I just got back from a long weekend in New York City. It was a great trip, and we saw lots of wonderful things. I am amazed every time I go there, not only with the size and scope and scale of it all, but also with the history, the complexity and the romance. It is a wonderment.
It was sixty something degrees on Sunday afternoon, and we were riding the Miss Ellis Island ferry back from the Liberty and Ellis Island tours. The sun was going down and the skyline was glowing. I was so proud to be a part of the land of the free, the land of opportunity. And I felt so fortunate and grateful for having the chance to share the experience with my family and friends. The trip to New York was our family Christmas gift.
You know that feeling you get on Christmas night or the last day of vacation when you ask yourself if the occasion lived up to the hype? You get that let-down, guilty feeling because you know you've been blessed but you wish there was something more? Here I was, riding on the top deck of a ferry in perfect December weather, surrounded by friends and family, admiring the glow from Lady Liberty's torch and how it seemed to be reflected in the entire, magnificent skyline of Manhattan, yet I could not shake an angry, anxious feeling. I should have been feeling peace or pride or thankfulness, but instead, I was perturbed.
I think the root of my anxiety was that I could not resolve the conflicting messages I had received throughout the whole weekend.
The city was incredibly crowded. At times it was impossible to move on the sidewalk, and stores like Macy's and M&M World in Times Square must have been over the fire marshal's limit. And yet every news cast and every headline crawl on the overhead signs was predicting economic ruin and even blaming America for the global downturn.
"Save the planet" marketing was evident everywhere. The hotel urged re-using towels to conserve water, and signs in every subway car asked passengers to dispose of trash properly. The horses pulling the carriages in Central Park wore diapers, and Ricoh proudly displayed Times Square's only wind and solar powered billboard. But the streets and subways were covered with litter. The majority of taxis were poorly maintained gas guzzling sedans. Our ferry had to negotiate around an enormous trash barge on the way to Liberty Island. This media mecca has apparently adopted the 'do as I say, not as I do' plan for environmental sensitivity.
The cultural diversity, as always, was amazing. The languages, the street vendor food and the wide variety of religions represented let you know that this was truly a global city. Unfortunately, diversity does not always come with respect. The narthex in St. Patrick's cathedral was littered with Starbuck's cups and food wrappers, and inside the cathedral I saw Hindu visitors using the kneeling pads as foot rests while loudly making dinner plans and some Middle Eastern gentlemen(?) pointing and laughing at the Nativity Scene, why I don't know. On the ferry I heard a French(?) couple patiently explaining to a couple from Indiana why Bush was a war criminal and why Europe was excited that we had finally elected a president more palatable to them. Our Texas accents were remarked upon as well. I suppose, as long as you are not a midwestern Christian American, the cultural diversity is quite comforting.
The local news was typical. There were stories about innocent people being shot, about the perils of being homeless in the winter and about the economic challenges of earning a living in NYC. The shooting stories were often followed by police or politicians preaching gun control, as though that keeps criminals from getting guns. Tied to the homeless story was another one about a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee affordable housing to every U.S. citizen, promoted by Charles Rangel (D), NY. There was, however, no effort to tie the economic difficulties of living in NYC with the tax rate, corruption or expansive government programs.
The most subtle conflict was more of an impression than a direct observation. Here was marvelous Manhattan, with its incomprehensible density and wealth and infrastructure, and yet even if you didn't know about September 11th, you would probably be able to feel the hole in the skyline. At our hotel, they were opening the trunks of every vehicle and checking under them with mirrors. There were two security screenings before being allowed into the Statue of Liberty, and even with that you could only tour the base. One bicyclist, trying to maneuver through the crowds, yelled at the top of his lungs, "Down! Down! Down! Everybody Down!" and though I didn't see anyone hit the deck, everyone who heard him froze in their tracks.
What perturbs me most, what makes me anxious, is not the pollution or the politics or even the hints of insecurity. It is, instead, the startling, though mostly unmentioned, conflict between who we say we are and what we do. We say liberty, but ridicule the religious and censor alternative opinions. We say opportunity but regulate the playing field and remove the penalties for failure. I wonder, as with Christmases and vacations, if I'm simply expecting too much.
I could lower my expectations, but I don't want to limit Christmas to parties, feasts and gifts, and I don't want to confine my country by removing the struggle necessary for achievement. A 'Merry Christmas', with all its required spirituality, is much more satisfying than a generic 'Happy Holidays', just as liberty and opportunity are much more exhilarating than comfort.