Letter from GOWANUS
FLORA & FAUNA
The acorns on the adolescent oak outside my fourth-floor window hang thick as bunches of green grapes. If you're sitting on the stoop outside the building when one falls, it hits the sidewalk or one of the parked cars like a rock and you look around to see who's the wise guy.
A couple blocks south alongside the Prospect Expressway, a short sunken highway connecting interior Brooklyn with the ring road that skirts New York Bay, the fruit of a lone aging apple tree is almost ripe. Last year the apples grew plump and red, some sort of jonathans or winesaps. After a wet spring and dry summer, this year they are gnarled, spare and insect-infected. A wild cherry tree also bloomed with promise, but the young green berries so valued by boys with pea-shooters fell off prematurely until, by ripening time, there was very little dark fruit to be seen.
A bluebird that took up residence in the shrubbery there did well, though. At least he seemed to be thriving the last time we eyed each other amicably when I stopped by the small park that overlooks the Expressway as well as a good chunk of Brooklyn to the south. He's exotic to these parts, a dark shiny blue and is unrelated to the more common bluejay whose obscene call belies its brilliant plumage.
We regularly see foreign birds in the neighborhood thanks to the proximity of Prospect Park and the Green Wood Cemetery which share close to a thousand acres between them. You can see entire flocks of species passing through during their migrations that you will probably never see again. I once came upon a small tree full of hundreds of bright orange birds, gobbling up its fruit like a busload of hungry daycampers, oblivious to my presence a few feet away. Another time I saw a hawk so massive that the local crows decided to evict it on sight, ganging up on the gawky intruder in mass until they had harassed him on his way.
TOPOGRAPHY NATURAL AND POLITICAL
My neighborhood is just to the north of where the last glacier stopped. Everything to the south--Flatbush, Flatlands, Coney Island--is terminal moraine. The boulders in Prospect Park were the property of New Jersey, some thirty miles to the north, back in neolithic times. The section where I live sits at the top of terrain that slopes away on all four sides, most precipitously to the east and west. If I stick my head out the window, I'm looking down at the Statue of Liberty several miles away in New York harbor. When I sit out on the fire escape it's all flat in the distance--Long Island to the east, Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic southward and, toward the setting sun, New York Bay, Bayonne and then the rest of the continent.
Every point of this vantage is caught up in the president's sex scandal, which itself seems to be moving as slowly as did that glacier several millennia in the past. What's moving fast hereabouts is the run-up to the primary elections, a sort of political grand jury hearing that determines which candidates get to square off against each other in the November general election for the US Senate, Congress, the New York governorship and lots of other, local contests.
Someone recently pointed out that politics in New York State is fundamentally ethnic. The candidates carefully weigh their chances based not on their political ideologies but on how many voters of their own ethnic/religious backgrounds will come out to support them. This tactic may seem more appropriate to a part of the world where ethnic identities are more substantial or where nations have been so recently formed that their electorates speak different languages and adhere to very disparate traditions. The differences among Americans, even in a largely immigrant state such as New York, are actually minimal. But where there is little else to differentiate yourself from your neighbor, you latch onto whatever is at hand.
To the squirrels in Prospect Park it will not matter very much who wins this or any of the other political races--unless there are cutbacks of park maintenance, in which case there may be a bonanza of uncollected food scraps for them to feast on, along with their cousins the rats.
The squirrel vote would thus go to the Republicans, at least to those Republicans who favor laissez-faire free-marketry. For the human species in this city, numerically a minority but still very much in control, the choices are not so clear-cut. Americans are centrists, conservatives by nature. We have to be shamed into adopting social policies which other nations take for granted, and even then implement them grudgingly and inefficiently . We still have tens of millions of citizens who, through no fault of their own, have no medical insurance and thus no guarantee of either proper treatment should they fall ill nor any protection against having their personal savings wiped out if they do obtain medical treatment. But for a large number of Americans, instead of being a social travesty this situation is a necessary consequence of individual responsibility, of not letting the state take over our lives.
There is no health insurance at all for squirrels. Their lobby in Congress and in the State House is even weaker than that of fatherless children and widows (welfare advocates might argue otherwise). As cool weather sets in, the squirrels begin storing up acorns for the long winter months ahead, relying not on what their country can do for them but on what they can and must do for themselves. Their behavior is apparently the ruling paradigm for what the rest of us should also be about.
THE "R" WORD
Broad Channel is an island community in Jamaica Bay, a wetland area preserved as habitat for waterfowl and other indigenous creatures. It is linked to Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, which itself occupies the most westerly part of a 110-mile island (Long Island) stretching out into the Atlantic to within a squall's distance of the Gulf Stream.
About 6,000 people live in Broad Channel, virtually all of them of exclusively European ancestry. Every year at this time they have a small-town parade, with floats. This year one of the floats, called "Black to the Future," was supposed to be a spoof of the inevitably of Broad Channel's being one day integrated with people of African ancestry. Floats in other years have spoofed Latinos and Jews.
This year someone got the bright idea of putting on blackface and making it appear as if he were being dragged along from the back of the float the way a real African American several weeks back was dragged behind a pickup truck in a small town in Texas until he was dead. That killing in Texas was a shocking event that brought most Americans closer together in a common sense of outrage. Fifty years ago the crime would probably not have been reported. So, in a bizarre way the event demonstrated some progress on the so-called "race" issue in the US.
Even so, "race" and sex remain the predominant American obsessions. And just as Clinton's puerile escapades take on a uniquely American significance when viewed alternately through American or foreign eyes, "race" is also a uniquely American phenomenon. Even societies like South Africa, which have practiced their own versions of racism, see the subject very differently.
"Race" in America takes on both the significance of what "class" means in a country like Great Britain, as well as strong undertones of purity-versus-impurity in a quasi- religious sense. I know of no place else where having one ancestor, however distant, from one particular part of the world disqualifies someone from full social participation. "One drop" of dark African blood in this nation makes you "black." The Ku Klux Klan, the United States government, the majority of people both of African and non-African ancestry, all agree on this. Only reality, a determination that "race" is a bona fide biological category, could give any value to such an across-the-board consensus. But we know from genetic research that groups of people who have been living side by side in Africa for millennia can be less closely related to each other than they are to people living in Finland or Mongolia, their cousins who left Africa 100,000 years ago. There is no such thing as race.
Even so, both "whites" and "blacks" alike hope for light-skinned children, because color distinguishes us from each other the way a mark branded on the head of a convict once distinguished such a man or woman from the ordinary citizen. Color is equated with a kind of pollution, against which religions of all kinds have constructed elaborate systems to protect their members, until their faithful come to believe that there is something inherently, not just attributively, unclean about "the other," identifiable by his food, his altered or unaltered physical state or, for Americans, his color.
"Race" in America is not just a social categorization, it is a pathology. As such, we are none of us free from it, no less so the victims than the beneficiaries. No one, from the president on down, speaks outside the categories of "white" and "black," "Latino" and "Asian." No one even wants to, especially now that Americans of African descent have come to take a pride in their ancestry and to demand recognition for their participation in the building of the nation. But demagogues of all colors also make capital off "race," perpetuating myth without offering any hope for a future without bigotry. And so, "race," an empty, fraudulent concept, remains a pathetic and poisonous reality.