Tuesday, November 9, 2010

my world city, my manhattan


tony judt was a hell of a writer and even dead he remains a talent worth wrangling. this is an essay about new york published in the times yesterday. it takes me back to the time when that place was a force on the landscape, a world unto its own. and in this, it also brings me forward to recognize what is happening today, on a less grand scale, even out in the hinterland:

"Today I drop my cleaning off with Joseph the tailor and we exchange Yiddishisms and reminiscences (his) of Jewish Russia. Two blocks south I lunch at a place whose Florentine owner disdains credit cards and prepares the best Tuscan food in New York. In a hurry, I can opt instead for a falafel from the Israelis on the next block; I might do even better with the sizzling lamb from the Arab at the corner.

"Fifty yards away are my barbers: Giuseppe, Franco and Salvatore, all from Sicily — their “English” echoing Chico Marx. They have been in Greenwich Village forever but never really settled: how should they? They shout at one another all day in Sicilian dialect, drowning out their main source of entertainment and information: a 24-hour Italian-language radio station. On my way home, I enjoy a mille-feuille from a surly Breton p√Ętissier who has put his daughter through the London School of Economics, one exquisite √©clair at a time.

"All this within two square blocks of my apartment — and I am neglecting the Sikh newsstand, the Hungarian bakery and the Greek diner (actually Albanian but we pretend otherwise). Three streets east and I have Little Hapsburgia: Ukrainian restaurant, Uniate church, Polish grocery and, of course, the long-established Jewish deli serving Eastern European staples under kosher labels. All that is missing is a Viennese cafe — for this, symptomatically, you must go uptown to the wealthy quarters of the city."

true, I have no dry cleaning and I haven't been in need of a barber for years, but all the rest is a panegyric to what surrounds me, to greater or lesser extent, even on the rim. there is the 24 hour truckstop down the road that serves indian dishes to the people speaking hindi and bengali on their weekly pilgrimage between chicago and minneapolis. there is the hispanic aisle in the local grocery where I can buy extra-sugarpacked coca cola directly from mexico--or I could if they weren't all snapped up on arrival by the vacqueros just coming off their shifts at the dairy farm. if I get a little dyspeptic I can be treated by any of the pakistani and iranian and chinese doctors at the local hospital; there is even a specialist from iceland if I'm willing to wait around for the once a week he comes by. if I get a little homesick I can go to the little mogadishu or little saigon areas of minneapolis, a mere hour's drive away, to listen to the cadence of lilting somali or amharic or the singsong of hmong. and of course with my dsl connection I can get immediate access to anything I want in any language or from any perspective I choose.

the rim has now become cosmopolitan in its own right and I don't know if cities are necessary any longer for what they used to provide and judt hearkens back to: an opportunity for different people to rub shoulders with people they wouldn't otherwise encounter. many of our children still grow up in ethnic enclaves but that's becoming less and less the case, and they're experiencing strange people earlier and earlier. it used to be you had to go to college in a big city to meet anyone openly gay or who grew up in africa. now you can befriend them in middle school.

still there will always be a place for new york,"a city more at home in the world than in its home country" as judt notes. could I live in The City again? no. I'm a product of new york in the 70s, of discos and 24-hour bookstores and a chorus line and chock full o nuts and plato's retreat (even if I never went there I always knew I could, it was there and open to me). I'm one of the last people for whom woody allen's joke about dissent and commentary becoming dysentary rings true from experience and not from nostalgia. the new york I belong to started to drop dead when jerry ford told it to.


that's okay. I got my new york right here.

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