FROM PHOENIX, ARIZONA Topic: NORTH AMERICAN AFFAIRS
NEW YORK, Sep/98 - Whoever came up with the idea of calling New York City the "Big Apple" (John J. Fitzgerald, born in 1893, a sports writer who used to refer in the 1920s to the horse racing track as the "Big Apple?"), probably had no idea what an apple looks or tastes like. Which is sad for a state (NY) whose "state fruit" is the apple.
An apple is a creation of God, not man; it's round, not particularly big; it's colorful; it's edible; it's good for your health ("an apple a day keeps the doctor away"). New York City has none of these attributes; the least of all its heart - Manhattan. Yet it has more than its share of admirers.
I remember once, back in 1983, walking into the Times Square's blaze of sights and scents accompanied by a Canadian publisher. "Isn't it beautiful?" he exclaimed. "Look at all the beautiful people! Black, white, brown... So much life; so much vibrancy."
"Had he already been into the sauce even before the cocktail hour?", I remember wondering.
I gave my friend a glance of incredulity which bounced off his glowing face as if it were an armored plate. For, all I could smell was the garbage piled up in front of a restaurant. And the BO (body odor) of the "Big Apple" residents who had not discovered the virtue of deodorants on a hot August night. I thought of Frederick Langbridge (1849-1923), who said, "two men look out through the same bars; one sees the mud; and one the stars." Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I also recalled the leaky faucet in my "beautiful," "very literary," and very overpriced hotel ("The Algonquin"), at which this publisher, my dinner companion, had suckered me into staying. But, I consoled myself with, "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice; shame on me"-saw. (That was my only stay at "The Algonquin" in the last 15 years; though I did discover later on that they have excellent muffins if you care to have an early breakfast there).
Anyway, more than a dozen years, and several dozen visits later, I began to realize that the "Big Apple" does have a certain appeal for certain people - those who generally don't like apples; who prefer creations of man, not God; who like things square, not round; whose favorite color is gray; who eat the vending machines food; whose idea of minding one's health is joining an expensive health club which they don't frequent; who have children, but no time for them; who keep pets, but can't be bothered to walk them; who worship money as if it were God. In other words, the people who have everything, but a life.
Well, not quite... Because underneath one of the world's most famous skylines, the "high life" and the "low life" New Yorkers share the same sky in the city of skyscrapers. Scrape away the glitzy veneer, and you will find life bursting to free itself from this urban prison.
On a warm, summer weekend in Central Park, for example, the inmates who managed to escape their cubby-holes in the honeycombed apartments, practically trample all over each other trying to claim their own patch of green in this city of gray under the sky of blue. Yet even here, one can always tell the "high life" from the "low life" New Yorkers.
The "high lifers" arrive at high noon in their chauffeur-driven limos for a stylish brunch at the "Tavern on the Green." Other "high lifers" who weren't lucky enough to get the reservations in time send their pets instead. In chauffeur-driven limos, of course. And in the company of professional pet walkers.
The "low lifers" bring their own barbecues; hibachis; frisbees... or just themselves. And they dream of a day when they'll be able to send their own pet in a stretch limo for a pee in the Park.
Such a day is increasingly beyond the reach of many Wall Street "bull market" high-flyers. Even as the Dow is still flying high, many of the brokers and bankers are being told to go fly a kite amid yet another Wall Street "restructuring."
"Oh, my God, my boss just got fired. And my boss's boss, too," Wall Street insiders can be overheard as gossiping. "And they had only 10 minutes to leave the premises. The secretaries were crying all over the place."
But there is always a silver lining around any cloud. Count in the fired boss as another man who now may have time for his children and pets; who may still continue to worship money, but will realize that it's not God's creation; that love of money is the root of all evil. In other words, a man who may no longer "have everything," but who may have a life.
Just like the disgruntled cabbie whom I hailed at around the Grand Central station, only a few steps away from the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where President Bill Clinton was at the time squeezing the flesh (not Monica's), hoping for new New York handouts (which he got).
"Where you wanna go?" asked an angry-looking taxi driver. (Don't figure on being treated as a paying customer by the New York cabbies. Most of them think they are doing you a favor by saving you from the New York subways. And they probably are, too...)
"Upper East Side."
"Okay. Hop in then. But you'll be my last ride for the day." (It was only about 3 PM).
I got in and we inched our way northward along Park Avenue. "Your last ride? Are you sick or something?"
"No. But I am sick of Bill Clinton."
"You're certainly not alone. But why do you feel that way?"
"Haven't you see the mess he is causing? Man, I never saw anything like it. Midtown traffic is locked up so tight you can hardly move."
Indeed. We had just spent several minutes waiting to get past the Waldorf.
The traffic got a little better after that. "Where do you live?", I asked.
"In Queens. Which is why I agreed to take you to Upper East Side. After that, I go across the bridge, and Bud Light, here I come."
* * * *
As I walked toward the building I was staying in, I noticed a Ford Bronco parked in front of it, with a front license plate which read, "Make my day!"
"Funny," I thought. Not only because New York state requires regulation license plates at both ends of a car. But because Ford Broncos are too big for the "Big Apple" traffic. "Must be be some sort of a 'redneck'," I penciled in a thought about the truck's owner. Especially as a Confederate Flag was also visible through the window.
Anyway, I walked up to the apartment I was using and went about my business. Which included putting out the garbage in the building's basement. Big mistake! When I returned from some grocery shopping, I found one of the bags which (I thought) I had put out, hanging on the apartment door knob.
"Hm..." I thought. "They have a strange way of disposing of garbage in New York City. Bringing it back to the source. Whatever... Just one more weird thing about this city."
I took the bag into the apartment, and had not given the episode much of thought until my host arrived home from work, later that evening. As I walked out of the elevator to open the main door, I heard noises which sounded like two people arguing. It seemed as if the superintendent was giving my host a hard time over the garbage disposal. Being from Arizona, where we just put out our garbage once a week for a pick up, I had evidently not done a good enough job of pre-sorting it.
"What do I know about your stupid New York City garbage rules?" I shouted angrily at the rough-looking superintendent, once I realized that I was the main culprit. "And if you wanted me to know about them, why didn't you come and talk to me, rather than just hang a garbage bag on the door?"
"You know, you're pretty lucky," I added after a pause to allow the recipient of my venom a chance to digest it. "If this were my apartment, you would be getting that garbage bag back in your face right about now!"
The "super" looked stunned. The "high life" people aren't supposed to talk that way. But I wasn't the "high lifer." Certainly not the way I looked back then, dressed in sports shorts and a T-shirt.
"Why are you yelling at me?", was evidently only thing the "super" could think of saying. "I could be fined by the City for this, you know."
"Who is yelling?", I yelled, still in a challenging tone of voice.
It was a scene fit for a play. Not just because it took place in the entrance hallway of the apartment building, thus presumably being overheard by other tenants. But also because of what happened next...
Just as the temperature in our heated exchange was approaching the boiling point, I suddenly smiled and said with a wink: "But why are we arguing anyway? We are both 'rednecks', aren't we?"
(I took a chance here, assuming that the Bronco was his).
The "super" smiled and shook my hand firmly. We never said another word.
Later on that evening, my host was worried that the superintendent would now take his revenge on her.
"On the contrary," I replied. "Now he'll treat you like a princess." (An old lesson I learned as a kid about how to treat a bully - push back, only harder. And about how NOT to treat a lady).
* * * *
The next day, I went to Wall Street. By cab. I told my black taxi driver about my other cabbie who quit early because of Clinton.
"Yeah. Yesterday was living hell in traffic," the cabbie said sympathetically.
We drove in silence for a while.
"Clinton lied," the driver said suddenly.
"Beg your pardon?"
"Clinton lied. And he thought he could get away with it."
"Why? Because he is trying to differentiate between lying and perjury?"
"Between lying and perjury? It's the same thing, man. The same thing. Say, I go before a judge who asks me if I had cheated on my wife. Of course, I would have lied and said I had not. But I'd never have claimed that I had told the truth as Clinton is doing. Only the politicians do things like that."
"Yet they even get paid for it," I baited the cabbie. "I hear that Clinton collected several million dollars in donations yesterday at that Waldorf bash."
"Yeah! That's the sickest part of it."
"Not quite? What could be worse?"
"What's worse is that both Clinton and the people who pay him to lie think they can fool God."
The driver's temple had wrinkled up at this thought. For a few seconds he said nothing.
"You're right. Nobody can fool God. But there are fools who think they can."
"My, oh my..." I thought, without saying anything. "Here I was; on Wall Street; smack in the heart of the heart of Gotham City, and my black cabbie has just delivered a Sunday sermon as if he were a Bible belt preacher."
"You can drop me off at that corner," I said, reaching for my wallet.
"Have a nice day, Sir!" the taxi driver said. "Don't work too hard."
(Who says all New York cabbies are rude?)
* * * *
Since I had about half an hour to kill between by appointments, I walked to "Timothy's Coffee Bar" on Broad Street, right next to the New York Stock Exchange, and ordered a black coffee. A friendly "waiter" (I thought) explained that this is a self-serve coffee bar, and showed me how to get my $1.70-cup of coffee.
"$1.70 for a cup of coffee?" I thought, remembering the "good old days" when coffee was (I won't tell you how many cents, since this would date me).
"Oh, that's nothing," a (New Yorker) friend later told me to whom I complained about the high cost of living in Manhattan. "Not long ago, I used to take out $200 from my bank's ATM. Now I have to get $500 to last me the same length of time. I haven't changed my lifestyle. If anything, I've cut back on a few things. So don't let anyone tell you how there's no inflation. That's Alan Greenspan bullshit."
Indeed. A dinner for three (not at the "Tavern on the Green," but at another "nice" NYC restaurant) ended up costing almost $300. In Phoenix, a similar menu would have cost $150 maximum, also at a top-rated restaurant. But, Phoenix is no New York, some say. Luckily!
* * * *
As I strolled from Wall Street toward Broadway and to my next appointment, a beautiful sight pierced the crowded downtown Manhattan skyline. Trinity Church, the highest point in New York when it was (re)built, in the mid-19th century, modestly pierced the skyline of 1998, tucked in between the huge skyscrapers. The hour was just after noon. And Trinity's (Anglican-Episcopalian) service was in progress. I walked in.
There could not have been more than a dozen worshipers. Yet, "this is the probably richest congregation of any in the U.S.," a Wall Street insider told me later on the same afternoon.
"That explains it," I replied cynically. "Who's got time for God when you're trying to make money, if your God is money."
* * * *
As I returned later the same day from my Wall Street appointments to my Upper East Side apartment, I saw the "super" working on his Bronco. "Bingo! So my guess worked," I thought.
I walked over to him, shook his hand again firmly, and said that I was leaving town today, but wanted to thank him for being so nice to my host in this building. This time, I was wearing my "Wall Street" suit. It didn't matter.
He replied with a big, broad smile. "Well, I've put away five landlords in the 38 years I've been here."
"You've put away five landlords?"
"How did you put them away?"
"They all died. And here I am, 64 and still going strong."
He paused for a moment. "But the current landlord is only 37. I don't think I will outlive him," he added wearing a devilish-looking smirk.
After that, he proceeded to tell me his life's story. He is originally from Arizona (how's that for coincidence!?). Fought in Korea; wounded in the leg; taken to a Stuttgart, Germany, hospital; learned German while convalescing; discharged in France, where he spent eight years before coming to New York; speaks English, German, French, Schwabish (old German?) and "Jewish" (whatever he meant by that; probably Yiddish?).
We parted as old "redneck" pals. "Don't worry about anything," he said as we said our good-byes. "And have a good trip!"
An emergency siren sounded on the nearby 2nd Avenue. The uniformed doorman up the street merely shifted his weight from his left to his right foot, continuing to file his nails, unperturbed by the noise. Another hour, another emergency in the "Big Apple." Another shrug. Except if you don't presort your garbage correctly.
Also, check out... "Canadian Banks Speculating Against Canadian Dollar", "Election '98: Much Ado About Nothing", "A Spoof on Goof: ABC Adds God to Its Editorial Lineup," "Taking a Little Bite Out of the 'Big Apple'", "Greenscam's Meriwether Bailout," "Wall Street's Conquest of America," "Yeltsin-IMF Deal: Feeding Drugs to Drug Addict", "Like Watergate, Cover-up Worse Than Original Crime," "Death Merchants 80; U.S. Taxpayers 19" , "The Great American Divide Widens"
Or Djurdjevic's WASHINGTON TIMES columns: "When Will Wall Street's Bubble Burst?", "Russia, IMF, and Global House of Cards", "Rekindling NATO to Fuel Cold War..." or his CHRONICLES column: "Wiping Out the Middle Class."