The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember my grandmother for our visits to what had once been the “Irish ghetto” on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I’m not sure she really knew what to do with us.
I don’t think she really had a “childhood”.
I don’t think her children did either.
I sometimes imagine that she, like me, without much of a known past, could not fathom much in the way of a future.
Genealogically speaking, that is.
Apparently, after her first heart attack, my father suggested she come live with us in the suburbs.
She took in what my father was saying without flinch.
My grandmother was then heard to reply: “I’ll be goddamned if you think I’m going to let you kill me with the fresh air out there!”
She was obviously very attached to the City she knew.
And her apartment which she lived in for decades.
My grandmother passed away when I was 10 years old.
May God rest her soul.
I was extremely angry concerning her leaving.
Despite the various distances between us.
She referred to our cousins and us collectively as her “grandchildren. . .and Danny”.
This was painful to hear the first time my father recounted it.
I now appreciate this as being honest on some level.
Her apartment building was long ago torn down and replaced with condos.
I couldn’t even say exactly where it was at this point.
No one in the family could afford to live there if they wanted to.
I never saw a picture of my grandfather until a few years ago.
It arrived in the mail, a victim of my father’s eternal and quite random organizing.
Disseminating vague memories to the family at large.
Whether you were keen on remembering them or not.
In this photo, he is standing in front of a house I don’t recognize.
He is surrounded by people I don’t know.
It was very surreal, and in no minor way rather sad.
The only real sense I have of his life comes from my research into the Catholic orphanages at the turn of the century.
Which isn’t a pretty picture, to say the least.
Life in those days was definitely scrabble and grit.
Yet there was community, the traces of which still linger.
We speak of “improvement of living standards” as some kind of be-all-and-end-all marker.
Yet such “progress” doesn’t mind leaving community behind.
I recall when I spoke at a conference in Pasadena.
My relationship to Los Angeles remains, shall we say, rather bitter.
I mean, I tried to make it work between us.
But that city is just much too much.
I was determined to make that city bend to my ideas of what makes for valid place.
I was determined to think like an East Coast boy in a West Coast town.
This meant, among other follies, believing in the power of mass transit to get me somewhere.
Which works in cities that are not sprawling to the point of public-transport systemic collapse.
This meant believing maps when they seemed to show reasonable walking distances of city blocks.
Which doesn’t work when you realize the mapping of said blocks is reduced about 10 to 1.
So one afternoon, after an hour and a half on a bus, a subway, and a light rail, I arrived in Pasadena.
I was traveling from Burbank, which must only be a fifteen-minute car drive away.
When there’s no traffic.
I then set out on foot for the hotel.
When I asked directions at a gas station, I tried to ignore the fact that the directions given used the word “drive”.
I replaced this verb with “walk”.
I finally arrived, after another 45 minutes walking.
Which was 45 minutes or so late.
When I explained that I had taken pubic transportation, the conference coordinator’s jaw liked to have dropped to the floor.
Nobody walks in LA….
The only signs of human existence in Pasadena’s gladed exurbia were Mexican workers.
That is to say, other than the signs that read that the homes they didn’t live in were alarmed and guarded.
The idea of knocking on someone’s door and asking where the hotel was seemed quite out of the question.
I asked a few of them in Spanish if I was heading in the right direction.
They had no idea.
They were as “out of place” as I was.
I’m no longer comfortable being “out of place”.
I have to say I’m also not comfortable in places without much in the way of history.
Places which are themselves “out of place”.
And so it is distressing to see such history more and more replaced with ersatz re-creation.
In New York City, this would include the neo-diner.
And the neo-deli.
At one point, there was a neo-pickle store complete with pickle barrels in my neighborhood.
Even this was a bit too much, and it eventually closed.
I used to love the true neighborhoods of New York.
As opposed to the faux tourist traps.
Like Little Italy.
And so it goes.
Part of my sense of connection to New York was always vicariously through my father’s life.
I relished his stories of New York “back in the day”.
I recall his tales of returning to his old haunts.
Happy to find himself recollected by a bartender, for example.
The daughter of one of his best friends growing up.
In one of the few pubs that remain from those times long gone.
Taken over for the fourth generation in a row.
From the days when community and place meant the same thing.
My return visits now see me performing similar rituals, on a much more minor scale.
Returning to places that I enjoyed so much before.
Only usually they are replaced by a bank.
Or a drug store, or a Starbucks.
Non-places of supremely individual interest.
At which point I just stare.
And imagine what was there previously.
Often a independent bookstore, or mom-and-pop pharmacy, or coffee shop.
I recall the son of the owner of the flower shop around the corner from my apartment angrily telling me that Starbucks offered his landlord twice his rent in order to break his lease.
Which dated back to the 1920s.
Even though there were about five other Starbucks within walking distance.
Where coffee shops used to be.
This is predatory.
Those who frequent such establishments aid and abet such predation.
Let’s call it like we see it.
My mother, who used to commute by bus to work in Manhattan, says she only recognizes the churches in New York now.
Some call this: “A History of New York”.
Some call this: “Progress”.
I believe there is a difference between organic and willed “change”.
In any case, the same is happening here in Beirut.
Except it somehow seems much worse.
Because Beirut, as place, is collectively held in mind.
There is no need for maps.
Much less street names.
Or building numbers.
To pinpoint an address you need only know a neighborhood, maybe a building, perhaps a family name.
And you need to ask directions.
Meaning, you will not find what you need in a guide book or on a map.
You must stop and ask someone local for help.
This is a given.
The answer might be something along the lines of: “Walk up to the next block across from the hospital; don’t turn there. Go to the next block after, where the coffeshop is, you’ll see a big white building with a metal fence; don’t turn there. Keep going to the block after that at the intersection, where Abou Mustafa’s roastery used to be: Turn there.”
The lay of the land is not an abstract mapping, but a living geography, a collective history.
This is a sign of health.
Despite decades of urban illness.
This is a sign of community.
Despite encroaching individualism.
Who are these people navigating a space who carry maps?
Who are these people consuming the land via smart phones?
Whose are these alien voices now giving us directions?
Such communal death can thus be seen to be an economic and political goal.
Those who aid and abet such a crime are accomplices in metrocide.
Image: Hollywood High | Date: July 14, 2010 | Place: Hollywood, California | Camera: Sony “CyberShot” DSC-TX1; Carl Zeiss lens | Caption: The mascot of Hollywood High is “The Sheik [sic]”, from the Rudolph Valentino movie from 1921. I stood and stared a good ten minutes at this depiction before taking a picture. Getting into on how many levels wrong it is would probably be best left for another time.