Jan/Feb 2009 Salon

American Home

by Stanley Jenkins

Artwork by Robert Hoover

It used to be that you knew you were a real New Yorker when you spent a lot of time talking about getting out. The irony of claiming some kind of authentic NewYorkness by means of portraying the city as if it were something you could slough off, like a youthful affection for Robert Wilson productions at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, went unrecognized.

New York was an affectation. A prop. A backdrop to your own movie. It wasn't a place. It was a location.

That's not the way it is now. New York is a place, all right. It's where people make their homes and raise their kids. It's where families gather on holidays. It's where people bury their dead. And packs of abandoned dogs gone feral roam the great necropolises of Queens at night. Borough of cemeteries.

Seems I've got new eyes these days. A prospective New Yorker of all told, sixteen years. I've got new eyes. I see things. The tawdry meanness of Bush-era Manhattan. Times Square and shopping. The trash and fences on Queens Boulevard. Dog fights in Jamaica.

This is an ugly city.

City of hare lips and cold sores. City of cheap perfume and stupid American Idol dreams. Pharmacists and herbalists. City of gray-hamburger diners and Starbucks. Fortune tellers and pole dancers. Vocational colleges and degrees in Psychology. City of immigrants and unspeakable and scandalous dreams of home—the way home could be—the way home ought to be. And the way home actually is.

City of flan and ox tail soup. City of garlic and meat pies.

City of the LIE and the BQE. City of on ramps and off ramps landing on neighborhoods like expeditionary forces. Sad concrete gardens. Pigeon shit. Overflowing trash cans reeking of ketchup and grease on the Grand Concourse. Handball courts. Strip clubs. Banquet Halls on Metropolitan Avenue housing sweet sixteen extravaganzas.

New York is a place. And it is ugly. It is the central fact of New York. Its ugliness. The concrete and trash. The smell of urine and moldy awnings. The fact of its complete indifference to the lives of its inhabitants. It does not compute with the wallpaper of my childhood. In my eye's mind I see cornfields and open spaces. I see fields and distance. It takes a great deal of alchemy to reconcile the two. The wallpaper of my childhood and New York.

New York. This place of glamour and lights. Lies and time-wasting exaggerations. This place of the eight million souls.

God, I hate it, like the stone resents gravity. And yet I bless it with every breath I take. I breath it into existence with every breath I take. This New York. This place where everyone I know is always already defeated—and yet keeps on, like a ghost that doesn't know it's dead yet. This place where every illusion is dangerous—and yet there is rejoicing behind the triple-locked apartment doors of Lefrak City.

This place where love is fierce and guarded. And generous. And candid.

Outside the city, the word is that New Yorkers are loud and obnoxious, rude. All of that is true of course, but there is a sweetness and naivete to New Yorkers that maybe tourists don't get to see. You just don't cast pearls before swine.

I mean. I'm just saying. In the city you don't play the sucker. You don't parade what you got where it will get soiled and trampled. Eighty million grubby fingers. Sixteen million unwashed feet. But that doesn't mean that New Yorkers don't have a world of generosity behind the game face. Behind the barred windows.

This is a city of habitual cruelty and ugliness—and miraculously, those who endure it more often than not come out on the other side—not so much unscathed—as unbowed. I hate this city like I hate that my father is getting old—like a kite hates the hand that holds the string.

I hate this city until I find again and again that I love it—and that my love couldn't be half as true without the hate.

And that seems like something to pay attention to. In the place where I make my American home.


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