Lost In The Streets Of The Rich

 
I’m walking through the Upper East Side.  It’s my first time here.  Why would I ever come here?  I’m a middle class orthodox Jew just scraping by in Brooklyn.  I’ve heard talk about how this is the old school rich side of the city, but nothing ever brought me here to see it for myself.  The way this city works, some neighborhoods are like different states.

But now I’ve started working at this nonprofit, and they have these annual board meetings with all the people who are the reason the nonprofit even exists.  And so they hold their meeting in the neighborhood, I guess, where they’d feel more at home.  The Upper East Side.

I remember walking from the subway, my worries about being able to pay my rent and my daughter’s tuition, wondering if I should even stay in this damn city where being middle class actually means being broke.  And I can’t help it, I just see how nice this place is.  Well, not just nice.  Opulent.

In most parts of New York City, there’s a powerful mix of the poor and the rich.  It’s impossible to walk around this place without realizing that there are some people doing better, some people doing worse.  You think your life is hard, and then you see a guy in tatters on the sidewalk muttering to himself and trying to form the words to tell you he needs help.

But walking in this neighborhood, it’s like they outlawed poor people.  It feels like this whole city is just the rich.  The beautiful buildings, the beautiful people, the beautiful streets.  I’m not just in a different state, I’m in a different world.

I look to my side, and I see a father and mother standing with their children, and I wonder if I’m seeing things.  The son, no more than 9 years old, is wearing a blazer, the kind with the crest that indicates he goes to some elite private school.  The father and mother are dressed immaculately, as if they are about to go to some fancy event, but I can’t help but think that this is just how they dress.  And I realize that the reason it feels so surreal to me is that the only place I’ve seen this sort of getup before is in the movies.  Things like the Dead Poet’s Society, where that kind of opulence is usually depicted with suspicion, like it’s something about to become extinct at any time.  So even as I look at them right in front of me, I can’t help but wonder if this is just an act, if they’re just play-acting.  It can’t be real, my subconscious tells me.

I walk into the dinner, and I’m confused and thrown off.  I make conversation with these people who up until now I’ve mainly seen at my work, where we’re kind of equalized by the setting.  Now, I’m feeling a bit less-than, a bit intimidated.  Something about walking through this neighborhood has really unsettled me.

We have our dinner, we connect, and soon I’m feeling like I belong, like it’s all fine, and I forget the neighborhood outside and just get excited about all the good work we’re doing.  It’s exciting, plus I’m drinking, so I wonder if perhaps it was just a momentary thing I felt.

But as I walk out, buzzed now, it’s like I’m hit by a gust of surrealism again.  It’s night now, where in my neighborhood you feel a bit uncomfortable, a bit like maybe you shouldn’t be out, or you should at least walk with your chest out so people know not to mess with you.  But here, it’s again, just a completely different experience than any place I’ve been in in this city.  It’s hard to pin down, but the words I keep thinking of are “care free.”  I pass a cafe which is connected to an apartment building, and I see a woman in a huge fur coat laughing with a group of similarly rich-looking people.  I keep going, and I see people comfortably walking around as if there’s no reason to worry.  They’re not like the people you may see in the Village who walk around like they’re partying, looking for a fun time.  These people live here, and they’re strolling through their beautiful home.

I feel like an alien, like a UFO dropped me here and I have no idea what is going on and who these strange creatures are.

It’s only when I walk down the stairs to the subway that I finally start to feel normal again.  Back to the griminess, to a place where the homeless mix with the well-off.  I’m comfortable again.

 

It’s a week later, and my friend has invited me to eat at a kosher restaurant I’ve never heard of before.  I’ve never heard of it because it’s incredibly expensive, apparently.  A steakhouse off the Wall Street subway stop.

It’s a networking meeting.  A friend of my friend is looking for guidance on his website, and he thought of me.

Whenever I get off the Wall Street stop, I’m simultaneously intimidated and amazed.  This place, built off of people just trading money around is so imposing, so powerful.  It feels like the buildings were made to remind us of the power money can buy.  To remind us that we will always be small if we don’t connect to that power.

It’s a weekday, nighttime.  A different vibe than when I’ve been here in the past.  Now, the streets are relatively empty.  The only people out seem to be people about to go to restaurants like the one I’m about to go to.  Unlike the people in the Upper East Side, these are people who have a look like the buildings: they’re here because they’re powerful, because they can afford to be here, because otherwise what else would they have to gain from this place.

I’ve still been suffering from anxiety because of my worries about rent, and so again, I have a feeling of surreality, but this time I think it’s only because I know that most of the people I’m looking at will never have that issue.  Why does it bother me so much, why do I have to keep comparing my struggles to theirs?  And yet I do, and yet I do.

But that’s nothing compared to when I walk into the restaurant.  I’ve never been to a place like this.  Even growing up upper middle class, even the nicest restaurants I’ve ever been to, were nothing like this.

It seems like every aspect of the place is a reminder to the people eating there: you are rich.  The lights are low, and bottles of wine in clear glass cases are what constitute some of the walls.  The staff is not just nice… they seem to fall over themselves to help me.  Offering to take my bag, smiling at everything I say.  They walk me to the table, and I see the clientele: Modern Orthodox guys on their phones, laughing about a dirty joke; a few people on dates, the women looking like Ivanka, the men looking like Jared; a table of Hasidim leaning over and talking in hushed tones, contrasting powerfully with the EDM playing in the background; a few people that seem like they’re not even Jewish, who just came here because it’s good, which is unknown in most kosher places.

I’m at my table, and they pull my seat out for me.  Through the night, it’s the seats that most make an impact on me: they’re more like couches.  Black leather seats that I can recline on after I’ve had a meal so satisfying I need to recover.  I’m struck by it because it’s clear that there wasn’t any aspect of this restaurant that has been overlooked as a way to remind the people here that they matter, that they’re important, that they’re spending a lot of money to be here.

The waiter stands behind me and waits for everyone to say hello to me before welcoming me warmly and cheerily describing every special and item that he recommends and I feel like I’m in a movie or something, and I just look to my host as if to motion that I have no idea what’s happening.  He smiles and starts ordering for all of us.

I try to get lost in the conversation that results, but I can’t help but feel the pressure of the place closing in on me, telling me something.  Telling me that I’ll never come to a place like this by choice, that it’s designed to remind the people here that they are above people like me.  I recognize in part of my mind that I have no idea if that’s what the people here actually think, if that’s why it was designed this way… but I can’t help thinking it, I can’t help believing it.  I’m not successful enough to enjoy this place, not really.  I’m successful enough to be invited here and not pay for my portion.

Walking out of the restaurant, I feel overwhelmed, feel like I need a breath of fresh middle-class air, but again I’m surrounded by the big, moneyed buildings that breathe down my neck with their raw power, their message of strength.

As I wind through the streets looking for my subway, I notice that there are police on two ends of one building.  The area directly in front of the entrance seems deserted, as if people are avoiding getting too close.  Instinctively, I look at the huge golden words emblazoned above the people who scurry underneath: “Trump Tower.”

Of course, I think, of course.  Here, now, I see this.  And for a moment, all the intimidation and judgment of myself I felt disappears.  I take out my camera, take a shot of me flicking it off, and head back into the subway, back into the grunge of the place where I and the homeless share a home, and am back in my normal life.

 

For days afterwards, I’m confused.  Trying to understand the surreality of these experiences, the way I felt so bizarrely disconnected from them, as if I was dreaming, as if it was a movie, as if it couldn’t be real.

I speak to my wife about it, and she smiles sympathetically but is unsure how to respond.  It’s just people with money, just places with money.  To her, these are inconsequential differences between people, they are illusions themselves.  But after we speak I can’t shake the experience.

For months, years, living here in Brooklyn, I’ve felt the constant press of money. The constant worry about rent and day school tuition and all the other costs of living that keep rising in our gentrifying neighborhood. And how we’re going to even be able to stay here to live out the mission of raising up the creative Jewish community that is on the verge of flourishing here.

One of the comforts of these difficulties is that it seems like everyone else around us seems to suffer from the same thing to varying degrees.  Like my time in Israel, it seems like most of us choose to live here for a reason that doesn’t have to do with comfort, that we’re all sacrificing materially in order to live for something we believe in.  From my friend who is a teacher and lives in a small basement with his wife and his baby to some of my friends at shul who openly worry about their concerns paying for their mortgage (mortgage! what a dream!), no matter what level of challenges we face, there is a certain camaraderie in knowing that we all have them.

But what this experience has opened my eyes to is that perhaps there’s something more here than comfort, than camaraderie.  Until that visit to the Upper East Side and that fancy kosher restaurant, I hadn’t really considered the possibility that there was anyone here who didn’t have these struggles.  I intellectually knew it, of course, but I hadn’t really emotionally bought into it.  I hadn’t seen it, heard it, felt it.

I think part of what I hadn’t considered was that for some people, having enough money meant that New York City was actually a nicer experience than other places would be.  A playground with gorgeous neighborhoods built just for them, restaurants that couldn’t exist anywhere else where the seats and the people and the food and the decor all were specifically designed to their urbane tastes, where walking into work meant walking into a monument to their achievements.

That week of tourism into the world of the rich of New York City for me was a sharp jolt.  A reminder that I had no idea how some people lived here.  The struggle of living here had so encompassed my life that I had not even considered that there could be an entire population here that didn’t share my experience.

I’m walking through the city again, back in my own world, surrounded by my usual sights and sounds and smells, the grungy Brooklyn streets, the dirty subway, my home that seems to be shrinking in on us as we add children and possessions to it, my work where we’re all nonprofit workers sacrificing something to change the world, and I can’t help but meditate on all this, can’t help but see it all through a different lens.

It reminds me of when I went to Israel for a week the year before.  For two beautiful weeks, I lived in a settlement that was surrounded by nature and God, and all I wanted to do was take pictures because it was all so different from my grunge.

But what surprised me when I returned home was how I had the exact same feeling of freshness, of an unappreciated beauty surrounding me.  I started taking pictures of the laundromats and the subway, suddenly enchanted by a place that was so different from so much of the world.

It went away quickly, of course, that magic.  Soon I was back to my bubble, and was too caught up in it and its stressors to think for a second that this place might be beautiful: it was just where I lived.

And now I’m walking around again, and I want to take pictures again, but it’s not because I think it’s beautiful, it’s just because I realize that this is not everyone’s normal, this is a world that is unique in its own way.  It is that bubble that I first noticed when I returned from Israel.  It is its own world.

And it is that which gave me the surreal feeling in the Upper East Side and in the restaurant: I realized I had entered a new bubble.  And the bubble was not something I had any experience with, one that seemed so thoroughly different than mine and yet so close to it that it felt like some sort of alternate universe.  No wonder I felt like an alien: I was one.

I wonder if the people I saw could even imagine the struggles I struggle with every day, and it bothers me, deeply bothers me, that I think many of them haven’t, that they don’t really know what it means to be someone stretching their dollars and cents just to feed their family and pay for the roof over their heads.  What does that do to a person’s empathy, I wonder?  What does it do when they vote or when they decide where to give their charity (or if to give it at all)?

It was that carefree look on everyone in the restaurant that so disturbed me, the way they were so comfortable in their chairs.  The world shouldn’t be that comfortable, I can’t help but think.  These bubbles, these echo chambers of wealth and privilege and insulated existence, how can they be good for the world?

But I am no different, am I?  As I think all this, it’s clear that whatever struggles I have seem like they’re the center of the world, like they should be what everyone is concerned about because I’m concerned about them.

And yet.

And yet, how many people are lucky as me to even have a roof?  To have food?  What percentage of people make less than a few dollars a month?  I don’t even know the number because it doesn’t matter enough to me, because it doesn’t really affect me.

I come home every day, and I hug my children and I kiss my wife, and I sit down and I eat a meal and I lay down on my couch and I take out my phone and I watch Netflix and I struggle to remind myself to read a book and I go on Twitter and I go on Facebook and I let my voice be heard all around me and I put it down and I grab some more food even when I shouldn’t and I go brush my teeth and I lay down in bed and I listen to a podcast as I drift off to sleep and I wake up the next day and I’m refreshed and happy and I see my smiling girls again.

How many people live in a world where their children are always in danger?  I see the footage of Syria, and I know that out there somewhere there is an entire country where they fear for their children’s lives, and I want them to be safe but I cannot have the empathy for them that I really should because I can’t truly imagine what it would be like to be them.  I can’t even look at a homeless person right in front of me and know what he experiences, know his struggles.

I am no different than the people at the restaurant, in that I live in a bubble of privilege, a bubble of reality, a bubble where all I know is what I experience and live and all the rest is a fiction that I try to remember is nonfiction.

I think of Trump Tower, how I flicked it off.  How there would be people who would bow down to it, and how I have spent a year battling them and angry at them and unable to grasp where they are coming from.  I think of how all-encompassing their universes of reality must be to have such a different view of the dangers of the world than mine.  I do not think they are right, but I realize that we live in different worlds, worlds with different struggles and different languages and different truths and we look at each other like we’re a fiction that’s invading our nonfiction world and we can’t stand it and we’re so angry and afraid because of that.

The bubbles of our reality define us more than we can imagine, they are the settings of our stories, as different as the setting of a science fiction book and a historical fiction novel.  While I live in a world of connection, constant entertainment, and technological dystopian addiction, others live in a world where they live no differently than their ancestors did generations ago.

And while I want to believe that somehow we will all find a way to live harmoniously side by side, I can’t help feel that this is a reality that must be worked with instead of imagined away, something that matters, something that I shouldn’t just move on from, something I need to embrace more, to see more, to see in myself more, to appreciate more.

And maybe to write about more.