Mov­ing On Down

Forward Magazine - - News - CAROL BERGMAN

When home is the only place you can still af­ford.

The weather is warm the day we ar­rive. As a child, I would never have been in the city on this day. Like other priv­i­leged city chil­dren, I would have been evac­u­ated to the coun­try, away from the pol­luted air, the city pools and the open fire hy­drants. I would never have been per­mit­ted to walk bare­foot on steamy side­walks, or to ex­pe­ri­ence the gush of water from the hy­drants, or sleep on a fire es­cape. The build­ing where I lived as a child did not have fire escapes; it had mar­ble floors, in­ter­nal stair­cases and high ceil­ings.

Af­ter La­bor Day we were back at school; the hy­drants, pools and win­dows were closed, the sprin­klers and foun­tains in the parks shut down. Per­haps we would have an In­dian sum­mer, but it would be brief. The warm weather would not linger into au­tumn, as it does today.

This has not been a vol­un­tary re-en­try to my child­hood neigh­bor­hood. I had al­ways as­sumed, as had my refugee par­ents, that my life would be more se­cure than theirs: good school­ing, pro­fes­sional sta­tus, no per­se­cu­tion or war. But a re­ces­sion, two job losses and ill­ness led us to this 1917 co-op, a block away from 895 West End Av­enue, on the Up­per West Side, where I lived with my fam­ily un­til I was 12.

We lived on the ground floor. One room was the wait­ing room, another my mother’s of­fice. I shared the third room with my sis­ter. The rest of the apart­ment was in the back and faced the al­ley. We had a suc­ces­sion of maids, mostly from the Caribbean. Some were kind, oth­ers too heart-struck at the loss of their own chil­dren, left be­hind with grand­par­ents, to be kind. I told my mother I could take care of my sis­ter and my­self, but she was a physi­cian, de­liv­er­ing ba­bies at all hours. My step­fa­ther was es­tab­lish­ing a new busi­ness, and I was only a child.

It is cu­ri­ous to be back in the neigh­bor­hood. The Puerto Ri­can mi­gra­tion be­gan in the mid 1950s. My par­ents were al­ready cit­i­zens, and had strong opin­ions about the newer ar­rivals. They didn’t bother to learn English, they said. Their food smelled. But I had never been afraid on th­ese streets, and it was not clear to me why they had sud­denly be­come un­safe or why we had to move to the East Side. Now th­ese brown­stones

been re­turned to the gen­try, and the de­scen­dants of the Puerto Ri­can fam­i­lies have been trans­planted into the projects on Am­s­ter­dam Av­enue. The more af­flu­ent have es­caped to sin­gle-fam­ily homes in Queens, Staten Is­land or Westch­ester. What re­mains is a neigh­bor­hood, again in tran­si­tion, as real es­tate agents say.

When I left the city to go to col­lege, I did not think I would ever live in Man­hat­tan again. My par­ents were forced out of their homes in Europe at gun­point. I have never seen the point of a gun, and had never even been a vic­tim of a forced eco­nomic mi­gra­tion. Un­til now.

I walk along Am­s­ter­dam Av­enue op­po­site the projects, a pocket of Latino cul­ture with its vi­brant hair sa­lons and bar­ber shops, fish stores, thrift shops and churches.

I can­not lo­cate the source of my anx­i­ety, though I know it re­sides in my fam­ily of ori­gin, who fled a geno­cide, and then in my child­hood at 895 West End Av­enue. My par­ents were cul­ti­vated, ed­u­cated and, even­tu­ally, pros­per­ous. In the cur­rent down­fall of the Amer­i­can dream, of as­pi­ra­tions dashed, of sav­ings plun­dered by medicine and health care, their legacy has evap­o­rated. I can­not af­ford what my par­ents en­joyed reguhave larly: the­ater, opera, con­certs, fine din­ing. They would be dis­mayed to learn that all th­ese plea­sures are now out of reach for so many, in­clud­ing their daugh­ter.

I avoid long con­ver­sa­tions with my new owner-neigh­bors. I tell my hus­band, with an un­fa­mil­iar envy, that th­ese new neigh­bors have an in­vest­ment in the build­ing whereas we are renters on a short lease: no­mads, mi­grants, refugees, the in­ter­nally dis­placed, pass­ing through.

I have put up some pic­tures and made the small, bright apart­ment liv­able, but I have left sev­eral boxes in the clos­ets. I con­tinue to cull books, clothes and any house­hold items I de­cide we will never use again. I have asked our daugh­ter and son-in-law to store a bed, a gran­ite table­top, some boxes. My hus­band’s col­lec­tion of old mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers, care­fully sealed in My­lar, has trav­eled with us. It would be up­set­ting to sell them off, and I would never sug­gest it.

New York is a city of stag­ger­ing abun­dance, of restau­rants where wait­ers re­cite in­com­pre­hen­si­ble menus in­volv­ing long lists of food that ar­rive on over­sized plates, of taxis cruis­ing for cus­tomers, of shops that glit­ter and beckon. Is this lux­ury or deca­dence, I ask my­self now that I can no longer par­take of th­ese lux­u­ries.

We pur­chase Net­flix. For less than $10 a months we can watch movies all day and all night and never have to go out again. We in­vite friends to share meals, two at a time be­cause we have only four chairs and a very small kitchen. We open a bot­tle of wine. We cel­e­brate. But our friends of­ten go with­out us to the fancy restau­rants we used to fre­quent to­gether.

The apart­ment is high up, an aerie, and I watch the sun rise and set ev­ery day. In­stead of 10 plants we have three, all of them do­ing well in the bright apart­ment. Life is sim­pler, un­in­flected, its joys oddly more ac­ces­si­ble. The Bud­dhists are cor­rect, I de­cide. When at­tach­ment ceases, when we no longer strive for ma­te­rial ac­qui­si­tion, we have ar­rived, we are home.

My par­ents were cul­ti­vated, ed­u­cated and, even­tu­ally, pros­per­ous. They would be dis­mayed to learn that all their plea­sures are now out of reach for their daugh­ter.

NIKKI CASEY

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