Category Archives: Community

A Gale of Two Cities

There’s a strong force, like a wind, that keeps trying to toss me back and forth between New York and Washington DC.

Anybody in New York who has known me for more than a couple of years knows one thing about me: Koli loves DC. New York was always “a great place to visit” and, after 9/11/01, it was also my great love (you know, the kind of tender, raw, protective intimacy that results from shared trauma, which you strongly suspect is growing dysfunctionally codependent, but you avoid facing it because, you know, what the hell?) and yet, there was a certain amount of pining I kept doing for DC.

I missed the clean, air-conditioned subway stations, the clean, wide sidewalks, the polite neighbors, and the reliable customer-service ethic of people doing business with you. I preferred the effortless multiculturalism of DC to the in-your-face, sometimes hostile “mosaic” of ethnicities in New York. I missed the occasional quiet. I missed being able to go someplace open and green in less than two hours.I guess – to torture the analogy some more – it was like constantly missing your sweet, strong, wholesome mother even as your life is consumed with a mindblowingly erotic and unhealthfully close attachment with someone you’ve fallen for really hard and really fast.

There was an obsessive quality to my early New York experience. I photographed her from every angle. I wrote poems. I basked in the attention of every new guy in my life on her streets, which are laced with an unnamable aphrodisiac. I luxuriated in my heartbreak in the aftermath of each of those guys on the same streets, where the same aphrodisiac had turned inexplicably into a salve – or, more accurately, it remained an aphrodisiac that somehow turned the heartbreak into a breathtaking romance in its own right.

I mourned my recently departed father on ferry boats and across the Brooklyn Bridge, reciting his beloved Walt Whitman poems in my head, especially “Song of Myself” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” newly mesmerized by their reaching-across-time-and-death themes. I ate in every New York restaurant I had time for. I went to the parks and the museums and the opera houses and the dinky little theaters and the seemingly never-ending readings and art openings that pop out of nowhere all over town (all the while complaining how dirty the subway was that took me there). I re-watched Ric Burns’s “New York” several times – sometimes with a box of tissues. I looked sharply away from “ground zero” as I passed, but sneaked a peek up at the sky where the towers had been, every time I zipped by in a ferry. As the waters of the Harbor carried me downtown, my eyes misted, looking at the Statue of Liberty as I almost involuntarily mouthed “The New Colossus.”

In those early years, I often felt that the long hours at the law firm left me with “no life,” but looking back, I must admit that I was developing a “life” in New York, however harried. And after I left the law firm? Well, as they say in New York: foggetaboutit! Everything seemed to turn unequivocally fabulous.

At some point, without either of us knowing it, we healed, New York and I. And I realized it wasn’t just an eros-like obsession. I really did fall in love with her.

I should explain why I, a heterosexual woman with an (unrelated) distaste for the conventional feminization of places (and vessels), keep saying “her” to refer to a geographical love object:

It’s all about the way she healed. The kind of resilience with which we bear our scar tissue, not denying or burying the pain we felt, not shunning any remnant of pleasure that may be proximate to that pain, refusing to calcify, being bigger and more graceful than our tragedies, well, it seems an overwhelmingly – though perhaps not uniquely – feminine strength. So I saw New York, still wounded, gritty as ever, yet tough and shining and full of possibilities. And, somewhere along the way, I got used to the dirty subways, and remembered how much I loved the places they took me to.

DC is a great town. It’s my birthplace. I have a lot of history here. The museums are free. The subway really is cleaner. But guess what? It stops running at midnight and only takes you to a handful of places. Um, yeah, Koli, while you were bitching about the transit system in New York, you forgot to notice how much you LOVED not having to drive.

Big City, Dim Lights

I was in India this January. I kept “in touch” as much as possible -we live in a small, virtually-wired world. But I completely missed a little regional story that is nothing short of momentous for me, but that went completely under my global-sweep radar on the other side of the world.

The Amato Opera in Manhattan’s East Village is closing. I am devastated.

I can’t claim to have grown up with Tony and Sally Amato’s “tenement opera” that’s been a community fixture for six decades.  I started going there in the late 1990s when I first moved to the area and immediately fell in love.  It’s a microscopic space with cheap champagne and a pre-performance dinner option (e.g. pasta and what tastes like grocery-store bought red sauce) and an absolutely spellbinding charm. It’s a place that has promoted young local talent and given newcomers like me an instant stake in our New Yorker-ness.

I remember my third time. They were performing Manon. Tony Amato spoke of his wife, who had recently died, and mentioned that he had considered retiring. I think he said his decision to continue was influenced by his niece taking over some of the functions. I breathed a sigh of relief. The Amato was one of those hooks that New York dug into me early. I needed to know it was there to feel all was right in the world.

Like Tony and Sally’s families, I was an immigrant to New York and, in some sense an immigrant to America, although I was born here, because the rest of my family had repatriated to their own home country; I have for years felt a strange sense of generalized rootlessness everywhere in the world. That rootlessness is not without its allure, but it sensitizes you to the savor of whatever semblance of a home you encounter in your hydroponic life.

I was in law school. I was poor.  I never paid more than $25 for family circle tickets to experience the grandeur of the Metropolitan Opera House (as awe-inspiring as that is), but I thought nothing of plopping down 120 bucks (a FORTUNE for me at the time) to spend my then-boyfriend’s birthday sitting in a cramped little auditorium with questionable acoustics, sated on Ragu and Brut, surrounded by people who all seemed to know each other and to welcome us into their world. People of all ages, mingling in a way that Americans my age and younger are generally unfamiliar with and the way we imagine came naturally in the time of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

Speaking of Our Town, I’ve always thought a big city neighborhood was a lot like a small town. Amato is a great example. Perhaps it could not exist in an actual small town.  Only a bustling metropolis like New York generally has the money – I’m not talking “big money” but multitudes of people with small money – to keep alive this little self-supporting art vendor, entrepreneurial yet noncommercial, traditional yet upstart, unostentatious yet unerringly refined in the art it peddles. And yet, like the corner grocery store clerk who remembers to ask when your mother is coming back from India for her next visit and the bar where everybody knows your name, the Amato is a big-city-neighborhood establishment that makes you feel safely rooted in your surroundings in that way that small town folks always talk about.

Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town as if celebrating continuity, when it was really mourning its passing, grasping longingly at a vanishing way of life.  All the remaining shows at the Amato, of course, are sold out. Since I now live in Washington, I can’t very well camp out at their door before each remaining performance in the hope of a last minute cancellation. All I can do is look lovingly back and say goodbye.

[Cover photo, of Amato Opera building exterior, was released into the public domain by its creator, Jim Henderson]

Republic Day

January 26 is “Republic Day” in India. It’s the day their constitution was ratified and it is celebrated with almost as much fanfare as the day they got their independence from Britain. People — some people — volunteer to register voters in remote villages. Kids enter essay contests. In Calcutta they have cookouts (it’s actually mild enough in January to do that!) and, of course they blast the Bollywood songs on loudspeakers.
Why don’t we do this for our constitution (Bollywood songs optional, of course)?

Come to think of it, why don’t we READ our constitution? Every middle school teacher and parent should require their kids to read it and write an essay about it.

Instead of Grand Theft Auto (or whatever the kids are playing now), why don’t we give them copies of the constitution for their 10th birthday? Am I saying that only because I am not a parent and I just don’t know what misfortune would befall me if I did that?

Maybe, but it could be, if nothing else, the perfect lesson in the idea of Sovereignty. Tell your kids that without the republican system, they would live in a world where the powers that be decided what they played, read, ate. . . .

Up With America!

It’s weird to be abroad this week. I must admit, I am missing the around the clock coverage American media must be giving to the transition in Washington. Of course, the whole world is watching – and I’m thankful for the unique perspective I’m getting (especially since I’m in a country where the Bush administration was not universally detested – more about that later). But the media here (including the regional BBC and CNN outlets) have many other priorities, naturally.

Incidentally, I am not currently able to get constant access to NPR and PBS online here as I’d planned to do when I came to India. My broadband connection has been spotty and is completely out this week. I’ve been going to an “internet café” to get online. It’s not the most convenient way to do things, but a great way to feel a part of local culture, which is a surprisingly different experience from being a part of a local family (which I am).

I met some twenty-somethings who are in a band called the “Hool” (it means something like a needle or pin prick) – they have an exciting sound too, and not free from the New-New Wave craze sweeping their generation (and making mine nostalgic).

These boys are (as creative youth everywhere tend to be) politically left leaning, but fond of America and Americans for our ideals of freedom and individual rights and respect for the rights of others – especially the equality of rights. These are the things people the world over tend naturally to ascribe to America’s essence, as strange as we ourselves may sometimes find it (either because we can’t separate it from the disapprobation we face from non-Americans when we abandon our own ideals and behave like tyrants or because we have bought into a craven view of American values as beginning and ending with the pursuit of material gain).

Members of Hool know an awful lot about American history – which impressed me. I know kids their age back home who know nothing about Indian history (or American history, for that matter). And these are ordinary middle class kids, going to public schools in what is still a relatively poor country, who don’t have internet access at home!

I could analyze the socio-political causes of this difference. I could lay out some policy direction for improving global and historical awareness among our youth. But you know what? I don’t feel like it. I just feel like savoring the feeling that there are people in the world, even among people far worse off than we are, who manage to know more than we do (if you’re comparing knowledge per unit of opportunity among similarly aged people) who nevertheless admire us. Openly admire us for all the right reasons.