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Monday, September 24, 2007

Living just enough for the city

Here are two wonderful articles from last Sunday's New York Times City section, which has become my favorite section.

The first is a soul-searching account by a man analyzing his reaction to seeing a man with a gun running towards him and his wife. It reminds me of a similar experience: once, in the former Soviet nation of Georgia, I was sitting with my wife (then my girlfriend), when a man entered the restaurant, approached a group of mean looking men, and drew a gun. They lept to their feet, grabbed him, and rushed him out of the restaurant, with God knows what result.

When they were gone, I found myself leaning awkwardly across the table with my chest in front of hers, and I felt a wave of macho pride, little deserved.

From the article:

Only years later have I reflected on why I did what I did that day. I’d lived in the city 20 years by then, leading a quiet, orderly, white-collar life, a deep groove worn in the route between my home and office. My comfort zone measured all of about four square inches; acts of daring were hardly my hallmark. I never stood too close to the subway tracks and usually stayed on the curb at red lights. So much did I watch my step, so safe did I play it, that if I went to a drive-in movie, I probably buckled my seat belt.

I was more or less a beta male in a city packed with alphas. As such, I’ve lived a life marked largely by anxiety and doubt and deliberation, by compromise and indecision and second-guessing, whether with family, friends or colleagues, my tongue curbed, my eyes averted and my punches pulled — in short, a life absolutely tattooed with certain characteristics of cowardice.


I made my decision that day, a decision as unambiguous as any I ever made, the right decision. Maybe I’d just seen too many action movies. In any case, I did what needed to be done, and maybe doing it once will turn out to be enough to redeem me.

Nothing really happened that day — no shots were fired, no one was wounded — but in one respect something very much happened. For years I’d often asked myself that classic big question: Exactly how much do I love my wife, the mother of our children, the woman I always say has meant everything to me? Can such love be measured?

Would I, in fact, take a bullet for her?

Now I know.

The second is the heartbreaking story of a young West Village denizen. Once a fixture outside a local coffeehouse, where she had a reputation for chatting up anybody and everybody, she long struggled with depression and took her life at age 20. In her memory, her parents convinced the coffee house to let them install a bench with a plaque on the street outside; the inscription reads “In Memory of Chelica, Who Loved Coffee and Cigarettes.”

“Pretty much if a person gave her an opportunity to talk to them, she would,” said Miyoko Brunner, a friend since grade school. “She never made you feel self-conscious or like you should be saying something. She just kind of edged you along.”

Chelica, who for years fought depression, especially sought to befriend people with troubles of their own, among them a man whose attire has varied from women’s wear to a kaffiya and Roman sandals and who often carries a boom box while engaging in violent monologues that sometimes disintegrate into curses at pedestrians.

When asked recently about Chelica, he launched into an obscenity-laden rant about the Iraq war, began to walk away, and then turned briefly. “She was one in a million,” he said.


“At first some people didn’t like it because they thought you shouldn’t [mention the cigarettes],” [her mother, Gammy] Miller said. “But you know, that is what she really loved. It was too late to do anything about that, right?”

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