SK ME WHAT I think about New York after living here since the end of July, and I’ll tell you about Sumitra Paniker. In the late Sixties when I was in graduate school in Austin, I made friends with Sumitra, a lovely Indian girl. India Indian. Sumi fascinated provincial me both with her exoticism and with her ordinariness. She painted a red dot in the middle of her forehead and rimmed her dark eyes with kohl, but she chewed bubble gum. One day she was regal in an antique silk sari, the next day she looked like a teeny-bopper in jeans and sweatshirt. Her English, spoken with the purest Oxonian accent in a melting Indian alto, included a command of street patois, the streets being the Drag in Austin as well as the main drag in New Delhi. She was writing a dissertation on the ideas of Buddha as revealed in the works of J.D. Salinger, and to finish she bribed herself with Baby Ruths and baklava.
New York is, like Sumitra Paniker, an odd mixture of parts, exotic and elegant, familiar and ordinary. Just when I’m enraptured with her strangeness, I catch her chewing bubble gum-or worse, because New York’s exoticism, unlike Sumitra’s, often slips into barbarity, her familiarity into grossness. One moment, New York is the city of perfect dreams, the next a landscape of nightmare. Living here requires a balance I haven’t yet mastered.
It’s certainly not exactly the way I hoped it was going to be. What I hoped it was going to be like is epitomized in this personal ad from New York Magazine:
Blonde, Beautiful and Well-Tailored: We passed and said “hi” on 9/18/84 around 2:30 pm on 6th Ave. in the 50’s. You were the gorgeous woman in black. Where can I reach you? NYM B288.
or this one in the New York Times:
LOST-Midtown, emerald ring in Car-tier box. Reward.
I saw the city as a place where gorgeous women in black were sought after by men eager to give them emerald rings from Car-tier. I stocked my wardrobe with black and waited for the emeralds to follow.
So far there have been no emeralds, but there have been some glowing moments. We heard Alicia de Larrocha play five encores in a Lincoln Center concert. I rediscovered Evelyn and Saul Friedman, friends from Houston in the Sixties, and heard their daughter Lise, a music student at Yale, in concert; when I last saw Lise she was 8. We went shopping at Barney’s for my husband’s requisite gray flannel suit, and saw old quilts like four or five in our linen closet for $425 apiece. We caught The Royal Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing on $10 tickets. One night after a concert in Central Park, the crowd of thousands extemporaneously began to sing Someone’s in the Kitchen With Dinah, an unexpected harmony in the dark night.
Even quotidian life in the imperial city, as John Leonard calls it, dazzles with pleasures. It’s something to ride the elevator downstairs and bring up a four- course meal from a deli on the ground floor; to find fresh raspberries, blueberries, mangoes and kiwi fruit and bunches of basil, mint, dill and oregano on the comer; to buy lobster, steak, duck and rabbit in the block. And the quantities of flowers! On Fridays, every New Yorker you see, from hardhats to accountants, has his spiral of paper containing the weekend’s roses or daisies. I go to Mr. Choi for ours because when we moved into his block, he handed me my first bunch with the gallantry, “I wish you Choi in your new home.”
We have had Choi abounding, and the joys haven’t been scarce, either. I’ve gotten to like riding the subways, which zip you around town in minutes. The only danger 1 feel is that I’ll be so hypnotized by the clatter that I’ll zip past my destination. Riding on a Fifth Avenue bus, I can watch smart women of a certain age in tailored suits, silk blouses and pearls, or young mothers in Laura Ashley pinafores and Ralph Lauren tweeds. Uptown on the Broadway bus, I hear French, Spanish, Yiddish, Polish (I think), German and some kind of African dialect.
But all over New York, language delights anyone with an ear for it. The headlines in the Daily News kill me, especially the ones about death: “Ex-Gridder’s Mom, 3 Others Slain” and “Plug Pulled on Coma Mom.” On a bus, a black woman asks loudly but politely, “Can you all move a little to the back to let an old woman pass? Thank you, everybody!-Well, that’s one time my big mouth worked. It sure doesn’t work all the time.”
The eye has its fun, too. New York must be a photographer’s mecca. I have wished for a camera at the sight of two nuns in their black habits and white cowls sitting demurely on the grass in Riverside Park; teen-age Puerto Rican boys fighting silently and savagely like something out of West Side Story in the middle of upper Broadway; a Jesus freak on the subway holding a stick of lighted incense high in one hand and a joint in the other; a tall transvestite with a bright green mini-skirt over very hairy legs going into mom-and-pop grocery on West End at 8 a.m.; a doorman on Madison reading Heidegger’s Elements of Christianity. My eyes hang out a lot of the time, and on good days, I can’t imagine why people love to visit New York but don’t want to live here.
But not all days are good days, and I recall Sumitra’s caution about hasty judgments. After she had been living in Austin two or three years, I asked her what she really thought of Texas. With civilly concealed amusement, she answered nicely, “How can I possibly tell you what I think of Texas, Jo? I couldn’t even see India until I left it.” I expect to be very smart about New York when we come back to Texas. At the moment, as exciting as these first months have been, they’re also making me appreciate some things about Dallas.
New York is snobbish and parochial. I’d say it’s difficult living here not to lose sight of the rest of America. Bombay and Warsaw, Tokyo and Tehran often seem a lot closer in the pages of the Times than Dubuque, Los Angeles, and especially Dallas, toward which one detects a tone of fascinated condescension. People in New York don’t really believe Dallas, Texas, exists-it’s like El Dorado to them. But then, everything west of the Hudson is a blur. And New Yorkers consider themselves, rightly or wrongly, the arbiters of national taste. A friend told me about a hostess in the Hamptons who said to her very kindly, “We’ve decided we quite like chili.” I envision all Texas holding its breath: Will they like chili?
But I’ve been asking some questions, too. First, and most important for my own peace of mind, I’m asking what I mean these days when I say, as I always have said, that I’m a liberal. A young man writing in The New Yorker recently defined a liberal as someone who wants both a good life and the good life. The New Yorker is just the right place for that kind of insight, because I have never lived in a place where it was as difficult as it is here to reconcile the contrary desires of being good and living well. The life of black dresses and emeralds harmonizes badly with the visible lives of the poor, mad, conniving, or violent people I see every day.
I knew what liberalism meant in Dallas. It meant voting the Democratic ticket, and supporting the ERA, nuclear disarmament, and social-welfare programs. It meant moving into the inner city while hoping not to upset the ethnic balance. It meant despising the Moral Majority and smug, simplistic solutions to complex moral problems. In a way, it’s easy to be a liberal in Dallas because the lines are so clearly drawn; you know what you’re standing for because you know what you’re standing against.
From the sweltering July night my husband and I arrived, crammed into a taxi from LaGuardia with three big suitcases, two hanging bags, and two animal kennels containing an irate cat and a frightened dog, I have not been sure where the lines were. The cabbie gave me the first clue. Driving toward our apartment on the Upper West Side, he regaled us with stories of the dangers of the neighborhood-women bleeding coming out of the subways or hit in the face as they stood at the bus stop. Though he discredited himself by turning out to be an anti-Ferraro Reaganite who lived on Staten Island, his last angry question still reverberates: “What’re you doing moving into this part of town? It’s a jungle over here. Nobody speaks English, to begin with. Move to the East Side. You’re East Side types if I ever saw any.”
He had a point. The same views I held as a liberal in Dallas make me, in New York, a moderate or a conservative. I find myself in the position of the poet Yeats, whose greatest difficulty as a young rebel was his father’s atheism. Anyone can rebel against the status quo, but how do you rebel against rebellion?
Yeats eventually advocated a rebellion against oneself, which he called “man’s flight from his entire horoscope,” from the determining stars of his natural character. He tried to move toward his opposite, his anti-self, and attributed his greatest poetry to the struggle of those contrary elements in his own nature. In the interest of a poetic as well as an honest life, I have accordingly allowed my latent conservatism to come out of the closet and sit around in the living room as much as it likes. I am surprised to find how healthy it is after all these years.
Peter, the closest New York friend we have, who visited us frequently in Dallas, warned me this might happen. One of the liveliest, wittiest, most innately liberal people I know, Peter has turned conservative out of fear and dread. He won’t ride the subways because of rail fires and “because they smell so bad.” His best friend was mugged and badly beaten last year, and now Peter is even more wary of street violence. He rides in cabs a lot, wears an Armani topcoat and despises the do-gooding of the Democratic party. He wants to keep the money that after years of hard work he’s at last beginning to make through his talent. “You just wait,” he said when 1 was struck speechless by his politics. “You’ll feel like this too. Willem’s already turning conservative,” nodding toward my husband, “and you’re next. It took me 10 years, but it’ll be faster for you because the city’s gotten so much worse.”
I hope Peter’s wrong about us, but I confess I know what he means. “We must not make a false faith by hiding from our thoughts the causes of doubt,” Yeats wrote. My persistent faith in liberal values has to swallow hard at some of the causes of doubt it encounters every day on the Manhattan streets. Take the beggars, for example. There they stand all around you, hands out. Even I, a notoriously soft touch, quickly begin to turn aside from their constant demands. An enormous black woman works the Broadway block just north of our apartment building. When I pass her, she uses cajolery: “Sweetie, could you give me a quarter? Please, honey, just a quarter.” When I don’t respond, she mutters curses at my back. She is about 5-foot-10, big-boned, strong, clean enough, and warmly dressed. I’ve seen her picked up by her husband in the afternoon, just as if she had a 9-to-5 job. And why doesn’t she?
Then there’s begging raised to entrepre-neurship, as in the flattering blandishment I received one day outside St. Bartholomew’s on East 51st as I swept by to meet a friend for lunch: “Miss, you got $100 on you?” What does he think I am, a Republican? For that matter, what do I think I am?
If I’m talking to myself at that point, it’s OK. All over New York, people talk to themselves. Coming home on the bus from Carnegie Hall, we listened as a woman carried on an animated conversation to an invisible companion for 30 blocks. A woman talking to herself on the street looked directly at me at one point in her monologue and said challengingly, “I grated the nutmeg myself.” I smiled at her encouragingly and went on.
New York comes at you so furiously from all sides that you almost have to adopt a conservative stance, have to hold on tight, to keep from being blown away by the crazy phenomena. I haven’t met with any physical violence, but I have been assaulted verbally. One bright Sunday morning I dressed in my ugly stylish shorts and ugly classy loafers and walked our status Sheltie Emily to Central Park. Suddenly someone spat on the sidewalk next to me. I was startled to see a dark woman looking at me through hate-squinted eyes. “You’re feelthy and your dog is feelthy,” she hissed. “Keep your dog in your yard, beech. That is where 1 keep mine.”
Against all the rules of New York decorum, I stood there. She was clean and decently dressed, and she didn’t look crazy. From the cadence in her voice and color of her skin, I thought she might be Indian. India Indian. Out of my liberal dream that two human beings can always reach an understanding if they try, I began to reason with her. “Lady,” I pleaded, “my dog is clean. I just bathed her. And look.” I produced my usual Baggie. “I clean up after her. I love her just like you love your dog, but I don’t have a yard.”
She began screaming dirty words, and I backed away, feeling hot tears. “I don’t understand you,” I said. “No, and you never weel,” she shrieked. “So don’t try.”
By the time you read this, we will be living on the East Side, not for political reasons but for practical ones. We wanted to buy a piece of Manhattan, and the best co-op deal we’ve found is way over by the East River on 62nd. The night of the Bush-Ferraro debate we got caught in traffic and thought we weren’t going to make it home in time for the debate, so we stopped at an East Side bar to watch Gerry give him hell. Everyone else was for Bush. It felt a lot like Dallas.