A New Yorker’s Definition of Proximity (A Case for the Cordoba House)

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?”

“The what?”

“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.”

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3 responses to “A New Yorker’s Definition of Proximity (A Case for the Cordoba House)

  1. Amen sister. So funny, after we hung up, on my way to work, passing packed streets, vendors, and half of naturalized (ahem) Senegalese men barking about Gucci prada vuitton bags, descending the trains steps by said hallowed ground, I overheard this gem, and I paraphrase here….”did you hear about the mosque thing?” “what mosque?” “Some Jew converted to Islam and is building a mosque around here, the Tea people are VERY jumpy about it” the answer dear scribe and her lucky readers: “wait they pray alot right?” yea “so less foot traffic, that’s good right? Wait wait wait, they’re not going to get a parking lot are they, that would fuck everything up, between the construction at Zero and all this other bullshit, a Jew builds a building, he wants parking……” So. You, you over there in the middle of the country, so sensitive and reactionary, please come to our hamlet and feel the hallowedness of this ground. New York ground is special, mostly because no terrorist attack, no amount of grandstanding from people who come to nyc for a ladies weekend to see some plays and shop at Bergdoff’s will ever understand. Its hallowed because of its ability to balance respect and practicality. Oh and you over there in Alaska, grave difference between Muslims and terrorists. Just like there’s a big difference between Jesus and all the fucked up hate done in his name.

  2. Bravo, Ali. This is a fantastic piece. Such great writing!

  3. You’re right on the pulse of this whole silly mosque debate. For many of us urban dwellers, contact with other cultures is commonplace whereas for those in the country or even the burbs it’s a less frequent occurrence. Contact with the unknown = fear.

    I had a similar experience “Oh yeah, Ramadan” experience the other night. I had to get a cab because the friggin’ bus refused to show up for the last leg of my trip home from the airport. My cab driver mentioned that he was fasting — “Oh yeah, Ramadan” I thought. It was almost 10pm and he’d just gotten out of class at DePaul and was now picking up some hours in the cab. He seemed really young and didn’t look or sound like your average South/Central Asian Muslim cab driver, the kind that spends the whole trip mumbling on the phone in Urdu or Farsi.

    He was Algerian. We talked quite a bit about his fasting practices. I could relate, slightly, as I’d been to D.C. and back that day and hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I was feeling it. I can only imagine a month of that. I was immediately admiring him for the convictions of his faith, that he actually went out of his way to alter his daily life because of what he believed. “You get used to it, your body adjusts” he said. We talked about his school and work. He was studying finance and had also worked in China for a year. I didn’t ask if he drove a cab there as well, but I assume he was doing something enterprising to make money. He reminded me of why I made the trip to D.C. that day in the first place: to visit the Library of Congress to read a manuscript written by an ancestor of mine, a senator from Pennsylvania, about the emigration of his parents from Ireland to America in 1720, which at the time was still a British colony. They came here young as well and for pretty much the same reasons: seeking to better themselves and to build a future they couldn’t have in the land where they were born.

    My first thought upon confirmation that my friendly young driver was a Muslim (as it usually is when I get a Muslim cab driver) was “I really hope some stupid drunk out of town jackass doesn’t give him any shit tonight.” I always cringe thinking of the Ugly American stuff that I know gets said to people like him who are just trying to make some money. It’s amazing how Americans don’t even need to leave their own country to embarrass themselves with their cultural ignorance and stupidity.

    Anyhow, it was Wednesday night and a relatively quiet one at that, so I figured he’d be ok — my local city folks would have his back tonight. It’s normal for us to meet someone like him every day: driving a cab, running a convenience store, working at the falafel place, the doctor we see when we’re sick.

    When I got out of the cab I wished him the best. He smiled at me and did the same.

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