Greetings from Israel’s big fat angry cousin, New York City. The world’s most famous pressure cooker, the kind of place where taxi fares can jump by 17 percent from one day to the next, where people who like to think of themselves as tough do deals over overpriced lunches at restaurants where no waiter is really a waiter and where even a seasoned but hungry denizen like me could make the mistake of ducking into a tourist trap like Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side for a flippin’ pastrami sandwich.
Or should I say, attempting to.
My failure to gain entry to a basic restaurant speaks volumes about the depressing social climate in America these days. FIrst there’s the fact that the superficially (?) appalling cellphone etiquette of Israelis descends to new levels of out-and-out rudeness over here. I walked into a Duane Reade drugstore at a regular business hour intending to buy some toothpaste and household items, which I found, but also learning way too much about some gay guy’s really bad day that maybe wasn’t so bad after all because apparently this other guy at work decided to — uh excuse me, what aisle were those earplugs in again?
It’s actually worse on the street, where those remaining New Yorkers who have not turned themselves into slaves to their dogs have perfected the technique of creating their own artificial reality by wearing earbuds and yammering into their cellphones as if no one else existed on these crowded thoroughfares other than themselves. Self-styled latter day royalty. Want to impress some comely stranger with that snappy Prada jacket you just got for 75% off at Century 21? Save yourself even more and shop at Old Navy, because no one, and I mean no one, in NYC will deign to give you a microsecond’s glance. Just pretend to be busy like them and move along.
Ah but the incident at Katz’s…indeed there was one. Because there was a line out the door and time was as ever at a premium, especially for my guests, I wanted to find out about how long the wait for a table was as a way to gauge the utility of taking a place in the line. Ah, but not so fast there fella, in this great land of the free! I was blocked, nearly tackled in fact, by an overzealous security guard.
A security guard at a New York deli — really? OK …ridiculous state of affairs accepted.
“You ask me,” the man demanded. (Well, he mispronounced it “axe,” but that’s parenthetical.) The last time I checked (although I know things move fast in New York) a restaurant is not the same thing as a private club. I said I preferred to ask inside. I was issued an angry verbal refusal. The tourists from Nebraska or wherever, not used to the confrontational stances that constitute the socially toxic lifeblood of this essentially Puritan metropolis, started to stare.
At that point I started to wonder if skin color was playing a role on the sidewalk there, in the same way I wondered if it might have the day before as a man of one skin tone in an SUV rolling along Fifth Avenue hurled anti-Romney invective out the window at a man of another skin tone with an anti-Obama sign around his neck on the sidewalk.
But I didn’t wonder too long, nor did I succeed in the strangely Sisyphean task of getting a sandwich — or rather, the strangely Sisyphean task of obtaining a few crumbs of information about the possibility of getting a sandwich. I took my business elsewhere, because God knows there are better pastrami sandwiches than Katz’s in New York.
It’s the city of the perpetually dissatisfied, old New York, the place where you always have that nagging suspicion that there’s a tastier hamburger or girlfriend around the next corner, and where if you don’t harbor such suspicions you’re considered an intruder on the timeworn turf, a slayer of the zeitgeist. Satisfaction is taboo in New York.
So too it seems is civil behavior, in most quarters. Israelis and other tourists who swear it’s a friendly place say this in inverse proportion to how well they know it. Because they don’t: they’re tourists.
But the incident at Katz’s did not occur in isolation: it’s the new normal in an America where corporate boards make bigger decisions than presidents, where civil liberties are spat upon on an hourly basis by a feckless and fascistic Transportation Security Administration, and where a lunatic’s shooting of innocent moviegoers provokes a pathetic countrywide resignation instead of the real remorse and constructive anger necessary to effect change.
New York City is the unofficial capital of all this. New York, the imagined center of the world so celebrated on the silver screen, in the pages of The New York Times, in the dreams of so many travelers across time.
An interesting illusion.