An old friend and colleague of mine, knowing I was a New Yorker by birth, once told me a story about the day he arrived from Istanbul to start grad school in linguistics at an American university: that evening he went straight to a jazz club so he could hear a live performance of the music he’d come to love on phonograph records. A Black man sitting next to him heard his accent and asked where he was from. “Istanbul, Turkey.” My friend put the same question to his neighbor, and has remembered the answer forever after: “It’s so NICE they named it TWICE. NEW York, NEW York.”
What is it about my hometown that makes even its name lilt like the hip line of a jazz song, like the verse of a Beat poem? Let’s start with a bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and its builder, John A. Roebling. He was a German-American: a third of white Americans have some German ancestry, and many of their forefathers were democratic freethinkers who fled to these shores after the failed revolutions of 1848. The events of the 20th century have obscured the older reputation of German culture as an engine of progress, of liberal enlightenment. The state constitution of Indiana is bilingual in German and English, and one of our very greatest writers, Kurt Vonnegut (read Cat’s Cradle if you haven’t yet, and widen your mind), who was at the fore of our spiritual and literary flowering in the 1960s, was a German-American from Indiana. (He settled down in NYC, on the upper East Side, though, with his wife Jill Krementz, the photographer.) Roebling watched from Brooklyn Heights as his poem of steel, stone, and air, the Brooklyn Bridge, rose over the vast waters of river and harbor. Its twin stone towers are arched like a cathedral; its catenaries and cables are arrayed like the strings of King David’s harp.
The Bridge. Hart Crane, a young homosexual from the Midwest, who came to inherit the imperishable laurel of Walt Whitman and his Manahatta, wrote a cycle of poems about it; the bisexual Russian country boy Sergei Yesenin (he had a love affair with Isadora Duncan, they were the Warhol Factory avant la lettre) sang of it; the Russian bard of the Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, acclaimed it in strident verses en escalier. Because it is the incarnation of mathematical equations, because it can stand only because of calculations in physics, the Brooklyn Bridge, though a creation of poetic imagination and bearer of emotion, is also capable of being expressed, without loss of its essence, in diagrammatic black and white. So are the vertical edifices of Manhattan: the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center that now live in the city’s heroic historical memory. Black and white does not drain a thing of affect, though; it defines a kind of movie. And one reverts also back to music, that untranslatable language written in black ink on white paper, living in mathematical realities— measured releases of air, measured vibrations of a string. There are many kinds of music to be heard in the air on a given night in the city, but I think the uniquely American genre of music is a gift of Black people— jazz, blues, rock and roll. Perhaps it took a newcomer, somebody from a different culture altogether, to perceive how that Black sound might be savored and orchestrated. Thus, the Russian Jewish American, George Gershwin, delighting in this rare treasure, wrote Rhapsody in Blue, which Woody Allen (another New York Jew) uses in the great black and white paean that introduces “Manhattan”.
And another song. An Italian American, Frank Sinatra, an Italian American and New Jersey native, calls on the world to start spreading the news, because he’s coming to New York, New York. (For those of you who live on the Moon or have overstayed a life sentence in the Gobi Desert, “it’s so nice they named it twice” is because NY the city is in NY the state. Okay?)
And there’s another New York Jew (yes, there are lots of them, and some boring bigots eking out their dull lives in forgettable places still spitefully call the place Jew York, and those bigots can all go fuck themselves), the composer Aaron Copeland: they used his “Appalachian Spring”, which draws on American folk music, this time the songs of settlers from Britain in Appalachia, unforgettably, as the soundtrack to a documentary on 9/11. When I was a college freshman, I belonged to a society of scholars who received a stipend and were treated to dinner with a famous person monthly. The John Jay scholars were bored by Copeland and the conversation waned so I had him to myself all evening. A few months later, the same thing happened with Alfred Kazin, the Walker in the City. A good deal, looking back. The historian Barbara Tuchman (The Guns of August) asked our group what they thought about World War II. One kid, some hick, I supposed, from one of those places where they call the city Jew York, said the victims of the Holocaust deserved it because they didn’t fit in. Tuchman was so taken aback my this yahoo that the discussion withered, and guess what, I had her to myself. Yet again. As for the little creep who believed nonconformists deserve the gas chamber, well, in the words of Federico García Lorca, the Poeta en Nueva York, in his Ode to Walt Whitman, Os cierren las puertas de la bacanal(“Let them shut the gates of the Bacchic revel in his face!”)
NYC is the place where you fit in, no matter who or what you are or where you’re from. You become a New Yorker by moving there. It’s a mathematical, sociological, cultural, linguistic, geographical, phenomenological proof that the whole concept of ethnic, religious, national, and sexual identity, never mind race, is unhealthy nonsense. A study in contrasts: Boston, a mere two hundred miles northeast up the coast, is where important things happened long ago but we missed it, since there’s been nothing since except snotty Brahmins with their stuffy boarding schools, dreadful cuisine, and stingy architecture (they call it restraint; I call it constipation). When I moved there and found it colder indoors than out in the arctic snow, somebody assured me that you can “belong” after a few centuries. But who would want to wait around that long just to inhabit an underheated clapboard jail, get scrod, and read Emerson’s windy rubbish? No wonder Bostonians walk around with a chip on their lacrosse-playing shoulders. Their stunted town exists only to illustrate its own failure. Sorry, sir, your application to the Bacchanal has been blackballed.
A Turk and a Black man walk into a jazz club? Wait a minute, is that the opener of a joke? No, it’s what happened (see line one of this excursion). Same as Germans, Jews, Russians, and Spaniards, gays and straights, writing the architectural, musical, and verbal poem of the Brooklyn Bridge that metonymizes New York City. But I mentioned Lorca. Here’s more, since so much of New York, and America, rests on Hispanic foundations.
The Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina wrote a novel about culture and exile, Sefarad. Sefarad is the Hebrew name of the Iberian peninsula, which my Mom’s side of the family left five centuries ago: after the expulsion order of 1492, the Jews reluctantly parted with our old homes, taking some illuminated manuscripts, a few keepsakes, the key to the front door, and the Spanish language. Some went to Salonica, the Greek port in the realm of the Ottoman Sultan (Mom’s mother’s clan); others, to the Muslim kingdom of Morocco (Grandpa’s family). My grandparents met in Manhattan in the early 1920s. Grandma had come over after the great fire in Salonica on the Greek ship Megali Hellas, which brought many Greeks and Armenians to this country.
Molina’s book, which is a masterpiece I recommend, ends unexpectedly— and for me very poignantly— with a bus trip. He and his wife have been downtown for a sabbatical as visiting NYU faculty, and on their last day before returning to Madrid they go uptown, as it happens, to my old neighborhood. This is a hilly, green part of Manhattan just south of the George Washington Bridge that very few tourists ever visit. The stately neo-Classical museum complex of Audubon Terrace (so named because James Audubon’s earthly remains rest in the cemetery across the road) houses the American Academy of Arts and Letters (to which Kurt Vonnegut belonged, and also William S. Burroughs, who lived in the East Village in an appropriately paranoid flat promptly named The Bunker) and the Hispanic Society, whose museum boasts a few Goyas and Velasquez’s. The Molinas met a Spanish woman who worked at the museum and lived nearby, above the restaurant La Flor de Broadway.
My family lived for the first four years after I was born on 164th and Broadway, then on 160th and Riverside till September 1963 when we moved up to Washington Heights, which boasted so many Armenians (a calligrapher and graphic designer, the translator of the Shah-nameh, a great theologian, and many others whom I knew and remember, may their memory be crowned with glory) that it was punningly called Washington Hayotz (“of the Armenians”). Molina had walked into the secret terrain of my early youth, my very soul, an affable guest, a friend, and I read to the end in bewildered joy. It was his last day in New York; the neighborhood is in my own irretrievable past. My town is not interested in the noxious shit of “blood and soil”. Like I said, you become a New Yorker by setting foot there. Both of us belong.
And now to begin. It’s a pleasantly cool, cloudy sort of early spring day, about three weeks ago. My parents are 94, in an old age home, I’d hoped to visit them last year, Covid changed those plans. Now I’d finally been vaccinated, had waited a fortnight for the elixir to kick in, and had flown to Newark. Our flight landed early, during rush hour. The taxi sped north towards the Bridge on a nearly empty Jersey Turnpike: many are working at home, some are not working. In upper Manhattan: Dominican kids walking around in masks. My brother’s waiting for me with a glass of scotch. On the next morning I’m walking around the old neighborhood, it’s very beautiful, intricate childhood memories crowd every inch. I walk down to Audubon Terrace, think of Molina, and turn into the warren of old apartment buildings nearby. (The Hispanic Society is still closed, though Boricua College is open and the guards and I greet each other.) There is a café I’d not seen before, so I walk in and ask the proprietor for a cup of his very best coffee since I’m celebrating a homecoming. As it happens, Haitham is from Tunisia, speaks perfect Spanish, loves al-Andalus, and knows the Jews and the Sephardic heritage. He lives nearby in the building where my aunt Gloria used to live. We talk about the neighborhood, and I tell him about Molina’s novel, out of which he, Haitham, has just stepped.
A novel read in old age, three thousand miles away, unexpectedly enters the soul of the sacred and secret, most intimate spaces of one’s childhood. One returns to those places, wanders about, and finds a café whose proprietor has in turn stepped fully formed and conscious back out of the pages of the novel, into the old-new reality. Thank you, Antonio and Haitham!
In my rambles through the old neighborhood, thinking of the layered literature and music of the place and the lives it has seen, I come across this, on Audubon Terrace:
A good book, said Milton, is the precious life blood of a master spirit. But blood takes up space, and New Yorkers pay dearly for every square foot. Everywhere in the city, especially in parks and outside restaurants and subway stations, there are boxes and shelves outdoors offering free books. Often on my way to the 181st Street station (“Take the A train,” says the song, and that’s what I have always done) I don’t bring reading matter for the ride since the box in Bennett Park (the highest point on the island of Manhattan) or the shelf outside the synagogue where I was Bar Mitzvah can provide it: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Charles Fort’s Lo! The subways run often and are generally very clean, much cleaner than before the pandemic: they are now closed between 2 and 4 a.m. for disinfecting. Everybody wears a mask. Everywhere. The subways are only about a third full. Even in rush hour you can get a seat. There are signs in English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and other languages telling us: Wear a mask! Other signs warn us to keep a social distance. Who used that expression, “social distance”, before the pandemic except to explain in sociological terms that the English do not like to touch each other, while Greeks and Italians do? (I think Harold Takooshian first used the term in conversation in my memory. We were going together to the Massis Armenian Bookstore on East 22nd, and it was a hot day in the summer of 1974. I found there one of the three or four copies known to exist of the journal where the great bard of Soviet Armenia, Yeghishe Charents, published his first poems. Hagop Arejian, the proprietor, let me have the magazine for a quarter just because I knew what it was. He was carrying a saz and eating a bowl of bulghur. He thought we were there to buy soft porn and couldn’t quite believe we’d come for the Armenian books, which were in an unvisited treasure room at the back of the shop.)
Will masking and social distance become instruments of control and modes of signaling virtue, rather than common sense precautions against infectious disease? Some of my friends in the City think so. A stranger wrote this on one of those monitory plaques in the subway station on Central Park West next door to the Museum of Natural History:
Since when are Communists social distancers? Brezhnev was big on kissing everybody on both cheeks. “Come and keep your comrade warm,” crooned the Beatles in “Back in the USSR”. In a song about a man about to visit the decadent West, the Soviet Jewish satirist Vladimir Vysotsky has the hero counseled when asked about sex in the Soviet Union to reply Мы с этим кончили давно! (“We put an end to that a long time ago!”) But I get it: totalitarianism. Some New Yorkers will stare censoriously at you if you remove your mask in the middle of an empty meadow. (If nobody hears a tree fall in a forest, is it wearing a mask?) But after all, smack in the middle of the island, diagonally across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, there it is, the giant dark cube of the New York Times, once a newspaper, now the epicenter of the Big Lie, the satellite of Satan, the unclean dead zone of earthly and spiritual evil. Though it still publishes good recipes.
The city after a year of Covid: Midtown isn’t boarded up and the police are visible and on duty: I don’t know where the media pick up those scare stories. But many office towers are nearly dark, and even Times Square isn’t crowded. People are working from home; and many of the restaurants and other businesses that catered to commuting workers are out of business. There aren’t too many tourists: on the flight back to LA you could pretty much choose the empty row you wanted to sit in. In Greenwich Village on a weekday evening the bars and restaurants are doing business, though: the city government has allowed them to build covered and partitioned terraces stretching out into the road. Traffic in midtown is sparse, but that is partly intentional: many lanes have been converted into green spaces or are restricted to bicycles. Bicycles are lined up everywhere for rent. On the New Jersey turnpike going north in rush hour, there’s hardly anybody there. But the George Washington Bridge, which links several big interstate arteries, is as always jammed with cars and trucks. The residential neighborhoods are as populous as ever. Crowds of children play in the parks: Central, Riverside, Bennett, Fort Tryon— and young parents gather to chat. Chic eateries featuring regional Chinese cuisines I’ve never heard of are still proliferating in unlikely places that in my youth and early working life were no go, high crime areas. Movie theaters have reopened. The Strand Bookstore is open, after being closed for a long while, but stock is only now being replenished and some shelves are strangely bare. Advertisements feature high end, fashionable masks: my brother quickly exchanges my clunky white KN-95, which bends my ears, for a fancy, soft item in black silk and gold that, well, fits like a proverbial glove. I’ve nearly forgotten what it’s like to see the full face of a stranger. When the masks come off, will our mutual nakedness be a shock? Or will surge after surge lead to a permanent and universal hijab ordinance? Is this coronavirus crisis just the harbinger of a new era of rapidly spreading, deadly plagues like the Andromeda Strain (cf. the novel and movie) or airborne Ebola (also explored by Hollywood)? If I muse about this aloud, tempers fray: people in the city went through a very bad year indeed and this recovery is part adrenalin and bravado.
I think back to 9/11, when an old teacher in England rang me and observed, somewhat smugly (but that could have been just her being an academic), but also with candor and feeling, that “you Americans” had now entered history. I replied that what Europeans sometimes fail to understand is that many Americans came here precisely because they had experienced more than enough of history already: the Irish potato famine, the revolutions of 1848, Tsarist pogroms, the Armenian Genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, and so on. It is now a full generation since 9/11, which when it was happening was the very epitome of Now, since it was so different from anything that had ever happened before it in New York. Though it was in New York that our mothers came to collect us from grade school right after the assassination of JFK, and the city was mired in a shocked and silent misery that broke only with Beatlemania. (I have a cherished memory, in black and white, of hundreds of teenage maenads screaming in ecstasy behind the barricades at Carnegie Hall, while beefy cops stood around, awkwardly bemused.) Though it was in NYC that we marched for Black civil rights, that we marched against the war, that we heard of Dr. King’s murder, then of Bobby Kennedy’s murder. Though it was in NYC that I heard on somebody’s transistor radio that the fascist junta in Greece had fallen. I started yelling and crying for joy and jumped into the fountain on Columbus Circle.
Covid has killed far more than ten times as many New Yorkers as 9/11 did; and the economic and social disruption has been incommensurably greater. A few months ago they were wondering whether the city would survive at all. That was fear mongering. But of course it has survived; and it will very soon be thriving again. Lower rents might bring back the artists, writers, musicians, and middle class folks who made New York the unique noosphere it is. Wouldn’t that be nice. And if you believe that’s ever going to happen, I’ve got a Bridge here that I need to sell for a little extra ready cash. Interested?
One Friday I decided to take the subway down to 23rd Street to go and buy some oil pastels. Then I walked uptown, shifting eastwards almost unconsciously, since a walk uptown should pass the New York Public Library and its recumbent stone lions, who unfailingly give me the sense that they are being quiet on purpose (it’s a library). They are wearing masks right now (see the picture I took of them that noon, above), and the library is still closed. I bought a potato knish with mustard from an Arab street vendor. I recited the blessing that God brought me home to eat knishes, since one’s never seen one anywhere else. I climbed the steps anyhow. People were eating lunch at little tables to the side of the building— a sort of spillover from Bryant Park— and it will not surprise you by this point to learn that your reporter was reminded of another iconic song of New York, one associated cinematographically and forever with the Library lions. Yes, I took out my phone (Dylan, who first sang in Greenwich Village, said Mr. Jones should be made to be wearing a te-le-PHONE. ’Cause something is going on, and you DON’T know what it is, DO you, MIS-ter JO-ones, etc.) and called my partner back here in Fresno and loudly sang to him, and he laughed like he hasn’t laughed in years, and, gentle reader, nobody even looked up from their sandwich because what’s the big deal about an old guy in a yarmulke singing the theme from “Ghostbusters”.
For the rest of the afternoon, that lunchtime knish (with mustard) made my stomach gurgle and growl. Shades of Ghostbusters, perhaps. “It’s a little loud, but that’s okay,” said a sympathetic clerk looking up a book for me at the staid, toney Argosy Bookstore on East 59th. I retreated to the famous basement, with its walls of novels, the alarming noises subsided, and one resurfaced and paid for the book he’d located. Then I walked west along the edge of the park past the pond where Holden Caulfield wondered how the fish lived under the ice, past the patient carriage horses, to Columbus Circle, slid my Metrocard in the turnstile, and took the A train home.