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25 Dec 2008 06:00
One mild Saturday in June we loaded our lives into a few suitcases and said goodbye to everyone we loved. I questioned for the millionth time the sanity of what we were doing turning our backs on our birthplace and tearing a ragged hole into our lives and those of our family and friends.
We were heading for that multicultural immigrant mecca—New York.
Although I have always fantasised about living there, I didn’t think it would be as a haggard, fortysomething mother of three.
So why were we going to some arbitrary far-off land where we would always be foreigners “looking in”? My husband and I were—are—restless souls. I could feel myself growing old metres away from the garden I had once learned to ride a bicycle. Was this it, the sum total? I wanted more than the comfort of the familiar; he wanted a new job challenge. We were going “to” something, not running away, we told ourselves.
But those of course are petty reasons that—at best—add up to less than half the truth. Crime and violence had crept into our relationship like a cancer. He poured over the newspaper every evening and saw—every day—what he kept wanting not to see: gore, death, stabbing, rape, lawlessness, shooting, hijacking. I tried to turn the proverbial blind eye but he wouldn’t let me and thus played out a tedious and never-ending argument, a conversation on rewind that I knew would not go away unless we went somewhere else.
Long ago my husband was nearly killed by an armed robber who escaped from prison and went on a killing spree. He still has the scars on his wrists from being tied up in a forest and left for dead, but the bigger scars are in his soul: the unhealed sores that fester every day that he hears of yet more brutal moments he knows will shadow people’s lives forever.
Years of covering township violence had also taken their toll on me. I still jumped at every bang, expecting a hand suddenly raised by a parking attendant to be holding a gun. My husband was not the only one asking himself when it would be our turn.
We had decided to grab the opportunity when it came and see if we could make a life elsewhere (just for a while, I told myself and still tell myself every day). So that was why we found ourselves walking for the last time around a bare house that was no longer ours, slugging champagne to salute a collective death and numb the pain.
That interminable 17-hour plane trip, with small, tetchy children and a teenager in sulky, sealed-off Ipod mode, was a bizarrely welcome relief from the frozen sadness of the preceding weeks. As we alighted finally on strange ground the hot, humid air clogged my lungs, making it difficult to breathe. An asthmatic in search of something better than Joburg’s dry and dirty winter air, I felt the panic rise.
Frantically we herded children and trolleys past passport officials whose chatty friendliness was a thin veneer. “Welcome to America, you have a good stay now,” the steely eyed man waved us through after some friendly interrogation.
We were “legit” for the moment, but we felt anything but. We were foreigners, aliens now, bearers of an indeterminate and somehow negative identity, the identity of “not from here”— By leaving home were we not thrusting ourselves forever into a nowhere zone of “not belonging?” Couldn’t we be grabbed from behind at any moment, sent back to where we belonged like the thousands of “aliens” forced out of South Africa, the crowds baying for their blood, a mere few months ago?
In a daze we travelled to our destination—Brooklyn—excited by the prospect of the apartment we had not yet seen, full of expectation for this new and terrifying adventure. We had rented “sight unseen”, as the realtor put it, an apartment in Park Slope, referred to by one South African I know as “the Parkview” of New York. Clearly I was attempting in some way to replicate my life in South Africa.
Indeed, I was to discover a few weeks later with glee that the stately Brooklyn library’s little terrace café is called “Parkview” because it abuts the beautiful Prospect Park. But there the resemblance to suburban Johannesburg ends. This is urban living: tarmac, pavements, shops and brownstones, hooting cars and blaring fire engines. The few splashes of green here and there are delightful exceptions to the rule, as is the park with its magnificent, stately trees.
Our apartment, part of a four-floor brownstone, is a “railroad”—so called because of its long dark passage with rooms at each end. I take comfort in the familiar sight of the allergic and not-so-pretty plane tree outside our window. We are paying a fortune for this small three-bedroom apartment that by no means meets our needs. It has no outside space or storage facility and one of the rooms is a dark little postage stamp that holds little more than a bunk bed. It has one bathroom and a tiny scrap of a kitchen.
After dumping our stuff, we queued light-headed and jet-lagged in the sweaty summer heat for trademark Brooklyn bagels. Intimidated by the broad accents and impatience of the natives, we slunk out with our unfamiliar lunch. As we sat in the park on strange grass that Sunday afternoon, we watched people toss balls to each other with the ease of those who belong. This must be what it feels like to be dead, I remember thinking: watching others live their lives, hovering, always invisible, on the outskirts.
The panic surged again on the first “big shop” to the supermarket. A subway ride and bus journey to famous Fairway in Redhook, Brooklyn, was made forever memorable by a rude bus driver who barked at me when I kept asking him where to get off: “How many times did you ask me that question and how many times did I answer you!”
Defeated, I wandered myopically around the maze of brightly coloured supermarket fare, realising I was as lost inside as out. The rows of unfamiliar products brought on a new wave of panic. Oh, the agony of choice! Organic, fresh, frozen, boxed, packaged, vacuum-packed, every flavour imaginable ...
Once the novelty fades, the orgy of consumerism here can make me—the most seasoned of shoppers—gag at times. Catchy, feel-good music blares from store after store, sales shout out and rows of choice goods stretch to infinity. The worst part is the prices. Today a cucumber, for example, will cost R40. Or a two-litre carton of milk, about R50. A movie ticket is R110, a ticket on Broadway upwards of R1 500.
We arrived in summer to find people, people everywhere occupying the public space. Central Park on a Sunday is reminiscent of Clifton Beach in December. People strip to near-naked, writing, reading, eating, acting, spreading their oiled bodies out on the soft green grass. Families flock en masse to daily dusk concerts in every park in the city, tumbling out of subways with children, strollers, balls, picnic hampers. People sit on the steps to their brownstones, reading, playing, selling things ... a far cry from Johannesburg’s quiet suburbs, high walls and electric fences. The space constraints here compel everyone to discard as fast as they buy and piles of books, barely worn clothes, toys and furniture appear on sidewalks and disappear again overnight.
The intensity of this city and its many eccentric inhabitants makes it easy to forget how regulated it is. Our collisions early on with officials were sharp reminders that we had to ditch our gung-ho South African ways. We were almost expelled from the beautiful cherry orchard of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens for trying to eat our picnic there, instead of at the designated place. Taking off our sandals to feel the grass also led to sharp rebukes from po-faced inspectors. And whenever the children play in one of the many rubber-turfed urban parks they have to keep their shoes on.
A trip to the public swimming pool was a surreal experience: I was frog-marched to the supervisor’s office by an aggressive official wearing latex gloves for daring to question why I couldn’t wear my T-shirt to the pool. After gearing myself up for interrogation and worse, I was hugely relieved to discover my only transgression was that my T-shirt wasn’t white. Around the pool life guards in orange hats almost outnumber swimmers, stationed a few feet apart, blowing whistles incessantly at boisterous swimmers.
I am overwhelmed by the cerebral energy that courses through this city. The discarded books on the pavement are often well worth a read. Most people in our apartment building subscribe to The New Yorker. Chances are the person nearby in the coffee shop or on the subway is reading, studying or writing something interesting. Everyone is clever, creative and happening. It’s exhilarating—and exhausting.
Equally exhausting is the housework. After feebly swatting away at the rising dirt it soon dawned on me that there was no domestic worker hovering behind me to do the job properly. The confusion I first felt at the washing machine’s myriad settings and the rather grey stuff that came out of it has abated somewhat—as has the shame I first felt at sending my children off to school in creased clothes. I soon noticed that everyone else’s looked the same. Now I wash, clean, scrub and cook to the sounds of National Public Radio, feeling a different kind of panic now—that New York’s array of cultural offerings is passing me by.
But just walking the streets, as everybody does here, is a rich and multilayered experience that doesn’t cost anything. True, even the air you breathe is expensive but for the amazing sights one sees it’s often well worth it: the wannabe rap artist spinning on the floor of the subway carriage; a midget transvestite in a sequined dress, with wig askew and silver heels in her hand, trying to summon a cab the morning after (try explaining that to your four-year-old!).
I love the way people emerge from high-rise blocks with huge, groomed dogs and chat earnestly to other pooch parents in “doggie” play parks. Or the way they enact their private dramas in public, loudly discussing their love affairs with friends, or yelling at one another, cardboard cups of coffee their constant travelling companions.
I love the fact that when I feel slighted by the rude, go-gettish behaviour of some New Yorkers, an interaction with someone who exclaims, “Beautiful accent! Where ya from?” lifts my spirits again.
Animated conversations with perfect strangers about whether Barack Obama would win the elections, and the spontaneous joy that erupted here when he did, made me revel in the humanness that threads through this bewildering, dense place.
But have I acclimated yet, as I’m asked repeatedly? Although one of my children already has a Yankee accent, my answer is most definitely not. On bad days the longing for home and the grittiness of life here feel insurmountable. I hate it that even the simplest tasks are hard to accomplish; that one stands in queues for absolutely everything; that the streets are sometimes so thick with people it’s hard to walk; that the urban landscape is so ugly and unfriendly. But I do love the fact that there are a million exciting things to do here every day. And that I feel perfectly safe walking around by myself at night where the bustle of life continues long after dark.
And slowly I’m starting to navigate my way around a little less blindly. The awkwardness of being a foreigner is made easier by the fact that so many others are foreigners too. I hear several different languages every day. And I take comfort when I’m reminded of the fact that so many people here have gone through their own traumatic journeys to become New Yorkers.
The true New Yorker, after all, is an immigrant or someone of immigrant descent. Most Americans I meet here have grown up somewhere else in this vast country. I love the fact that so many New York residents are of mixed race. Like Obama they can lay claim to ancestry that spans many continents, to complex and layered histories. I celebrate the fact that my children’s new friends are half Jewish, African, Chinese, Russian, Indian —
Now it is cold and the blush of fall and the heady euphoria after Obama’s victory have faded somewhat. In the six months we’ve been here New York has changed in profound ways. History has been made as the first black man waits to take office in the most powerful country in the world; meanwhile restaurants stand empty, shops try to entice wary consumers with cut-price sales and people look worried as they watch and wait for the sinking economy to find the floor.
But right now there’s a spring in my step. I’m having one of those days when I am filled with wonder and gratitude at having been given the opportunity to live in this incredible city. And although I’ll never stop longing for the familiarity and comfort of home, and know that I can never really leave it behind, I’m glad we’ve embarked on this heady adventure that has only just begun.
Philippa Garson is a journalist and a former education editor at the M&G
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