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June 29, 2011 / Karen Hill Anton

My hometown New York City

Lila at home, dressed in yukata for a summer festival

(September 12, 1991)           

Although my husband and I have returned to New York City often, this summer was the first time we’ve been in the city with all four or our children. Phew. Being there with children is a nerve-racking business.

“Lila, hold my hand … Mario, don’t wander off … Mie, don’t put your bag down … Nanao, if you’re going to be late, take a taxi …”

Still, we managed to enjoy what must be the world’s most fascinating city, and lined up with other tourists to enter the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center. We could have been in Japan for all the English we heard spoken around us.

Trying to reclaim the city we knew when we were kids, we took our children to the Museum of Natural History and its famous Hayden Planetarium, which I remembered as being much bigger and more mysterious. Of course, the last time I was there, someone had taken me.

Our children surveyed it all with wide-eyed interest. Whether it was a free concert in Central Park, or just watching police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks as they sped by with lights flashing and sirens blaring, and regularity, they seemed to take it all in the same way one would look at a parade, a carnival or a circus.

Our youngest daughter, Lila, had never been to the East Coast before, and was curious to see her parents’ birthplace, or furusato, as she called it. (That word, variously defined as “a place dear to one’s heart” or “one’s spiritual home,” is hardly the one I’d choose when referring to the Big Apple (which has had more than a little rot at the core).

One day, while walking downtown with Lila, I had a chance to see the city through her raised-in-Japan eyes.

“Mama, is that a school?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Who wrote all over the walls?”

“I don’t know, but probably some of the students.”

“Is that OK to do?”

“No. It’s not OK.”

Clearly aware that anti-social actions have unfortunate consequences, she said, “Then why did they do it? I bet the teacher is real mad and they’re going to be in trouble.”

I’ve noted that in the past decade the homeless have proliferated in what seems direct proportion to the increase in the number of limousines one sees sleeking through city streets. Beggars and the homeless are now a fact of urban life, and most people who live in the city adopt and follow a policy in regard to them:  keep change in your pocket to hand out – give a dollar to the first five people who ask – or, ignore them all.

Lila had never seen a homeless person before this summer, and her 8-year old perspective was simple.

“Mama, why is that man sleeping in the street?”

“Because he doesn’t have a home.”

“How can someone not have a home?”

“That’s a good question,” and I proceeded to provide a clear answer, that covered basic economics and societal ills. But the answer didn’t tally with Lila. She wanted to know “what do they do when it rains?” or when it gets cold. Where do they go to the toilet, what happens if they get sick, how can they get any mail, and “Mama, how can they cook?”

She got the answer to this last question when a little further up the block she saw an old woman scavenging through the garbage, eating the remains of food tossed in by the lunchtime crowd.

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POSTSCRIPT

I don’t have the data, but I suppose the number of homeless has grown exponentially. And what with the severe shock in the finance industry, it’s possible some of those limousine-riders have joined their ranks.

Though I doubt it. Surely those who amassed real wealth squirreled away a goodly amount for that rainy day that has come. 

And now of course, Lila could easily find homeless here in Japan. In Tokyo they inhabit certain subway stations, and there are whole tent cities established.

But what I am certain she will never find here – certainly I’ve never seen it – is a homeless family. Homeless children. Children being raised in cardboard boxes, or who call the back seat of a car home. 

Graffiti still hasn’t found it’s home in Japan yet. I am not sure why. Certainly many of the restraints and strictures against anti-social behavior in public plays a part, but so much of that restraint has fallen by the wayside – again, witness the behavior of young people here on trains, in stations, on the street.

I have long since become used to seeing America’s graffiti-scarred urban areas, but it’s still a bit of a shock to see it in Italy, Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic.

Nothing in the U.S. is very old – but in these countries, those who want to express themselves with spray paint might deface buildings and monuments that have stood for 500 years and more.

I have seen beautiful graffiti. In the Mission district of San Francisco, someone who was familiar with the area and the artists gave me a tour. And this mural art – colorful and bold —  complemented the neighborhood.

These days when I visit New York City, I am fully aware that I am no more than a tourist. A visitor. Someone who needs to ask directions, who doesn’t know “the best place” for this or that.

On a recent visit, I had a chance to take a long walk – and it made me want to walk around the whole city. I want to see those neighborhoods I once knew. I want to confirm that there is no longer anything even familiar. I was surprised to find so much of the city is commercial zone. Neighborhoods used to be just that – with vegetables stands, fishmongers, the local bakery, small shoes stores, even milliners. Now it’s impossible to go anywhere that does not have a row of boutiques, cafés, yoga studios.

After the disaster at the World Trade Center, I could not bring myself to visit Ground Zero … 

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© Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” 1990-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Hill Anton and “Crossing Cultures” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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