Pete Hamill on rules working class people follow in New York

There was a sense among those working people,almost from the beginning, that you would do all right in New York if only you followed the rules. Where I came from, the rules were relatively simple. Work. Put food on the table. Always pay your debts. Never cross a picket line. Don’t look for trouble, because in New York you can always find it. But don’t back off either. Make certain that the old and weak are never in danger. Vote the straight ticket.

from Downtown (2) by Pete Hamill

The summer I was sixteen I got a job in Times Square. I worked with a man named Butler, who was heavy, growly, with a whiskey-hurt Hell’s Kitchen face. He said he was fifty-one, but he looked seventy. Our job was to change the show cards in the lobbies of movie houses. Together we would pry out staples and take down the old show cards, which were five or six feet high, four feet wide, all in color. Good-bye, Joel McCrea; so long, Yvonne De Carlo. . .Then I would hold the new show cards steady while Butler stapled them into place. Hello, Rita Hayworth; enjoy the run, Glenn Ford. Then Butler would have a nice long cigarette break before we moved to the next theater.

I loved the job. There I was, at the crossroads of the world, with the breaking news moving around the face of the Times Tower and the waterfall flowing between the giant nude statues of the spectacular Bond Clothes display and smoke rings floating perfectly out of the mouth of the guy on the Camels sign. The sidewalks were jammed with sailors, pimps, cops, streetwalkers, dancers, actors, musicians, and tourists. Where Broadway crossed Seventh Avenue, traffic was a raucous, noisy show, big yellow taxis honking their honks like staccato punctuation from Gershwin, trucks and buses bullying their way downtown, and big New York voices coming out of the din: Whyncha watch where ya goin’, ya dope! Dis ain’t Joisey!

One morning Butler and I were standing under the marquee of the Victoria Theater while he pulled deep drags on a Lucky Strike. Coming down the street was a blind man, complete with dark glasses and tin cup, but no Seeing Eye dog. People dropped coins in the cup and hurried on, too busy for thanks. Then Butler flipped his butt into the street and gestured with his head toward the blind man.

“You see dis guy?” he said. “Ya see him wit’ da cup and all? Well,” he said, his voice suddenly brimming with outrage. “I happen to know for a fact dat he’s got five percent vision in one eye!”

I thought: This life business is not going to be easy

from Downtown: Pete Hamill on American humor

The creators of the American Yiddish theater also provided what earlier entertainers had given to the Irish and the Germans: the immense gift of laughter.  They used gags, skits, slapstick, and wit to make fun of one another.  Romanians made fun of Hungarians.  Both made fun of Poles. All made fun of Russians.  They skewered the greenhorns, the pompous nouveau rich, the greedy landlords, the humorless goyim, the corrupt politicians; and they added something else, an attitude that forever shifted the New York mind: irony.

That is, they made jokes out of the difference between what America promised and what America actually delivered. Irony remains the essence of American humor to this day.

from Downtown: My Manhattan by Pete Hamill

And yet, in many separate ways, the people of the city express certain common emotions. The forms and details are different for every generation and every group, but certain emotions have continued to repeat themselves for centuries. One is surely greed, the unruly desire to get more money by any means possible, an emotion shared by citizens from stockbrokers to muggers. Another is sudden anger, the result of so many people living in so relatively small a place. Another is an anarchic resistance to authority. But far and away the most powerful of all New York emotions is the one called nostalgia.

The city is, in a strange way, the capital of nostalgia. The emotion has two major roots. One is the abiding sense of loss that comes from the simple fact of continuous change. Of the city’s five boroughs, Manhattan in particular absolutely refuses to remain as it was. It is dynamic, not static. What seems permanent when you are twenty is too often a ghost when you are thirty. As in all places, parents die, friends move on, businesses wear out, and restaurants close forever. But here, change is more common than in most American cities. The engine of greatest change is the cramped land itself. Scarcity can create a holy belief in the possibility of great riches. That’s why the religion of real estate periodically enforces its commandments, and neighborhoods are cleared and buildings hauled down and new ones erected, and all that remains is memory.. . . .

. . . The New York version of nostalgia is not simply about lost buildings or their presence in the youth of the individuals who lived with them. It involves an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanent presence of loss. Nothing will ever stay the same. Tuesday runs into Wednesday and something valuable is behind you forever. An “is” has become a “was.” Whatever you have lost, you will not get it back: not that ball club, not that splendid bar, not that place where you once went dancing with the person you later married. Irreversible change happens so often in New York that the experience affects character itself. New York toughens its people against sentimentality by allowing the truer emotion of nostalgia. Sentimentality is always about a lie. Nostalgia is about real things gone. Nobody truly mourns a lie.. . .

. . .That tough nostalgia helps explain New York. It is built into our codes, like DNA, and beyond the explanation of constant change, there is another common thread in our deepest emotion. I believe New York nostalgia also comes from that extraordinary process that created the modern city: immigration.