On my way to New York from South Africa in the Sixties, I stopped in Israel. It was midsummer, and in Ramat Gan where I stayed for a few weeks, people sat out at night on their breezeless balconies and played cards till late. Food vendors sold sunflower seeds on the street; people popped them into their mouths and then split them with their teeth, swallowed the core and spat out the shell through the bus window in one continuous mouth-teeth-tongue movement, no hands. Streets, apartment and balconies merged into a kind of shared outdoorsiness. I’d never seen it before and I liked it.
When I came to New York a few weeks later, I was taken aback. The ride from JFK to Manhattan was ugly and bumpy (though probably still better than today). It was globally dramatic (the skyline) but locally dispiriting (the disrepair in front of you). New York was nice from far but far from nice. I lived in a dormitory on the Upper West Side at the edge of Harlem. There were no telephones in rooms and no AC. The corridors looked prison-like, green lower half and white upper half, and the guards at the entrances confirmed that view. I was UNimpressed.
The first thing that struck me after I got over my shock at being 10,000 miles from everything I knew was how foreign everyone was. New York was a polyglot city of immigrants. People around me spoke Spanish and Yiddish and Italian and German. Middle-aged men and women with concentration camp numbers on their arms ran local luncheonettes. The deli store run by immigrants nearby on Broadway and 123rd Street sold chocolate-covered ants. The pizza store we refueled at late at night right next to it was run by real Italian-speaking Italians, an enormously large Mama on a metal folding chair scowling at her dapper grey-haired flour-dusted husband who combed his hair as he eyed the girls. Puerto Ricans sat out on their stoops till late at night smoking and talking. Though it didn’t look like it, New York reminded me of the Tel Aviv I’d just left, a city of immigrants who lived out on a street that encompassed the entire city. New York was a Mediterranean or Caribbean town, the only American one like that, at least at that time.
Every other place I’ve been, you feel a bit out of it if you’re an immigrant or foreigner. But New York is a foreigner’s town in its own brash and unfriendly way that is quintessentially American. Maybe people here care too much about money, but it’s better than caring about class or family or the other accoutrements that take a long time to accumulate. Here, it’s what did you do for me lately. That’s not all bad.
When I graduated I didn’t want to leave NYC. I feared the bland non-immigrant cities that didn’t have a street life, where existence was conducted behind closed doors. In New York if you’re lonely you can walk down the street and be surrounded by people and have interactions. When I thought (in those days) about going somewhere in the heart of the country, I feared cold winters and hemmed-in living. I liked being able to walk the streets, even if they looked like the grim ones outside the diner in Hopper’s Nighthawks, because inside there were people who were still part of the public to exchange a word with. There was always the possibility of something happening.
I have a romantic view of New York that’s never faded. Serge Gainsbourg, now being recalled in a movie at Film Forum, was a Russian-Jewish first-generation Parisian in the days when Paris welcomed foreigners, and he captures some New York’s iconic charm in his song ‘New York USA’ which requires very little knowledge of French; he simply professes amazement at the height of New York buildings as he recites their magical names. It’s dumb, but it’s charming because it recognizes reality and isn’t shy to say so. Here’s a video
and some of the lyrics.
… … J’ai vu New York
New York U.S.A.
J’ai vu New York
New York U.S.A.
J’ai jamais rien vu d’aussi haut
Oh ! C’est haut, c’est haut New York
New York U.S.A.
Empire States Building oh ! c’est haut
Rockefeller Center oh ! c’est haut
International Building oh ! c’est haut
Waldorf Astoria oh ! c’est haut
Panamerican Building oh ! c’est haut
Bank of Manhattan oh ! c’est haut
Even when you’ve been in New York for decades, you can still see it through immigrant eyes. You can be a foreigner and all-American at the same time. Because beneath the quotidian city the romance of an immigrant past in which everything is amazing and open to you is always lurking. Mundane people have romantic stories in their past. And romantic people have to do mundane city things. You don’t have to choose between countries because you can be a citizen of New York, a magical realist country all by itself:
The Laboratorio at GROM
On Columbus Circle, in the Laboratorio behind the register
white-coated Dottoressas of physiology and science
mix extracts of fruits and spices
harvested from their Sicilian orchards.
They combine them with organic milk
flown in from Tuscany
and add a few drops of San Pellegrino.
You can understand why even small amounts of GROM are expensive.
They say that late at night,
after they close,
the serious white-coated Dottoressas remove their horn-rimmed spectacles
and put aside their microscopes and loupes
and wet-and-dry bulb thermometers.
They empty their pipettes
and autoclave the tongs and spatulas
and apply a few drops of Princess Marcella Borghese from the nearby Sephora
to rid themselves of the smell of vanilla from Agrigento
and turn the Laboratorio into a spa to make extra money.
New York is expensive, even when you sell ice cream at $6 a scoop.
After cleaning the giant aluminum mixing tubs
with steaming jets of distilled Pellegrino
and exercise prescriptions.
They wrap customers in hot GROM sheets
as they cool down after immersion in the tubs.
have very advanced degrees from Bocconi
and say the traces of GROM
in the tubs
relieve pain and stress
and strengthen the immune system.
At 6am they shut the place and leave
tossing their lab coats into the common laundry bag.
They get a cup of coffee and a glazed at Dunkin Donuts
check their email at the 24hr Fedex Kinkos
and read about the latest advances in nutrition on the GROM server.
Then they go home and try to sleep
before their next shift.