EPISODE SIX: GOOD BLOCKS, BAD BLOCKS
The fashionable people in New York are like the tide, and when they go out for the summer, you get to see the bottom of your neighbourhood. As a native New Yorker who is raising a native New Yorker, I view the tide shift as an opportunity to teach my son about good blocks and bad blocks. Thanks to the advent of political correctness, passing down some of my urban survival skills is proving more complicated than it was for my parents.
At age six, my son Nicholas has spent most of his life living in Lenox Hill, a neighbourhood on the Upper East Side where litter and crime are Brazilian-waxed into oblivion. A few months ago, in need of more space, we moved to the northern extreme of the Upper East Side. We now live a block from Harlem - on a block where trophy wives ferrying their tow-headed progeny to the country house remove a Van Cleef-bejewelled finger from the wheel of their Range Rovers to flick the car locks shut.
Since our arrival here in the spring, my son and I have covered some basics. At night, we walk down blocks where doormen keep watch rather than those with tenements whose stairwells could be hiding places for trolls. We circumvent the local housing project on our way to the garage where we park our car. But even that move makes me feel guilty because it implies that people who live in projects are somehow less law-abiding than those of us who don't.
Learning how to read and safely navigate a neighbourhood was simpler when I was growing up in the 1970s. The city was filthy, crime-riddled, drug-addled. So as a kid, I was always playing defence. Treat yourself to a double feature of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three* to see what the subway looked liked circa 1974 and The Panic in Needle Park for a glimpse of my childhood neighbourhood. Parents didn't have to mince words back then. The homeless were "bums", "crazies" or "winos" depending upon whether the man raving on your street corner chose not to work, was mentally ill or had a substance abuse problem.
I was mugged three times by the age of ten. On one occasion after three teenagers beat up my friend and me, and then relieved us of our skateboards, we ran to visit the best artist in our fourth grade class. When we arrived at his apartment, he assumed we wanted him to draw a naked woman for us - again. Instead we had him render police sketches of the suspects, went to the local precinct house and demanded justice. The police officers kindly took the report along with our stick-figure drawings. We are still waiting for the return of those boards.
The disparity between how I learnt about good blocks and bad blocks and how I'm trying to teach my son came into sharp relief the other day. We were running errands when Nicholas grabbed my hand. I could see what prompted his anxiety - our resident panhandler. Instinctively, he wanted to cross the street and avoid him, but here was a topic we needed to face.
This bear-like homeless man has been working the same stretch of Madison Avenue for years. Depending upon the angle of the sun and where most of the foot traffic is, he shuttles between the Bank of America and the Citibank cash machine across the street. Without the usual herd of mums shrink-wrapped in Lululemon to hide behind, a conversation I'd been putting off was now staring us in the face and whining, "Spare some change? Excuse me, sir, could you spare some change?"
"Why is that man always asking people for money?" Nicholas whispered to me. My first reaction was to be glib and explain that the homeless guy represented a tollbooth - just like the one we pass through when we cross the Triboro Bridge. Then it dawned on me that my response would shape his views about charity and personal responsibility. Did I want to raise a liberal or a conservative? Barry Obama or Ronnie Reagan? Was the homeless man responsible for his ending up on the streets or was he a pawn of fate?
"That man is homeless," I began. "Not everyone is as lucky as we are. Maybe he got hit in the head and got sick? Maybe he lost all his money, and he doesn't have a mummy and daddy anymore? You can only judge a society by how it treats its weakest members..." At that point I told myself to shut up because I was sounding like a twit.
"But Mummy and you work for your money. Why should we give him our money?" My son is a very sweet-natured boy, so this blast of Malthusian capitalism threw me. I'm not some bleeding-heart liberal. If we had been staring at some able-bodied hipster who thought it was cool to panhandle while waiting for his OxyContin-fuelled mope rock to find a music label, I would have had no trouble telling the bum, "Get a job!"
In the presence of the mentally ill, though, empathy seemed the only tact. "Do you know he has to sleep on the street, and the only way he can get something to eat is by asking people to help him? He doesn't get to eat whenever he's hungry like you. He doesn't have a bathroom, a shower to get clean in. Do you think it is OK if we give him a dollar?"
"Yes," Nicholas said, but once we were out of earshot, he wanted to share some of his new-found wisdom with me.
"Dad, I think I know why that man is homeless"
"Because I saw him smoking a cigar outside the pizza place last week. If you smoke a cigar, you end up homeless." This was not the lesson I wanted to impart, but our quest to master the complexities of city life remains a work in progress.
*The original with Mr Robert Shaw vs Mr Walter Matthau; not the remake with Mr John Travolta and Mr Denzel Washington.
To read Mr Brodie's previous columns, click here