians simply step over the derelicts without really noticing them.

Forget socioeconomic factors. For me, it is historical mysticism that the Polish section of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint is just across the river from Manhattan’s Ukraine and borders the Orthodox Jewish Williamsburg. My grandmother would have enjoyed squabbling with the Ukrainian butcher and blaming the local Jewish grocer for whatever ills might plague the economy. Greenpoint has the same grimy, impoverished look as the Lomzas and the Przasnyszes the Poles have left to become rich in America. The aluminum and cardboard of Greenpoint’s Manhattan Avenue is all some of those tourists ever get to see of anything called Manhattan.

It was in New York that history screened itself for me as I, now an editor of a Polish newspaper, watched in disbelief the political battles prewar Polish “national democrats” still wage against prewar socialists. Ghosts of long-dead statesmen and artists sponsor otherworldly works of institutes and organizations whose poverty matches only their secretiveness. Unreal successes are celebrated, meaningless treasons are denounced, and lost causes are pursued at annual rallies. At patriotic gatherings meat is eaten with abandon but nobody overdoses. There is no need to be defiant.

For these people, the world of international politics as it is presented in academic textbooks exists only to prove or disprove semi-historical arguments about Poland and the Ukraine and whether Lithuania is rightfully ours. Emotions flare up whenever Jews are discussed, which is all the time, because, as everybody knows, New York belongs to the Jews, and look what’s happening to this city. New immigrants get drawn into age-old debates and, as they become émigrés, they slip more and more back into history.

On both sides of the East River, immigrants, old and new, stay together, locked in ancient fights they have carefully brought over from Europe, isolated from the other, picture-postcard New York, which is unknown and hostile. Here they sit, curing homesickness with pierogis, sausage, and broth, each group swearing by its own national varieties. And here am I, washed ashore by an undertow of disagreement, suffering, and affection, surprised, doubting, with no desire to go anywhere, because, if I’m here, I can be just about everywhere.

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