New York Avenues
Disparity & Dates in the City of Lights
The first weekend I arrive in New York, I look down the avenues and feel a thrill at their endless stretch to the horizon.
All the songs of opportunity seem true that autumn, the air starting to cool. I take the R train to Brooklyn and after a few stops, an old man gets on and clears his throat. “Excuse me. My name is Bob,” he says to the carriage, eyes glazed, and launches into a slurred soliloquy about his need for money. It feels shocking he’s reduced to this, forced to declare misfortune so publicly.
I soon realize these pleas are common. Some almost feel like performance art, a twisted manifestation of New York’s hyper individualism, where even the homeless feel compelled to distinguish themselves from the masses: “This is my story, and why you should empathize with me.” My American friend Kevin claims he can the read nuance of their voices to tell which beggars are truly desperate. Sometimes he gives a dollar accordingly.
Nearly two years later, when the chairman of an investment bank asks what about America has made the greatest impression, I tell him, “The class disparity. The poverty.” He nods silently and a partner from my firm moves the conversation on — “That man just stepped out of his Park Avenue apartment,” she says later. “I didn’t know we hired a socialist.”
I rarely thought about poverty before moving to the States. It was as if some dormant conscience was nourished by New York, with its suggestion to accept massive disparity as normal. I’d moved quickly from Sydney for a job I’d been offered on holiday, and could count people I knew on one hand.
That first weekend, I take the train to Brooklyn for the promise of a home-cooked meal from a stranger in a bar. Alex lives in Bay Ridge and never quite achieves eye-contact in conversation. He has a gruff voice, a very clean apartment, and is stirring gravy when I arrive. I take off my shoes and mention the beggar on the train. He sniffs. “Welfare doesn’t work. Giving people money for nothing.”
“Well, you can’t just let people starve,” I reply. Alex rolls his eyes. “Funny, that so many poor people have iPhones,” he says, conversing to the left of my face. “Food stamps and benefits should be taken away.” He pours a glass of wine and hands it to me. “America has excellent news analysis you should watch,” he continues, “It’s called FOX.”
“Oh god, you’re Republican?”
“I am,” he says eyeing me. “Republicans have more testosterone you know. Tofu-eating Democrats have small dicks. Anyway, didn’t you see my bookshelf?” I walk over and look at the cluster of titles.
“Who is Ayn Rand?”
“You should read her,” he says. “Very good stuff.”
Australians are all over New York like subway rats. Many are unsettled by the poverty but those who’ve been here longer reassure new arrivals. “You get used to it,” they say, as if it is a good thing. I run down orange-lit streets at night, infatuated by the beauty of brownstones, literary culture, a fresh backdrop for life. Other nights I walk through the quiet wealth of the Upper East Side and once, past 740 Park Avenue, home to America’s highest concentration of billionaires. It’s a high-rise art deco building, nondescript among others nearby. A former doorman is interviewed and says resident oil baron David Koch, worth $36 billion, never tips and gives a $50 cheque at Christmas time.
Poverty is still an issue in Australia, but upward mobility is easier: the minimum wage is $17.29 an hour, healthcare is mostly covered by government, university is not a crushing financial burden. An egalitarian culture means ostentatious wealth is viewed with slight suspicion.
Denmark had also left an impression. As a teenager, I’d lived for a year with a family that kept a statue of Lenin, crucifix-like on the mantle. My host mother was a nurse, both children aspired to be social workers and their father helped the unemployed. He took groups of them to museums or shows and when I questioned the cost, he glared. “Don’t you think they feel bad enough already? It helps them forget. Everyone wants to work.”
Winter in New York, and the polar vortex hits. The homeless lie prone on sidewalks in thin sleeping bags or covered by cardboard. Many are mentally unstable and I hear their rants as rage against a society that has forgotten them. About half of New Yorkers live near or below the poverty line: $23,000 for a family of four.
I work on Wall Street during the day, jostling through businessmen with giant golf umbrellas when it rains. The stock exchange is imposing but the financial district otherwise soulless, and I visit the NYSE each afternoon to report on market movements. Men mill around the floor in blue vests, many commuting from large homes in Connecticut.
I go on a date with a trader and ask his opinion on a minimum wage rise. “Well, then you’d have to raise everyone’s wage,” he says. “Or it’s not fair. I mean, why shouldn’t I get a mandated wage rise?”
Living in America exposes its myth of meritocracy. If you’re born poor, the minimum wage isn’t enough to save, healthcare access is difficult, higher education largely out of reach. I do a few mock interviews with job seekers and give up. Their skills are meagre or outdated. There’s a man who can barely string his thoughts together, a woman high on substance. Nothing I say can coach these people out of their complex problems, and this city exposes the limits of my so-called empathy.
I take a literary tour of Greenwich Village and meet a doctor who drives me home, the grit and ice outside. A few weeks later he asks me to his apartment and gives complex directions to circumvent the Upper West Side housing projects. I get lost and walk through them anyway.
When I arrive, he opens the door and gestures to the large space overlooking Central Park. “What do you think?” he says.
Bill is Korean-American and partner at a New Jersey clinic. Every morning he rings a valet for his Porsche and considers dining out to be a pastime. “Let me buy you something baby,” he says if I glance at a shop window. “No thanks, that would be weird,” I say, squandering my chance to own La Perla. “Come on, I want to,” says Bill. “The other girls I dated just loved it.”
For my first 18 months, I treat dating like a tourist — if someone has a different perspective or lives in an interesting area, spending time with them indulges curiosity. Bill had been raised by immigrants who owned a dry-cleaners in Queens, and won scholarships to Ivy League schools. “I always knew I would be wealthy,” he tells me, as we eat at French restaurants. He is suspicious of welfare and shuns the idea of collective responsibility. “I help people every day,” he says, referring to patients able to afford scans at his clinic. “Anyway, you work on Wall Street. You claim to have these values but your work helps the rich.” I look at him steadily. “It’s not a conflict. Can’t a person work on Wall Street and have a conscience?” He shrugs.
Sometimes I watch snow fall on Central Park after Bill leaves for work, trying not to think about hypocrisy. I study him as we eat ramen one night. “What do you want to reflect on, when you lie on your deathbed?” I ask. He furrows his forehead. “Geeze. I don’t know. That I was a good radiologist? That I had my own family?”
That week, his doctor friends come over. They debate his new renovations and Bill enthuses about the décor with more passion than when I tried to discuss class mobility with him. I go home and break it off by text. When I wake the next day, I feel better.
Most of my American friends are Democrat. They call themselves liberal but many hesitate if you suggest a $15 minimum wage, or raising taxes as a floor on poverty. In any case, I am languishing in my own lukewarm convictions after quitting regular charity work. I leave Wall Street for a consultancy, helping companies pitch to investors. My office organises a charity day in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighbourhood with more shootings each year than all of Manhattan.
Brownsville is a landscape of high-rise housing projects, and groups of men hang around sidewalks on a weekday. The residents are mainly black and the neighbourhood has a 44% jobless rate. I think of my friend who grew up here, telling me of baths his mother gave him when shootings happened, running taps on high volume to drown out the noise. My colleagues and I spend the day painting a retirement home. A partner takes pictures of us smiling with paintbrushes and buckets, then we all take Ubers back to the city.
My next date pauses when I ask about his politics. It’s summer, and we’re sweltering on a bench in Washington Square Park. “Well, I guess I believe in Republican economics, but I have Democrat values,” Stuart says cautiously. I try not to think and focus on his dimples. He resembles a Tommy Hilfiger model in bright plaid and leans forward earnestly in conversation. He’s a man looking for something to believe in, low-hanging fruit perhaps. Over the next few months, I send him links to films and articles about inequality and he seems to grow impassioned about social issues, even emailing his Republican father some material.
I enjoy plane rides to the Hamptons in his light aircraft and trips upstate in his sports car. He lives in Westchester, an upper-middle class county in upstate New York. It reminds me of Revolutionary Road where people die a spiritual death among suburbs and strip malls and housewives slit their wrists in bathtubs. There are no cracks of doubt so much as gaping crevices. “Well, if you say the welfare system is so much better in Scandinavia… why don’t poor people here, just move there?” Stuart says one afternoon. He winks and takes my hand. “Not everyone is an intellectual like we are, Jane.” It is my final close encounter with a conservative.
On a Saturday I take the subway to East New York. The neighbourhood makes news for its shootings and crime rate, though property developers have begun to swarm. The train rises above ground as it moves inland, from stately brownstones to a mix of weatherboard and brick apartments, stretching outward for miles. Soon I am the only white person in the carriage. It’s largely silent as we pass through the housing projects of Brownsville.
Living in Australia, Denmark or any country without such massive disparity could fool you into thinking you have a social conscience, though really, you just agree with its values. New York confronts you with desperate poverty then gives full permission to look away, which I mostly do, exposed as morally spineless.
I get off at Pennsylvania Avenue, beneath the underpass near groups of teenagers and tattooed men. I can’t tell if they’re speaking loudly or arguing fiercely, if I’m projecting fear or actually feel it. A car swerves near the crossing and a firecracker noise goes off.
The back streets are quieter and I find the primary school, opening its heavy doors. Every child who attends receives free lunch. A security guard with a gun on her desk motions me upstairs, past finger paintings in the hall. There are twelve volunteers and only five children, though the leader says every parent was told about extra tutoring. We play math games and the kids seem delighted to be doing sums on Saturday, or perhaps for the attention. I’m assigned a boy who grins frequently and watches me closely when he plays a winning move. His hair is shaved down both sides and there’s a grubby backpack by his feet, a name scrawled in black marker.
The leader claps her hands and asks us to finish. I gather tokens and the boy shakes his head, taking a game and holding it out to me. “Sorry,” I say. “But I have to leave”- and soon I’m in another slipstream; a New York just half an hour west, where children attend private schools, and the avenues still seem limitless.