Swans Commentary » swans.com November 2, 2009  



Wandering: NYC, Chicago, Albany


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - November 2, 2009)  

NYC: The Cockroach Shuffle

I first knew New York City in the 1950s. I worked in the Meatpacking District when they still packed meat there. But it was something else, I never learnt what, I packed trucks with in neat, light, brown-paper-wrapped boxes of various sizes. They came to me on a conveyor belt that never stopped. The game was to fit the boxes together like a puzzle so that no space went unfilled. It was a novelty for a Chicago boy to work on equal terms with blacks. For lodging I moved from room to room up and down 14th Street. My neighbors were Porto Ricans and my ambience was cockroaches. In the Second City the bugs had been underbred, dozy, and provincial. Manhattan was definitely Number One.

At night I'd go to University Place and sit in the Cedar Street Tavern. Sucking a beer, I'd pretend it was somebody else's clothes that stank from improvisations on my one-burner hot plate. I'd appear to ignore the other customers, as they did me. The drama came when one of the top Action Painters made his entry. If it were Franz Kline I'd note his flavor of the day in women and just how drunk he was, only swaying or flatfeet clinging to gravity. Willem DeKooning's startled face always telegraphed whether he was on or off the wagon. Once the big moment passed, I'd feign indifference and get up and go home. Some nights a whisper would circulate that I'd show no sign of hearing: Jack Kerouac was playing chess in front of a café in the Village. Rushing over there, I'd have a quick look as if busily on my way to an urgent rendezvous. I was fooling no one, least of all the Porto Ricans, whose way of not giving a fuck was particularly touching.

All youthful pleasures have to end, as I keep being told, and after four months I lost my job filling the inner void of trucks. The employment agency that I'd paid to get me hired got me fired so it could take payment from another rube for his turn on the same job. This was a perfect introduction to the city's ways, not the law of the jungle, simply the cockroach shuffle. Since then I've been back a dozen times but always entering the same way, through the back door and up from the bottom.

So, September last, after Gabriella and I offered a ritual libation to the skyline and put down stakes in Korean Town, we steered toward the Brooklyn Bridge. There's nothing better than to turn your back on the brittle toy town at its base and stride up and over with your nose in the air. Praise for the doings of the Brooklyn Academy failed to move Gabriella; she'd gone into a gawker's trance. We went up to Prospect Park and into the spice of the Caribbean Festival. It was the local Notting Hill Carnival, and -- one for the USA -- the Islanders seemed much more at home and unapologetic than their cousins in London, W11. We ducked in the Brooklyn Museum, a place guaranteed free of Manhattan swish, almost a family picnic ground. They were showing the "lost" WPA murals from the Williamsburg Housing Project. The cleansed, non-figurative work by a Paris-based American and three immigrants -- Russian, British, and German -- threw new light on American painting in the depth of the Depression.

Sembra il Bronx were words I'd heard for years in Italian, and always from people who had never set foot in that borough nor been alive in the smoldering 1970s. Gabriella agreed to set her nation right and we took the subway to 182nd Street. Ignoring Edgar Poe's cottage to the north -- hadn't we read him inside out? -- we began the descent of the Grand Concourse. Most people in the street spoke Spanish and were black. Like all immigrants, they were pleased to be asked about local matters. It gave them territorial status. We left a trail of spiky answers thirty blocks long.

The Concourse was a grab at grandeur by nouveaux riches Jews who no sooner knocked it together than felt they had to move on. You could feel them still out there behind the spectacular façades. Edgy, they figured the odds of their next displacement. The Champs-Elysées it was not, despite the spacious parkway layout, royal slope, and passionate in-fighting of the buildings. Imperial braggarts hadn't built it, but doctors and dentists on the run. It was the world's greatest monument to white flight.

My head spun with one of those impossible projects regularly born in fever. Who would do a graphic history of the Grand Concourse? I could imagine the architectural line drawings. It was ancient Troy with layer on layer to shovel away. The Seventh-Day Adventist temple had been a proud synagogue. In Joyce Kilmer Park the moronic poem about trees was overgrown by a monument from Europe honoring Heinrich Heine. He was a German Jew who could have held his own with Karl Marx. The new residents fit in cozily with the changes. The Concourse was shabby around the edges, but they pulled it to them like a still warm old coat.

In this medley, native African Americans were frosting on the cake. They had clearly been scattering too. At the First Union Baptist Church, we spoke with the genial sidewalk man. He had a big cross for an earring but wasn't dealing anything, not even God, only a love of talk. We stepped in. Big women in white went through a dainty choreography for obese angels. They sang and we sat back in wonder. Dollar bills didn't cover the bottom of the collection plate; fat smiles piled up around it.

At 149th Street, a New Deal building, the Bronx Post Office, marked the end of the dream. The Ben Shahn murals inside said the make-believe of the good life was over. No one had anything left but his raw muscle and a saint with a long cigarette holder to pray to.

Who hasn't heard the story of the Shakespeare scholar who left Hamlet unread till his sight began to dim? (Sometimes he's a navigator of the Louvre who kept his eyes off the La Gioconda for all but the last day of his life.) I'd never been to Coney Island. On Labor Day we took the glorious subway ride that ends above a long stretch of properly neglected back yards.

Coney Island makes up for all the meretricious sleekness of American life for the last fifty years. It makes up for Disneyland. It makes up for the students studying business administration and the others studying creative writing with the aim to be tenured teachers of creative writing. Well, no, it makes up for nothing. But Coney Island is a collapsing place that you can lean on for support. Patient Fellini characters, in God knows what lingo, keep the fairground rides going with an occasional languid push. They reopen the door to danger and childhood. The healthy freak show revives our shrunken fancy. The buskers are so inept and extravagant they rekindle faith in making art.

There's no larger possibility than an ocean beach that can never be filled. Innovation irrupts at the Brighton end with Russian restaurants of the kind you'd never go into even by mistake. There are also men with Erich Von Stroheim skulls dressed up like Moscow tycoons. Best of all there are authentic Russian drunks. They are the Holy Men of the alcoholic universe. Less exalted family members guide them with a pious arm, blind Oedipus on the road at twilight.

And Manhattan's showpieces? The MoMA's now a noisy cocktail party where visitors don't taste the drink; they only finger the goblet. The Metropolitan Museum is big enough for human beings to find a corner to think in, but they have to look very hard. The box-on-box New Museum in the Bowery makes a memorable streetscape, but there's nothing much inside. The best part is on the sidewalk next door. Men who enjoy their work are hosing down old fittings from restaurant kitchens for dispatch to the non-Manhattan world. It's a ghostly dance of a thousand clapped out Greek diners.


Chicago: Seeing Nothing Double

European intellectuals always get Chicago wrong. They find its uniqueness in the fact that, with nary a blush, it has always held money making to be the main business of human life. A third millennial look around the USA, however, will quickly convince anyone that Chicago is hardly alone in that endeavor. What really distinguishes Chicago among cities is the force with which it expresses the national gift for looking the other way. If you can't fix it then toss it, forget about it, and get busy setting up another unfixable situation. It's the peculiar blindness of the professional optimist, a lethal mix of denial and adman's spiel.

In September the boosters pranced along the lakefront and trilled like ostriches in heat over the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics. Meanwhile, in the gray streets, another public school student was brutally murdered. He got caught in a turf war between two youth gangs, neither of which he belonged to. Derrion Albert, 16 and on the honor roll, was the 67th student to die violently since the beginning of the 2007-8 school year. The death toll of minority children in poor neighborhoods never stops climbing. The police claim that just last year a hundred school-age and younger children were killed. Faced with the fact that 85% of the public school population lives in poverty, no wonder Chicago's paunchy aldermen preferred to cut back on cigars and get in shape for an Olympic bonanza.

The municipal double vision has deep roots. It was easier to let the whole mud-washed shebang burn down in 1871 than to straighten it out. In retrospect the boosters of yore made their nihilism into one heroic moment that led to the World's Fair twenty-two years later. This would be the greatest staff-and-stucco extravaganza of recorded history. Within months bums and other victims of the Panic of 1893 were burning the plaster and lath remains of the no-longer White City. They were trying not to freeze to death in the ruins and, just maybe, getting their own back.

In the reign of Daley the First (1955-76) there were fine summer nights when you could nurse a drink on a Rush Street bar terrace and think you were on the Paris boulevards or under a Roman umbrella. The trick was to turn your chair away from the Cabrini Green housing project and believe the recurring gunshots were the small change of traffic noise. The Cabrini infernal had to be put right by the wrecking ball, a drastic application of the toss-it-and-start-anew principle.

City on the Make, those magic pages of Nelson Algren, misses the point entirely in the purest jet of Chicago prose poetry. The city's hucksters are no different from the national, common or garden variety. The damage they do is nothing compared to that of the city's ideas men, who are escape artists to rival Houdini.

Daley the Elder made selective vision the cornerstone of his realm. He built a screen along the lakefront that made it figuratively, and to some extent literally, impossible to see three-quarters of the city. You had to turn to places like Bucharest or Sofia to understand. City fathers there, unwilling to face the problems of the local Roma, simply put a high wall around the Gypsy quarter and forgot it. That Chicago's dazzling screen held works of architectural genius that made your eyes pop only increased its effectiveness. Its workaday function was to keep the prosperous tax base from deserting and to draw corporation headquarters to the former manufacturing powerhouse. It was all about keeping out of the rust belt. Critics were asked if they preferred Detroit or Buffalo and told to pull up their socks and get a foothold on the shiny side of the screen.


Albany: Terror Beyond the Sports Bar

By some distraction I got us into a motel outside of Albany. It was a bad move since we had no car, a fact that the natives couldn't get their minds around. The manager was an East Indian of the Mumbai-accountant turn of mind. He must have been fresh from an encounter with a hard kernel of the Hudson Valley lifestyle. He met us with his bottom line cocked: "This country is only about money. America has no culture." Gabriella, fearing he took me for an alien, threw in timidly with her Italian inflection that I was myself a son of the Star Spangled Republic. The manager wasn't a listener. He said that when he brought his daughter over and put her in a convent boarding school she immediately skipped two grades and never touched an electronic calculator. So there.

It was late and two old men who could have been twins sat in the shadows of the big room that was set up for a phantom breakfast. They spoke no English but beamed smiles. Well, why not, I thought, here were the traditional wise-men-of-the-East. They eclipsed the pinched frowns of their boss with cosmic indifference. They hadn't skipped any grades. I wondered how much he paid them an hour to do the dirty work around the motel. Stern daddy now, he thundered about the excess of freedom American kids enjoyed. Say a prayer for the post-convent new-world life of Mumbai accountants' daughters.

In the morning I found a taxi driver who was born in Vermont and thought highly of himself precisely for that reason. As we passed stately old town houses of river merchants he set down the iron laws of the local big fear. It wasn't easy to tie his words to the spinsterish streets awash in virginal mist. Having once read William Kennedy's The Albany Trilogy, the worst I'd feared was being engulfed in the phlegm of Irish Catholic guilt.

But our man had the real gen. It was as if he could finally tell his side of the story in an argument with an overpowering wife. There were streets we should never cross. If we saw no one about, we should, well, retreat or anyway be plenty scared. A weird hybrid of mugger and terrorist apparently stalked this state capital. His soundtrack was a muezzin's call with a delta blues base. Our advisor seemed to think it wiser to sit our sojourn out safely in the hotel sports bar among the big-assed non-athletes. (We were to discover it specialized in fancy-named sawdust burgers with inedible special effects.) American racism had clearly executed yet another adroit turn in its long road. The Vermonter's advice could be boiled down to a simple, "Beware of blacks," but he managed to put it across without reference to skin color.

We escaped Albany with our lives via the local bus depot. I sat down to wait beside a shapeless military bag. Its gangling black owner soon appeared in a fluster of apology and sat between it and me. The need to talk flicked like so many tongues from his nerve ends. My own had been cliché battered lately, but I couldn't hold out against the man's urgency. He had to tell his story, and someone had to listen.

The Marine Corps was sending him to Syracuse for further medical treatment. It was also his hometown and he'd be happy to see his mother again. He'd been a high school football player, drifted afterward, and joined up in his mid-twenties. That was a decade ago and he'd since done two tours in Iraq. Something had gone badly wrong with his breathing over there. He chided the Iraqis for not keeping their air clean but had no rancor for anyone.

His father had been from D.C, and, after making a stab at Howard University, was plucked for Vietnam. He died there when his son was four. The insurance money kept the family going: again, no recrimination.

What do you talk about to a man without grievances? You can throw in some of your own or, if you're tired, simply let him word-wander on. He did. Travel intrigued him. He'd been sent to Okinawa and then to Iraq but he really didn't know where they or anywhere else actually were. He repeated the names of foreign cities in awe. He asked about things he'd seen on TV like the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He'd never been to NYC. Finally he looked me in the eye and asked me where exactly India was.

Here was a man who had spent ten years in what calls itself the most advanced branch of the military, real superpower stuff. It bills itself as an educational opportunity par excellence, ("CONTACT A RECRUITER"), as a sure way to "broader horizons" and as the first step to a "full life." But in ten years my new friend hadn't been told what the Middle East was in the middle of. Nor that the burn pits his people had lit in Iraq would destroy his lungs.

Now his bus was ready and he jumped to his feet. He thanked me profusely for talking to him. For talking to him! I shrugged and imagined running after him and shouting in his ear that he not waste another minute, that he bite the hand throttling him, that his life wasn't something granted him on sufferance.

Instead I wrote down the recipe he'd given me for biscuits. It was very careful about quantities and timing. He told me it had come from Alabama by way of D.C. and he'd be eating it soon in his mother's kitchen.


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Peter Byrne on Swans (with bio).



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Published November 2, 2009