Though born and raised in the Midwest, I am a longtime New Yorker and over the years have seen many changes. I reside high above the Magnolia Bakery of Sex and the City fame in Greenwich Village. When I first came here in 1953 to do graduate work in French at Columbia University, I had to get used to the city’s bigness, noise, and bustle, its pace and its attractions. But get used to them I did, to the point where I needed them, craved them, and celebrated them. For me, New York is the most exciting city in the world. It’s special, it’s unique. I have even expressed this in an equation:
intensity + diversity = creativity = New York
The intensity of New York is experienced immediately by anyone coming to the city, and the city’s diversity will leap out at you wherever you may go. Which makes the city incredibly creative; things happen here: the Gay Pride movement, Occupy Wall Street, opera and ballet, the Empire State Building, 9/11, and yes, the Donald and his Tower. Not everything here is admirable, but in spite of all its faults, I love this city; I couldn’t do without it. A sign that appeared at the entrance to the Staten Island ferry once asked, New York: Is There Anywhere Else?
Not everyone would agree. We New Yorkers are a very special breed, tough and savvy. We challenge, we complain. And we know that New York is not for everyone, nor should it be. For quiet, for peace of mind and the illusion of stability, go elsewhere. Here are flux and change, the perennial strife of old vs. new, the turmoil and fervor of nine million strivers. We New Yorkers are great doers; we savor the charm of the old and often want to preserve it, but at the same time we forge ahead, we create, we do.
In this book I want to share with others what it is to be a New Yorker, who we are, how we live, what we do, our past and present glories and horrors. Ask twenty New Yorkers about these things, and you’ll get twenty answers. What I’m sharing here is my New York. The chapters derive from posts for my blog, “No Place for Normal: New York,” which is about anything and everything New York, past and present. This is the city I love;
I hope you’ll love it, too. Or hate it, if you must. The main thing is to know it; it’s unique.
I love New York for its diversity. If you go out on errands, you may hear Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Russian or some other Slavic language, Korean, Japanese, and who knows what else? You may see a woman in a sari, a bearded man in a turban, a bunch of giggling young girls wearing head scarves, African-American women with their hair done up in a bun on top, a woman in a burka with only her eyes visible, dark-suited Orthodox Jews with long, curly sidelocks, and women of various ethnicities wearing granny skirts or miniskirts or pantsuits or whatever is or is not in vogue.
In New York today only 51 percent of the population speak English at home, the other 49 percent speak any of a multitude of languages. Students in the public schools speak 176 languages, and in the borough of Queens alone there are 138, but some estimates for the whole city range as high as 800 languages in all. In May 2019, when I gave a book release party in my apartment for my novel The Eye That Never Sleeps, there were conversations going on simultaneously in three rooms. One guest came out of the living room to report, “We just realized that we’ve got eleven languages among us!” And when I mentioned this later to one of the guests, a young woman from Pakistan, she smiled and said, “Actually, it was twelve.” At home in Pakistan, her family speaks English, Urdu, and Gujarati.
At election time instructions come to voters in English, Spanish, Chinese, and at least one other language – Japanese? Korean? – that I can’t identify. My health insurance plan’s monthly notice of claims filed includes phone numbers for translations into Spanish, French, French Creole, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Polish, Arabic, Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi, and Japanese. So it is that I now know how to say “attention” – in the sense of “pay attention” -- in multiple languages, as for example 1. paunaw 2. chú ´y 3. Atansyon4. uwaga 5. atenção. (Can you identify these five languages? The answers are at the end of this chapter.)
But these languages, however baffling for Americans, are not uncommon. How about Vlashki, a variation of Istro-Romanian, spoken in Queens? Or Garifuna, an Arawakan language spoken today in Honduras and Belize, but also in the Bronx and Brooklyn? Or Aramaic, a Semitic Syrian language spoken long ago by Jesus and his disciples, or Chamorro from the Mariana Islands? Or Bukhari, a Jewish language with more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan? Many of these are endangered, as their few elderly speakers die off, though in some cases there is a concerted effort to keep the language alive. New York is a refuge for lost languages, but as the children and grandchildren of immigrants learn English, it is also a graveyard.
Immigrants gravitate to the health care field. I have had ophthalmologists who were from Russia and Israel. My podiatrist is from India, and his assistant from Guyana. My dentist is a Chinese American from Hong Kong with an assistant from Ecuador who is delighted that I remember her nationality. My partner Bob had a Norwegian doctor, a Haitian home care aide, and at one time a Cambodian nurse.
Over the years Bob and I dined in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Jewish, Indian, Mexican, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Burmese restaurants. The menus might be in English, but the dishes were authentic, as were the waiters and waitresses. (The Burmese restaurant offered food so highly spiced that my system was hugely roiled all the following day.) Memorable among our dining experiences have been Bengali meals of many courses served by a friend from Calcutta, and splendid Italian meals at our favorite restaurant, Gargiulo’s, near the boardwalk on Coney Island. Exceptional was a sumptuous Japanese meal beginning with octopus, which our American host described as “the Japanese chewing gum,” following which his Japanese wife served us dishes of sukiyaki that were a feast for both the palate and the eye.
Diversity characterized the city from the very start. Back in Dutch days New Amsterdam was inhabited by Dutch, Walloons, Norwegians, Germans, Italians, Bohemians, Africans both free and slave, Mohawks, Munsees, Montauks, and others – a population like no other on the continent. Many were refugees. There were American colonists who had fled the puritanical New England colonies, where even dancing around a Maypole and drinking beer were termed “beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.” Sephardic Jews came later, having been expelled from Spain by their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella. And Huguenots would follow, having fled France after his Solar Majesty Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had protected Protestants from persecution. In the nineteenth century large numbers of Irish would come, and Germans and Italians, and Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, all fleeing famine or poverty or oppression and hoping desperately for better.
The city’s diversity is seen in its occupations as well. Some are unusual, some unique, and some just flat-out weird. Here are a few:
Structural engineer. Suppose you’re buying an old house or a brownstone. How do you know if it’s architecturally sound? Before closing the deal you hire a structural engineer to look it over. A walk-through inspection costs $400 to $800, but if it saves you from acquiring a nightmare, it’s worth it.
Environmental consultant. Environmental regulations can be a baffling maze of requirements, and New York is fiercely regulated. In old buildings, asbestos may have been used in construction, and lead in paint; both are toxic. Waste must be disposed of properly; your building may be in a flood zone; your planned renovation may have undesirable consequences; and so on. If, as a property owner or business, you aren’t sure if you’re complying and you fear a fine, you hire an environmental consultant to make sure you’re in compliance.
Wigmaker. If you are a celebrity or philanthropist or socialite concerned about your appearance, or a singer in an opera or a Broadway musical, you go to him (it’s usually a “him”) for a custom-made hairpiece or wig. This is a centuries-old trade, making wigs by hand so that the hairline blends into the skin. The cost? Three thousand dollars and up. Wigs are in great demand, but wigmakers are being supplanted by imports from China, where the painstaking work is done by thousands of factory workers. The solution, if the hairline is a challenge? Wear bangs.
Channel master. In this age of air travel it’s easy to forget that ocean liners and cargo ships still come and go in the port of New York. But the Outer Harbor, the waters beyond the Narrows but this side of Sandy Hook, is a maze of shallow channels between shifting sandbars, and risky to navigate. So who guides vessels through this labyrinth? A channel master, or pilot, who has learned the rocks, reefs, shoals, pipelines, and cables in the harbor, so he or she can board incoming and outgoing vessels and guide them through the channels.
Crematory manager. Just as cemeteries have to be managed, so do crematories, and this is the professional who does it. Order, efficiency, and tact are required, and if luxury atmosphere is desired, marble floors and stained-glass windows. The cremations are done in high-temperature retorts. The walls of the installation may be lined with niches containing the ashes of the deceased, or the ashes may be returned to the family or friends, while a smokestack conveys heavenward the fumes of the cremations in progress. Online ads offer low-coast cremations, but the total cost can be in the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Often a family operation.
Tattoo artist. They’re in parlors all over the five boroughs, waiting to draw on or color or stain the blank canvas of your skin with cartoons, Polynesian designs, Old Glory, crosses, monster heads, or whatever you wish, making you come off as weird, funny, patriotic, threatening, or defiant. Photos show them to be gentle old men, or bearded machos, or spectacled Asians, or females with bold red lips and fiercely mascaraed eyes. So if you want to be so adorned, Bang Bang and Sweet Sue and Megan Massacre are waiting to serve you at a cost of $100 and up, sometimes way up.
Forensic pathologist. What happens to the body in a case of suicide or murder or any death deemed suspicious and not the result of natural causes? There’s an autopsy, and that’s the work of a forensic pathologist garbed in a long blue monkey suit, gloved, and wearing a white cap, with a blue mask over his or her nose and mouth. Using an array of sharp instruments, they cut into torsos, remove organs, saw into a skull so they can lift out the brain. And where is this jolly work performed? In the office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a drab building on First Avenue. When finished with a particular “subject,” they make their report and perhaps – the most difficult part of their day – interview the relatives. As the last person to care for the deceased, they may feel a certain satisfaction. However unpleasant, their work is essential and well paid.
Estate liquidator. So the body has been disposed of, but what about that apartment crammed with clothing, books, utensils, furnishings, and what have you? You’re the executor and you need to clear the place out before the lease expires. The job is beyond you, so what do you do? You call in an estate liquidator who will make an appraisal, and for a fee, empty the whole place out even to the point of “broom cleaning,” meaning that his team will sweep up debris. Liquidators are the exterminating angels of material objects. They bestow the gift of emptiness, the purity of unoccupied space. But not for long; the next tenant will soon be moving in.
Finally, let’s expand the notion of diversity even further. When I went once to a Mexican restaurant on Hudson Street, I took a table in front that gave me a good view of the front half of the restaurant. Sitting at the bar were two men, obviously partners, who were talking briskly to a woman who was clearly a close friend. At the end of the bar was a woman with long blond hair who was hunched over her mobile device, giving no heed to anyone or anything else. At a table to my left was a Chinese-American gentleman with a Caucasian woman. And to my right, at a large table against the wall, were four men, a three-year-old girl, and an infant. One of the men was cradling the infant in his arms, while a younger man beside him looked on fondly; I gradually realized that this was a gay male couple with a child. And the other two men? One black and one white, they were sitting with their backs to me and with the three-year-old girl between them: a second gay male couple with a child.
At one point the three at the bar began talking with those at the table, with appropriate oohs and aahs over the two kids. Then a heterosexual couple came in, the man with a dark beard and the woman with long blond hair, and sat at a table at a certain distance from the other diners, seemingly oblivious of them. On the wall I noticed two signs:
IS IT TOO LATE
TO BE GOOD?
Finally the two gay couples got up to leave, with all the bustle and to-do involved in preparing young children for the rigors of a wintry day: scarves, mittens, coats, and a stroller for the infant. As they left, one of the men turned to me and said with a smile, “West Village – all the gay guys,” and departed. The hetero couple were still dining quietly at their table, and the woman at the end of the bar was still hunched over her mobile device. And the menu and waiter were Mexican.
Answers to language quiz:
1. Tagalog 2. Vietnamese 3. French Creole 4. Polish 5. Portuguese
Diversity is what this city and this nation are all about. Those in high places should keep this well in mind.