SNAPSHOTS OF ELSEWHERE
By Raymond Ramcharitar
Of the adjectives that could elbow their way into a definition of New York City, "elsewhere" is probably too reticent to make its way to the front of that line. Garish, graphic, vulgar, vile, fucking fun--you get the picture. And yet in this reading it remains there, hovering, vorpal feet barely touching the ground.
So start on the ground. In the city, day one, slightly exhausted. The exhaustion is of the long, malevolent kind: the susurrus of a disease of the mind. You who already feel constrained in your small island, weary of the endless, meaningless struggles to reconcile grinning, opulent evil and unassailable poverty with the fineness of your nature--effete, helpless against the rush for the trough. The suspicion that the fineness is just weakness. All this put away for ten days. Curious feeling. You try not to think of the obvious things. The order, the freedom, the hugeness. The contrast, most of all, with the smallness, restraint, chaos.
At the Trump Plaza at Columbus Circle. The buildings go up vertiginously for miles. The wide streets, the people, the surreal variety of humanity--sooty-faced bums, busy working girls in Prada pumps and black tiny backpacks, cops, old ladies, black men, old, young, seething with rage. Wall Street types in $900 Versace suits and an air of impregnable smugness and contentment. Masters of the universe in the centre of the universe. You think of this as you record this last image--nine-hundred-dollars, mouthing the words...is all I brought with me. Exchange rates.
Wandering around the city brings little joy. Looking into uptown windows adds to the feeling of removal. Outside looking in. Meeting your own insubstantial reflection. In the bolge of Greenwich Village the world becomes funky, fierce; the faces: young, pierced, studded septa, ringed eyebrows, wild clothes, impenetrable ice-blue irises cold-burning through you. This used to be the arty part of town, till the stockbrokers from below Canal St arrived, waving money and put a price on funk. Now 19-year-olds off the bus from Minnesota pay $900 for a broom closet in Manhattan. You think this and stop. Why think on it? What reason could you have? Who wants to hear it? Walk through the rush dazed, flickering.
Things strike you at unguarded moments. "The president is a lying sack of shit." Christopher Caldwell, columnist in one of the weekly papers talking about Bill Clinton. A few pages in, a cartoon showing the president butt-fucking Uncle Sam. The president is a lying sack of shit. Can they say that?
You resist the urge to hold up your images of home to the picture that surrounds you but they come anyway. And there, in the middle of those pictures, aware you belong in neither, there the city becomes elsewhere. Linear narrative, rather than an encompassing unquestioned paradigm, an extension of linear theocratic dialectics, is a single--and rather pedestrian--choice among many here. Choose one, or two or ten. Hear Armond White, a film critic for the New York Press. "Playing a transfusion addicted underground hero who defeats a nefarious corporate like breed of bloodsuckers makes a handy political allegory of dependence and resistance."
The film is a futuristic shoot-'em-up, Wesley Snipes taking out the bad guys with extreme prejudice--the Green Corner synopsis. The wonder is the energy and depth given to something so inane. Here in Trinidad the very word "review" or even "critic" elicits an involuntary snarl of contempt from almost every editor you've ever worked with. The act of criticism is inevitably personal, never detached. Each statement is part of a sublimated dialogue of the collective voiced by the individual about the world we live in. No wonder we despise it.
In the Village Voice Literary Supplement: an interview with Irvine Welsh, a former heroin junkie turned writer. Responsible for Trainspotting. His latest book, Filth, begins with or contains a policeman orally sodomising an underage girl. Reading in Barnes & Noble at Union Square. Attended by red-faced woman, short curly hair untidy but comely who still manages to look motherly, maternal, in the corporate battle gear--navy pinstripe skirt suit--among others: "....dos fockin cunts...". Nobody is offended. Astounding, the capacity, the capaciousness, the range. Or perhaps not. The voices are so eloquent, but so shallow, narcissistic, nihilistic. Does anyone actually listen?
Richard Foreman is a playwright who has staked out "ontology", a little known transit system between Freud and the behaviourists to the Greeks, as his domain. His plays are dense, illogical, surreal, impenetrable. Winner of several awards. His Angelface in a small space in the Village. A pale girl in a pale pink dress who might be an angel. A young handsome man in black, another woman, a door, another man, other people. The dialogue is hopeless, unyielding, but strangely soothing. These are our choices: oblivion or an endless night of despair.
The city by night in the Village is a river running, past evening and without a damn for time of day--if narrative genres change, so do lives; if lives change, time changes. It's all relative.
At the Royale Theatre, 45th and Broadway, Art, by Yasmina Reza, French play, gadfly literariness. A huge hit. Wednesday matinee. Me and a thousand other tourists. Packed theatre. Fifty bucks a pop--after discount. Clean, smart, slick. It's all relative.
Comedy club on MacDougal St. College kids in the front row. The headline comic, Italian man, short, vicious, bored, is on. "So where're you kids from?" "Jamaica." Smooth black face, expensive sport coat. Wide grin. White girl at the side. You do not know what to make of yourself for noticing this. It all has to do with fitting in, you rationalise later, staking a claim. Join the party. Fuck a blonde. "Jamaica, huh? You know what a West Indian is? A black guy with a job." Everyone laughs. I laugh.
The New York Times, September 18, 1998. Page one (below the fold). Headline: "For Affluent Blacks, Harlem's Pull is Strong." "Black professionals are snatching up 5,000 square-foot brownstones off avenues named for black leaders....what started as a flood of young African American lawyers, doctors, professors and bankers moving back into Harlem and other historically black neighbourhoods seems now to have reached flood stage. "Howard Sanders had...a degree from Harvard Business School, a position with a high-powered Manhattan investment firm and an apartment on Central Park West.... 'I don't want to live next to a white family,' Mr Sanders, 32, said. 'I have effectively integrated. I've gone to predominantly white schools. I work in a white firm, and I can live anywhere I want. It really is psychologically soothing for me to be back in Harlem.'" 'I don't want to live next to a white family'... you reread it several times over several days. In the sedulous Times style-book prose it doesn't sound terrifying, I suppose.
"Anybody else here from the West Indies?" The comic is trying to find his stride. Not in the mood to be a good sport. Sit quietly. An Indian girl sitting at a table with a white man smiles and waves at him. "Where you from? "Trinidad." She sounds very happy. "You know what a Trinidadian is? A black man with two jobs." Laughter.
Perhaps the most pleasant ritual in American urban life is a coffeshop breakfast. Old place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The New Purity Cafe. Community bulletin board in the vestibule. Formica tables, four-person booths. The day's Times. Old waitresses, thick legs, short skirts, blue veins showing through the skin, watery blue eyes. Calling you "Honey". Not like the busy, contemptuous Manhattanite maedchen waiting tables with one eye on the tip, the other on the road opportunity might walk by on. Ready to slam your two-over-easy-with-ham in your face at the slightest. (What was the line from Cummings? "They kill like you would take a piss".)
But Brooklyn. Relaxed, cool mornings. The good that came from the spillover of all the New York-obsessed white kids who would skip meals for a Manhattan address. Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Park Slope. Mainly white, black yuppie, starter yuppie, low crime, coffee shops, book stores. East of Flatbush Avenue it's all hair salons, cheap Chinese takeouts, grime, dealers, dangerous-looking black young men, dangerous-looking cops.
There's no bookstore past Grand Army Plaza, where Park Slope meets the Brooklyn Museum. Plenty of beeper shops and nail salons and accents. Trinidadian, Jamaican, some ineluctable, all harsh, the first world's Third World. This is exactly the America they wanted: no civic responsibility, no thought for the apparatus of the state that preserves the order they feed from and shit in, the order that makes it possible to exist here in extravagant squalor, breeding, feeding. Cockroaches. Further evolution unnecessary. Remain in this form until nature loses patience.
The week after Labour day. Reported a few months ago, or maybe just overheard somewhere. Some West Indians complained they'd been bilked of $300-$400 for Labour Day mas' costumes. They couldn't go to the police because they were illegals. Three hundred dollars is a month's rent for these people. For Carnival. Carnival? This Labour Day a freak storm hit the parade, the last gasp of one of the early hurricanes. They partied through it.
Pockets of chaos exist as entropy in any huge system. Large numbers lessen the value of each unit. Economies of scale. Who pays for all this and how? The Strand bookstore. Hardcovers, brand new, half off the cover price. It is astounding to you that a business could actually be in existence for your benefit. Somehow, you feel this is all a mistake that you could be given such variety, such consideration. You run out laughing with the bounty. You realise this, and your mind returns home.
Final day. Four am. Awake. The airport, still bleary-eyed. The line to the Bwee counter snakes outside the cordons. You are the only one with two normal-sized bags. Everyone else carries four, five, seven cases, boxes, huge, heavy, taped up. Tune out. Shut off. The last image, the girl in front of you in the white two-piece gangsta bitch number with the synthetic leather platforms with the barb wire tattoo on her arm turns toward you: "Fock, dreeaaddd, look at all these mudder cunt suitcase nah." Over and out.
The pilot's voice--bored, red, irritating--"'Proaching the east coast of Trinidad, 70 miles out". Then the beaches come up, the trees, long, neat swathes of road. Surprisingly, shockingly soothing. The carpets of green, the delight in the thousands of grades of it seen from above sitting calmly, patiently; the descent into order. From above, it looks almost real, the rectangles of cultivated land, gravel, the roads, out over the west coast, the Caroni pouring its shit into the Gulf, the water brown, dirty yellow, widening from the mouth of the river into the omnivorous sea. Over the Swamp, over bulbous, surly green clumps resting in pools of black, evil fluid; deadly still, a kind of ugly perfect symmetry about it, like a black zen water garden. Perfect, beautiful, home.
(Raymond Ramcharitar earns his living as a journalist in Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies. He has been published throughout the Caribbean and the United States. He has written a novel and a collection of poems. He can be reached at [firstname.lastname@example.org].)