Thursday, June 19, 2014

An American Immigrant to America

My first weeks in America were an immigrant’s confection of awe and expectation; for in spite of my native tongue and U.S. citizenship I felt very nearly as much of an immigrant as the Greeks and Russians and Koreans I saw behind the lunch counters in New York’s delis and diners, and the Israeli who, in exchange for two quarters, handed me an enormous pretzel from his hot-dog-and-pretzel cart outside the Empire State Building one bright cold day in February 1978. I gaped at the size of the pretzel, as I’d been gaping, with wide eyes (and gorged on memories of Melville, Whitman, Fitzgerald et al), at all of magical Manhattan. It was exotic in its differences from Europe. The buildings were obelisks of blunt wealth, without humanizing bakeries or pubs or cafes on the street floor. People exchanged no glances. Great clouds of steam rose spookily into the air from the grates that capped the netherworld beneath Fifth Avenue. Beeping yellow taxis, driven by Sikh or Filipino madmen, jolted down the arrow-straight thoroughfares. The city was full of foreigners, foreign languages, and shops selling foreign products. And yet it was all entirely, utterly American: as evidence, the national flag of the US was on display everywhere, like a tribal fetish, in greater profusion than I’d ever seen the flags of my other countries, even on their national holidays. (Except Switzerland, another semi-fractious federation not entirely confident of its identity.)
     “You from Ireland?” inquired the pretzel man, on no conceivable basis of judgment except my face.
     “Absolutely,” I said. I was so pleased that I bought another gigantic pretzel and lathered it in utterly anodyne mustard that had never seen Dijon.
     “I come from Israel,” he said. “You know Israel? No? It’s a great place. But I think I stay here. Hey! It’s America.”
     Hey! It was, indeed. And the differences from Europe continued to fascinate and perplex me, as if I’d been expecting a larger Dublin with skyscrapers. First off there were no establishments recognizable to a Franco-Irishman as pubs or cafes, only “bars” or “saloons,” frigidly air-conditioned, with table service; although on the East Side I found a smattering of places that called themselves “pub,” as no self-respecting pub would. These establishments were on plumbline-straight streets that bore the names of numbers rather than people or things: how unimaginative, I thought, until I got used to the idea and relished its practicality. And I realized that the names Fifth Avenue, say, or Fourteenth Street, could be as evocative, and even as poetic, as the names Via del Corso or Morehampton Road, depending on associations, when they grew old enough.
   And of course old in New York in those waning years of the twentieth century meant, with one or two eighteenth-century exceptions, the nineteenth century, but anything that old was a rarity in most places in America anyway (except Boston and Philadelphia and oddities like Williamsburg and Santa Fe). Buildings went up, fulfilled their function, and were torn down, to make way for newer, bigger buildings destined to be even shorter-lived. It was a barren place for one who grew up amid the whispering of past millennia. But in New York history has been concentrated in such a way as to render the place more ancient than its years. In its early days it was no more than a way station of the Dutch and British empires; then virtually overnight it became the commercial hub of the New World, then Babylon-on- the-Subway, then the world’s capital, and all in a span scarcely longer than the age of my mother’s house.
On my first day there I walked from the Empire State Building at Thirty-Fourth Street down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square and from there to the island’s end, where the sad harborfront gives way to Lady Liberty—oddly insignificant in reality, I found, dwarfed by the scale of the skyline behind her—and the salty Atlantic tide, washing in Old World boots and condoms from over there. In that district of alleys in the permanent shadow of lofty cold skyscrapers, only the Woolworth Building and Trinity and St. Paul’s churches survived from the distant past, and a half-dozen or so renovated shops and warehouses at the South Street Seaport, and a few forgotten side-street emporia; and of course, at that time they were all beneath the great protective twin silhouette of the Twin Towers that, ultimately, failed to protect, or be protected. 

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