Thursday, June 21, 2012

Running Up the White Flag


It's brutally hot here in northern Appalachia, but I hear that it is in New York City too. I think back upon those brutally hot days in New York, on every one of which you have to descend into the subway, whose platforms are ten degrees hotter than above ground. On days like these, the weight of your heavy backpack (in which you have to stuff all the things you need for the day because no one lives near their errands, university, work, or appointments unless they're rich, so it's not like you can swing by home to put down some things and pick up others) is more tiring, and its smell more noxious. And if you have a small child, you're schlepping not only the twenty-pound backpack, but also your child(ren) and stroller, up and down the subway stairs and bus steps in the roiling heat, and no one helps you because everyone feels insulted at some deep personal level by the weather, and so they hate you. And you hate them, too. I never realized how demoralizing this all was until I was no longer living it.

I met the mother of a first-grader at a massive end-of-the-school-year playdate yesterday who migrated here from another, deeper, part of Appalachia for her husband's work. She still owns and runs a business, however -- a boutique -- in her former town, and is going back there for the summer. In the course of our conversation, I realized that this is the same town in which my friend and fellow poetry-lover Rodak lives, and I was able to confirm that he knows my new friend's shop and has even been there with his daughters. This got me thinking about Rodak, about how he lived not at all far away from me back in the Bronx, but at a different time, a storied time, in fact, when New York was at the cusp of many things, when it wasn't what it has become today, which is, in most parts, a real-estate-porn set, a playground for people with a lot of money, a refuge for materialists who believe that being hip is about what you wear (and also about what you eat and drink and where you procure it from).

This mother's son is also mainstreamed with high-functioning autism, like my just-finished-kindergarten son. If every year could be like my son's kindergarten year, I would be overjoyed. Our neighborhood school is, quite simply, great, in spite of the fact that it's in an urban area and serves a diverse population and half of the students in the district are below the poverty level and all those other things that strike terror-about-public-school into the hearts of middle-class parents, but which are pretty much all the things I grew up with. I have been absolutely delighted with my son's classroom, teachers, and the various supports he has gotten because of his diagnosis, and he left kindergarten at the top of his class academically. He loves school, and says he wants to be a principal when he grows up, which has got to be a first.

The other day I was picking up shoes at the shoe repairman, and I couldn't find my ticket. I apologized profusely, to the point that the shoe repairman was a little nonplussed by my extreme contrition. I explained by telling him about a time when I lost a shoe repair ticket in New York, and the shop owner, rather than berating me, looked through dozens of boxes of fixed shoes while casting looks of such scorn and disgust at me, and telling me mournfully that people like me were the reason he wanted to close down his shop, that I was relieved when he actually did. "So you're a New Yorker?" the local shoe repairman asked. "Sort of," I said. I walked out of the shop scolding myself. Sort of? What did that mean? Had my allegiance flagged? Had I betrayed my beautiful city?

All of this is to say that I'm glad to be here now. And I guess I'm not really a New Yorker anymore.

(The video above is a popular, and extremely excellent, track from my youth. Be forewarned that it contains the b-word and the n-word if you're sensitive about things like that.)

10 comments:

ex-new yorker said...

Wow. Never thought you'd reach that point, as I so clearly have. It used to be painful to put that "ex-" before New Yorker, or Brooklynite. I used to think it was sad that my kids weren't native New Yorkers; now I have no particular desire to see them ever live in that state, unless it undergoes various currently highly unexpected changes. (In fact, in my teens I could hardly believe that my older cousin had deprived her firstborn of native New Yorker status all so she and her husband could live in New Jersey for a relatively short time before purchasing their first house, in Staten Island -- why on earth didn't they find an apt. in NYC instead?! Heh.)

Pentimento said...

Yeah, I know. I used to feel the same way. And my mother used to assert that New York was a wonderful place to raise kids.

ex-new yorker said...

I guess it can be, if [insert many qualifiers that are not true for my family]. It's hard to imagine how much money or how much isolation it would take for my kids to be as innocent as they have managed to remain here. Even more than it would take just to provide the basics there, and that's saying a whole lot. (Money for "innocence" might not make sense, but it theoretically allows the ability to control their environment to a greater degree.)

Rodak said...

*sigh*

Pentimento said...

Interesting equation, E-NY, even if it leaves out the subway stairs in 100-degree heat.

Anonymous said...

Dear P:
We are all from somewhere, though for some people, such as John McCain and Barack Obama, it is a bit harder to identity a single specific place. Love endures, and as you find and share love you make a place more like heaven and thus your home. Veritas et caritas, TQ

JMB said...

My dad was a native upper westsider. He would always wonder why anyone would have wanted to live in the city after he fled in the mid 60s with my mom and my brother in tow. I think it just got really bad really fast and most of the middle class just bailed. By the time I was in college in the mid 80s it was pretty much accepted that NY was a lost cause. Then Guiliani came around and things seemed to get better. I don't know. Things change so quickly - NJ used to be a nice, inexpensive alternative to Westchester or Connecticut, now it's just as expensive. Who knows where my kids will end up.

Pentimento said...

I know what you're talking about, JMB. It's so different now, though. Now people are staying in the city when they have kids instead of moving to the suburbs. Manhattan is mostly white and upper-middle-class now.

JMB said...

Yes you're right. My sister and husband live on the UES and have two kids. It's up in the air if they will stay or not, depending upon the school situation. Right now, her oldest is 2.

Pentimento said...

As you know, the school could be phenomenal. It all depends on where you live. Some of those UES PTAs raise $100,000s a year for extras, too.