Falling from a skyscraper

"In New York I learned that wealth and poverty are intertwined; there is neither utopia or dystopia, just myopia."

By TOM HOPE
April 25, 2006 21:14
4 minute read.

Up and down, back and forth fluttered a faded scrap of paper that had slipped out of my hand, tossed by the wind. My eyes followed it from the height of the Empire State Building, until it was out of sight. It crossed my mind that from my apartment building back in Israel, that paper would be visible all the way to the ground. But from atop New York's tallest skyscraper, the world below becomes a postcard, a scene in a Hollywood film, as the flashy giants of brick and steel mesmerize with fantasies of opulence and power, leaving no room for the minuscule pedestrians and their pedestrian lives, let alone an Israeli supermarket receipt. The people on the streets were not there, in my postcard-view. By my side were Japanese, German, even some Pakistani tourists, all awestruck, whispering every so often and gesturing hurriedly to come see this building's glittering windows or that one's golden spire. Once in a while a helicopter would pass in the distance. Families would let out cries of glee and the children would rush to the bars, their parents clamoring behind. "Who d'you think it is?" one British man asked his wife. "They're shooting a film," guessed one of their kids, standing on tiptoe. "It's Donald Trump on his way home from work," the wife responded. "Maybe the police's going on a car chase," the man said. "George Bush," someone murmured in an unfamiliar accent. I stepped away from the crowd, put my hands on the bars, and looked out. The people below were not there. Only the enthralling rectangular shapes, and dreams. I'm moving to New York. I'm going to be a businessman. I'll get a helicopter and live in a penthouse in Trump Towers. A recurrent conversation with my friends at school popped into my mind. "Hey, Tom, what's your company gonna be called?" "You messing with me? Don't start." "C'mon, say it." "Hope Corporation…" "And how much money you gonna have?" "How much money are you gonna have?" I liked to reply. "Me? You know - $700-$750 million." I WAS awakened by the touch of my father's hand, and took the elevator back down to the street. There, everything was different. From below, the skyscrapers seemed so tall that their tops were invisible, but the crowds were overwhelming. Our hotel was on a rather seamy side street but, nevertheless, every morning on leaving I was greeted by the spectacle of a white, 10-window limousine parked outside a garage. Nearby lay another spectacle. It was one of the ghosts of the city, those who live and die unnoticed - the homeless. Dressed in rags, lying asleep on the baking-hot sidewalk, they were everywhere. A doleful spirit took hold of me. The contrast between the myriad limousines and the myriad homeless was too striking to be real. I couldn't stomach the realization that this dream city, with its towers and Broadway shows and huge corporations, was also the dark reality of so many humans with no names, no strength, no hopes, who induce no emotion but fear and a rare flash of sympathy. I had stepped through the movie screen that is the peel of The Big Apple, and was looking at its rotten core. The images on the screen show two universes. One world, like teen flicks, flaunts a superficial richness, while the other, like a bad action film, depicts a superficial poverty. MTV rap clips - with their materialism and "gangsta" style - manage to do both at once. In fact, an oversimplified portrayal of poverty and hardship is necessary for creating an imaginary utopia, because the strong contrast underlines the notion that travel or relations between the two is impossible. In New York I learned that the two worlds are intertwined; there is neither utopia nor dystopia, just myopia. FROM THEN on, it all changed. My father's suggestion that we walk around Harlem suddenly seemed reasonable. From the top of a skyscraper I had been enchanted by glamorous buildings and Hollywood portrayals, and repelled by the squalid and negative ones that lay in the murk far below. The big, superficial perspectives displaced the real but distant humans, with their depth and complexity. Harlem, parts of which from my skyscraper seemed like the embodiment of hell on earth, suddenly appeared more enticingly real than all the city's flamboyant shows and glitzy edifices. I went there, and saw plenty of burly, intimidating black people walking shirtless and staring at the two white men wandering in their "hood." But lo and behold, I didn't see any gang fights or drive-by shootings. If my visit had been part of a Hollywood picture or MTV clip, I wouldn't have bet on my chances of survival. Nowadays I still enjoy listening to rap and watching Hollywood films. But the chink through which I look at them is wider. I see that cheap culture's veil, which both hides poverty and distorts the reality of the poor in the States, has the same effect in Israel. If Israelis realized that the king and his culture have no clothes, perhaps we would devote more thought to our own adversities, rather than seeking utopia in rappers' bling and New York's skyline. The writer, a Jerusalem resident, is a recent high-school graduate.


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