In 1960, a new college graduate, I migrate from my hometown in Pennsylvania to New York, a flaxen-haired twenty-something ready to start “real” life in the city of her dreams. I find an apartment on the Lower East Side, a job as the salad girl in the cafeteria in the Time Life building, and modern dance classes I crave to pursue my desired career.
Within weeks city life lifts me into its cacophonous orbit. I experience its centripetal force as visceral, often intoxicating: every shade of human skin represented, along with varieties of English where not only words I know sound strange, but they pour forth in bizarre accents and weird rhythms. Dress is colorful and sexy, sumptuous and full flowing, or tight and skimpy, shorts, pants for young and old, men and women, fat and slim. Music as in free concerts, keeps the parks vibrating, Latin rhythms waft from radios on fire escapes, loudspeakers on the top of vans blare their messages about who to vote for, how to register. My fourth floor apartment looks out on unending traffic heading south on Second Avenue, sirens from police cars and ambulances pepper the sound waves. The chaos calls out the inebriates living in the men’s shelter around the corner who direct the stream of vehicles with arms waving and beeps and toots blown on their kid whistles. My parents fret about how a nice girl like me can live in a semi-slum. But I coast on guilty thrills—there’s enough life generated in one 24-hour cycle equal to a year’s worth of animation in my hometown in PA.
Still, it takes me longer than I like to admit to understand membership in my neighborhood. My frothy sense of belonging to “our tribe,” as I refer to us, gets brought up short when people ask, “Where’re you from?”
“From here,” I say, waving at our surroundings. “I live just down the block,” and point in the general direction of my building. Polite nods or loss of interest are the responses.
The question keeps coming up. I shift to, “I’m an American,” or “from the state of Pennsylvania.” Quizzical looks tip me off that I’ve missed the point again.
The break through comes the day the Ukrainian butcher poses the same question, but follows my nondescript answer with laughter and another question.
“No, Sweetheart, I mean who are your people?”
It was at this point that I realized what was at stake, my long overdue cultural heads-up: my people are not everyone’s people, my heritage not a synonym for America and Americans. Small town life had left me blank, mixing with the “others” was off limits. On the Lower East Side all of us were “other” to one another. I was the one who had to be shaken awake, who’d been deprived of the heritage of my multicultural country by the experience of growing up in ethnically cleansed suburbia in the 1950s.
I gave up dancing for teaching and I no longer live in New York City. But the understanding that everyone in our global community holds a unique place on the continuum that makes up the human species got its belated start in my neighborhood on the Lower East Side. Since that time, this journey, now part of everyone’s coming of age, has increased in its power and its momentum, its relevance a priority for all nine billion of our species, and an absolute requirement to save us from destroying ourselves.