July 18, 1991. The temperature was 99 degrees, the hottest day since the summer of 1988. The humidity, as usual, was stratospheric (undoubtedly the reason they stopped broadcasting the Temperature Humidity Index years ago). The hitherto unknown Coalition for Black and Hispanic Jobs at the Port of New York Authority decided that this was the time to strike. The Coalition, in a commando raid, drove up some huge trucks and blockaded the routes in and out of Kennedy Airport on the afternoon of the 18th, tying up traffic for up to five hours. Cars overheated, tempers were even more explosive. The nightly TV news broadcasts, as ever an exercise in political correctness, televised some remarkably calm and gentle New Yorkers: “Gee, I’m sympathetic with their aims, but not when I have to sit here and swelter for five hours.” Yeah, sure. And, as we like to say in New York, if you believe that was the typical reaction I have a bridge across the East River I’m willing to sell you for a few hundred dollars in cash.
Every summer New York goes another few steps down the road to perdition. Every summer the city gets hotter in every which way. In contrast to the winter, when the cold keeps what is euphemistically known as “the community” off the streets, summer is the time for Street Life. As a result, this year, far more people have been shot by random violence. You have to understand: these shootings are not malicious, just the result of high spirits, part of New York self-expression and “street culture,” which entails shooting off rounds of gunshots into the air, some of which are inconsiderate enough to pour into random windows and injure people inside. There were no official race riots this year or boycotts of Korean grocers (at least not as of this writing), but everyone admits that racial incidents have been escalating. Violence was also stimulated, as elsewhere in the country, by showings of the movie Boyz N the Hood. Apparently showings of street gang violence in Los Angeles stimulate the youthful lads in the audience to instantaneous emulation, shooting off’ rounds of gunfire in the theater, which injured several of the patrons of the movie in the once highly touted Fulton Street mall that was supposed to help redeem downtown Brooklyn. (Interestingly enough, no one ever presumes to advocate gun control as a cure for New York violence. Since New York has one of the strictest gun control laws in the country, such a suggested cure would be laughed out of court.)
But while violence gets publicity, it really touches only a small minority of New Yorkers. The real problem of New York living is what is laughingly referred to as the “quality of life,” which in effect means continuous hassle. There are all sorts of unwritten rules for comfortable as well as safe living in New York. One of them is to keep moving, making minimal eye contact. If a guy on the street tells you a story, don’t listen, move on; let him harass the next sucker. If you stop for more than ten seconds to contemplate some sight or to meditate on the passing scene, make no mistake: someone, some creep, is going to harass you. Not mug or assault you, mind, just harass you. The content of this ubiquitous street hassling has changed over the years. In the old days, it was likely to be some obscure religious ranting. Recently, it has all boiled down to money. Over the last few summers, the begging has become more insistent. As you drive into New York by tunnel, for example, the first person to greet you at the first red light will be a bum insisting on “wiping” your front windshield with a foul and smelly rag. You pay him money to avoid his clumsy farce of cleaning your car.
On the street, it used to be that the bums would sit against the storefronts, nodding out, cups or hats held aloft. Over the years, they became more energetic and aggressive, probably from being well subsidized, and they started standing in the middle of the sidewalk, accosting each passerby in turn. The trick is to spot these guys by looking well ahead, and, if you see one, avoid him. Last summer, I spotted a change: the bums got still more energetic and aggressive, giving you lip, actually pursuing you along the way, demanding dough. Again, the preferred tactic is to barrel ahead, even engage in some broken-field running, anything to turn the bum’s attention to the next mark.
This summer the bums, while still energetic, are becoming increasingly incoherent, so it is not even clear what their muttered story is all about. No matter: don’t succumb to natural curiosity. Whatever the bum’s saga is, you don’t want to know it. Keep going.
The quality of life has also been clobbered this year by another odious trend: the streets have gotten far smellier. Let’s face it: New York streets were never like Disney World, immaculate and even lovable. But things have gotten a lot worse. In the first place, the environmentalists have been cracking down on the blissfully cleansing incinerators, and forcing more and more garbage to be collected in bags; but the bags have been piling up, as budget cuts have added to the usual cosmic inefficiency of all government operations. In addition to the mounds of garbage festering in the heat, the beloved “homeless” have been proliferating like mad, camping out all over New York, and the resulting use of New York streets as a network of outdoor toilets has, as one might expect, greatly added to the stench of the Big Apple.
As everyone knows, New York has also been suffering from another one of its periodic Budget Crises. As in every other state and city, budgets go up sharply during boom periods, ostensibly to keep up with growth and the resulting “demand” for government services. Then, in recessions, such as we’re in now, government expenditures still go up, this time allegedly to combat the recession. As a result, Parkinson’s law of government applies: regardless of what happens, government spending increases. But, during recessions, tax revenues decline because of the drop in economic activity, and so deficits get even worse than usual. Since state and local governments can’t print money the way the federal government can, they have to make some sort of stab at balancing their budget. Given that actually cutting the budget is unthinkable, the result is higher tax rates, which makes the economic situation still worse, crippling economic activity during the recession and even permanently. In this way, state and local governments engage in a downward spiral toward disaster. New York, of course, has been in the forefront of this process.
Out of the latest budget crisis, one thing is crystal clear: Mayor David Dinkins is universally considered to be a dithering nitwit. It is doubtful if, at this point, he could get any political support beyond his family and campaign staff. More interesting has been the shrewd maneuvering of Governor Mario Cuomo. Moving fiscally rightward during the crisis, Cuomo was able to play off the notorious Tweedledum-Tweedledee nature of New York state politics by denouncing (correctly) the Republican state legislative leaders as big spenders. In addition to actually eliminating 18,000 state jobs, Cuomo maintained that he would not raise the already catastrophically high state income tax by even a “smidgen.” Cuomo finally caved in, of course, but less blatantly than George Bush after his repeated injunctions to “read my lips.” Intriguingly, too, Cuomo’s campaign manager in his first race for governor, the astute William Stern, has quit the Democratic Party and denounced the Republicans to join fulltime a new political formation called Change NY, consisting of free-enterprisers like Lew Lehrman, who was the Republican candidate against Cuomo in that original race.
While the chances of Mario emerging as the right-wing candidate for President are, of course, miniscule, as a Democratic candidate Cuomo would be light-years ahead of his colleagues in intelligence and wit. And though the chances of a northeastern ethnic governor actually winning the presidency are slight, I for one would go a long way to see the street-smart, fast-on-his-feet New Yorker in a TV debate with the blithering Poppy. In some things, at least. New York still shines.
Leave a Reply