My whole life experience as a young boy can be told in a photo taken from the platform of the Smith-Ninth Street subway station in South Brooklyn. The station sits on a viaduct 87 feet above street level, a depression-era project built to ensure passage of tall ships through the narrow canal below. I don’t recall any graceful schooners making their way through an open Ninth Street Bridge in my childhood, but I do remember the panoramic view from the subway platform of three-story, brick row houses that replaced 19th century farms by Gowanus Bay. The neighborhood growing up, the church attached to the grammar school I attended, the candy store I visited, the barbershop where magazines of naked women were available for young and old eyes while waiting for an empty barber chair. The steepled church where my parents married, the deli owner who knew your family and what trouble you were hiding. All of it is in this one photo and, in the distance, an Emerald City backdrop that beckoned and promised a future only a subway ride away.
There was no place like New York. Three subway stops into Manhattan and everything else on a Rand McNally Atlas Map of the World was a history lesson or a vacation destination. New York was the place to work the adult in you while waiting to grow up. Taking the subway with the boys. Walking 42nd street with a Marlboro box top squeezed into the breast pocket of a Ban-Lon golf shirt at 12 years old and staring down anyone who looked at you. Standing on a crowded cross-town bus over an adult taking up two seats with a web of shopping bags while she scooped up the last dollop of quickly melting ice cream with a flat, wooden scoop. Ordering a huge T-bone steak at Tad’s for a buck fifty instead of the children’s menu. In New York you faced your adulthood immediately. You could say you grew up anywhere else, but in fact, until you got to New York, you were only rehearsing for that day when the stench of a thousand garbage cans became a benchmark, an exotic badge of survival in a New York day. For native New Yorkers, myopia set in at birth.
For some born outside of this Gotham, an out-of-town adulthood was no better than an Eagle Scout badge. Until you squeezed a space on a packed subway and cleared your butt from the closing doors, your Young Student-of-the-Year Citation belonged under the bed with all the other awards for being a good little boy or girl in Mid-America. You knew that without New York, you were nothing. You let everyone around you know it. Especially those who were never going to leave town. They stayed, on the farms, in their diminishing Main Streets. You thought they would die there. You decided to leave. You had no idea of what you were getting into, but you knew you had to see for yourself what this New York thing was all about. The daily bus departures at Greyhound terminals across America beckoned the starstruck, the fools, the dreamers, the escapees.
No one bought a round trip ticket back to Illinois, or Oklahoma. Folks came to change, to transform uncomfortable memories, to feel danger and live to talk about it. They came to negotiate the “what if?” in their heart to see if it could be real. They came to forget the ugly moments, the dysfunctional flashes that didn’t belong in the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes world of endless grain fields. They came to forget unspoken family memories that violated, humiliated, or stole hope.
Sure, in New York if you were black, you could be discriminated against in one way or another. You might not get the same service, and no one would care. But in Tulsa, or Cicero, you might get killed, and no one would remember. In New York, if you were Chinese, you might experience a different kind of discrimination. You would learn that everyone else was only concerned with what you offered from Column A or Column B. Your value, your quality of life was your own business managed by you after the Chinese restaurants closed for the night.
If you were white, the expectation for success was assumed. There was no reason why you would not succeed. The world was first class for you, and if you could trace your blood to a Founding Father, Betsy Ross, a Deist, or a Mason, you were an inheritor of a New World Order.
If your whiteness was of European descent and from the second generation of an immigrant family, New York accepted names like O’Brien, Karlsson, Esposito, Stein, and Kowalski. Because New York needed cops, trash collectors, merchants, bakers, stevedores, tailors, and butchers. And hatmakers, coppersmiths, shoemakers, cork fabricators, steam fitters, electricians, and carpenters. But only for a while. If you were to assimilate and complete that transition from American Dream to a reality, you would have to become a lawyer, doctor, accountant, banker, teacher, engineer, or a judge. It was all there for the taking unless you entertained the idea of joining a country or yacht club. If you tried, there might be questions, and if you were Jewish, you might not even be considered.
Given the social fabric of its time, New York in the last century was still a place where somehow, beyond the bigness of our accomplishments and the arrogance of our collective prejudice, we found remnants of a heart that cared without regard to who we were or what we looked like. It happened every day, at home, in the street, on a train, in big places of assembly, lonely places of abandon. A spirit of a city too big to manage managed quite well on its own, influenced but never controlled by politicians, priests, developers, and financiers.
I spent my first Manhattan night in a four-story walk-up with a bathtub in the kitchen and a toilet closet in the hallway. Between the twin windows of the living room, through the metal slats of the iron fire escape, lights of every color and size blinked and flashed like Christmas to the strains of car horns, fire truck sirens, bells, and throaty engines racing up Second Avenue, an artery moving its bloodline through the heart of a city fully functioning, doing the everyday work of delivering hope and expectation to everyone in never-ending stops, starts and screeches. It was the most beautiful concert I had ever heard.
New York had a common soul, and when trouble struck, nearly everyone contributed to the solution, if merely to have a hero’s story to hawk to the neighborhood. Blackouts, strikes, blizzards, bombings, most of us made it home with each other’s help. Like reluctant lovers driven by an unwanted compulsion, working class sweat and privileged class glamour always danced a tango in the city’s crowded streets, in the teeming subways, rubbing off gilt from one and grit from the other. The city’s supporting role in this transforming drama of people in the act of being New Yorkers performed a civic duty like no other place in the world.
John’s articles have appeared in Adelaide Magazine, The RavensPerch, and the San Antonio Review. His latest nonfiction work, “Just Off, Stage Right,” was released in November. He holds an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University.