A New York
State of Mind
by Teresa Kennedy
I've been talking to people recently, and while it might seem unpatriotic just now, or subversive even, we're all turning over the possibility of leaving New York city, especially those of us with children, those of us who can't find jobs, those of us falling through the cracks in this city's mighty façade. Neither victims nor heroes, just ordinary New Yorkers struggling to adjust to a changed world, unable to "get back to normal" because the norm has so drastically changed. Our children draw pictures of airplanes and towers; they have nightmares about explosions. And so we wonder, should we stay, or should we go?
We wonder most of all whether this city will ever again, or at least in our lifetime, be the kind of funky, creative oasis where unexpected, inexplicable things happen, a place where you could change your mind and your life simply by walking out the door, where you could turn a corner and see or do something—else. New York can take you out of yourself and into a whole new self if you let it—on any day—all in the space of four or five blocks. Some cities are like that: San Francisco is one, LA is not. Seattle is, New Orleans is, Minneapolis and DC, Not, not. Pretty much any city where you have to have a car to live there is not, whereas cities where you can walk around and savor that thing we call street life are. Ports seem to have a lot to do with the character of a city becoming an open or a closed society, whether you happen there by land or by sea. Is it that risk takers live here? Is it the spirit of something we cannot see? Who knows?
I have missed that quality of this particular city a lot this past month or so. When you walk out the door these days, it takes only four or five blocks before you encounter the worst of who we are right now. The anger, all those raw nerves. I saw a man on the bus today yelling at some woman for having a cough and not covering her fuckiing anthrax mouth. A woman who pressed in line ahead of me at the grocery store began screaming at the checkout girl who pointed it out, telling her to go back where she came from. The checkout girl was Latin, not Arab, but never mind—the message was clear. Go back where you came from! And yo’ mama too.
But then I was walking on Broadway yesterday and encountered a man who tried to give me thirty thousand dollars. Here is what happened.
This man walks up and asks me do I know where district 42 is. I tell him I do not. He tells me he surprised a man in a phone booth who ran away and dropped this mysterious package labeled district 42 and addressed, interestingly enough, to an indecipherable someone at the PLO. I turn to go my way when another man steps up to "help," unzips the parcel, and inside there's a bundle of thousand dollar bills. Lovely sight, really. In my current economic circumstances—an unemployed husband, a mortgage, a kid to raise, and self-employment that is barely distinguished from unemployment, save for the fact that I don't get a check—bundles of thousand dollar bills can be quite breathtaking.
So the first man says the cops will just keep the money if we turn it in, so let’s split it up. Naturally enough, we agree, so he hustles us all across the street to divvy it up at an anonymous table in the corner of Blimpies. It’s on my way home, and I have nothing in particular to do at that moment, so I am, at this point, along for the ride. Certainly the intriguing factor of all that cold, hard cash, is enough to give anybody pause on a fine fall afternoon. It gives rise to brief, fleeting thoughts of rescue. Paying off the mortgage. Freedom even. Security.
We sit ourselves at a table and there is a note inside this package. Something like this:
Well, we’ve done it again! Praise be to Allah. Here’s the money from the pay-off at the race track. After we pull off the final job, I’ll see you in Switzerland."
Now, as a New Yorker, I tend to be a contentious sort of woman. I have attitude. And a pretty darned good education. But the fact is, I’m enjoying myself, we all need a little bit of street life from time to time. So after pondering this note, I say—
"That’s not how you spell Mustafa."
First man says. "How do you know that? These guys were some bad shit. Fucking terrorists."
I am smiling by this time, along, as I have mentioned, for the ride.
"Wow” I say. “But if they’re terrorists, don’t you think it’s weird that they would write to each other in English?" This exasperates the second man. "What do you care about how some sand-nigger does business? You want the money or not?"
"Everybody wants money," I tell him.
The first man is a high-strung sort of character. He is suddenly possessed of a new idea. "Oh, man," he says. "What if the money is marked? What if it’s counterfeit? We can’t spend it!"
"Could be a problem," I agree.
"No shit," says the second man.
Then the first man tells us he’s a courier for Chase Manhattan. He says they have a machine in the bank down the block that checks bills. He’s going to go over there and check it, and then he’ll come back and we‘ll split it up.
Now you may well question why anybody in their right mind would stick around at this point, and even I can’t exactly explain it to you. But the fact is, while I am not exactly emotionally invested in this little bit of street life, it’s improving my humor immensely. It reminds me of the city I used to know. Besides, I’m a writer. I want to know how the story was going to turn out.
So while we wait, I go and stand with the second man outside of Blimpie’s to have a cigarette. We speculate on whether the mysterious man with the mysterious terrorist package is ever coming back. The second man tells me he wants that money. He tells me he wants to do things for his daughter, Teresa and that he wants a new car. I tell him my name is Teresa and that I have a daughter, and I need a new car, too.
Of course, whatever he’s taken just prior to trying to run this job has pretty much kicked in by now and he’s having a little trouble tracking the conversation. His eyes are sort of rolling in his head and the lids droop to half mast by the time the first man comes running back up and breathlessly tells us the money is real.
So we all troop back into Blimpies. The first man tells us that while he was running the bills through the machine, his boss, one Mr. Weinstein, just happened in on him, so he told Weinstein what happened. First man said that he’d agreed to split the stash with two members of his church. Second guy and I are now referred to as Mr. Brown and Mrs. Green. And behold! It seems Mr. Weinstein has analyzed first guy’s plight and offered to help us out in exchange for one of the bonds that was stashed with the cash.
"Let me get this straight," I say. "You’re willing to share this money with two supposed strangers and now with Mr. Weinstein, too? You are a generous man."
First guy ignores this and goes on with the tale.
The bills, it seems, were taken out of circulation in 1968. If we spend the money they could be tracked, we could be at risk from those monster A-rabs, not to mention the cops, the CIA, and Internal Revenue.
His story, regrettably, has more holes in it at this point than all the cheese in Switzerland. Nevertheless, the mysterious Mr. Weinstein has agreed to solve our problem. He will set up bank accounts at Chase Manhattan for Mr. Brown and Mrs. Green, pretend that our deposits of 30,000 each result from the sale of stocks, pay the taxes on them, and we get our dough in 30 days, providing we give first guy some necessary personal information to open the accounts.
I ask, "You have to pay taxes on laundered money now?"
"Bitch!” he says. “Don’t be using that word!"
"Which word? Launder?"
"Oh, God," says second guy.
The high strung first man jumps up from the table. "You see! You see what you made me do? I was gonna give you money! What is the matter with you, woman? Don’t you want money?"
"Not enough to go to jail for it."
First man is now talking to the ceiling. I can see his Adam’s apple moving up and down. "Again with the words!" he hisses. "Don’t be using that word! I ain’t giving you nothing!" I get to my feet and gather up my grocery bag.
"Guys," I tell them. "It’s been fun. But I gotta go."
So what is the point of my story?
I realized, somewhere on Broadway yesterday afternoon, just how easy it is to give away that thing we call freedom. How easy it is to play along, and go along for the ride. Especially easy when somebody wants to sell a bill of goods in a world that is feeling vulnerable. Especially when freedom and security can look and sound so much like the very same thing, and our supposed enemy is one about whom we are so terribly ignorant. It’s a funny thing about freedom—when you have it, you have it. You don’t need to fight for something you already have.
The guys on the street just didn’t know their mark, was all. But do we know ours? Our government has passed a law allowing its agencies to monitor email and tap telephones and search our homes while we wave our flags and cry, Death to Osama. We have given our permission for this democracy to persecute another culture in order to preserve our freedom. Last I heard, that was not what democracy meant. And it certainly isn’t freedom, nor is it the spirit of the New York City that I have loved for 25 years.
To equate democracy with capitalism would be to equate the material fortunes of our society with the principles it was founded on. Our success or failure would then depend on how much money we had at our disposal. That is as false an assessment of our ideal of liberty as it is to say that to be a Muslim is to be a terrorist. I suspect that most Muslims are just as ignorant of the true ideals of the rest of us as we are of theirs. And yet so many of us—too many of us—on both sides are only too willing to judge another culture on appearances alone.
But how big a step is it, I wonder, from taking away their freedom to practice whatever religion they want to, and signing away our own freedom for some hard cash and a feeling of security?
Just a little step is all it takes. One baby step for humankind. To take that step is to allow our fears and vulnerabilities to lead us to where we fall for an age-old con.
Teresa Kennedy is a resident of New York City. She is the author of more than 30 books on a wide variety of subjects, numerous articles.
(c) Teresa Kennedy
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