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Out of Sight, Out of Mind

POSTCARD FROM NEW YORK

By Garance Franke-ruta

If this keeps up they're going to have to take away my New Yorker license. Not my New York license, mind you--as a New Yorker, I don't drive--but my license to reply to the question "where are you from?" with a confidently swaggering "New York."

It's like this: I'm working in Cambridge for a New York organization and had to fly down for a meeting. I chose an arrival time two hours in advance of the meeting, just in case there were any flight or traffic delays. There weren't. So, since I had extra time and I hate to pay 30 out-of-pocket bucks for a cab, or even $10 for the Carey Bus from LaGuardia to mid-town, I decided to see if you can get from the airport to mid-town Manhattan on $1.50. Hey, you never know.

The first part was a cinch: take the M60 from Ground Transportation to Manhattan. A short ride later, and there I was, on 125th Street and Lexington. Getting to 3rd Ave. and 45th Street from East Harlem? Piece of cake. Just transfer to a downtown bus, and look, there one is coming down Lexington now. OK, so the people on the bus gave me funny looks as I tucked my laptop between my feet and opened my complimentary Shuttle edition of the latest American Prospect: A Journal of the Liberal Imagination, but whatever; this is my public transportation too.

The next thing I know, we are going back over the Triboro Bridge. And we are not going downtown, not at all. We are going to Wards Island.

I've never been to Wards Island. I search my mental database and find only the following fact: I think there's a homeless shelter there. For men. Where there was that Tuberculosis outbreak a few years ago. It is at this point that I notice that the man to my left and the woman across from me have enormous track marks on their arms, the kind you get from shooting up. In fact, the woman across from me is so scarred that every inch of exposed skin is mottled, indicating she also has some sort of underlying medical condition. I hadn't been looking because in N.Y. you don't look. But right now I am trying to recover my bearings and so I am looking. I have not seen a look like the one on her face for a very long time. It is the look of someone held together by a force of will so stupendous it has obliterated everything else. Hard. Like having a knot for a heart, N.Y. don't need, don't want, don't give a flying f--hard. It is even hard to look at her, so I look out the window. I have no idea where we are.

The sign says: Manhattan Psychiatric Center. Well at least I didn't get on the bus for the criminally insane, I reassure myself. And in all my days, I have never heard of anything untoward happening on a bus. At this rate I may, however, end up being late for my meeting. People get on and off the bus at the Psychiatric Center, a shelter, a construction site. Two men in wheelchairs get off the bus and another one gets on. The mainly black. group of riders is slowly replaced with a slightly more diverse group of institutional staff.

A man wearing staff I.D. cards around his neck sits down next to me. His hands are all scarred too. But they're old scars. And he looks curious and friendly. Often, the most dedicated workers in agencies for the homeless or addicted are those who've been there themselves and have turned their lives around and want to give back. I ask him how long it takes the bus to get off Wards Island, and if it goes back to Manhattan or goes on to Queens. There is clearly no other way on or off the island except this bus. And because a construction worker in the middle of the bus has started staring at me, shouting down the bus that I look like "a million dollars, from Texas," I try to make a joke out of my presence, explaining that I used to live in NY but have been out of town long enough that I don't seem to be able to find my way around anymore. Why, last time I visited, I even had to ask for directions in my own neighborhood. "You know, out of sight, out of mind."

"Out of sight, out of mind," the man with tags laughs, looking around. "Out of sight, out of mind." I think we realize at the same time that we're not talking about my getting on the wrong bus. We're talking about the bus and its scarred passengers and the sweep of ugly yellow institutional buildings bordered by weeds and unkempt hedges and the fact that the bus we're on doesn't even go anywhere, just there and back, there and back, a closed loop. We're talking about people who get lost and wash up on Wards Island and people who are used to not looking and the question of why people in this city don't stop more often to say to each other "You look lost. Can I help you?" When we get back to Manhattan, he directs me to the bus I was looking for, on the other side of 125th Street.

After my meeting, I hang around talking to an old colleague, now finishing his fourth year of medical school. As we talk about the day's news (AIDS deaths down 19 percent nationwide due to new treatments), he tells me how the conventional wisdom these days is that the new treatments are so powerful that anyone who shows up on the wards with symptomatic AIDS is de facto a psychiatric patient, because you'd have to be insane not to take your medications regularly. This is just bad on-the-wards black humor, but behind it lies the edgier truth that the new medications must be taken with such religious scrupulosity to avoid the development of a resistant virus that people who are deemed to be potentially non-compliant are not even offered them, and we're all wondering if maybe this is part of the reason the death rate has gone down 28 percent in white, mainly gay men but only 10 percent in blacks, the majority of whom acquired HIV through injection drug use, or if it has to do with the fact that the drug company making the most expensive and least effective of the new drugs has been targeting sales towards minorities, or some combination of such like forces, or what.

And behind this lies something even edgier and more discomfiting, a connection between the amazing economy and the sick joke: the attitude that if this rising tide doesn't lift your boat, you must be one hell of a loser.

New York is going through one of its up periods. I have never seen Manhattan looking so prosperous. Somebody planted petunias in huge hangers up and down the street-lamps of 34th Street. Lower Sixth Avenue is a refurbished shoppers mecca. And in place of the old, ugly little traffic-island cum death trap on the corner of my tiny three-block long Greenwich Village street sits a new, brilliantly designed safe and elegant little garden. There are still homeless people sleeping in Abingdon Square, but someone has planted cosmos-flowers there too. I've never seen such things outside Vermont. Every time I walk by them the quality of my life improves.

Word on the street is that Ruth Messinger, Democratic Mayoral contender, doesn't have a shot against incumbent Republican Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, mainly because of the crime issue (New York is now safer than at any time since 1964), and because the city is reaping the benefits of a strong national economy. Maureen Dowd dubs Giuliani "the happy dictator" in the New York Times, and people crack jokes about how all New Yorkers want is for the trains to run on time.

If the most basic function of government is to secure the liberty and property of the governed, a government that can't even implement the rule of law is hardly worthy of the name. So, at least, writes Stephen Holmes in his American Prospect article "What Russia Teaches Us Now: How Weak States Threaten Freedom." New Yorkers like their persons and property to be secure. You can't argue with that. I didn't like getting mugged at gunpoint either. But the flip side is that a lot of people still haven't got any property to secure.

Unemployment in New York City persists at nearly European levels, 9.6 percent, twice the national average, and the highest rate of any of America's 20 largest cities. And this level of unemployment is not evenly distributed, but concentrated in pockets of the population. The New York City school system is among the most segregated in the nation. Workfare might be making the streets cleaner, but street-cleaning is not exactly the sort of job you can build a life around. What exactly are those without jobs, skills or faith supposed to do in this insanely prosperous, well-heeled city?

My employer gives me their limo service account number to call for the return ride. "That's how we do things around here." The weather is still sweltering. Giuliani has kindly instructed people to stay indoors between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Yeah, right. This is the city that never sleeps. The air quality is atrocious, though, possibly even dangerous. The limo is scentless and air-conditioned, a welcome relief. The driver is polite and well-groomed, and as we glide over the Queensboro Bridge, I look south. The city is blanketed by a dirty, muggy haze. From this vantage point, I can scarcely see anything at all.

Garance Franke-Ruta '97 is a Summer-School proctor in Eliot House.

Maureen Dowd dubs Giuliani "the happy dictator" in the Times, and people crack jokes about how all New Yorkers want is for the trains to run on time.

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