The courage of New York firefighters was honored during the “Concert for New York” at Madison Square Garden on October 20, and David Bowie noted the privilege he felt to play for his “local ladder” heroes, who step into danger to save innocents and extinguish fires. Among the entertainment all-stars present, the actor Richard Gere didn’t merely talk or sing about courage: He did something brave.
Gere knew what he was stepping into. Five days prior to the concert, he had been slapped by The New Republic and its adolescent “Idiocy Watch” column for using words as inappropriate as “love and compassion” and speaking of the “negative karma” of terrorists. At the concert, Gere steered clear of any reference to his well-known Eastern religious tendencies, but he did repeat the newly explosive Western expletives. He seemed to anticipate, anyway, the boos that hailed down upon him from many of the 20,000 seats. His response was decidedly different from that of Sinead O’Connor, who had once burst into tears upon being jeered at a 1992 MSG all-star show. The officer and gentleman of the silver screen utilized the rejection artfully, like an expected stage prop, to remark that it is the same “love and compassion” that the firefighters demonstrate when saving lives. “That’s apparently unpopular now,” Gere closed, implicitly acknowledging that booing is, too, a form of speech, “but that’s OK.” It was a classy New York minute.
It took guts for Gere to turn the hose of his art upon the flames of wartime in a crowded arena. In that, he deployed a decidedly New York weapon: Speech.
New York City’s historic refusal to shut up is now one of the national treasures that some newly minted sunshine patriots wish to bulldoze under the rubble of Lower Manhattan. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer lectured that we must “watch what we say” after the September 11 attacks, and even some journalists–formerly the warriors who defended free speech–have signed up as speech cops. As the networks obey federal “requests” to deny airtime to Osama bin Laden, some journalists have argued that Al Jazeera, the Qatar TV network, should be censored too. CNN sent six questions to bin Laden but roared that it will air the responses only if they are “newsworthy,” while a Fox news official criticized CNN for even asking the questions. The New York Times and an illustrious media partnership spent a million dollars to recount the Florida 2000 presidential vote but have now bounced the project from public view on the grounds that the results–the elite of the Fourth Estate, alone, have seen the data–might have “stoked the partisan tensions,” according to one Times reporter. (This suggests that the next Daniel Ellsberg may have to leak documents from inside the Times rather than to the newspaper.)
Is all this watching of what we say really how we are supposed to honor our dead in New York? Is that the way to pay our respects in the city that never sleeps nor shuts up?
Before speech becomes a “quality of life crime,” artists and communicators are going to have to face the crowd, as Gere did, employing all the creativity and chutzpah we can muster. The changing political landscape is not entirely negative for this effort: The imminent exit of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani–he was pro-censorship before censorship was cool–further heightens the unpredictability of the drama now under way. To shut up or not to shut up? That is the question. It’s up to you, New York, New York. To wit:
New York’s greatness was not built of “tower(s) to the sun, brick and rivet and lime”–but by the likes of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney, penning “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” in the wake of the last huge disaster to hit the nation through New York: the Great Depression. The Broadway show for which they wrote the song, New Americana, lacked paying customers, had to close its doors, and the cast was laid off. Two days later, in October 1932, Bing Crosby went into a New York studio to record that protest and lament. It became the number-one song of the year as it lifted the hearts of down-but-not-out Americans higher than any elevator could ever take us.
Now, in place of the authentic one, we’re being fed a virtual New York: that of Gordon Gekko snarling from virtual Wall Street, “When I get ahold of the son of a bitch who leaked this, I’m gonna tear his eyeballs out and I’m gonna suck his fucking skull”; of Rudy Giuliani poking around the rubble looking for his unconstitutional term extension and for sheiks to scapegoat for the loss of liberties that he was already busy eliminating himself; of Donald Trump calling for us to build new phalluses into the sky where David Rockefeller’s twin vanity towers stood; and of New York bankers lobbying in Washington so that the hunt for the terror money trail looks under every rock except theirs.
The Jets and the Sharks were street gangs in Hell’s Kitchen who danced and sang in rhyme. Our reality was portrayed through utopian vision. In recent decades, virtual chic displaced all suggestion of Utopia-on-the-Hudson, evicting or jailing the hardscrabble Jets and Sharks alike. New York–indeed, all America–no longer reflected a dream but rather a sterile “economic opportunity.” Now Boeing jets crash into towers and White House sharks seize upon the pain and fear of millions to install a New World Order that attempts to bury the Authentic New York in its censorious wave–the City of Speech; of workers, of poor folks, of artists and immigrants and utopian dreamers (there’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us!), the people who built this city, whose uniting quality is precisely the refusal to shut our mouths.
Being a New Yorker has become, in this era, something akin to being a Vietnam veteran: Nobody who wasn’t there wants to see what you’ve really seen or hear what you’ve really heard. Authentic New York–transgressive, messy, noisy, never particularly loved by so many of those who today advocate war in its name–had to be filtered by its artists, creamed and sweetened for world consumption; in songs from the Brill Building, from Broadway, and from the Bowery and Bleecker–hold the sugar–where the late Joey Ramone sang about turning tricks for smack at 53rd and Third.
Audible New York was brought to the screen by Lithuanian immigrant Asa Yoelson, a k a Al Jolson, who as The Jazz Singer headed to Broadway and ad-libbed for the camera: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” thus laying waste to the silence of film.
From a cabin on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx, Edgar Allan Poe heard “the loud alarm bells, Brazen Bells! What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!… Too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune…. How the danger sinks and swells-by the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells…”
From Harlem, Langston Hughes asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?… Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”
New York is where Allen Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”
New York is not a skyline; but it is Emma Goldman standing up to declare, “If I can’t dance I don’t wanna be in your revolution.” New York is Ring Lardner Jr., the Daily Mirror reporter, blacklisted, imprisoned for refusing to snitch during the red scare, the Hollywood Ten screenwriter who wrote A Star Is Born and M*A*S*H, thirty-three years apart. And authentic New York is Leonard Alfred Schneider, a k a Lenny Bruce, shouting, as they dragged him in and out of New York courts, “in the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls,” who died in 1966, convicted of obscenity, of not watching what he said.
New York is also John Peter Zenger, who 266 years ago dared to call the Colonial Governor an “idiot” and a “Nero”–imagine, at a time like that!–who was charged with libel for his seditionary patriotism. And New York is, above all, The People, the jury that disregarded the judge’s instructions and acquitted that 34-year-old printer.
Now I hear Poe’s bells every time I turn on the TV or pick up the newspaper, “too much horrified to speak, they can only shriek, shriek, out of tune,” and I think of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
From there I can see Our Lady of Mercy Hospital–it was called Misericordia when I was coaxed into the world at that spot–and I can touch the grave of my great grandfather, a construction worker from the hills outside Naples. There, I will sit silently to listen over the rustle of autumn leaves for the eternal speech from 350,000 tombs of my fellow New Yorkers, native and imported, who, even in death, demand that we never fall silent. They include: Irving Berlin; Duke Ellington; Bat Masterson; Sir Miles Davis; Maximillian Berlitz; George M. Cohan; W.C. Handy blowing his trumpet; Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes (who spoke out against the first red scare hysteria, of 1919); Oscar Hammerstein still humming the New York folk song “Edelweiss, Edelweiss, bless my homeland forever”–it was not in fact Austrian–which he wrote knowing that he was dying; the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the Cubist Alexander Archipenko; the Bulova brothers making time tick; “Madame C.J.,” the first black millionaire, and her daughter A’Lelia Walker Robinson, whom Langston Hughes called the “Joy Goddess of Harlem”; Herman Melville; Elizabeth Cochrane Seamans, a k a the authentic journalist Nelly Bly; Joe Pulitzer; Otto Preminger (Batman’s Mr. Freeze); the Harlem blackbird Florence Mills; the publisher Generoso Pope Sr.; Antoinette Freauff Perry, immortalized by an award named Tony; Henry Gaylord Wilshire, for whom the LA boulevard is named but who got no rest in Hollywood, so he came to lie in New York; the rapper Christopher “The Big Pun” Rios, who died last year at 28; Anton Kliegl still shining his lights; second baseman Frankie Frisch–the Fordham Flash–resting now at home plate. Fiorello La Guardia–the florid-tongued New York mayor who stood up against anti-immigrant hysteria, reminding, “my dog came from a distinguished family tree, but he was still a son of a bitch”–is buried here too; so is Joseph “King” Oliver, the jazz pioneer, and Rudolph Schaeffer pouring a beer…. This is a crowd, like that on any other block in these five boroughs, that couldn’t agree on lunch. But one sacred mission united them over the expanse of generations: to never shut up in New York.
More than 4,000 New Yorkers joined the Woodlawn 350,000 on September 11. We’re each going to join them sooner or later. But authentic New York, the City of Speech that survived a revolution, a Great Depression, and two red scares, history’s grand engine of free-speaking culture, will survive this hit too-if, and only if, we refuse to remain silent about anything and everything at this hour of moral crisis. Start spreadin’ the news…loudly and without biting your tongue: New York shall rise again, not through war, but by speech.