Sunday, September 8, 2013

Revisiting New York and...

This is an etching I bought by Philippe Lejeune because it reminded me of the view I saw as a child.

Lejeune told me this is the 1940s photograph by Andreas Feininger that inspired him. 
Turns out the photo IS the view I saw from our apartment building.

The fog sits heavily atop the New York skyline — so thick it smudges out the crisp linear edges of the skyscrapers outlining the sky.  And now the rain is coming down heavily.  I didn’t expect it.  It’s not a horrible rain but it is steady and does put a damper on things as I haven’t thought to bring any raingear.  The bus I'm on is stuck in traffic, inching along the crowded side streets.  A police car with siren and flashing lights comes up alongside our crawling bus and tries to squeeze through the tight line of cars — every vehicle's fighting for a foot or two of progress.

Since my last visit things have changed: now the sidewalk hot-dog stands have LED advertising displays and falafel is dispensed from miniaturized Airstream lookalikes with shiny aluminum exteriors and a snug little stand-up cabin space for the guy inside the cart shelling out warm pita pockets filled with crispy falafel balls all dressed in shredded lettuce, parsley, and tahini sauce.

My mother always said, “Stand on any street corner in Manhattan and within fifteen minutes you will see every fashion trend that ever was walk by.” Our bus has been stopped at a light for fifty seconds and I have seen four skirt-lengths — mid-calf, below the knee, above the knee, and thigh-high — walk by. Mother was right.

The book that spawned the
actual museum in Istanbul.
The young woman sitting next to me is speaking in a foreign language on her cell phone.  Sticking out of her bag was a rolled-up poster with only one word visible — “INNOCENCE” — and I knew she must have been to The Museum of Innocence and that it was likely she was Turkish.  When she confirmed what I suspected, I said I was second-generation Armenian and she asked from where?

“Diyarbakir — though the Armenians won’t say that's Turkey.”

“Turkey doesn’t consider it Turkish either,” she agreed and added quietly, “Kurdish.”  Yes, I nod in acknowledgement — the Kurds — another group persecuted by the Turks (though certainly not by this nice young graduate student studying anthropology at SUNY-Binghamton).

How is it that on this bus of 54 passengers I am next to the one person who is Turkish?  Is it a test?  Is it testing my lack of forgiveness?  I am found wanting.

The bus is making its way along Boulevard East (after the assassination, renamed Kennedy Boulevard) and I pass Liberty Place and 849 Gladdon Hall where I spent the first 4 ½ years of my life.  We are getting close to the small park on the cliffs facing the west side of Manhattan where Aaron Burr fought a tragic duel with Alexander Hamilton and killed him.

Hamilton Park in Weehawken
I am shocked to look down the steep drop of 47th St in West New York where way down on the Hudson River’s edge are substantial apartment complexes of two-tone brick and gabled roofs. It is a stunning view and Manhattan seems a stone’s throw away.  As a child I saw that view and imagined the Empire State Building was my next door neighbor.  We pass building after building — The Camelot, The Shakespeare, The Carla Nicole — here and there are some brick single-family homes interspersed among the high rises.

At home our mail is delivered by car to each block with the postal workers getting out to hand-deliver the mail house-to-house.  Here up north the mail carriers are wheeling their mail carts door-to-door to each apartment building with its many individual mailboxes and signs outside that say No Loitering Allowed

It isn’t just the mail delivery or the imposing skyscrapers that make life here different, it’s the sounds all around you.  In the short time since arriving, just on this bus I’ve heard French, German, Spanish, Yiddish, Arabic, and — what sounds to be Romanian or Czech (turns out it was Portuguese).  Everywhere are people who are speaking a variety of languages and bringing with them the sensibilities of their culture — it is far from homogeneous!  It IS the mosaic of life in the US.  I never saw it as a melting pot because that would mean a merging, a disintegration and loss of identity but a mosaic — everyone retains their identity and distinctly represents a different cultural position, even while wearing oversized, prominently branded Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses.  The bus is driving down Broad Avenue, Maple Avenue, Elm Avenue — all very American-sounding but the store signs for the drycleaners, grocery, and dance studio are subtitled in Korean, Chinese, or Vietnamese.

I like this array of cultures, I appreciate the diversity on display. I love NOT knowing what I’ll come across next.

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