As I have
mentioned, my family and I moved to Brooklyn last summer.
In some respects this has been like a lengthy vacation, since,
although we like our neighborhood, we still plan to move back
to a more rural area some time in the future. Perhaps because
of my "semi-tourist" status, or maybe simply because of their
newness, various aspects of life in New York stand out for me
in a way that the ordinary events in a place one is accustomed
to seldom do.
New York City, at some point, altered its sidewalks to accommodate
wheelchairs. As one approaches a crosswalk, the sidewalk slopes
downward to the street. This is fine in most weather. But when
it snows, one is faced with a little ice slide down into the
puddle of slush and freezing water collected at the edge of
the street. I guess the handicapped lobby stands to gain if
it can create more handicapped people.
I am reminded
of the time I attended a wedding at West Point. In the hotel
where the wedding took place, a woman in a wheel chair approached
the front door, which was several feet below the level of the
lobby. In the bad old days before we were sensitive to the needs
of the handicapped I probably should say "those differently
abled in a peripatetic way" someone would have assisted the
woman down the steps. If no one were accompanying her, any of
several dozen people in the lobby would have jumped up to help.
we recognize that such assistance assaults the dignity of the
handicapped. So the hotel had a ramp next to the stairs for
those in wheelchairs. Unfortunately, the ramp was a bit steeper
than the woman had planned for. She lost control of her chair,
shot down the ramp, slammed legs-first into the wall at its
end, and toppled onto the floor. Fortunately, she was not seriously
injured, but, as several people rushed over to lift her off
of the floor and back into her chair, she obviously was quite
embarrassed. No doubt this way of doing things is much more
dignified than if someone had simply helped her down the stairs.
I walk a lot more since moving to Brooklyn. One might think
that living, as I previously did, in semi-rural Redding, Connecticut,
would be more conducive to outdoor exercise than is living in
extremely urban New York. Well, I did do more gardening
when I lived in Redding. However, as far as walking goes, the
suburbs are often quite hazardous. The major roads in Redding
are two-lane state highways, where cars zip along at 50 or 55
miles per hour and there are no sidewalks. The side roads are
serpentine affairs, frequently lined with hedges or stonewalls
that further reduce visibility. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous
SUVs charge along them at 35 or 40 miles per hour, racing to
get the kids to swim practice or tennis lessons on time. At
every turn in the road a pedestrian must be prepared to leap
over a wall or dive into some swampy woods to avoid being flattened.
But in Brooklyn one can walk down wide sidewalks and cross streets
with walk signs.
motivation to walk in the city is that there are places to walk
to. In Redding I, unlike the vast majority of the town's
residents, did have a small commercial area nearby. But the
nearest supermarket, the nearest bookstore, the nearest clothing
store, and many other amenities were out of comfortable walking
distance. For several classes I wanted to take, I wound up driving
50 minutes from my home. In Brooklyn I can walk to Barnes and
Noble in 15 minutes or to either of two local bookstores in
10, to the supermarket in five minutes, and to several colleges
within 20. On the odd occasion where something I want is not
available in the neighborhood, I can walk 15 minutes to the
subway, take a 10 minute ride into Manhattan, and walk a few
more minutes to find the object of my desire.
there is one major hazard for pedestrians in Brooklyn:
bikes on the sidewalk. You turn a corner, expecting only to
encounter pedestrian traffic, to find yourself rearing back
to avoid being struck by a biker racing past you. The worst
offenders are the Chinese-take-out deliverymen. I have to admire
how hard these fellows work. They make their deliveries at an
absolutely frantic pace. Unfortunately, their hard work consists
in barreling along at 20 miles per hour down a sidewalk upon
which almost everyone else is moving at 2 miles per hour.
of the Chinese, what's with all of the Chinese postmen in New
York? There were certainly plenty of Chinese people in Connecticut,
but not once did I see one delivering the mail. At least in
my section of Brooklyn, it seems like about a third of mail
carriers are Chinese. Most likely, it is one of those situations
where some Chinese person with quite a few relatives or friends
got a job at the Post Office. He referred a few of his friends,
and they each referred someone else, and so on.
ethnic curiosity in my neighborhood is the composition of the
brownstone-refinishing workforce, which seems to be composed
entirely of men from the Indian subcontinent. (I've never queried
any of them as to whether they are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi,
or Sri Lankan.) Now how did that come about? Is there
some part of India, chock full of brownstones, where these fellows
learn their trade? Or is there an Indian equivalent to the trade
schools that advertise on late-night TV in the US, telling Indians
"It is you who should enter the growing and damned lucrative
field of brownstone refinishing and not only earn a high salary
but also secure for yourself a green card"? I don't know the
answer, but I plan to find out.
drivers in New York are very busy people. So busy, in fact,
that they cannot bear to sit through a red light without doing
something besides waiting for the light to turn green. Quite
often, as soon as they stop, they pick up a clipboard and begin
doing some paperwork. I imagine that they are required to record
each fare, but shouldn't they be able to do that during one
red light? However, the second light, and the third, and the
fourth, generally find them at the clipboard again. Should the
rare case come up where they have nothing to write while stopped,
they instead begin reading. Actually delivering me to
my destination seems to be an unfortunate interruption in a
day full of literary pursuits.
I am frequently
surprised by the conversations I either find myself in or overhear
in the city. One night I was in a local bar, talking to a friend
of mine about how frequently the New York City police break
the law. Quite aside from things like shooting
an unarmed man 41 times or sodomizing
a suspect with a broken broom handle, New York cops routinely
ignore the law in less serious matters. For instance, fire hydrants
in New York could accurately be re-named "police parking space
holders." It is also quite common to see a cop park his car
in the rightmost lane of a four-lane street, creating a traffic
jam, in order to run into a deli for a cup of coffee. If you
or I did that, the very same cop would no doubt ticket us, but
they are apparently above such trivial concerns.
sitting nearby overheard the two of us discussing this and jumped
in to defend the police. Perhaps, she said, they frequently
park in front of fire hydrants because if there were an emergency,
they would have to come there anyway. It didn't seem to occur
to her that police cars have no mechanism by which to make use
of fire hydrants, and that it is fire trucks that need
access to those spaces.
the course of our discussion, I pointed out that the police
are, in theory, our employees, she was appalled.
she said, "that you consider them your employees!"
I was stunned
into silence. (And let me tell you, that's a rare event for
me.) While I regard the idea that government employees work
for the people as a convenient fable convenient from the
government's point of view I had thought that essentially
all Americans who support the state bought into the idea. But
this woman who was clearly a decently intelligent, professional,
modern urbanite was shocked that I would even suggest such
a thing. Apparently, to her, the police are some sort of independent
force, placed on the earth perhaps by the gods, charged with
keeping us mere mortals in line. I think that those who claim
that the US could never become a fascist state due to our freedom
loving citizens are not paying close attention to what those
citizens are saying.
I overheard a more hopeful conversation a few days ago, when
I brought my kids out to lunch in the neighborhood. The place
to which I took them is essentially a hamburger joint, made
a bit glossier by a very thin veneer of New York hip.
were eating, a conversation in the nearby kitchen caught my
ear. What I heard was someone saying, "In the 1930s, everyone
thought this problem was solved."
what sort of historical discussion was going on in the kitchen
of a hamburger joint, I looked up. One of the owners was talking
to a waiter. He continued: "And then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall
fell. All of a sudden, a lot of people said, 'You know, maybe
von Mises was right.'
the question is, how do we know which new businesses, which
new processes, which new inventions, are worth devoting resources
to? The answer is we really don't, but at least in a free market
people have to risk their own money on their own best guess.
That way, those who are best at guessing get to keep doing it."
to say, I had not expected to overhear a lecture on the socialist
calculation debate delivered by the owner of a hamburger joint
to one of his waiters. But that is what cities are like. Urban
life is a fascinating adventure for anyone interested in human
society. If you've never lived it, give it a try sometime.