The City Always Speaks: London, New York, San Francisco

David Lazar

 But sidewalks and those who use them are not passive beneficiaries of safety or helpless victims of danger. Sidewalks, their bordering uses, and their users, are active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism in cities…. The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers…. To be sure, there are people with hobgoblins in their heads, and such people will never feel safe no matter what the objective circumstances are…there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space…there must be eyes upon the street….
                     —Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

       Despite all my desires for it not to, violence has defined what I have known about where I have been.
       In London fifteen years ago, a friend and I were on our way back to the Indian hotel we were camped in a few blocks from Victoria Station. The pervasive smell of Indian cooking, so delightful for chosen repasts, was dizzyingly exotic. We both had hot swirling dreams; we woke into curried sweats. Consequently, we spent little time in our little room.
       It was Saturday night. A few streets past the station was one of those zoning quirks, urban way stations, close in fact to a weigh station: docks of lorries loading and unloading crates of what used to be called, generically, goods. We saw a young man and woman arguing violently. A few of the men who had been loading, unloading, decided to watch as well. We were united by voyeurism with a dash of concern for the girl's safety. The young man kept trying to pull the girl with him, but each time she resisted furiously and smacked him in the head, punched him in the chest. Our sympathies became confused (the city scene as B-movie: whom does one root for?), but we were afraid that the young man, who began bloodying himself by hitting his head on a brick wall after every episode of the girl's vehement resistance, was going to erupt at some point. Sure enough, he reached his limit of inspired self-abuse, and started pummelling the girl, belting her furiously in the stomach, the way come-from-behind boxers do in old movies. The girl screamed, which seemed to amuse the lorrymen, but responding to our own ingrained siren sound, we raced over to the two. I pulled the boy off, and my larger and more physically capable friend gripped him in a paralyzing upper body lock.
       The young man attempted to struggle, desultorily, for a minute or two, out of fear. To him our intervention must have felt at first like a random assault. He may have seen red, his blood on our clothes as confusing to him, no doubt, as it was casually disgusting to us. 
       He pitched into a drunken epiphany, thanking us profusely for stepping in, imploring us to come and drink with him, “on me, on me, all on me.”  The girl, who had scattered, returned, almost sauntering back into the picture. We asked her to go home. She walked to the end of the street and waited. We released the boy, since our detention had reached a kind of silly standstill. He joined the girl; they turned the corner.
       Our adrenaline was still racing, and we walked back to the hotel with a strange sense of elation, as though delighting both in the efficacy of our involvement and its parodic denouement. What had begun as voyeurism, the prerogative of travelers, ended up as our most engaged moment of the week. Home or abroad, perhaps that is what the flaneur is seeking: an excuse to interact with the city, the desire for impulse covered by the necessity of compulsion. 

       London, 1985

       “Bitch, bitch!”  A boy, about seven, wearing a white fisherman's sweater, backing away from his mother or nanny, but pushing into the words as he speaks them. Moving into and away from the words simultaneously. She implores Gerald to “come here now and be good.”  The part of Gerald moving backwards into the world wants to be good, but Gerald has discovered the power of language. He sees through his companion's falsely cool and reasonable demeanor, into the heart that wants to shake the boy, to pulverize him into civility. His vulnerability keeps him poised in the rhythmic balance, backwards and forwards. The pose of her poise terrifies him. The street is in Hampstead, upscale. This scene is not an unusual affair, apparently, to the shoppers. Most confirm their discomfort, however, by their tactful refusal to acknowledge the confrontation. But Gerald is a little anarchist, terrorist; he wants to tear the street apart, scream the world into submission. “Bitch, bitch!”  Gerald is using up her patience, and his power, since he has no other shocking words, no reserves. Nevertheless, I am as surprised as Gerald when she strides forward and strikes him across the face, and I remain surprised, frozen into a tactless stare, that Gerald does not crumple and crumble quite as fast as a small boy might, with his small power deprived. 
       I think to myself, I would have sworn it hurt like a bitch. The ironies language  leads us to are inevitable, but unavailable to Gerald. When a large hand and a small word duke it out, hand wins hands down. I blink, and he is being led away. In the late afternoons in cities, the captive and the captured are joined in their capitulations to form. 

       London, 1988
       Overheard on the Northern Line:

       She: “What are you thinking about?” 
       He: “I was wondering what you were thinking about.” 
       She: “Me too.” 

       Understood by the eavesdropper: The couple is on a cusp, being prodded to jump onto the tracks of meta-love by the little amorvore on their shoulders, the grim reaper who tells them their emerging self-consciousness is charming, and knows to boot that no one will risk saying what's really on his or her mind. The safest response can lead to romantic carnage.

       Twice in San Francisco, the city seemed to be acting out its own supernaturally urban id. I was living in Palo Alto twenty years ago. My girlfriend suggested we drive up to the city to see a newly released 3-D version of Dial M For Murder. I felt like saying we'd never make it to New York by evening.
       The theater, since closed, was in the Mission District. It was one of those enormous old caves, its splendor removed gradually over the years in the conversion to hollow hall. We parked about a block away. It was strange enough to sit among perhaps five hundred people wearing 3-D glasses, but about halfway through the film (I like to think during a close-up of Ray Milland) the theater started swaying. We all knew what that meant. There was some nervous mumbling in response, but no one left; the crowd responded abashedly to two or three snarling imprecations for quiet. True Californian film buffs, I thought: the earth moved, but no one else did. The show went on.
       Afterwards, we emerged to find that my car had been robbed: front windows broken, radio ripped out. A ghastly assortment of wires protruded from the dash, making it look like those movie images of bodies with their heads ripped off. But when I saw the broken window from a distance, my first irrational response was that the earthquake had done it. And when I saw the wires, for a brief instant, I wondered how the shifting plates of the earth had carried off my radio. The revenge of Orpheus? We drove down the peninsula in silence, Hefty bags taped around the windows, smoke from the recesses of the smashed center dash blowing in our faces. The next day, my mechanic informed me that the passenger window had been merely rolled down. 
       Years later, in a chance re-encounter, I ran into my ex-companion  in New York. She confided in me, that, contrary to my movement from the irrational to the quotidian truth, she had eventually come to believe that the earthquake had in fact vandalized the car, ended our relationship, and worsened her eyesight significantly. She had the laugh of someone who has had too much therapy, and needs much more. I had the ironic smirk of same. We both confessed our love for cities and parted casually, as though still in the grip of some unsettlingly unmotivated power.

      Some months later, I was in San Francisco's Chinatown when a car full of young Chinese men tried to cut me off from the parking lane. I exercised the rightness of my way and speeded up, effectively cutting them off. I have come to realize that this was a specific mistake, a poorly chosen moment for pedagogical driving. The driver caught up with me and spun his car around, blocking my way. Before I could put my car into the phantom sixth gear, flee, he was out and approaching my car, followed by three or four other young men, spitting on my hood and kicking my door, trying vainly to pry me out. I was struck by the gesture of spitting at a car; one forgets how personalized they are to some. However, my response was not Sicilian umbrage at this honor-challenging defacement, but horror at the look of faces spitting out curses, the silent and cinematic grotesqueness of those raging contortions which are the product of casual near-accidents. I veered and spun my way out of there somehow, dodging down some sidestreets for the sake of safe passage and to satisfy an old demand that the object of flight circumnavigate. My door was dented in twenty places; my car was not pretty. But it is the quiet violence of those faces I remember most, the snarling impotence of a life of scores to settle.

       In the winter of 1971, my brother and I went to see James Taylor at Madison Square Garden, our home away from home thanks to years of Knicks home games. Winter always seemed safer in the city, fewer people on the street. Summer was hassle-time. We were in the mall of the Garden, perhaps fifty feet from the entrance, but had gotten separated by the mob, the crowd I suppose one should say these days. The mafia had no controlling interest in folk music of the time, as far as I know. Two teenagers, one much smaller than I, sandwiched me. The smaller one matter of factly told me to give him a dollar. He didn't beseech or demand. He was giving me a simple, calm command. Unfortunately, after a childhood of endless payoffs to a variety of child-thugs, I had reached an age or stage where I would not give money readily to anyone more than three inches shorter than I. I figured the situation favored a refusal. After all, we were in the mall, the foyer of our second home. I said no, almost as matter-of-factly as the demand had been made, though with a slight intonation which implied a note of irony, a kind of noblesse oblige which suggested “Little fellow, I find the tenor of your request ill-advised and positively unseasonable.”  I turned and the short guy rabbit-punched me so hard that I was actually out for a few seconds, the only time in my life when I've had the actual Bogey “what hit me”  experience, which is, I suppose, a form of violent anesthesia. I found myself on the floor, my brother hovering over with the automatic smile we both assume for serious trouble or pain. My head throbbed, my eye was swollen and cut on the side. My assailant had been wearing a ring. I sat through the opening act with an ice pack on my eye. Shortly after Taylor came on, I started having muscle spasms in my thigh. I remember little of the concert except for my unwavering determination to enjoy myself, and, going back to Brooklyn, the survivor's sense of painful empowerment—the testament of war wounds—which alternated with a sense of extreme stupidity, having gotten too much for my money.


       Five years later, I was again on my way to the Garden, to meet my parents for a Knicks game. I was in a corner seat on the D train, my line, just shy of Prospect Park. Five teenagers came through from the other car, scoped out my quarter-filled car, and gathered around me, one taking the seat to my right. One kid asked for the time; it was 5:20. I knew I was going to miss my watch, but a graduate student from Columbia had been stabbed to death on the D train the week before, and I was hoping I could lose my timepiece and save my time life. My seat neighbor asked for watch and wallet. I surprised myself by asking for the wallet back, sans bucks. Struck by the novelty of the idea, they obliged. But what followed has always stayed with me most. At Prospect Park, one of the gang held the door open while the others insisted on shaking my hand. 
       I instantly despised the pusillanimity of the man and woman who solicited my well-being once the doors were closed. I think I actually felt friendlier to my five white-collar wannabe robbers. I informed the conductor and met the police at the next stop. My one experience with mug shots was to end lugubriously when I went to the police station and identified one young man who it turned out had been living on Riker's Island for four years. My mugger-associates, alas, went scot-free with my petty, petty cash. The police looked disgusted with me. 
       This memory has always been filled with ambivalence. I suppose one could theorize that the hand-shakes were meant as a form of additional humiliation, rubbing salt in the wound in my pocket. But it didn't quite feel that way. It felt more like the closing of a business meeting, neither unfriendly nor particularly amiable. The sense was of a bureaucratic commitment to form. On the one hand, I appreciate the straightforwardness of their technique—very clean—and the strangeness of their gesture has amused me to some extent. On the other hand, it smacked of a kind of professionalism that detracted from the verve they may have been seeking. I'm not trying to glibly advocate a higher aesthetic of robber-brio, but there was something depressingly enigmatic about the intention of their long goodbye: the banality of decorous subway robbery?
       On the train, however, it became my mission to meet my parents on time. I even saluted them with “I hope I'm not late”—I was not—”but I was mugged by the Not-So-Merry-Men on the subway.” My high-spirited affectation of nonchalance did not amuse. At the time, I clearly had problems bonding with social subgroups intent on victimizing, delayed intervening, crime solving, and waiting. All of which seems to have been rectified since I took to watching basketball on TV.
       I was gifted with a new watch soon after, but still shudder slightly when the occasional stranger asks for the time. I'm somewhat less reluctant to let it go.