"What is familiar tends to become a value."
-- Gordon W. Allport in “The Nature of Prejudice”
Professor Allport’s theory of concentric circles captivated me during my first year of college. It was more than a shallow impression; it became deep and lasting. Puddles rippling outward amplify tolerance. The smaller the circle, the closer to the center we live, the more prejudiced we act and feel.
I have carried Allport’s theory of prejudice with me all my adult life and thought of it often in various circumstances. It is probably one of the reasons I became an ever-curious reporter. I made a decision to broaden my experiences beyond my narrow upbringing, to live abroad, and to remain compassionate and open to everyone’s stories.
Reading Allport’s now-classic study, I was, at first, searching for an understanding of the genocide that killed my family. I never fully turned his theory on myself and my own prejudices and values.
But sometimes I am tested at unexpected moments, which is what happened last week when I went to get a new watch strap for my NYU 20-year watch. I’m living in a university town in upstate NY, a blue “liberal” enclave in the midst of a red county. My circle of reference has shifted; I can no longer assume cosmopolitan ideas, values and politics close to my own. In search of a watch strap, I found the rest of America.
A friendly woman at the family-owned drug store referred me to a jewelry shop down the road. I was greeted by a sweet spaniel puppy and a smooth-skinned man with a limp. We chatted, I said I’d just moved to town, he said he’d recently moved out of town because he didn’t like what was happening here. I didn’t press him further about what exactly was happening because his bitterness was obvious and I am excited about our recent move out of the city.
He didn’t have the strap, it wasn’t in stock, so I placed an order and left.
The return visit took longer, a woman was in front of me, so I had to wait. I began to look around. Rifleman magazines were on the table and there were several newspaper clippings on the wall, some framed under glass, some pinned. Crimes and executions. I remembered that the smooth-skinned man with a limp had moved “deep into the woods,” and my imagination clicked over: he’s militia, or worse. He doesn’t like New York intellectuals or government officials, maybe he doesn’t like Jews, either, certainly he doesn’t like anyone of color, or Native Americans. If he’d lived in the post-Civil War South, he might have been involved in lynchings. I took these truths I had created to be self-evident.
I tried to slow down and figure out what was scaring me apart from the very thought of guns. Surely there was one behind the counter. This was a jewelry shop! But scariest of all was the vision of myself—the liberal, progressive cosmopolitan me dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase—through this man’s eyes. What was he seeing? What were his thoughts? I had to ask.
“Were you in the armed forces?”
“No, sadly. I tried to sign up during Vietnam, went up to Albany with a buddy, but I have high-frequency hearing loss. My buddy got in and came home in a box. I became a cop.”
“That’s a sad story about your friend, but you served in your own way. My husband was in the Seventh Fleet. He didn’t see any action.”
Pause. A smile surfacing, mine and his.
Whereupon we sequed into complaints about the Veteran’s Administration, Agent Orange, injured veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what we owe the men and women who serve.
Oh frabjous day, we were in complete agreement, we’d found another touching point. Still, I wasn’t satisfied. NRA member, he must be a completely bad man, right? Wrong.
When I got home, I googled my friendly neighborhood jeweler and found out that he’d recently engraved ID bands for local Alzheimer’s patients and been honored by the community for his donation and service.
"What is familiar tends to become a value."
My city Facebook friends are posting photos of spring blossoms in Central Park, Prospect Park and Fort Tryon Park. But it is still in the 30’s in the mornings in the Lower Catskills and spring has not yet fully arrived. On one of our first mornings here, I found a steep road into an apple orchard, and snapped photos of buds, but they have not opened. Red tailed hawks, falcons, and an eagle or two sail on the updrafts searching for prey. The crows and sparrows stay closer to ground level, the groundhogs scamper in and out of their dens. There is abundant visible wildlife whenever I step outside; earth day is every day in this mountainous region. Plastic bags are not permitted in the shops, the local antique barn has a solar roof, the Wallkill Alliance is working with Riverkeeper to clean up the Wallkill River that flows through the town, a reminder of how improvements in the environment—and in the political landscape—can be achieved on the local level. Soon, I will see flaws, I know that, and feel the challenge of small-town living, but for right now I’m living in an idyll or, maybe, I’m just on vacation!
A slower pace, no delays to consider as we board the subway, less socializing in noisy upscale venues. Our forays into the city to work continue, but they are circumscribed and carefully planned. I’ve written two blog posts and completed a short story in the three weeks we have been here. I am reading in a more concentrated way, I am watching the sun set over the mountains, I am sleeping soundly.
As I was walking into the orchard last weekend, I realized that it was a private road and I’d better ask permission. There weren’t any signs and I didn’t want to be surprised by a shotgun or a police car. So I penned a warm note explaining who I was—an urban transplant, a new neighbor in love with the orchard, a writer—and would it be okay if I walked the road? In return for this privilege , I would clean up debris—many plastic containers, beer cans, tires!! I’d already done a lot of this. Had they spotted me and decided to leave me alone? Did they think I was a mad woman?
I walked my well-crafted note to the top of the rise to a house, which I assumed belonged to the owner of the orchard. I went round the back—kids toys, a swing set, dishes in the sink—and rang the bell. It was a tenant, not the owner, and yes, of course, she’d pass my note along. She wasn’t sure if it would be okay, there have been problems in the past. Oh, dear.
As of today, I haven’t heard anything from the owner. But it was so gorgeous this morning that I walked into the orchard anyway. Read More
--William Shakespeare, Henry VIII
I hadn’t used the Port Authority Bus Terminal in a long time, hardly ever over the years, in fact. The armpit of New York I called it. I lived in Manhattan, I owned a car. Homeless people, filthy bathrooms, the scum of the city hung out there and the city did nothing, it seemed, to clean it up, clean the people up. Then in December, 2017, a Bengali-born, ISIS-inspired suicide bomber walked through the terminal, more or less set off the explosives on his body, injuring himself and three others. No surprise, I said to myself, that this attack happened at Port Authority. It’s a hub and therefore a target in the Age of Terrorism, but also indefensible space, in multiple meanings of that word. I had learned the concept in graduate school and photographed indefensible spaces all over the city. They were easy to find. On East 87th Street, where I lived at the time, architects had designed an apartment complex with commercial space below-ground level accessed by a ramp on one side and stairs on the other. No fast egress in a hold-up or a fire, everyone in the shops would be trapped.
Life in the city is hallucination and denial much of the time, layers of tar and concrete built on top of earth and stream, layers of stories: slaves and First Americans, settlers, immigrants and refugees. We are moles living behind our computers in darkened rooms, and when we surface, we are blind, we see nothing, we have learned nothing, we have forgotten our history, or never knew it.
Terminals in other cities and other cultures seem brighter, cleaner, airier, considerate of human effort and failings. But this, too, may be delusion, a trick of the traveler’s imagination as she steps uneasily into new landscapes and experiences. I mustn’t assume that Europeans, for example, or Koreans, for another example, maintain an aesthetic standard more developed than Americans. Can we trace our “failing infrastructure” to the banality of New World aesthetics, or lack thereof: pure Americana? How can an enormous mega store filled with junk food loaded with sugar and additives support life? Support the future?
On the day of my first commute back into the city after moving into a mountainous region the bus rammed into the Lincoln Tunnel and hardly moved for an hour. Serves me right for being such a snide snob, I thought to myself, as I realized I’d be debarking in the armpit of New York.
Returning to Port Authority at night, I had to find my gate, avoid the hustlers, and use the restroom. Luckily I found Sarah, from Haiti, hired to direct confused commuters such as myself. “Is there a clean restroom I can use?” I asked her.
“You will be surprised,” she said. “They have all been cleaned. They are beautiful. You will be happy.”
“I will be relieved,” I said.
When I returned from the restroom, we continued our conversation in Franglish—stories about Haiti, Sarah’s family, and her disappointment at the behavior of American police. “Ton ton macoutes,” she said. “Why they kill a boy with a toy gun?” We were joined by an elegant, well-dressed Asian-American woman with a soft smile. Casually, she rested her head on her hands and said she’d left her storage locker in Soho opened, had noticed the lock in her bag, and though she knew she’d miss the 9 o’clock bus, she decided to head back downtown.
“But there is nothing important in the locker. I don’t know why I went all the way back downtown. Now I must take a bus and rest.”
“Any bus,” she said.
“Do you know, Sarah?” I asked the Asian-American woman. For some reason, I hesitated asking her name though she had slid into the conversation like an old friend.
“We see each other here,” the woman said. Here meaning Gate 32 at the Port Authority Terminal in New York.
Sarah's wig had slipped sideways, her glasses were on the tip of her nose, but she remained kind despite the late hour. Multiple bracelets dangled on both arms. One was inscribed, “Good luck.”
I still hadn’t heard or seen our new conversation companion, not really. She looked and sounded intelligent, educated. I assumed she was a professor at SUNY, headed home after a day in the city, a professor like me waiting for the bus.
“I used to have a beautiful apartment overlooking the Hudson, up near Columbia, she said. “But I lost my job as a graphic designer. Now I work at Trader Joe’s and move around. I have no family.”
“You move around?”
“You are homeless?”
“I prefer to say houseless,” she said. “I am houseless.”
"La conditione humaine," I said, before boarding the bus back to my new home.
After culling my books over many weeks, whittling them down to books I needed for research or would read again for pleasure, I still had a lot of books. I had promised myself not to lift a single tome or pack up our kitchen. Kitchens are loaded with breakables, every item has to be wrapped separately. Books are heavy.
The movers were late, the boxes were there waiting, so I was tempted to begin, then stopped this thought. I knew my back wouldn’t survive, which is why we’d hired the movers to pack in the first place. I wouldn’t see a pool again for several days. So I tried to rest, selected Bill Evans on the Pandora app, stretched out on the couch, and started on the current New Yorker. Then I fell asleep. No dreams.
The bell rang at 5 p.m. Two guys, both 30-something, one from Peru, the other from Mexico. They entered the hallway running. I’d contracted for three hours of packing, they’d be done by 8 p.m. Great, I said. I was still so tired I couldn’t think of going anywhere, so I stayed and supervised, so to speak. I didn’t want to slow them down but I was interested. Two young guys, both handsome, both from the other side of our porous border. They must have a story, I said to myself. (This writer cannot resist a story.)
So where are you from? Did you go to college? Do you want to go to college? Okay, college isn’t for everyone. Oh, you are living with your aunt.
That’s my mom.
Oh where is she?
Okay great, you’re a good son. Always pick up the phone when your mother calls.
As you are packing my books, do you like to read?
Yes, no, sometimes.
What do you like to read?
I remember in high school, we read Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” I really liked that story.
No kidding, that was the first story I taught my students at Oakland High School.
They loved it. So did I. That bug.
I feel like him some days. I wanted to be an ESL teacher, I had to drop out of school and earn money.
You’d be a great teacher, I said. Think about getting back to school.
This was the guy from Peru talking. The guy from Mexico looked a bit askance, and didn’t know nothing about any bugs.
It’s about being trapped, right? Trapped in a system?
Right, I said.
I thought of all the privileged young men and women I have met whose lives are like parachutes: soft landings, no bugs in sight.
There’s SUNY’s Empire State College, I told my young friend. It’s designed for working men and women. Don’t give up, I’ll write you a recommendation. I’ve got bug clout, I’m a prof at NYU. Anyone who likes Kafka deserves a recommendation. Read More