NEW YORK ON MY MIND:
GOOD MEMORIES OF THE BIG APPLE
Roland G. Simbulan
Note: This nostalgic essay is dedicated to all the victims of Sept. 11, 2001 in the hope that their memory and spirit will not be further used to victimize other peoples and nations in the furtherance of superprofits for BIG BUSINESS of oil and weapons.
Roland G. Simbulan
For three memorable years (1979-1981), I was a resident of Manhattan, New York City when I was finishing my graduate studies. I stayed with an aunt in that part of Manhattan called the “Lower East Side”, at 93 St. Mark’s Place, between First and Second Avenues. My aunt then was the Director of a day care nursery called The Little Missionary’s Day Care Center.
New York City is not just a city that is considered the world’s center of finance and banking, culture, arts, entertainment, fashion, advertising, public relations and international diplomacy. New York City is a way of life, a multi-cultural melting pot of all the world’s nationalities that has evolved a life of its own.
In fact, most of the earlier generations of American immigrant populations from Europe entered the United States through the New York entry point, with the Statue of Liberty welcoming them at the entrance of this great multi-national country. Today, it is estimated that 40 percent of New York’s population are immigrants, with almost one million of its eight million population reported as ilegal aliens (or ‘tago ng tago’ -TNT). This is why almost everybody in the world — even those who have disagreed with and opposed the unilateral and interventionist policies of the United States abroad — feel they have lost a family member in the Sept. 11, 2001 New York City-World Trade Center attacks. For it is in fact the world’s metropolis, a “view of the world”.
A corner from where I lived, there was fruit stall in the corner of First Avenue and St. Mark’s owned by a Korean, the restaurant nearby is Polish, the newspaper stall proprietor is from Lebanon, and the diner not far away is Greek. Not to mention the Italian running the pizza parlor where I used to pick up a slice of pizza for my late dinner after spending several hours at night at the NYU library. And , if you were to just sit in the bench at Washington Square Park, you’d easily count people from around 20 or so nationalities pass by in just one hour.
I lived in that part of this captivating city which was a part of the city’s Polish and Ukrainian communities, where you can meet Polish or Ukrainian elders who cannot speak English though they have lived in New York for more than 20-30 years. My friends of various nationalities at the Lower East Side near Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park are writers, painters, poets and professionals. It is a fast-paced city with vertical development, where things get going, yet, it is a dynamic one where the people can reflect and have even invented their own vocabulary. New Yorker friends in my neighborhood who couldn’t remember or pronounce my surname right began calling me “Mr. S”. Cool name, huh?
Two of my favorite hang-outs were the New York Public Library, the pubs and bookstores at the Lower East Side and the Washington Square Park. Another was the rooftop of a four-storey building where I stayed, and where I used to enjoy the Manhattan skyline while reading, or writing while at the background every five minutes was the never-ending scream of sirens of ambulances and fire-trucks, a common New York City repertoire.
Another place in New York City where I used to hang out was in the sprawling Central Park for which I had to take the uptown subway, but when I felt lazy, I settled for Tompkin’s Square Park, just less than a block away from where I lived, where I read on a bench, did my jogging, played tennis with “the wall”, or plainly observed people. There was a Philippine store not far from my area, and much later a Philippine restaurant was opened near the same block.
New York City’s dirty and smelly streets, alleys and sidewalks used to be avoided especially during the term of Mayor Edward Koch, for I never knew what this mayor ever accomplished when I was there at least. Today, the classy and sassy restaurants have even occupied what used to be sidewalks before –dangerously unthinkable during Koch’s term.
Subways too, which had to be avoided after 9PM because of the dangers of mugging by teenage gangs preying on tourists and elders, are now safer since Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, who has also been accused for his high-handed methods, assumed the leadership of the City. I remeber that when I took the downtown subway train after 9pm in the early 80s, or came home very late at night, I used to bring with me a baseball bat made of steel that I had bought at a thrift shop. Just in case.
New Yorkers have the feeling and actually believe that they are literally “on top of the world”, that they have made it, because they are in the best and “coolest” city of the world. From the bohemians of St. Mark’s Place at the Lower East Side, extending westward to 8th Street , the hip New Yorkers who regularly attend wild parties, to the Wall Street employees in their business suits and trench coats, New York City is a vibrant urban niche and jungle. It is where everyone, even the poorly-dressed, wierdly dressed, and barely dressed, seem to make a fashion statement. Even New York’s taxicab drivers who have the reputation of being reckless drivers second to none except the Boston taxidrivers, can always assure you that they can get you to your destination on time no matter what, even if these drivers are Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Eastern Europeans, Polish, etc. who can hardly speak or understand English.
Since I have moved back to our Philippine homeland, or homefront in the early 80s, I have always made sure to visit New York City again and again during my several visits to the United States in the 80s and 90s. Through these years, I have seen its transformation in many ways, yet in many ways, its “New York Spirit” remains the same.
This city has had a strong political influence on me because it was a recluse or even then a refuge for intellectuals at the New School for Social Research, and political exiles from South Africa, East Timor, Puerto Rico, Kampuchea, Thailand, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc..I do not remember how many fora I attended in New York that were organized by solidarity and support groups of liberation movements. It is here where I met and had countless cups of coffee with Mr.Horta, then the international representative of the FRETILIN which was then struggling against the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.Mr. Horta, who is now President of the independent East Timor after having served as foreign minister, was then based in New York City as part of FRETILIN’s diplomatic work. I also had lots of conversations with exiles from Thailand, which experienced a military coup in the mid-70s and crackdown on democratic movements. New York City has lured the intellectuals of the world, the most brilliant writers, playwrights, and yes, the avant garde artists and film makers. Bookstores here selling first editions as well as second hand books offered a goldmine for the political animal in me.
New York City landmarks like the former Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Empire State Building, the highest elevated structures in the United States, even seem to have a life of their own. So does the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift of the people of France to the people of the United States. All these monumental landmarks make New York’s skyline and skyscrapers a favorite for postcards. Its subways used to be the craziest in the world, with no space on the train spared from multi-colored graffiti, though now the subway trains have all become clean and paint-proof.
New York City seemed to have died and reborn on that fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001. Its unmistakable landscape and skyline will never be the same without the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but which I am sure will soon be rebuilt in other form. New York City is not New York City without them. But its resilience, spirit and people will make sure that the New York City that I knew as one of the best cities in the world will never give up.
If only the countries of the world with their cultural, political, economic and religious diversity, could co-exist and live side by side with each other like the diverse foreign communities in New York City, then our planet would be a better place to live in.
This good memory is my tribute to the people of this great city.
September 15, 2007
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in Sept 18th 2007