Resilience In The Face Of ‘Terror’ Is Not Just For New Yorkers

Yesterday morning, an incompetent wanna-be suicide bomber almost blew himself up in an underground passageway connecting New York City’s Port Authority and Times Square subway stations.  His crude home-made pipe bomb did little damage; indeed, it failed to even kill the would-be kamikaze; it did, however, cause some understandable, instantaneous panic among the many commuters heading to work. Later, once police and explosives experts had cleared the scene, business returned to ‘normal’ and after the usual chatter online on their social media pages, New Yorkers went back to work. Or school, or home. They ate meals, talked to friends, picked up children from school.

In so doing, they did what the residents of any other city do these days when attacked by unknown assailants: they went back to doing what they do on a day like any other. They are, in this regard, not unique or particularly distinctive; they do what all humans do in the face of incipient trauma, seek a return to normalcy as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, this was occasion for more self-congratulatory noise about how New Yorkers, of all folks, are particularly unfazed by catastrophe. (Yes, this compliment is directed at me, and yes, I’m declining it.)

I have made note here on this blog, before, how we valorize these kinds of everyday responses when they are displayed by folks who are of some relevance or importance to us; we are far less inclined to make such attributions to distant folks. Those failures of attribution result in a failure of humanity; we fail to notice that carrying on in the face of disaster is what we humans do in order to survive and carry on; all human beings do this. There is nothing special about French, English, American resilience in the face of disaster; just like there is nothing special or particularly stoic about Asian or African equanimity in the face of massive political or ecological disruption. We should be sensitive to trauma induced by such catastrophes but we should not be surprised by the human capacity to recover, to endure, to even thrive and flourish. This capacity of ours is what makes us into survivors; it is how we are able to take on the good with the bad and live.

By persistently only paying attention to the resiliency of those like us, who look like us, who live near to us, we fail to establish a broader bond of empathetic experience and suffering; we fail to notice that we are united by how well we are all able to take on board that which the world puts on our plates. The misfortunes which presently serve as occasion for us to point how strong we are, how distinctive, how unique, should serve instead to make note of how, in our responses, we are like human beings everywhere, confronted with the basic facts of our existence: that life goes on, even as lives and worlds do not. It is a lesson every grieving person learns; it is one of the clearest reminders of our humanity.

A Simple, Memorable Act Of Kindness

In a pair of posts which cast a wistful glance back at my running days, I made note of a graduate school summer in which I brushed up against the edges of genteel poverty:

I had no financial aid from graduate school and no regular employment (I worked hourly as a waiter once in a while, getting called in by my boss when she needed me), and to make things worse, my girlfriend and I broke up halfway through the break. I was up the proverbial creek. [Original post here]

[W]ith my impecunious condition  making it ever harder to indulge in even the occasional beer or large meal, my running transformed me into a whippet-like creature, with sunken cheeks that enabled a resemblance to a prisoner of war at a not-particularly salubrious holding facility. [Original post here]

Those ‘sunken cheeks’ had come about because, as I note above, I just wasn’t eating or drinking too much; I couldn’t afford to. I went back to an old and dreaded routine: fueling myself on coffee during the mornings, and then buying 99-cent burritos at Taco Bell for lunch and cooking some rice and beans for dinner. (Another possibility was rice and beans at a Tex-Mex joint on 42nd Street.)

My dire financial straits were not known to all around me. My graduate school friends thought I was absent from parties and drinking dates because I was avoiding awkward social encounters with my girlfriend–partially true–and busy working on incomplete term papers–also partially true, even if a rather charitable description of the hours I spent in the computer labs staring idly at word processor screens. But I was also absent from life in the polis because I could not afford to be out and about. Hermithood was mine by choice and circumstance alike.

But my physical appearance, my relentless consumption of the endless refills of coffee at my favorite diner–the now-defunct Grace on 43rd Street,  and my persistent declining of other menu choices had not gone unnoticed by the waiter–‘Joe’–who was our regular server there. Joe was affable and gruff, with enough time for a sardonic quip or two as he hustled from one table to the other, running a tight ship for his boss through the busy breakfast and lunch times of the day. He saw me every day, and he was paying attention.

One afternoon, I finished my third or fourth cup of coffee, and prepared to head out to the lab for a couple of hours before heading out uptown for my waiting gig. (On the days I worked there, I was guaranteed a full meal at the end of the day.) As I picked up my backpack, Joe walked by and said, “Wait up.” I waited. Joe walked over to a basket full of leftover bagels with cream cheese, picked up one, walked over, tossed it on the table, and walked away. I picked it up, put it in my backpack and walked out. The boss was busy at the cash register, his eyes still facing down.

Joe and I never talked about that bagel. We didn’t need to. And I haven’t forgotten.

The Pleasures Of Providing Directions To The Lost

A short while ago, as I alighted at the New York City’s Herald Square subway station, I was approached by a Chinese gentleman seeking directions to Penn Station; he needed to catch a New Jersey Transit train to, well, New Jersey. I was already ‘late’ for my weekly Tuesday stint at the library, but I stopped and gave him explicit and detailed directions. He listened eagerly and attentively and then sallied forth; I slapped him on the back as he left, calling out ‘good luck’ as I did so. As I strode off to the library–where I am now writing this post–I had a smile on my face. The beneficiary of my directions had been bewildered and disoriented; now, hopefully, he wasn’t any more.

Once, some twenty years or so ago, while walking up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, I had spotted an elderly Sikh gentleman clutching at the hands of passersby, imploring them for something; I crossed the street, and heard him asking for directions in extremely broken English. I sidled up to him and spoke in Punjabi, “Sir, what are you looking for?” (Rather, I called him ‘padshah,’ a colloquial term that literally means ’emperor’ but doubles as a respectful term of address.) His expression changed dramatically from confusion to the broadest of smiles; he grasped my hand and squeezed it with some feeling. A minute or so later, I was heading off again, to the same library as I was headed to today, once again smiling from ear to ear.

There is something deeply satisfying about providing directions to the lost, to the bemused, to those cast adrift in strange environs. I have not yet descended into the realm of the symbolic or the metaphoric, and I don’t need to; getting lost, even if only temporarily, is a disconcerting experience. The fear of being so informs every step of mine in the great outdoors; it has prevented me, until this past summer, from ever going hiking solo. I can empathize effortlessly with the lost, with those temporarily ‘unsure of their position.’ I have ‘been there,’ I have ‘done that’; and I didn’t like it. (This act has special resonance for me in New York City, my first port of call in the US some thirty years ago; back then I was often too scared to ask for directions, intimidated by the city’s reputation and by the supposed dangers of being mistaken for a tourist.)

For that hopefully brief period of time when we are not sure which way to turn, we are overcome by a panoply of emotions, novel and archaic: frustration, irritation, impatience, anxiety, these all surge to the fore; we worry about missed appointments; we curse our inability to magically walk on the straight path home; men fret about whether their masculinity faces its most rigorous challenge yet; the GPS rises in our esteem as the greatest blessing of this technological age. To apply a healing balm to these myriad afflictions is Good Work; we should not shirk it.  And I don’t.

Peter Gay On Bourgeois Insecurities (And Mine)

In Pleasure Wars: The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, (WW Norton, New York, 1998) Peter Gay writes:

Only the most determined could gather up the leisure and the energy after a hard week’s toil, or for that matter the money, to haunt museums, or follow compositions in the concert hall with a score, let alone travel to improve their hazy acquaintance with what they had long prized from a distance. Their perpetual fear of social descent haunted them. Those who saved their meager assets for culture, then, were making a distinct choice of how they wanted to live, favoring beauty over beer, self-improvement over self-indulgence….To appreciate the finest in art and music is a trial for human nature; it calls for the hard work of breaking the cake of custom for the sake of discriminating pleasures running counter to the pressure for simplicity and mere relaxation in rare leisure hours.

Matters have changed little since the nineteenth century. I live in New York City, which is bursting to the seams with art, music of all stripes, opera, ballet, museums, theaters, live performances, film festivals, libraries, world-class universities–among many other sites of cultural production. And yet, thanks to my duties as a parent and a professor and the cost of living on some of the world’s most expensive real estate, I find myself, at most times, unable and unwilling to sample the pleasures of this gigantic smorgasbord of cultural offerings. Of course, I flirt with philistinism in not particularly caring for ballet, opera, or long days in museums, but you catch my drift.

Instead, on most occasions, I have to console myself that reading a book on the subway, reading an essay or two from the New York Review of Books at night in bed, or watching the products of this New Golden Age of Television i.e., an episode of a television series, is all the immersion in culture that I’m going to get. When the stars align, I watch a movie–or two!–on the weekends. At home.

The fear of “social descent” or worse, ‘intellectual’ or ‘cultural’ descent stalks me too: Surely, I should do more to pursue my cultural edification and be capable of the hard yards required to edge myself up the totem pole of “discriminating pleasure”? (Just to prove, you know, that I’m not an impostor?) That old clash between the willing spirit and the enervated flesh gets in the way: the choice of watching avant-garde cinema or a Netflix original series late at night, after my wife and I have put our daughter to bed, is rather easily settled in favor of the latter; the cost of theater tickets quickly stay the hand reaching for a wallet when thoughts of daycare expenses cross my mind.

Ironically, as a graduate student, I worked harder to ‘consume’ culture. I often  disdained ‘narrative cinema’; I worked harder to find discounts in this rapacious city; I more often preferred “self-improvement over self-indulgence.” Perhaps I was more uncomfortable in my skin then; perhaps, now, more familiar with myself, I’m content to be pushed in directions that do not call for such heroic effort.

Dawn Powell on ‘Writers of Consequence’

Dawn Powell‘s A Time To Be Born is chock-a-block with wonderfully acerbic observations: on life, love, politics–you know, the usual stuff–but for my money, most memorably, in these brief passages, on journalism, writers, and writing itself:

Every morning Miss Bemel turned in a complete digest of the dinner conversations or chance comments of important officials who had visited the house. Miss Bemel had all these words down in shorthand in her unseen chamber outside the dining or from invisible vantage grounds elsewhere in the house, and these were then checked with other information, and eventually woven into the printed words as the brilliant findings of Amanda Keeler Evans. Miss Bemel saw nothing the matter with this arrangement, since her own rise to power accompanied her mistress’ ascension.

To tell the truth, Amanda would have been genuinely surprised to learn that any writer of consequence had any other method of creation. There were a number of minor scribes on liberal weeklies who were unable to afford a secretary, that she knew, but she had no idea that his was anything more than the necessary handicap of poverty. The tragedy of the attic poets, Keats, Shelly, Burns, was not that they died young but that they were obliged to by poverty to do all their own writing. Amanda was reasonably confident that in a day of stress she would be quite able to do her own writing, but until that day she saw no need, and in fact should a day of stress arrive she would not be stupid enough to keep to a writing career at all, but would set about finding some more convenient means of getting money.

Even if the public had discovered, through malicious enemies, that Amanda’s first knowledge of what she thought about Britain’s labor problem, Spanish Rehabilitation, South American Co-optation, America First, War with the Far East. was the moment she read Miss Bemel’s “report” above her own signature, no one would have thought the less of her intelligence, for the system was blessed pragmatic success. The most successful playwrights, the most powerful columnists, the most popular magazine writers, seldom had any idea of how to throw a paragraph together, let alone a story, and hired various little unknown scribblers to attend to the “technical details.” The technical details usually consisted of providing characters, dialogue and construction, if the plot was outlined for them, as well as the labor of writing. Sometimes the plot itself was assembled by this technical staff, for individuals were far too busy in this day and age to waste time on the petty groundwork of a work of genius; it was enough that they signed their full name on to it and discharged the social obligation attendant upon its success. The public, querulous as it was with the impractical gyrations of the unknown artist, made up for this, by being magnanimously understanding of the problems of the successful man, so it all evened up in the long run. Amanda was just as entitled to her “genius” as any of the other boys on Broadway or in the public prints.