Amid New York’s Abundance, Embracing A Life Of Diminished Expectations

The weather is warm the day we arrive. As a child, I would never have been in the city on this day. Like other privileged city children I would have been evacuated to the country, away from the polluted air, the city pools and the open fire hydrants. Or I would have been sent away to sleepover camp, or taken a trip abroad. I would never have been permitted to walk barefoot on steamy sidewalks, or experienced the gush of water from the hydrants, or been allowed to sleep on a fire escape.

The building where I lived as a child did not have fire escapes; it had marble floors, internal staircases and high ceilings. I never smelled fetid garbage or noticed rats rummaging for food, I never ventured to the laundry room; only the maids went to the laundry room. Images of the working underclass, the working poor, and worse, were not mine. They existed only in photographs I studied in college, photographs of a New York I had never known. In addition to the heat and humidity which began in May and often continued into my return to the city in September, I was innocent of the street sounds cascading into open windows, or the threat of polio in the city’s parks and pools.

After Labor Day, we were back at school, the hydrants and pools and windows were closed, the sprinklers and fountains in the parks shut down. The weather might have cooled or perhaps we would have an Indian Summer, but it was brief, and then it was autumn. The warm weather would not linger into October or November as it does today.

It had not been a voluntary re-entry to my childhood neighborhood. I had always assumed, as had my refugee parents, that my life would be more financially and physically secure than theirs: no persecution or war, good schooling, professional status. And so I never imagined I would return here, but a recession, two job losses in quick succession, and illness made the sale of our co-op a necessity. After the sale, we downsized twice, and not knowing what to do next, inched uptown into a sublet in a 1917 landmarked co-op, the apartment of friends of friends. I was now just a block away from 895 West End Avenue where I lived with my family until I was twelve. The green canopy is the same, the marble lobby. I could not have appreciated its elegance as a child or known the difference between a tenement, a brownstone and an apartment building.

We lived on the ground floor: three sets of windows opening inward, three rooms looking out onto the street, its sill to ceiling windows draped in muslin. One room was the waiting room, another my mother’s office, the third room in the front I shared with my younger sister. The rest of the apartment was in the back away from the street facing the ally: another bedroom, another bathroom, a living room-dining room, a maid’s room and a kitchen. We had a succession of maids, mostly from the Caribbean. Some were kind, others too heart-struck at the loss of their own children left behind with grandparents to be kind. They complained a lot that the apartment was difficult to clean, the children too demanding. One hollered at us, another wept, two of them drank. I told my mother I could take care of myself and my sister, but she was a physician, delivering babies at all hours, and my stepfather was establishing a new business and I was only four or five or six-years-old.

It is curious to be back in the neighborhood after so many years, to reflect on its changes. The Puerto Rican migration began in the mid 1950’s. Music and chatter on the stoops, earthy aromas, the brownstones and tenements on the side streets swelling with extended families, a village taking shape inside the neighborhood but not of the neighborhood as my parents would have defined it. My parents were already citizens and had strong opinions about the newer arrivals. They didn’t bother to learn English, they said. Their food smelled. After a while, my mother’s patients refused to walk from the bus or the subway, especially after dark. I had never been afraid on these streets. It was not clear to me why they had suddenly become unsafe or why we had to move to the East Side. Now these brownstones have been returned to the gentry and the descendants of the Puerto Rican families have been transplanted into the projects on Amsterdam Avenue. The more affluent have escaped to single-family homes in Queens or Staten Island or Westchester. What remains is a neighborhood, once again, in transition, the realtors say, a diverse neighborhood. But this statement is incorrect. The neighborhood is not diverse. Like the rest of the city, it is divided, and always has been. Manhattan, in particular, is like a vice: surrounded by water on all sides, the entry point of migration from the rest of the country and overseas, the competition is fierce for land and resources and jobs. Ethnic communities are well delineated, not ghettos exactly, but separate, their schools segregated by neighborhood, many of them failing.

I have lived on two continents and in more than twenty apartments. When I left the city to go to college, I did not think I would ever live in New York again. And certainly not in Manhattan. My parents were forced out of their homes in Europe at the point of a gun. I have never seen the point of a gun, experienced despotic coercion, or the threat of death camps, and I have never even been a victim of a forced economic migration. Until now.

I walk along Amsterdam Avenue opposite the projects, a pocket of Latino culture with its vibrant hair salons and barber shops, fish stores, thrift shops and churches. The two buses that run along this downscale Avenue — the M7 and the M11 — move slowly as they take on their frail and disabled passengers; some still very young are already on walkers. One block away, the M104 runs up fashionable Broadway to Columbia University, its bookstores, a West Side Market where all the produce is over-priced. Younger passengers are on their phones or reading or talking. On a map, these streets — Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway — would be less than an inch away from one another.

I cannot locate the source of my anxiety though I know it resides somewhere in my family of origin who fled a genocide, and then my childhood at 895 West End Avenue. My parents were cultivated, educated and, eventually, prosperous. In the current downfall of the American Dream, of aspirations dashed, of savings plundered by medicines and healthcare, their legacy has evaporated. I cannot afford what my parents enjoyed regularly: theater, opera, concerts, fine dining. Having been raised in a pre-war Europe that had universal health care and subsidized the arts , they would be dismayed that all these pleasures are now out of reach for so many, including their daughter.

I know that my parents would have never have left Europe unless they had been forced to leave at gunpoint. And after a decade studying and then working in London, I often ask myself if we made the right decision to return.

I stop to help an extremely elderly woman on a cane negotiate a broken sidewalk as she makes her way into a bank. I wonder why this extremely elderly woman in too-big boots, her hair dirty and disheveled, her coat dragging on the ground, is walking this street alone, without assistance. Where are her children? Where are her grandchildren? Where is the caring community the politicians talk about?

I have studied American history and, more recently, the history of the city itself. Since the earliest Dutch settlement in the 17th century, New Amsterdam and then New York, has always been the continent’s financial center. Last week I learned that even after the Revolution, there were 3,000 slaves in New York. Other states had set their slaves free, abolished the trade, but not New York where the propertied classes — including propertied Jews — were ascendant. And slaves were valued property and valued labor. The city was built on the backs of slaves and indentured labor.

When the landmarked apartment building where we now live went up in 1917, that was just 52 years and two generations beyond the abolition of slavery in America.

I avoid long conversations with my new owner-neighbors. I tell my husband, with an unfamiliar envy, that these new neighbors have an investment in the building whereas we are renters on a short lease: nomads, migrants, refugees, the internally displaced, passing through. The owners in the co-op are only permitted to rent two years out of five. These are the house rules, seemingly implacable. Having once been on a co-op board myself, I appreciate the impulse to create a settled community, but I have also witnessed owners lose their apartments when they have to move away and are not permitted to rent. I wonder if the hubris of ownership in the city will ever soften or dissipate.

I have put up some pictures and made the small, bright apartment livable, but have left several boxes sealed and stored in the capacious closets. I continue to cull books, clothes, and any household items I decide we will never use again. I have asked our daughter and son-in-law to store a bed, a granite table top, some boxes. My husband’s collection of old magazines and newspapers, carefully sealed in Mylar, has traveled with us through the most recent moves. It would be upsetting to sell them off and I would never suggest it.

Down in the laundry room, I rarely meet anyone except the Spanish-speaking workers — maids, nannies, porters — and the resident cat, Cleo, a ten-year-old with yellow eyes, a yellow streak down her forehead, and an enigmatic expression. Cleo, short for Cleopatra, emerges as soon as I begin to load the machines and then jumps onto the top of the machine and reaches out her paw and wants to jump on me. The affinity of displacement is strong. Who were you in another life, I ask, having learned that Cleo has been rescued from a forest in Columbia County. Once nearly feral, she is now completely domesticated, albeit relegated to the basement to catch mice in an upscale upper west side New York landmarked apartment building.

New York is a city of staggering abundance, of restaurants where waiters recite incomprehensible menus, long verbal lists of food that arrive in the center of over-sized plates, of taxis cruising for customers, of shops that glitter and beckon, of theater seats that sell for $150-200. Is this luxury or decadence I ask myself now that I can no longer partake of these luxuries?

We purchase Netflix. For less than ten dollars a months we can watch movies all day and all night and never have to go out again. We cook all the time. We invite friends to share meals, two at a time because we only have four chairs and a very small kitchen. We open a bottle of wine. We celebrate. But our friends often go to the fancy restaurants we used to frequent together without us. Would we do the same? Is that a rhetorical question? Are we so habituated to luxury that we can not relinquish luxury, or the longing for it?

The apartment is high up, an aerie, and I watch the sun rise and set every day. Instead of ten plants we have three, all of them doing well in the bright apartment. Life is simpler, uninflected, its joys oddly more accessible. The Buddhists are correct, I decide. When attachment ceases, when we no longer strive for material acquisition, we have arrived, we are home.

Carol Bergman lives in a rent stabilized apartment with her husband and three new plants. She teaches a course in Creative Nonfiction at New York University, College of Applied Liberal Arts and is the the co-owner of Mediacs, a full-service hybrid publishing company.

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