Revealing and disguising myself on the streets of New York
A few months ago – it was actually over a year now – I moved from one part of Manhattan to another. The distance was not great, less than a mile, but the psychological shift was considerable; I cleared a stopover that had passed as home for a room of my own. Although I had lived in the apartment I had left for over twenty years, I had shared it with a number of friends and too many ideas about what constituted generosity and receptivity. When you had a roof over your head, you had to share it with others, regardless of the financial and spiritual costs – giving could make someone else, everyone else better. That was my mother’s ethos; She raised me and my five siblings in Brooklyn.
But for the years before I left my first Manhattan apartment, I felt overcrowded in it, or more precisely overcrowded. Although I supposedly lived alone, surrounded by piles – books, notes, photographs, magazines – my body had been plagued by emotional piles for a long time before I left all this junk behind. You see, everything I learned about hospitality from my mother had broken into my soul. I could no longer sustain the platonic soup kitchen I had in store and chaired. I could no longer sustain my mother’s heart teaching. By the end of my stay in my first place in New York, all these bodies that had crossed my threshold had become imprinted on me. These former friends were now part of my body, and I could no longer support their weight or the weight of any of them.
Then Love called, quite unexpectedly. Love has not displaced these bodies so much, but has asked for another place to put themselves in – a new home with less of everything that wasn’t love. No treatment time like it is valuable to others but not to me. Love taught me that my time was my own. Mine.
Our mother supported us partly with “help” from public aid – welfare. A picture from that time: case workers going through her closets to make sure she didn’t have a crust of bread or a husband or anything that would add to her wellbeing, let alone that of her children. If they found something, there was no more “help” from the government. No longer standing with my sister to get welfare from a truck. No more asking social workers what your daily life is like to find out what your mother is up to personally or if she is mothering you at all. My father didn’t live with us. He was more or less supported by his mother who lived in her big house, not too far away. He had a room upstairs in her house and it was sacrosanct; You did not enter it unsolicited. I never questioned my parents’ arrangement. It was the way it was.
Love opposed all of that and wanted something else, including the right to ask the questions I had never thought of, such as: In all these years of lying and not lying about his absence, why had Pa given nothing to his family ? any food? Love opposed all that and that too: the feeling that if I had my own place and a lock and key, I would be no better than our father, wrapped securely and softly in his cocoon of a room, caring with the overly sweet Milk of self-protection, a mother’s enjoyment and constant self-respect. Love assured me that it didn’t have to be a thing to have a place to work that wasn’t entirely at the mercy of other people I had known, and that wasn’t a continuation of Ma’s legacy of giving to death. Love was the main architect of my new place and the main destroyer of my past.
The main feature of my new apartment is light. It’s a passageway with windows at both ends in a part of the city that stands out for its proximity to the Hudson River and preserves remnants of bohemian New York – trees, a square, crooked old streets with so few, if any, Dutch names from we know the stories behind it. The story takes too much time. We are Manhattanites and we are concerned with our life in Manhattan. Sometimes love stays for the night and other nights love cooks meals. And between these joys lies the fear that love will cancel its presence. How will it go Does it have to go? What does it do now What does it do without me Have I done enough to make it last? Love encourages me to go to the desk in the room I work in and even close the door on his love to do whatever I need to do. Love can’t stay forever Love burdens me, but not like those other bodies in the days when I followed Ma’s ethos to a T. Love is not here sometimes – working or making a meal or sitting in a distant room, on the other end of a joke. Yet there is the presence of love in a disfiguring world.
The street that leads to my apartment runs east to west, a stretch that takes you from what was once a “bad” neighborhood to a very beautiful one. (In any case, it is now difficult to find a bad neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Everything has been bought and improved here in the land of plenty, the Horn of Good.) I spend several mornings a week on the east side of my block, the deals with personal matters, including learning to defend myself physically and mentally against those who do not feel that my “me” should even exist. That sick wind follows me down my street, just as the thoughts followed Virginia Woolf in her 1930 essay “Street Haunting”:
How beautiful is a road in winter! It is instantly revealed and obscured. Here one can trace vaguely symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; Here under the lamps there are islands of bright light, through which bright men and women pass quickly, who despite all their poverty and shabbiness carry a certain expression of unreality, a touch of triumph, as if they had given life the slip-up, that is, This Life fooled by their prey goes on without them. Ultimately, however, we just slide smoothly on the surface. The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker for buried treasure. It floats gently down a stream for us; Rest, pause, the brain may sleep the way it looks.
But I do not skim the surface of my mind as I move west from the east side of my street, also because I am not Virginia Woolf – that is, I do not go unnoticed off my street in the world, free in relative security and peace to observe.
In the world of my street, I am watched for various reasons, and this individual and collective surveillance shapes my thoughts and my writing in ways that I dislike. Who wouldn’t want to spend an evening walking in search of a pencil and coming home to think about it without incident? The way I’m being watched means my brain can’t sleep when I’m looking. This is a luxury that I cannot afford as I am trying not to kill the world, which means killing myself. Ever since I moved to my new home – the windows let in as much nature as possible in Manhattan – but in fact a few years ago I even felt something in Manhattan that even love couldn’t protect me from. and what should i call it? Can I see your ID? Syndrome?
There’s a big store on my block that’s part of a chain that sells electronics. I’ve been to the store exactly three times: once to have a device repaired; once to buy a Christmas present with my white German goddaughter; and once to replace something that is missing, to repair another device. Every time I went to the store, did my business and was about to pay, I was asked for my ID. I don’t sleep in front of the fact that none of the other customers – usually wealthy Europeans, yuppie mothers and the like – are asked for anything other than their credit card when they go to the electronic bar to make a purchase. For those of us who are not, exchanging capital for goods becomes a kind of hospital room: may I see your ID? The hospital room glows with blood, the blood that floods your face, neck and back when you instead of – what? A fuck you? And why not a fuck-you? Because the worker who asks you for your ID is black or Hispanic and also male, and he has to make a living, even if it is at someone’s literal and pictorial expense. He can’t look at you. (On a side note: this is always the point in the story where you become a third-person character. Your body can’t take it, and so it becomes another body that watches things happen but tries, in spite of it Not to feel the onslaught In this and similar situations your “I” steps back and runs further and further back into the hidden world, which is housed in the body that the world hates.) He looked at you before smiling when you decided that Buying shit you needed but it all changes when he asks “May I see your ID?” His tone is the same as when he showed you the trash you need, friendly, but now there is a threat. If you don’t have ID, who are you but a thieving threat? His voice rises brightly – may I see your ID? Surely someone trained him to say this, just as my mother and father showed me the importance of despising racism and its various inevitable humiliations and, on the other hand, putting yourself in the shoes of workers who have been “oppressed” by a company system who yokes their heads just so they know who the boss is.
“Who is the hunter, who is the victim? Talk! “So Sophocles wrote in Antigone and maybe that’s the beginning of the essay in my head that I can’t write because the blood is pounding in it as the young man wipes my map and my floor a few blocks from my home away from love. The transaction has been completed, what I needed, now wrapped up, weighs heavily in my hand like evil, like shame. Why couldn’t I give up my mother’s ethos and read this young man for the dirt? Because he wasn’t looking at me – may I have your ID? – maybe he was afraid to discover what he would find at the other end of his question / inquisition, at the end of his own street, rocky with the stones of compromise, smiling all the time to better to survive.