On August 14, 2010, as the debate over construction of the Cordoba House in lower Manhattan filled the airwaves, Ali Weiss read the following at The Paper Machete.
So it’s Ramadan. Ramadan Mubarak. It’s funny, I always forget it’s that time of year until somebody reminds me, usually by mentioning that they’re fasting — yesterday it was a woman in the grocery store, turning down a free sample of hummus. She said, “Thanks but we’re fasting.” And I thought, “Oh yeah, it’s Ramadan.” And my next thought was, “Ooh free hummus.”
That’s city living. I love getting news from the people next to me. I’ll spot the first marked forehead on the El and realize, oh yeah, it’s Ash Wednesday. Or I’ll see more and more tourists board the Red Line at rush hour acting like they’re on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and realize, oh yeah, there’s a night game at Wrigley.
Yeah, we can we can get all this information from our phones, but we don’t have to. We live on top of other people. We spread the word without using words. We absorb each others’ stories.
We also absorb each others’ sweat, on stupidly upholstered bus and train seats — and I bring these up because I’ve no doubt these fabric seats were designed by a non-urban dweller unfamiliar with the realities of proximity.
I’m here to talk about proximity. What is proximity?
Thesis question: If Point A is “a few blocks away” from Point B, are Points A and B “near” or “far”? Do the people at Point A give a shit what the people at Point B are doing?
If you’ve ever lived or worked in downtown Manhattan, your answers will likely be “far” and “no.”
What the conservative pundits who oppose the existence of a mosque “a few blocks away” from Ground Zero fail to realize is that, in New York City, a few blocks is a such a schlep.
I grew up in New York City. And people will ask me, “What’s your favorite pizza place?” And I’m sorry but the answer is the nearest one to wherever I happen to be standing. I’m not gonna schlep to another neighborhood to grab a slice. You want answers, I’m partial to the Kandilla’s on 91st and Broadway because I grew up a block away from it, but I haven’t been back there since my childhood, I don’t know or care if it still exists, and one time my teen-aged babysitter refused to take me there because the neighborhood was bad. That’s right, one block away was a different neighborhood in our eyes.
In New York it’s 20 blocks to the mile, so “a block” is just 264 feet, 4 yards short of a football field.
And still, NOTHING shocks and awes a native New Yorker more than being required to sojourn more than a football field for a basic need. If I haven’t seen two bodegas, a nail salon, a pizza shop, a drug store, a smoke shop, a stronghold dive bar, some sort of Asian cuisine, a cute little retail place to buy earrings, a frozen yogurt candy joint and humans of at least four different ethnicities by the time I make it “a few blocks,” it’s not a neighborhood.
So. Compare and contrast: My twisted little New Yorker’s definition of proximity with that of a person who once bolstered her understanding of Eastern European politics with the observation that she could see Russia from her house.
To be fair to Sarah Palin, she never actually said she could see Russia from her house. But even if she had? Girlfriend, I grew up seeing Russians from my apartment. In my apartment! Wearing a housecoat and smoking Virginia Slims. My grandma. She came to this country from Russia and fell in love with a second-generation Irish man and they had to elope because of their religions and my mom got turned off Judaism as a kid because when her Catholic dad came once to pick her up from Hebrew school in Queens, they wouldn’t let him enter the building. How far we’ve come in the realm of religious tolerance. Right, Sarah? Thanks for your Facebook note on Hanukkah.
A few nights ago I called one of my best friends from home who’s a more knowledgeable Jew than I am and also happens to live and work a few blocks from Ground Zero. And I asked her “What do you think of the mosque?”
She sighed deeply. “I can’t even — speak into the phone, it sounds like you’re underwater being eaten by wolves, The WHAT?”
She’s the only one who can’t understand me on my fancy new phone. “The MOSQUE. THE CHURCH FOR MUSLIM PEOPLE! MOSS-KUH!!”
“Oh, the mosque. What about it, what mosque?”
She follows the news, but this story cannot get a reservation in the forefront of her mind. “Oh that thing,” she says. “Who gives a shit? Do people give a shit?”
I tell her about Sarah Palin’s crusade, and the benches-clearing melee on Twitter. “They’re calling it the Ground Zero mosque even though it’s up on Park Place.”
She says “There should be a mosque IN the World Trade Center. That’s New York.”
“They say it’s hallowed ground.”
“Yeah, hallowed ground?” she says. “Like the slave cemetery nobody ever talks about?”
And this is why I love her. As you may recall, on a sunny day in 1991 some construction workers breaking ground for a government building on lower Broadway made a grizzly discovery. Archeologists were brought in. They identified 400 bodies of African men, women and children, stacked in wooden boxes in the 18th century and forgotten.
It took protests and petitions and candlelight vigils to finally cancel construction and put up a plaque. And I can guarantee what never crossed anyone’s mind. Micromanaging the activities two blocks away!
You know what’s within “a few blocks” of the African Burial Ground? A church. Wasn’t Christianity the religion of those people who flew their ships into peaceful African villages and kidnapped everyone? And you know what else is within “a few blocks” of the African Burial Ground, this sacred resting place of former slaves, this horrific reminder of the cruelest extremes of capitalist trade? The World Trade Center.
But you know what else is a few blocks away from the African Burial Ground? Another hundred people getting off of the train. And walking to work. And grabbing some coffee. And selling some coffee. Just like so many souls did for the last time on 9/11. They’re having a drink and buying some clothes and raising their kids going to the gym. And, yeah, by the way, sheltered, Wal-Mart, GPS America, some of those people rushing around downtown are Muslim. And you might never know, or care, until they’re passing out free Red Bull in Battery Park and somebody says “No thanks, I’m fasting” and you think, “Oh yeah. Free Red Bull.”