July. Back home, the lightning bugs are out, flashing each other, then mating, and then the males die. After sex, what's left for a firefly guy? Nothing. No long gentle decline into old age, just wham, bam, goodbye Sam. A man thinks about this as he walks about New York on a summer weekend. Young females walk by, flashing their lights, their beautiful bare legs in shorts, their beautiful long arms, their beautiful whatever in halter tops, and the man takes it all in, walking along Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, and he keeps telling himself, "Stare at that woman and you will be struck by lightning and fall down sizzling on the sidewalk." And in this way he avoids prison. The ordinary excitement of summer in the city.
This is the neighborhood Harry Golden wrote about in "For Two Cents Plain," his memoir of Jewish immigrant life, which I read with utter fascination long ago, a Protestant boy of the prairie. The narrow streets full of pushcart peddlers shouting in Yiddish, raggedy kids playing stickball in the streets, dads smoking on the steps, socialists hawking the Daily Worker, laundry hanging in tenement windows -- and now there is high fashion in boutique windows and upscale ethnic restaurants and a lot of out-of-towners like me, checking our iPhones trying to get where we want to go. In my case, a Russian restaurant where I meet a friend for coffee.
He is African-American and, like me, he grew up strict evangelical and this is our common ground. He was saved when he was 12 and I was around the same age. We didn't dance or play cards or go to movies. His parents believed in the literal meaning of the same Bible mine believed in the literal meaning of. He's traveled a long way since and so have I. We each had teachers who changed our lives. He's Episcopalian. Me, too. We get a kick out of tossing Scripture into the conversation. And using fundy words like "beseech" and "vouchsafe." I don't say that faith is a stronger bond than race, but it ought to be.
We meet for coffee in a week when racial violence is on the front page and we mention this, shake our heads, and then we talk about family. Our friendship is not about race or politics, it is about affection and respect and trust. I trust him to tell me if my fly is open or if I say something stupid. I have much more in common with him than I do with the white males who support Il Duce this fall, but probably you knew that.
This is a lovely true thing about America. It's a holy mess and we're melted together, stuck to each other, cheek to jowl, and the angry losers who want to straighten out this mess, build a wall, deport the alien, isolate ourselves from the world, are a minority. The gift of Harry Golden was to show the humanity of the Lower East Side immigrants. When his mother said, "The only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work," she was speaking for my mother. My friend is descended from Yoruba people and I from Yorkshire peasants, but we have certain things in common, such as the fact that we are venturing into the Land of Old Men. The land with no border, from which there is no exile. You go in, you're in for good.
It's not easy being old. You hear people talking about transcendental medication and wonder why you haven't heard about it before. Your wife suggests the two of you go to a restaurant that offers ballet parking and it's disappointing when the parking attendants don't leap out in black tights and pirouette on your hood. And your eyesight is poor and you drive into the Diary Queen and expect the girl behind the window to tell you what she dreamed about last night.
And as you get old, you start to talk like an old man. You hear crotchety things come out of your own mouth --- and the other old man nods. Oh well. So it goes. Interesting times. Have some pie with that coffee. Good to see you again.