Under the Banner of New York

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman: New York, Grand Central Station, 1999

Cities have routines. Within our ten-block radius the people come and go, not infrequently talking of Michelangelo—but also of the damn president, the damn Yankees, whether it’s a virus or an allergy, if there is any such thing as a good carb… You can’t always predict what a New Yorker will say, but they are reliable in another sense, tending to walk a certain route at a precise time of the day, week in, week out, so that after a while it’s possible to treat them like human clocks: they tell you where you are in relation to everything else. I used to be able to discern whether or not we were late for school by the sight of a particular movie star passing under the arch of Washington Square. Then she moved—or changed her routine—and I began to judge it by the smiling, white-haired man with the enormous brown Labradoodle: Was he still on his bench or had he moved on? Today I discovered I am myself serving as a clock for others: “I always see you, at ten past nine, reading your book in the window of that café and I’m like: she’s got a good routine. Also: I should read more.” So said a girl in the gym changing rooms this morning, before getting into the shower without another word—she just wanted to tell me that. Such are our routine routines. But this month my own routine happened to dovetail, two weeks in a row, with a deeper cycle in the city, a repetition of accident and event, amounting to a plainsong of city life—of the city as an organizing social principle—and to which perhaps all city-dwellers are called upon to contribute in their own small way, sooner or later, when their time comes.

For me that time came last Tuesday, at 10:19 AM on the corner of Mercer and Third. There, a young white woman with a baby was trying to get over the curb to cross the street when something disintegrated in the undercarriage of her stroller; a wheel rolled away, the stroller lurched, collapsed. The baby remained strapped in, but its huge and heavy carrier was being held at the horizontal level only by his mother’s efforts. Having had this happen to me, many winters ago, I sympathized and took a step toward the woman, but if I thought I was doing something special in this I was soon disabused, for now I found myself a provisional member of a small group—a half-dozen people—who had all stepped forward at the exact same moment. We were white, black, Asian, tall, short, male, female, young, very young, and old. One of us was in a custodian’s uniform. I was wearing a denim jumpsuit. Two of us were dressed for real jobs. One had a skateboard. We were “a cross-section of the population.” Three held the stroller up; one ran after the wheel; two got on their knees and examined the mechanism. One came back with the wheel. During this operation the very minimum of speech occurred, so little that perhaps a visitor from another planet would wonder whether communication in our city was largely telepathic. “That’s on now?” “Put it there.” “Let me just get this back…” “OK?” “OK.” “Yep. Back in.” It all happened very quickly and “Thank you” dispersed everybody in a shot—as if the phrase itself had propulsive force, sending each of us scurrying back to our routines, heading uptown or down, into classes or offices or gyms, unconnected to this mother and child or to one another.

Then it happened again. Exactly seven days later, same time, same place, but now it was an old Chinese lady, with a long pole over her shoulder, at either end of which she’d strung two huge plastic bags, filled with old cans. She tripped on that same bit of curb and landed flat on her back. She cried out, howled, and this was a sort of beacon, drawing in more people than the previous event, although what happened next was structurally identical. One went to collect her missing shoe, several others gathered the fallen cans and put them back in her garbage bags, another retrieved her hat. Sub-teams either side took the lady by her arms in preparation to lift. I retied her shoelaces. “Ambulance?” “Looks OK.” “One… two… three…” “There we go.” “OK?” “OK.” Then, once again, at the very moment gratitude was expressed, we all swiftly vanished, the only thing these twelve or so citizens of New York having in common being the urgent need to be elsewhere. As I walked briskly to my next appointment I kept trying to think of a phrase to describe this Tuesday’s experience and the previous Tuesday’s, too. What do you call a group of people like that? A coalition of the willing? A loose conglomeration of citizens? A community of strangers? An improvised task-force? I thought about the rural world, from which my husband, Nick, hails, in which such incidents would involve long, interconnected, interpersonal conversations. (“Aren’t you Carol’s son—the one who went off to England?” “Where do you live, love? Are you local?”) And there would be shared jokes and extended sympathy and maybe even Sit yourself down, dear and I’ll put the kettle on. I see how that version would look preferable to many people. It’s hard to defend the city in the face of the country.


The Tuesday of the old Chinese woman was also Halloween, and therefore the day of the Lower Manhattan bike lane terror attack near Stuyvesant High School, which I heard about while dressed as Maleficent (cartoon version) and shepherding a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and a mini-vampire through the Third Street Children’s Halloween fair. People checked their phones and whispered the news to each other so as to hide it from the children. We were standing precisely where the old Chinese woman had fallen down a few hours earlier. I thought of those two mild non-emergencies I had recently witnessed, and wondered what happens when real tragedy strikes. Does one staunch the blood while the other finds the limb? And once the bodies are removed—some to the morgue and others to the hospital—does everyone else go about their day? Later that night, watching the news and the late-night shows, this by now familiar trope of New Yorkers carrying on with their routines got full play. It was widely noted that we did not cancel our Halloween marches—neither the kid-sized one nor the adult version—and that we still got crazy-drunk on a Tuesday, and woke up the next day and went straight back to our routines because “that’s what New Yorkers do.” Which was all nice to hear, even if some of the praise came from people we might, here in New York, consider fair-weather friends, the kind who celebrate us in our tragic moments but affect to despise us in our everyday mode. The same people who claim to believe that the only meaningful societal bonds are fixed and solid and unbroken—blood, nation, faith—and so can never truly comprehend a city like New York in its everyday mode, in which bonds gather and dissipate with a dizzying fluidity and yet, for the brief duration that they are in place, can display a mighty strength.

We hear a lot about our coastal media attitude toward the so-called “Deplorables.” But this contempt is echoed by the not-insignificant numbers of Americans who make no secret of their disgust for this city and cities in general. I will never forget the first time I heard an American say that those degenerates in New York had it coming. (It was sixteen years ago, in Jamaica.) It was shocking to me because it was the first time I’d ever heard such a thing, but these days that sentiment is easy to come by, multi-purposed for every kind of disaster. Online you can read Americans telling other Americans that the West Coast deserved its wildfires and the East Coast its hurricanes. In the face of such hatred those of us who live in these supposedly godless, decadent, morally degenerate urban hellholes should, I think, do a little more to defend the structure of our arrangements, not just in times of tragedy but at all times. Yes, we “carry on,” after disaster and attack, but that’s not all we do. We also function pretty well day-to-day, with our multiple gods and none, with our graven images, and our Babel of languages. We may not know our neighbors’ names but we know the name of every dog in the dog-run, and that’s OK, too. Despite rarely cooking and often drinking, despite never mowing lawns (but usually recycling), our souls are not uniformly headed to eternal damnation. We can often be found screaming at strangers in the street but we just as frequently pick them up off the floor. And then there’s also the food, art, music, theater, film, literature. But they know all that.

Like many a New Yorker right now I talk a good game but my mind is scattered, disordered. To me, the city itself feels scattered, out of sorts; certainly carrying on like London, like Paris, but also, like those places, newly fearful, continuing with its routines while simultaneously wondering whether it still wants to, considering decamping to the countryside while being repulsed by that same thought—oh, and a ragbag of other random thoughts and anecdotes that will now converge in the next paragraph like a half-dozen strangers united for a moment on a street corner. For on my desk, between keyboard and screen, sits Nick Laird’s new poetry book in manuscript—he gave it to me to read this morning. The morning after the night before. To give it my full attention, I switched off the Internet, so at time of writing I don’t know anything more about this morning’s murder and attempted suicide in Cooper Square than what I overheard on the school run this morning. But you can get a different kind of news from poetry:


New York Elasticity

When the hand is red,
some of the walkers pause
and others continue,
some of the vehicles pause
and others continue,
and I am no longer that
clerk to the heir of etc.
and something of this city’s
brute capacity for gathering
is like a shining in my head.

The valleys of glass and re-set
stone have softer, smaller
forces pushing through them
with shopping bags like pollen
sacs attached to their bodies.
Happiness is only a state
of utter absorption,
so why not take an island,
not large, and see the people
of the world live together there?

I notice first they put the brown
people in brown shirts
and made them stand behind
the counter in Starbucks as
the customers are played by whites
and east Asian girls. Each
consciousness enacts its own
drama in the silence of
a breathing mind till Ahmed,
our barista, calls out another name.

On Mercer the jackhammers answer
and a rising siren answers
but what I’d like to listen to is rain,
no? The plainness of its thinking,
the fat splatter of the first ripe droplets
on the hot sidewalk, its hiss,
its consistence, its soft-shoe shuffle—
the grid clearing and darkening
as the Atlantic rolls in.

This city’s brute capacity for gathering! Yes, that is what shines in my head, in all New York heads. Of this we are rightfully proud. New Yorkers choose to gather under the banner that says “New York”—which is so elastic it really means nothing at all—and that is exactly what I love about this place. The capacity to gather without precise definition I experience as a form of freedom, here where we do not have to be the clerk to the heir of wherever, where we can be unattached to our old European pedigree, or lack of same, and loosened from the bonds of distant villages, with their strictures and demands, their ideas regarding our sexuality or gender, their plans for our future. But if the first two stanzas of the poem concern the utopian city, the happy-clappy, multicultural, green-juice-drinking, you-decide-your-own-story city, the last two are its proper corrective. The racially divided city. The socially inequitable city (from which de-camping is only possible for a privileged few). The lonely city, in which each soul is trapped in itself, answering to a name but unconnected to the person who calls it out. And oh, God, those rising sirens. No rational person can deny that you would hear those sirens much less frequently in rural Ireland, in rural France, in rural Jamaica. But dreams of “escape” are also the luxury of city-dwellers who still have cities to turn their backs on. The many citizens of Aleppo and Mosul can only walk away from rubble. Some of the ex-dwellers of those cities and many others will inevitably make their way to our city. What will they see here? It is possible to live among us and not see us at all—also to see what you want to see. It is possible to live among us and be mentally ill or to have your mind warped by ideology. It is possible to look at the rain—as our original New York lunatic, Travis Bickle, once did—and see a holy scouring, a cleansing away of all the filth:

Thank God for the rain which has helped wash the garbage and trash off the sidewalks.… All the animals come out at night: Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.

Or you can just see the rain. The plain, prosaic rain, falling on everybody. Cities are full of all kinds of people. Some of them watch ISIS videos all day long. Others read conspiracy blogs and hate-filled online screeds. Such material acts as a screen between citizen and reality; it functions like virtual-reality headsets. You slip them on and they allow you to walk into a Charleston church and see only “scum,” or drive along a downtown bike lane and see only “scum.” We can tighten visa laws and build our walls, but they will be poor defense against such ideologies, which are free-floating and borderless and whose goggles can be worn by anyone. Most of the terror attacks in America have been committed by Americans. (Some of the most terrifying have been committed by gun-toting Americans with no obvious ideological commitments at all, employing a different kind of mask between citizen and reality: narcissism.) It’s amazing what a narrative can make someone do. We cannot give up on offering alternative stories. Here’s one about the people of New York: we are not scum. We are every variety of human. Some of us voted for a government that caused the destruction of cities far away. Some of us didn’t. Some of us are dopers and junkies. Some of us are preschool teachers and nuns. None of us deserve to be killed in the street. We are a multiplicity of humans in an elastic social arrangement that can be stretched in many directions. It’s not broken yet. I have no idea if it will break soon—but it’s not broken yet. And here comes the rain, clearing the streets, for an hour maybe, even for a whole afternoon. We’ll be back out tomorrow.

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