It’s like this

WeillApt“I mean, the zeroes they throw around are ridiculous,” she told the lady to her right. It wasn’t clear they knew each other, but the older yet vivacious woman speaking had found an ear in the still older yet submissive one. “I submit board packages…25 million, 30 million…you know? I have a hard time not being a little jaded. So much money.”

She paused as the M2 Limited bus shuddered to a sharp stop on Madison Avenue. She looked toward the front, ostensibly toward the driver causing her interruption, and swiveled her head back past me–licking her peach-painted lips quickly, absent-mindedly.

“I’ve got this one customer–I mean, I’m really glad my customers are buying these apartments, you know? don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful, but jeez, the money!–I’ve got this one customer, it’s a Russian deal…well, he’s Israeli but it’s Russian money.”

She looks again in my direction. Frosted hair. Ample thighs in smooth mocha leather pants. Green eyes. This work keeps her feeling young.

“And the guy is like, ‘I want you to close this’ and, you know…” She sees 86th Street come more quickly than expected. Both ladies get up to move toward the door. “So he gives me a twenty-five hundred dollar bracelet as a thank-you for closing. The deal was worth ninety grand, you know? So it’s not like I needed that. Right? It’s like that.”

Image courtesy of The Wall Street Journal

Island of many hills

In 1811, the Commissioners of New York City approved a plan that dramatically altered the topological, economic, and (I’d argue) spiritual landscape of the city.

The grid plan was devised from maps made by surveyor John Randel Jr., and it is this plan that required the leveling of the place that the Lenape Indians had called “the island of many hills,” or mannahatta. Writers and designers stuytown_thennow-copyfrom Clement Clarke Moore to Edgar Allan Poe to Frederick Law Olmsted lamented the changing of the landscape and, in the latter’s case, one was able to preserve and re-create a central location in Manhattan that recalled for residents and visitors the island’s varied ecological wealth.

This grid, though, also paved the way for Manhattan to become arguably the world’s most influential city, by both monetizing its square footage and also attracting the world’s leading moneymakers and artists (Cf. “Triumph of the City,” Edward Glaeser), as well as the poor and new immigrants, both seeking opportunity. The GDP of the NYC Metropolitan Area in 2012 was $1.33 trillion, the highest of any city in the U.S. and ranked 13th even among countries, following Australia and ahead of the likes of Spain, Mexico and South Korea. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute ranks New York as first among cities for GDP by the year 2025, though only 10th in population, underscoring the density of GDP per capita.

In light of this influence, living in New York City became synonymous with “making it.” If you can make it here, sang Sinatra, you can make it anywhere. Success, money, and fame are the siren calls for Americans who move here; “streets paved with gold” and the opportunity to earn enough money to send some back to families living halfway across the globe or to start anew with one’s family here is the draw for new immigrant groups and even the poor looking for a job. Having a Manhattan mailing address, and having a (212) area code, are also synonymous with status. Living in one of the “outer boroughs” is akin to banishment. (Though this is changing, as Brooklyn has allure to many and is becoming once again almost its own city.) Therefore, a spiritual malady that infected the first Dutch settlers 400 years ago has been passed to the current generation who live here and to adolescents around the world who yearn to come: to live in New York—“to be a New Yorker”—is to be inherently worthy. It is to be assigned value.

The grid cemented this thinking.

Yet—and at the risk of abusing the construction metaphor—the jackhammer of prophetic voices now calling people, particularly Christians, to serve the city, and the spade and trowel of urbanists, city planners, restorative architects and landscape designers can re-fashion Manhattan into an island of many hills once again.

These hills need not be physical to be effective.

Rather, our spiritual wholeness will allow us to see that topological variety can be realized by ensuring that affordable housing is created in desirable neighborhoods. Likewise, any good ecosystem—one that is also beautiful—must be sustainable and symbiotic with adjacent ones. This points to the need for mixed use areas, varied architecture, businesses that are locally run and serve the needs of the community, and active Community Boards that allow for residents themselves to maintain that ecosystem alongside other ecosystems (neighborhoods). The “physical” space of New York City in the 21st century and beyond must be a place of varied urban ecologies the way mannahatta once was for the beaver, the bear, the oyster. The destruction of the natural habitat started long before the grid, when one group (the Dutch) presumed to “own” the land and “bought” it from the Lenape. This was a foreign concept to the latter group, which saw its role as one of steward, as “husband” of this topology and its natural environment. The Lenape and other native tribes, in fact, viewed their decisions in light of how they would affect seven generations out.

Today’s leaders have the same opportunity for vision and spiritual wholeness—wholeness that is mindful of what seven generations out will need and want.

Just as an unbridled capitalism of Wall Street would concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, so too an unchecked hand of the State (through city government) would redistribute that money in a way that concentrates power in the hands of a few. Therefore, our spiritual wholeness allows us as citizens to manage abundance well and to give responsibly, generously, even sacrificially.

This is the history and the future of New York.

The southern border of the grid, on and around 14th Street, embodies the old and new, the past and the future.

I took a walk there one day—from Hudson to East Rivers.

Image courtesy of The Architectural League

Fingers intertwined

Boy of three or four walking slowly along the #1 downtown subway platform at 86th Street. Blue and white sneakers. Jeans. His father three steps ahead.

The downtown express—always the loudest by far of the four trains coming through—thunders through the middle of the tunnel. Next stop 72nd Street, if it remembers to.

Father plugs his ears with his forefingers.

Boy makes an arch, a bridge, with his arms—his fingers intertwined a foot above his head, his shoulders pulled up vertically to cover his ears.

He continues to walk like this until the train passes.

“I’m a realist”

Five things Dad taught me with his life and death—things that are both good and bad and things that are not all worthy of emulation, but things that I learned simply because he lived. Simply because he was who he was.

Frugality

Dad would take plastic wrap and paste it to the side of our refrigerator—like gum behind the ear—so that it could be used again. He bought toothpaste from a discount department store called Korvette’s, a forerunner to WalMart or Costco. As an adolescent attending an exclusive prep school in NYC, it embarrassed me that anyone I knew would buy anything from Korvette’s that I would have to endure using. He went to the Odd Lots store that used to occupy the Pershing Square restaurant across from Grand Central, 2014_0614 pic of bus w ads copyunder the Park Avenue overpass, and bought cases of bread-and-butter pickles, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives for his martinis. Dad stored them under my brother Jim’s bed, and we found them decades later, when both my parents were gone. Mom always said, with not a little annoyance, that Dad was, “penny wise and pound foolish.” He bought inexpensive gin and decantered it into a Tanqueray bottle, whose label was getting quite old. He bought the under-12 ticket on the LIRR for me until I was 14, because he could do so based on my looks, regardless of how I felt.

Lover of people

As an advertising space salesman, Dad spent most of his time developing relationships. He seemed genuinely good at it and also seemed genuinely to like it. Even need it. After he lost his job in the late 80s or early 90s during a leveraged buyout, he went into a rapid and steep decline, which ended when he committed suicide in 1998. He spent his time mostly alone and in the kitchen, cooking dishes over the course of hours that should take 45 minutes, and rubbing the spine of our aging Siamese cat, Pip, with his slippered foot. In his day, he could be seen holding forth in a tight circle at a cocktail party, drink in one hand, pot belly pressing forward his paisley shirt, telling a story, or listening to one and issuing a hearty laugh—sometimes perfectly practiced, sometimes genuine—at its conclusion. We were always having parties ourselves, hence the need for cheap olives.

Devotion to family

I heard him once on the phone with one of his cousins in North Carolina, and his tone was scolding but not mean. He was upset that this cousin had not called him to tell him that another cousin had been ill. He always wanted to be in the know about our family, how they were doing, what they thought about things. He would never take a photograph of a landmark or an architectural detail without one of us (Mom, Jim or me) being in the photo. He figured that any postcard would do a better job of capturing a scene, but only if he was taking the photo, he wanted one of us to appear. Even in his suicide note, he requested forgiveness, even from Pip the cat.

Utilitarian view

I would say, “Dad, you’re such a pessimist.” “I’m a realist,” would come the reply.

During college break sometime during my sophomore year—I had taken sociology and it had made an impression—I told him I wanted to be a social worker. “That’s good, Howd (my nickname, short for Howdy, also a nickname), but why not think about being a manager of social workers? You could do so much more good?”

Why not? Because it was inherently different. Because one was working directly with people in need, and the other was not. One was coming alongside an other and steering him onto a path; the other was holding people accountable to do their jobs. Not so much steering in my mind at the time as ruling. Regardless of the ultimate end being the same in kind but different in scale, the day-to-day could not be more different in my mind. But he either didn’t see why I wanted to do this work (which I doubt, since he was too insightful for that), or he didn’t approve.

He had quit college in 1940 as a junior when his father died. His mother died when he was nine, and his father remarried, having a daughter and two more sons. As the oldest of four, his job was to help his stepmother (who never remarried) and school-age siblings, to whom he was very close. He had wanted to be an architect but instead had to go into the media business, because that’s where he could get a job. He had tried to enlist in the military but was rejected for medical reasons. Later, marrying the middle child of three sisters, he found himself as the solitary non-veteran. Even his father-in-law had served in WWI, as his younger brothers had in peacetime and in Vietnam.

Adoption

I learned the value of being loved without being a “natural” part of a family. When I was no older than five, I learned that I had been adopted as an infant, a transaction handled by Spence-Chapin after I was born to a woman I was told often by my mother was “very beautiful.” What boy doesn’t want to hear that? Jim was two years younger and born biologically to Mom after a total of three or more miscarriages she had before and after I came along. I learned as an adult—but have no way of confirming it—that my grandfather was less than pleased that I was part of the family through adoption, even though I always had the impression that as the first grandson after seven granddaughters, I was welcomed. When Poppa died, I was 20; I had idolized him. Later, I cared not a bit about what he thought of me earlier in my life. He was a flawed man, as are we all, and his opinion stung a bit, but not much more than a bee bite.

When I remarried, to Karen, Dad—having seen my previous marriage break apart and seeing my life until my mid-30s constantly spiral out of control, in addition to seeing me hospitalized twice for what was diagnosed as bipolar disorder—said to her privately, “You know, it’s like you’ll be taking care of a baby.” He didn’t attend our 1997 wedding in Texas, and I assumed it was for reasons stated: health. A year later, he killed himself, and Mom, Jim and I found his body. I closed his clammy cold eyelids. I can never un-see that image, not in this life. I can never un-hear or understand his words. Again: a sting, a bite even, but not lethal.

As I told a group of men gathered last Thursday morning, I never felt unloved as a kid, or even in my 20s. I never felt anything but love from him. To feel unloved, I have to dwell on the negative—camp out on those memory scenes that negate me. The corollary is also true.

When I was 12, and trying to pass the swimming test so that I wouldn’t have to experience social death by wearing a life preserver during sailing classes at our beach community, I failed the first time because of the 30-minute treading water test. The instructors, at Dad’s request, gave me a second chance. This time, Dad got in the water with me. He showed me different ways to float—he was good at floating. We talked. We told jokes. We talked some more. No instructor was monitoring, but Dad had brought an egg timer.

I didn’t have to wear a life preserver that summer or ever. Dad took 30 minutes alone with me to do something he probably didn’t want to do on a Saturday morning after a week of travel for work, so that I wouldn’t be embarrassed and certainly so that I could learn the techniques of staying afloat. And maybe so that we could spend time together.

I will hold onto that last reason as if it were the primary one, until I can see him as even more human than I see him today.

photo: public domain, MTA

Hawklet

The red-tailed hawk on West 84th Street had babies recently.

One of our neighbors, who wears white T-shirts and has long stringy gray hair, and gray whiskers, caught Bennett and me on the street the other day as I was walking him to the corner to meet up with his friend Josh so that they could go to school together.

“Do you see her up there?” he asked us. “White feathers. And a red tail.”

I had thought that the red-tailed part was more of a moniker and less of something that was visible to all. I pointed Bennett to the fire escape on the 12th or so floor of the prewar building. 505 West End Avenue. The fire escape faces west, so when the hawk is caught in a breeze, you can see her white belly ruffle in the wind.

There was nothing so high in Manhattan as this building 400 years ago. Perhaps I console myself with that advantage to her, since–robbed of the island’s natural habitats–she and her babies are consigned to eating rats, most of which have been poisoned by unthinking landlords along our block and the surrounding area.

Uptown #1 train: Vignette #30

On the subway, young lady wearing navy skirt with white pictographs gets cautious smiles from elderly Chinese man sitting across from where she stood. His dress shirts, on hangers in a clear plastic bag, hung from the brushed aluminum handrail over his head. They swung as the train rocked.

She noticed him staring, reading, smiling. She smiled back.

Finally, after smiles were tossed back and forth like fresh eggs between schoolchildren at Field Day, she went over to speak to him.

She bent over, her back to me, to listen. He looked at her through his glasses and said something, his words coming obviously slowly, judging by the movement of his mouth.

She nodded and then stood up.

The train came into 72nd Street and the doors opened behind her. She started toward the platform and, grabbing a handrail on her way out, turned once more to the man.

He looked at her, as though something had passed between them and neither was the poorer.