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Diary Life Magazine October 2020 The Month

New York has turned ugly

I haven’t seen so many overflowing garbage cans or homeless people since the 1970s

October 5, 2020

3:09 PM

5 October 2020

3:09 PM

New York City

In grim times such as these, New Yorkers tend to flatter themselves for possessing special reserves of moxie, an outdated word that connotes courage, brio and a kind of raffish know-how. Think of Humphrey Bogart as Rick, a nightclub owner in the film Casablanca, when he jousts with Major Strasser, the German bully who thinks he can outsmart and intimidate him. Pressed to reveal his background and political beliefs, the poker-faced Rick replies: ‘I was born in New York City, if that’ll help you any.’ Asked if he could imagine the Germans occupying New York, Rick retorts, with a little extra moxie, ‘There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I would not advise you to try to invade.’

I turn to fictional Rick for inspiration because it’s hard for me (a real-life Rick) to imagine the Occupation by COVID-19 ever ending. Things are very bad in New York, despite the steep decline in new cases: the unemployment rate is nearly 20 percent, and the city’s stores and restaurants, already decimated before the pandemic by Amazon and extortionate rents, are closing at an alarming rate.

In August, shootings increased 166 percent compared with 2019, while murders and burglaries were also substantially up. As the hapless mayor, Bill de Blasio, threatens mass layoffs of government workers, the city looks increasingly ragged. I haven’t seen so many overflowing garbage cans or homeless people since the 1970s. It doesn’t help that great numbers of New Yorkers are still afraid to return to their offices. In our 12-story building, Harper’s Magazine is the only business that has reopened, which at least makes for a faster elevator ride.

Well-off New Yorkers can take extra precautions, but it’s hard to avoid the ugliness in the streets. Recently, near my office, I was drinking an espresso on the bench in front of Levain Bakery, a remnant of pre-virus gentrification, and watching a wheelchair-bound beggar ply his trade with a plastic cup. Suddenly another man approached, grabbed the cup and tried to run away with the contents. But the beggar held fast, and during the struggle a couple of bills flew into the gutter. Curiously, the beggar, who like the robber was black, screamed, ‘You faggot!’ at the fleeing perpetrator, ‘faggot’ being a word, like ‘moxie’, that has fallen out of fashion. It must have also sounded discordant to the aimless-looking hipsters of NoHo, who gave him a wide berth and offered no assistance. Neither did I, so three weeks later, with my conscience and curiosity aroused, I went back and found him in the same spot on the corner of Lafayette and Bleecker. Clarence Correa, 58, told me he had recovered $2 from the theft but that his assailant had made off with the other ‘four or five’ bucks he was holding. ‘He thought I was easy, so he came back again,’ Correa said. Since cops rarely appear when the poor rip off the poor, a physically imposing counterman from Levain fortunately came to his rescue and scared off the thief. I hope the bakery stays in business, at least for Correa’s sake. I gave him a twenty for his pain, and mine.

As someone who generally considers himself a New Yorker first and an American second, I’m pessimistic about getting much help from Trump’s Washington. I vividly remember the Daily News headline on October 30, 1975 — ‘Ford To City: Drop Dead’ — after Republican president Gerald Ford denied federal money to help save New York City from bankruptcy. As I write, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has, with Trump’s backing, cynically offered a ‘skinny’ COVID-19 relief bill that the minority Democrats, led by New York senator Chuck Schumer, blocked for being ‘emaciated’. The President, meanwhile, has changed his residence to Florida and abandoned his hometown to us on the ‘radical left’. This is astute politics, since Florida’s Electoral College votes are in play, while Trump couldn’t win New York if he invented a COVID-19 vaccine and changed his name to Louis Pasteur.

The main political beneficiary of Trump’s betrayal of his place of birth has been New York governor Andrew Cuomo, Trump’s rival and fellow Queens native. Cuomo can be grating when he does his ‘New York Tough’ routine, which has now taken shape as a mass-market poster that quotes the governor’s exhortation to ‘Wake Up America! Forget the Politics, Get Smart!’ It may be that what Cuomo wants voters to forget is that New York State leads the country in COVID-19 deaths, in part because his government permitted more than 6,300 recovering patients to be transferred from hospitals to nursing homes. Even so, I prefer Cuomo’s consistency on good public-health practices to Trump’s spasmodic ravings.

Normally I ride the subway, and I thought my father mad to have commuted by car in the 1950s from our apartment at 104th and West End Avenue to his photographer’s studio on West 56th Street. Now, with so little traffic, I’m driving everywhere at remarkable speed, including to Humphrey Bogart’s childhood home at 245 West 103rd, which is around the corner from where I lived until I was two. Driving has its risks, however. I just received my first-ever speed-camera ticket — for going 36 in a 25 mph zone on my way uptown on Fourth Avenue. I don’t mind paying the $50 fine, though. New York really needs the money.

John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. This article is in The Spectator’s October 2020 US edition.

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