I am behind this man as we approach the escalator and I am hoping he is a walker, the kind that sees moving stairways not as boons to leisure but as assistance in the unending race to arrive. Turns out he is the latter. Saints be praised! Now I have one less reason to slow down. Behind me, a woman is right up on my heels. We are nearly jogging, us three strangers, and there are more of us in front and behind, our knees all lifting to blast past the inert on our right. This is New York. I’m not sure if it’s New York distilled to its essence, but it is unmistakably New York.
Here, in this unmistakable city, you can live in an 800 square foot apartment with a child, two children (MORE THAN TWO CHILDREN?), and you can be fine and happy and without any more want than anybody else because, as we all know, our rents and mortgages pay for the square footage not of our units but of this adrenal snarl of a city we’ve agreed is worth sharing with those in similar units under and atop us, stacked up efficiently for a relatively small number of miles (72.8, if you live in my borough). I agree to this, every time I re-sign my Brooklyn lease, which I’ve done for almost ten years.
You can spend an entire day or a week or a month in Brooklyn, walking places, riding the buses, trying to ride the G train, and you can never go into Manhattan and be no worse off, maybe be better off. I have been trying to extract my fingers from the sweaty grasping hand on the other side of the water for a little while now, but it is tricky. It calls out with work, or the promise of work, with buzzing nights, shows and dinners, and cavernous buildings filled with bears and bones through which my son runs wild-eyed and shouting. It is both why we stay here in Brooklyn, a slow-running R ride away, and why we wonder if we should just abandon ship, since we don’t go out the way we used to, thanks to the kid and some dormant domesticity he has unearthed in us.
Is it people telling us we will want more space that makes me think I need more space or is that we have only one window in the living room and I want to see more outside from inside? That is sort of a distillation of what suburban life can be, isn’t it? It is, for a price that is not bad, having a good view of the outside world from inside. You don’t have to leave your house as much, everything you need is there and in your lovely backyard, in your driveway, your garage. Home is not only your refuge, it is your Brooklyn; it is the place you can spend long stretches of time, happy, warm, spreading your arms out and spinning in circles and not bumping into anything.
I’ve been thinking about all this as I read about Syrian refugees. How absurdly easy it is for us to decide to displace ourselves, to choose our home from all the places that will be happy to have us (and our down payment). We are so lucky. Right now, we are, my husband and son and I, New Yorkers, not because we deserve to be but because we were lucky enough to get to decide to come here. Or, in my case, come back here.
My great-grandparents got of out Poland in 1920. Poor and Jewish, unwanted there and here, they came anyway and they rented apartments in Brownsville. Their daughter, my grandmother, bought a house in East Flatbush with my grandfather. Twenty-something years later, my dad left for college and for space, in every sense of the word, and he didn’t go back until we told him there was going to be a grandchild. Now he and my mom rent an apartment in Downtown Brooklyn a few blocks from where my grandma worked for the Board of Education until she was 70.
A vein of my mom’s family has been in
America since the 17th century. She’s a descendant of Anne
Hutchinson (whose Wikipedia entry is BANANAS), the
midwife and anti-establishment spiritual leader who was made a refugee by her
Puritan community in Massachusetts when they banished her for being a smart,
loud-mouthed preacher. She went to what is now the Bronx
(42 square miles) and that is where she died, killed by a group of Siwanoy in
retaliation for the massacres of a whole bunch of other Native American tribes,
massacres that had been ordered by dude the Dutch West India
company put in charge of New York.
Am I New Yorker? Am I an American? These, in my opinion, are irrelevant questions and, in any case, the answer is as much yes as it is no. But if you want to say I’m a New Yorker, and sometimes I do very much want to say this, than anybody can be a New Yorker, anybody who wants to slog it out here, where we glance dismissively at the slow moving cretins beside us and then hurry on to wherever it is we think we’re going. Come here, live here, try to get out of here, this is a city that is not without a history of cruelty to the displaced, but certainly a city with a history of folding in its displaced, so much so, we’ve forgotten that way back when, we were not welcome here either. I hope many more refugees come here, from Syria, from Turkey, from Pakistan, and may they hurry along ahead of me or glare at me as I scurry beside them or pay me no mind at all.
I saw a lone kid dancing on the Q train. He was swinging from the bars with the
ease of a slack bit of rope as we huffed over the bridge. The sun was making
its early December exit. There was music playing. The kid was so young, barely
a teenager. Do you remember when you swung on the subway bars? You know what I
mean. When you swung on any kind of bars? I don’t. I never did the monkey bars.
I was too scared. You can step halfway inside people’s lives here in the span
of a minute, even less. It’s all borrowed, the land, the views, the trains, the
subway bars for swinging. It wasn’t like I could imagine exactly what it felt
like for my body to rise up and over and down the double bars splitting one set
of seats from the other. But maybe I could. Maybe I did. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to leave New York, not yet.