LEONARD QUART: Taking solace in the daily
New York — Back from the Berkshires, and walking around my neighborhood and its environs. It’s a warm, clear day and though I can feel myself walking more haltingly than I did in years past, my capacity to observe life on the streets remains intact. I walk past St.Marks Place and I see many store vacancies (the norm in NYC) on a relatively sanitized once famously edgy and colorful street of shops. Some of the shops still do cheek piercing and tattoos and there are countless ethnic restaurants — Thai, Afghan, Chinese, Japanese etc. aimed at tourists and students — a few of them pretty decent places to eat.
A favorite of mine is Cafe Orlin on 41 St. Marks Place which features Middle Eastern food, has reasonably priced delicious breakfasts, and limited outdoor seating.
On the walk the homeless are ubiquitous: some sitting faces hidden, head down in wheelchairs; others sprawled in an alcoholic stupor on the sidewalk; and still others, numb to the world, reclining against building walls. A number of them I have seen before — red-faced men with mottled skin, cheap whisky bottle lined up nearby. These are men that for many years have somehow survived on the neighborhood streets, in all kinds of weather, as their bodies began to break down.
Later on, I walk by the construction site that surrounds Washington Square Park where streets are closed to traffic and new pipes are being inserted — an intrusive, never ending process. Afterwards, I stroll over to Lafayette Street that has seen a radical makeover in recent years from being slightly seedy to a street with many upscale restaurants and luxury buildings going up — changes that arouse ambivalent feelings in me. (Though I have to admit that my wife and I often have a latté and a croissant at the handsome, upscale Café Lafayette, since we are not immune to a place that offers understated stylishness and good food.) The wandering is as usual pleasurable, but the city l love is always a mixed bag of vibrancy, elegance, drama, cacophony, decay, and rampant inequality.
Still, my interest in the daily in a city that New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast writes as offering “so much material,” where my eyes are never at rest, allows me not to think about the public world. One that constantly brings headlines and news stories that overwhelm either in their horror or callous reactionary politics. Recently, the besieged President of an economically depressed Venezuela, the ineffectual Maduro, jailed two of his political opponents, as he moved closer to dictatorial rule. Earlier in July Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner, dissident and public intellectual Liu Xiaobo died in a hospital being guarded by state security. It’s one more striking example of strongman Xi and China’s suppression of any person who publicly questions government policy. XI presides over the world’s second-biggest economy, the second-best-funded military and the world’s largest population, and takes on more power daily.
Of course, the news that impinges on my life more directly comes from the sleazy swamp in the White House. Every day there is something odious that is said or proposed.
For example, the arch-reactionary Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department has moved away from monitoring voting rights, filed a brief arguing that federal law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and moved away from Obama and Holder’s more flexible policy on drug crimes. Sessions has promoted the old practice of pursuing the sternest possible charges and longest available sentences for all drug crime suspects without making a distinction between those dealing hard or soft drugs. Let them all rot in jail is the governing principle of this policy.
There also seems to be no point railing against the daily dose of lies and exaggerations from our Blusterer-in Chief, for his base cares little or nothing about his character. They like his rhetorically taking on the elites — even if his policies serve the moneyed. It’s enough that he gives them a dose of law and order, racism, nationalism, and especially entertainment — raw red meat for the masses.
But there is more to life than the larger public world, though I’m somebody who remains passionate about politics. But I find solace in my daily walks, the books that I read, the films and plays that I see, and especially the people that I talk to from my wife to close friends, to casual encounters.