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Reflections on a City in Crisis: A Tale of Two Cities

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

It’s 7pm on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As happens every evening at this hour the residents take to their open windows, terraces, or rooftops to cheer the health care workers and other essential workers—grocery clerks, Instacart shoppers, delivery persons, the whole army of auxiliary personnel that keeps this city running and afloat. Though the streets Uptown near me are mostly empty, the noise and celebration carries far and wide. One can hear it or so I’ve been told throughout Manhattan. You can imagine and understand the pent-up energy of people cooped up indoors, captive for days, glued to their TVs or computers, or maybe resigned to their cramped quarters in city housing, the small and cramped welfare apartments of the elderly and large extended families that I used to visit and treat while doing home care.

Certainly I’ve begun to remember my time visiting with so many diverse New Yorkers. New Yorkers of all different economic, social, racial and educational circumstance; especially my memories of ten years ago or more, when my beat was Washington Heights, serving the Dominican-American population. My Spanish was so-so, tolerable at best, a few broken words, commands to walk or sit or raise a leg. Outside of that, much I communicated was done with animated gestures or by a paid company interpreter who accompanied me on my visits. I think often of those senior matrons and elderly men who were my clients—thin or hefty non-English speaking men or women, some with the regal carriage of descended royalty, at least if they were Cuban, and then the rest, women and men who had labored hard, could recall suffering in the days of Trujillo, his reign of terror in the Dominican Republic or D.R. for short, from 1931 to 1961. So many left their country, fleeing political and economic persecution to come to the US, fearful of Trujillo’s madness and his oligarchic family, his need for constant adulation, his paranoia, his deep-seated suspicions of plots and plans to rebel against him; fears that led to the massacre of thousands of regular Dominican citizens and many Haitian guest workers as well. Haitians were the backbone of the D.R. labor force back then, but easy targets as well for a frenzy of xenophobia, fanned by Trujillo’s nationalistic populism and his dictatorial rule. Corruption was everywhere, as perhaps it is now, a rising concern in the US surrounding the Trump government.

Sometimes I was told the grim stories, large gatherings of the populace forced to affirm or comply with Trujillo’s shifting whims, his bizarre decrees, decrees that made no sense and had to do with the most mundane, banal regulations, commands that to defy were met with imprisonment or death. But then again still many more of the second-generation sons and daughters of my elderly clients, having been born and raised in America, middle-aged mothers and fathers now, who tended their own aging fathers and mothers with total devotion, were altogether different; as American as all of us are, our hodgepodge of different heritages, our shared immigrant status. I watched as these young daughters and sons fed their sedentary and benign elders, frail and gracious, gumming their food or chewing it carefully off of worn forks and spoons—white rice and beans or the ubiquitous yuca (cassava); green onion and fried cheese; Sancocho or three-meat stew; Mangú or mashed plantains, that seemed always being prepared every morning on the stove. I marveled at these middle-aged Americans caring for their elders so generously. Often married now and raising their only families, they so often all lived together, sharing the ancient apartments so prominent in the Heights.

These second-generation Americans were street-smart and kind, adept at switching effortlessly from English to Spanish and Spanish to English as they spoke with mothers or fathers or oriented the aides for the day. If they had young children of their own, which many of them did, they, they would check homework, inspect that they were well-groomed and dressed and most of all staying out of trouble. Of course, not all lived with their elder parents. Many had their own separate places, checking up once a day with their mom or dads before they themselves shoved off to work. And so many varied professions, so many accommodating jobs.

They'd emerge from their bedrooms fully dressed, tend to the needs at hand and quickly hurry off to grab the downtown 1 train or A or C or B to their Midtown office jobs. Many dressed up for Wall Street or paralegal jobs in major law firms; in short they ran the gamut of skills, professions, white collar or blue collar, pushing their children to school, making sure the home health aide or attendant had arrived, that their mothers or fathers had had their bath or make-shift shower, were dressed and seated in front of their favorite Spanish novella on TV. Then off they went to distant lives, but New Yorkers nonetheless. Wearing expensive perfume or heavy cologne, 12 West shoes, silken ties, work shirts, police uniforms, health-assistant smocks, off they went through the cavernous grand old lobbies; lobbies that had seen better days, with cracked slabs of marble, ornamental balustrades, features of the long-ago elegant past.

They’d hurry down the cracked concrete sidewalks past aged apartment buildings with broken door buzzers, front doors that never seemed to fully lock, the metal bent, the trim so warped, doors so heavy they could not be opened by the aged and infirm clients and required assistance. These were buildings with battered elevator doors that crawled slowly, taking forever to close. The smell of fresh disinfectant was still detectible from the mop of the Super, the Super up since the crack of dawn—tepid smells of Mr. Clean on cold white marble flooring. Stairwell landings sometimes were heavy with the scent of piss, the droppings of a cigarette, while in the morning air the smell of heavy garlic seemed everywhere.

True, some kitchens had their cockroaches, but not for lack of cleaning or spotless orderly attention. Sometimes they hurried under cupboards or along the Formica rims of 1950’s kitchen tops, or in the corners of refrigerators, those unreachable places where floor tiles were broken or coming loose; landlords having no funds or the inclination to pay; repairs badly needed, incomplete or never made. In the bare sink, a chicken breast in cold water, soaking on the drain. So much chicken, the cheap kind, the kind in large family packs sold at the Key Foods; the split carcass, the gizzards, the organs set aside. Lunch was often steaming on the stove, boiling plantains, pots of stewed meat. Some home health aide slicing away on the kitchen counter top, last night’s left-overs in a Tupperware bowl. Women, men, seated in their wheelchairs or in their worn seats; on the couch, furniture impossibly low, a hazard for many of the most obstinate, who insisted on rising on their own as aides struggle to keep them safe.

Their living rooms were encased in plastic furniture-covering, clear plastic over the heavy sofas, the formal chairs, the ottomans; over the dramatic floral print upholstery, swirling curls of wooden rococo for the trim, arm rests, heavy sofa legs. Fantasies of a once tropical colonial life. The frequent bird cages with parakeets and cockatoos, favored pets; the hot radiators hissing out steam, as the shut windows sealed and locked would force me to sweat, sweat as I stretched the elderly legs or ankles of my patients who sat draped in sweaters.

This was a way of life I seldom experienced downtown in my neighborhood. I lived with liberal Manhattan neighbors, gourmet food enthusiasts who shopped daily at Zabars. I moved in a world of tasteful furnishings courtesy of Pottery Barn or Raymore & Flannigan; plush bedrooms with closets filled with clothes from Gap, Banana Republic, Today’s Man, or Macy’s. My friends often wore trendy threads from Soho, or vintage East Village rebel wear. My streets were crowded with a menagerie of Yupper class young people, neo-Bohemians, ascetic spiritual New Agers, and of course the well-dressed couples with expensive ergonomic strollers, families of the three-figure-earning-kind.

My ride from 168th to my stop at 96th brought on a type of culture shock, a leap no less distinct than Dorothy's journey from sobering Kansas to technicolor Oz. And this split sense of reality only grew as over the years my home care territories changed. Later I would venture into East Harlem, or Harlem off of Lennox Avenue, or the much-dreaded Polo Grounds, a complex of public housing with a reputation for Black on Black crime especially when the kids got out of school. I treated in Chinatown, or the Frederick Douglas houses on Columbus Avenue, and everywhere I felt a similar response: a fear mixed with admiration, a surprised affirmation of shared human warmth,values and hospitality. I spoke with Black and Brown women and men, many of them elders who were part of the Great Migration from the agrarian worlds of the Deep South to the Northern industrial centers of Chicago, New Jersey, and New York. Memories spoken of North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi; tales about sharecropper fields, company stores, one-room shacks, Greyhound bus rides headed North and all for the promise of change and respect.

It was all an education in contradiction, an assault on my southern, middle-class mind, a challenge to my own wishy-washy sense of privilege, for these people had seemed to have had to make dire decisions almost every day of their lives; hard decisions, tearful choices, and yet spoke kindly and generous toward me. They offered me slices of sweet Bizcocho Dominicano with strong Bustello coffee; handed me old jam jars with sweet ice tea; condensed milk and teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar mixed in the rich Dominican brew. I watched as the women donned their wigs, put on their make-up just to greet me. The smells of body power, rose water rose from their day dresses. In Chinatown, I drank cups of strong tea, eyed strange plates of unknown steamed greens, studied the “less-desired” cuts of meat fried in vats of bubbling oil. In the senior housing of Harlem I was presented with decades-old boxes of holiday cookies, Christmas gifts of strange liqueurs from years and years ago, still in their dusty boxes. Hospitality was always offered, even if it came from the bottom of a drawer, the back of a shelf, or under a bed.

Looking back now, it was truly a tale of two cities. But I had divided New Yorkers up as well as Americans into two clean categorizations: the haves and have-nots, those to be looked upon as social equals and those to be seen as somehow different and ones to be pitied and treated with a sort of magnanimous altruism. This view left me in a perpetual self-conflicted viewpoint. I played into a scenario that every trip Uptown took me into a foreign world, not an American world, and I had engaged in what now we have labeled "social distancing." Indeed I was practicing a strange sort of "psychosocial distancing" and a cultural one as well. There was a terrible ghost of colonialism hovering over me, of assumptions about power, cultural power. A few times I was warned that I dressed or looked too similar to a New York City undercover cop, a narc, and I was encouraged to wear my Physical Therapy ID and certainly my home care polo shirt with the Visiting Nurse Service logo. This would protect me.

But what gradually dawned on me is that I was not a reincarnation of Albert Schweizer, but I did need to rethink my understanding of what it means to be an American as well as a resident of this vast metropolis called New York City. I had to accept the more complex idea of diversity, of simultaneous, dual, and multiple realities, the simultaneity of many cultures at once, the true concept of American life; neither one culture better or more fortunate than the other: no grab bag of low-income pity; or privileged White majority— progressive, empathetic, and sad—but rather a terrifying equality, in short, the idea of "city." A “city” was a concept far more complex and radical than I had first realized, and this enhanced vision of city life, and yes American life—no one identity telling the whole story, no one social culture dominating the other, but instead a nexus of interconnected humility, of simple listening and simple sharing along with the constant work of understanding— suddenly dawned on me. I can’t say I was changed by it fully, or altered in my life's mission or suddenly enlightened in my behavior. I knew that I was still racially biased to some extent and imperfect from my early social imprinting in the segregated South. And as I said I came to acknowledge my own internalized “social distancing,” although the term was not in use back them, it was an accepted practice that made me assert and affirm subconsciously my privilege; my ability to retreat, to look away, to isolate myself from hard and harsh realities, many of my fellow New Yorkers did not have the means nor the "permission" to do.

But where does all this take me? Far away from the cruel pandemic happening just outside on this peaceful spring night? No, as you can tell, not at all. As I said, it stirs up many social and economic memories. Sirens come and go again. All night long, carrying the sick, the least-likely to survive. It takes little imagination to know what’s going on. You see it on TV, news footage of the swamped ERs, the shaky testimony of ICU nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, as they hold their iPhones extended in Selfie mode, recording videos begging for more supplies, more PPE, as overhead Codes are called in ever greater frequency. Codes of course that signify a heart has arrested, lungs have become too filled with fluid to offer any oxygen; the course of action clear—intubation, ventilation, the long wait, patients unaware, placed into a medical coma—unknowing that they are approaching death’s door, that they will crash without warning—organ failure, dropping pressure, O2 sats—death.

These things are going on. You know it. And if you were in anyway involved in medicine and health care, you have a pretty good idea of what a strained hospital system can look like.You know that pallor on a face, you know the scent of sweat and fear, the smell of a soiled diaper pad, the futile dignity of a flimsy tied hospital gown, a catheter. You know the way the tubes sound, the bubbling of loose fluid backing up in the tube needing to be siphoned off, the struggle to find a patent vein, an IV backing up with blood. Vital signs. EKGs. The beep, beep, beep and then the silent straight-line of the heart monitor—flicking off the switch before the warning bells predictably sound, telling you what you already know, the final crisis over, done. Another bed available, another orderly to unzip a body bag, another patient waiting outside a thin track curtain.

The tragedy is not this present reality alone, but rather the unreality of a city night at springtime: dark and tranquil, the tidal currents of the Hudson, the breeze from Riverside Park —familiarity, intimacy, a once close bond to a city that I loved; a city that I thought I knew, recognizable from the outside, inside unrecognizable and full of terror. And then the fact that there is nothing that I can do. Retired. Older now. I am not providing home care, instead I am merely “Staying at Home.” But every Manhattanite you know I imagine feels the same. The dazzle of old city nights, the streets lined with restaurants serving every cuisine imaginable, the lure of sweet inventive drinks, sophisticated chatter and gossip, or maybe some apartment party, a birthday, a book signing, a block party—rap or Cardi B—Salsa music, Mariachi, Japanese traditional folk, Alternative Rock, old Broadway show tunes, or newer Youtube releases— those high-pitched melodious recorded chimes that signaled the end of intermission at the Met Opera, or the way a Broadway theater’s house doors were flung open by the ushers just at the moment of curtain call, when the house exploded in loud applause and the mad rush began to have an after-theater drink, or saunter home on foot or take a long subway ride with a Playbill in your hand. Neon, yellow taxis, Uber and Lyft, cop cars, buskers with their hats; the inventive way the whole city used to shine, vibrant, unapologetic—but of course, one could say even in the last decade these rituals had begun to fade. Book stores, small nocturnal dives, curio shops, head shops, Korean corner grocery merchants putting out their crates of fruit and vegetables—high commercial rents drove them out of business. The independent stores and shops, the Old New York of long ago, all gone. Of course there was and is the digital city of now: the Starbucks with the gig workers staring at their Mac or Microsoft screens, cursors gliding from window to window, millennials talking through wireless earplugs, texting on phones, holding job interviews, holding lengthy meetings, multi-tasking on Zoom; speaking with London, Hong Kong; checking with nannies; ordering take-out; struggling with their self-owned start-ups. It was all changing before wasn’t it? The big box stores, the shops of brick and mortar, the very need for real-time and real-space businesses, the need for store window displays, all trappings of an older middle-class industrial age; gone to the Information Age and now the Service Sector and more recently, the Virtual Economy.

So I begin again the battle to sleep. The apex of the curve—the end of this week or next? And then what? A long plateau. The give and take of death statistics. They say 70% of the restaurants in New York City will never come back. Our image of the city will have changed. Its very definition may be radically revamped. Our very way of work, of play, of entertainment and education may be forever transformed. The pandemic may be more than just a “Pause” as our good Governor has said, but more a watershed moment, a paradigm shift, a giant period; the endpoint for a vanished Historical, Sociological, and Technological Age, Epoch, or Era. It may end our very conception of History. Modern, Post-Modern, Post-Post Modern, the very terms may vanish, be replaced, scrapped, re-imagined; finally the dialectic of Progress will be, could be, or already is destroyed. And yes there will be new thinking ahead, there must be, we have no choice. And a certain sorrow, the sorrow of seeing a once familiar world, the world of the Boomer Generation, a world of the American Century finally fade away.

by Walter Holland, copyright May 29, 2020 All Rights Reserved

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