Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Bad Case of "The City," Part I

When I was a kid, we used to visit New York every summer. Generally, we'd plan to spend a week or so with my grandparents on Long Island, but would leave after three days. Part of this was the fact that there was very little to do in Floral Park, and part was the fact that my Grandparents were miserable, rotten people, and were very adept at spreading their unhappiness to others.

On these trips, we always had a couple of required visits. We had to see my Aunt Kathy, who also lived in Floral Park, we had to visit my father's elementary and high schools, we had to go to Koenig's, the local German joint, and we had to go to the Tulip bakery, which was truly amazing. We would also hit Cardo's, which made truly amazing pizza, yet was usually empty. My father was convinced that it was a Mob joint. Egg creams at Breyer's would round out the list of required activities. If we played our cards right, we could usually wrap it all up in an afternoon or two. Best of all, this got us out of the house, where my grandparents' constant bitching and plastic-covered furniture combined to have us climbing the walls.

After we visited all the old haunts, if my grandparents hadn't yet insulted my mother or upset my father, we would usually make our way into "The City," as we called New York. Although he had long since shed the accent, my father retained a few key Long Island traits: he tended to be aggressive, he made snap judgments, and he hated New Jersey with a passion. He also had an ambivalent relationship with New York City. On the one hand, he saw the city as a repository of all that was good, advanced, and civilized in the world. He was proud of it, as a boy would be proud of his big brother, and would always tell people that he had grown up in New York City.

On the other hand, My dad viewed the decline of New York with fear and dread. He, like many people in the eighties, saw New York's problems as terminal, and felt that the crime, the crumbling infrastructure, and the corruption were not only going to destroy the city, but would spread out to the burbs, and would inevitably eat away at everything. One night, the local news reported that there had been two cases of leprosy in the city, and I imagined that God had finally begun the end days, introducing biblical diseases into Gamorrah on the Hudson. The next day, I overheard my father and grandfather discussing the spread of crime, and I visualized the criminals slowly working their way down the Jericho Turnpike, eating up all that was good and spreading decay.

It was easy to imagine. In these days, New York seemed like a cesspool. On our visits into the city to see my godmother Portia or my great-aunt Lillian, we would walk down filthy streets and see men pissing on buildings. One day, I saw a man taking a crap on a dead-end street. Years later, I passed the same spot and realized that it was on Sutton Place.

It's hard to remember that New York was once that bad. My father would park the car and shepherd us to whatever building we were visiting, exhorting us to not touch anything. When we got to our destination, our first task was to wash our hands, lest we catch a bad case of whatever was going around. Seeing the scenes of despair, addiction, and poverty, and remembering my father's constant orders that we wash our hands, I used to think that these problems were contagious, and that we had to be on guard lest we catch a bad case of "The City." The symptoms were clear: messiness, apathy, despair, poverty, drug addiction, and a total repudiation of all societal mores. If I wanted to see what a bad case of "The City" looked like, I need only turn on the television, which was always broadcasting scenes of the total misery in Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

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  • Things were pretty bad there then. A lot has changed. I can't wait for your assessment of The City now.

    By Blogger The CEO, At October 28, 2007 at 12:03 AM  

  • It's really good to have you back, at least a little. I have really missed you a lot.

    By Blogger The CEO, At October 28, 2007 at 12:03 AM  

  • My parents left Brooklyn with me and my little sister at NYC's nadir--just after the summer of 1977.

    By Blogger M@, At October 28, 2007 at 1:41 PM  

  • I was always enamored by the city as a kid. I barely noticed anything skeevy. I think its partly due to watching the opening scenes of Welcome Back Kotter and partly to being completely oblivious.

    You bring to mind a lot of my own memories of childhood visits to LI. Thanks.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 28, 2007 at 8:36 PM  

  • CEO-
    Assessing the city is tough. I'm trying to find my way into it. I'll try to put up something fairly regularly!

    I have only vague memories of the city during that time. Mom and Dad rarely let us out of the car!

    Reflecting Pool-
    Where did your family live?

    By Blogger Crankster, At October 28, 2007 at 9:45 PM  

  • I am now really, really glad that my grandparents lived in Toronto -- I never saw anything like what you described on visits there. I can't wait to read Part 2! Wait -- how many parts are there??

    By Blogger JamieSmitten, At October 28, 2007 at 10:13 PM  

  • I vaguely remember hearing stories of how bad the crime was in NYC....but I'd never been there.

    By Blogger Claudia, At October 29, 2007 at 1:39 PM  

  • Jamiesmitten-
    Just three parts. It's kind of an intro, because I'm trying to document what it's like finding myself becoming a New Yorker.

    I think the crime was less powerful than the rumors of crime. I've never seen a robbery or a murder, but I can't even measure the impact that the media coverage of the crime wave had on me.

    By Blogger Crankster, At October 29, 2007 at 2:05 PM  

  • They still live in Plainview. they aren't all on one block anymore though, and I'm not obligated to visit everyone when I do go. Just my grandparents and aunt.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At October 29, 2007 at 2:45 PM  

  • It's interesting how those numbers reduce. Sometimes I think that every few years I have to reconsider my definition of family, and shed the relatives who don't really make the grade.

    Sound cruel, but I think that some of them are shedding me, too.

    By Blogger Crankster, At October 29, 2007 at 2:57 PM  

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