Playing to Win

A Letter from New York City

April 07, 1991|By DIANE WINSTON

NEW YORK — New York.--The cabdriver had a proposition. If I could guess which country his music came from, my ride was free. If I lost, I paid the meter.

"You have nothing to lose," he assured me. "You have three guesses, and you can even ask questions."

The music was knotted, repetitious and depressing.

"Is this music from the Middle East?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered.

"Is it a country at war with Israel?"

He twisted his body to look at me, "Every country in the Middle East is at war with Israel. Israel is a thorn in our side. Now Israel is putting millions of Soviet refugees in the occupied lands. How can they do this? How can the Soviet Union allow it?"

"Jordan?" I asked, hoping to change the subject.

"No, not Jordan," he said -- pleased I was wrong but not completely mollified.

"Is it from a Muslim country?" I said.

"Yes."

"Is it Palestinian?"

"No," he said. "You have one more question. Want to make it double or nothing?"

"No," I replied. "The music is Persian. It's from Iran.

He twisted back again -- a pained look on his face, "That's right. It is Persian. How did you know? Most of my riders don't recognize it."

I had recognized it as soon as he started playing it. I always recognize things I want to avoid -- what better way to protect myself? But I didn't want to win too easily. I had a sporting type on my hands.

The meter was still running when we reached my destination. I thought he would say thanks, bye, see you around. Instead he waited to be paid.

That's New York -- everybody wants to play and everyone has to win.

It wasn't always that way. It used to be like anyone else's hometown. On the Upper West Side, where I grew up, there was Morris, the stationer; Sal, the tailor; Walter, the butcher; and Mrs. Grossinger, the baker. As neighbors, they lacked the cool ferocity of the cabbie who knew he'd never see me again. Life wasn't a series of set pieces played to win, it was a bright thread which bound us together.

Every Saturday we'd visit them -- well, I would visit and my father would pay the bill. Walter would hand me a slice of salami and Mrs. Grossinger offered a cookie.

Morris just gave me a hard time. If I wanted a notebook, he'd look stricken then shlep to the back of the narrow store and climb a ladder to fetch one. If I wanted a pencil, he'd shrug and suggest a pen. If I needed a birthday card, he would sigh, point me around the corner and tell me not to get everything dirty.

Back then the neighborhood changed block to block, and I grew up thinking the world was black, Jewish, Hispanic with Irish doormen.

Then it changed. It changed when I grew up. They always say that. But this time it's true.

When I grew up not everybody was on the hustle. They couldn't afford to be. They depended on each other; they were neighbors. Walter couldn't jack up the price of flank steak each week -- no one would buy there. Morris couldn't go double or nothing for pens -- we would have said he was crazy. Mrs. Grossinger couldn't gouge us kids for linzer torts -- we would have told our mothers.

It changed when the West Side Renaissance occurred. That's what they called it -- the landlords and bankers. Not Morris or Walter. They had to leave. It was too expensive. There were no more shoe stores, stationers, butchers or bakers. Instead there was a Gap, a Kids Gap, a Baby Gap and a Benetton's.

The side streets were cleaned up. Poor people gave way to gays who gave way to lawyers, dentists and traders. The nights changed, too. They had texture and light as stuffed streets over-spilled sidewalk cafes into curbside carnivals of clowns, mimes and musicians.

My parents moved out, too. They went to the East Side, following my grandparents who made the crossing a dozen years before.

Back then we hated the East Side. It was stolid, stodgy and upper-crust. The girls there had straight blonde hair and graduated from plaid skirts and blue blazers to pearls and fur coats.

But when my parents moved, the East Side was still a neighborhood. It wasn't the same kind of neighborhood the West Side had been, but it was something more than a string of chic clothing chains, tony restaurants and glitzy boutiques. There were antique shops, pizza parlors and Korean food markets.

There were people with whom you did business regularly. People you would see every day. People who depended on their reputations.

On the corner where my parents lived on the East Side was a foundling hospital. In front of the hospital, at least twice a year, earnest-looking women set up tables and sold raffles for the children. Everybody stopped and bought one when they walked their dogs.

Everyone saw those children. They were neighbors.

But these days in New York there's always someone willing to pay more to be less of a neighbor.

Donald Trump bought the building and tore down the hospital. He built a pink marble luxury high-rise tower in its place. When I look up, the building seems to go on forever. And as Trump empire teeters toward bankruptcy, I wonder what will happen to this investment.

And I wonder, too, what will happen to the neighborhood.

Diane Winston is a reporter for The Sun.

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