Saturday, March 5, 2011

A good coffee in New York

J. is an intellectual but she knows how to laugh. We were having breakfast the other morning up at St. Ambroeus on Madison Avenue with Alessandra and Sylvain, the New York-based correspondents for Corriere della sera and Le Monde. The discussion turned to the madman Qaddafi and how the various European countries were responding to the revolt in Libya. After some cracks about the London School of Economics having to be renamed the "Libyan School of Economics" and the undocumented but widely suspected business partnership between Qaddafi and Berlusconi, Alessandra said, "He's a psychopath."

Sylvain asked, "You know what is the difference between a neurotic and a psychotic?" We looked at him. He continued, "Some French comedian put it this way. He said, a neurotic is someone who thinks two plus two equals four and it drives him crazy. A psychotic is someone who believes two plus two equals five and is perfectly okay with it." At this J. let out a gleeful howl. "He's so right. Bravo!"

We ordered four more Americanos and let the talk drift to John Galliano and his anti-semitic tirade, the one that got him fired from Dior. Alessandra was from Hungary and Sylvain is French, and they're both Jews. She asked him if he wasn't outraged by Galliano's "I love Hitler" outburst. "No one cares, do they?," he responded. J. added, "Perhaps we should do a book called
In Defense of Anti-Semitism. Written by a Jew, of course." Part of this was pure impishness, part was serious. "We need Jews to become critical thinkers again." But Alessandra couldn't quite allow her indignation to subside. "If nothing else it gives me something to rage against. I admit it feels good." Since I was the only non-Jew at the table, I figured I'd let this bit of conversation roll on without me. Either that, or tell a Catholic joke. Too bad I didn't know any good ones.

An older woman sitting at an adjacent table glared at us, frowning with typical Upper East Side hauteur. I stuck my tongue out then grinned at her and she quickly looked away. Alessandra had just written a little piece on her blog about Joshua Foer's book
Moonwalking With Einstein. It seemed as though we were going to get into a debate about the value of memorization. "They don't teach by rote anymore, do they?" "But there's no reason to. I call my children all the time but I have no idea what their phone numbers are. Not with this." Sylvain took his cell phone out of his pocket and placed it on the table. He pointed at it and said, "This is my memory now."

They began complaining about their younger colleagues' ignorance. "They don't know anything of the world. No art. No history. No culture at all. They seem to be smart and they work hard but they are empty." I thought to myself, so much is changing, we're in our late fifties, early sixties, the world of the young is not our world. Not worse, not better, just different. Alessandra turned to J. and asked her if she knew the Yiddish expression "alter cocker." J. said that she did not. "Well I don't want to sound like one, but I can't help it. An old fart. Complaining about everything." J. laughed again. "Not you, not ever." She was laughing at herself too, at all of us, retreating into a kind of benign nostalgia. How easy it is to talk about one's childhood -- it gets easier as you age -- and claim that there is no desire to return to that particular Eden, the one before television, computers, space walks, and nuclear warheads. We may have been here before, but no two mornings have ever been the same, no matter how poorly we remember them.

1 comment:

  1. The comments about John Galliano in this post remind me of a sad personal memory.

    Once in college, I made a comment to one of my best friends that, “I would never be caught in that black neighborhood.” Comments like this were common during the 1950s and 1960s in largely white neighborhoods in Franklin Square or Elmont where you and I grew up. This friend, who happened to be black, never forgave me. I guess we were close enough that I stopped seeing skin color early in the friendship. I could say anything to a close friend, right? Somewhere in my psyche, I guess he simply became one of the boys I grew up with. Although he was still civil to me afterwards, the closeness and confidence built over 3.5 years of friendship evaporated almost immediately.

    Putting the shoe on the other foot, I was good friends with my sophomore year college roommate. One night during our senior year, four of us were getting high, feeling good. We were listening to the Moody Blues (“Days of Future Passed” album) and he was recounting a story about one of his Dad’s business trips and some obnoxious people his Dad encountered. My friend sneered, “Probably Jews!” and laughed. I guess I became one of the boys he grew up with. I was cordial after that but never felt as close to him as I did before.

    I made the conscious decision that I NEVER want to be careful about what I say to people. Rather, I wanted to expunge any remnants of this type of thinking from my psyche. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that what we learn as children runs deep but I am lucky to have been exposed to so many different cultures over the decades and learned from them.

    Needless to say, what John Galliano said was stupid and insensitive. He was angry and drunk and I his comment surfaced, a putrid remnant of some past exposure that dislodged. I think it is a tragedy when the benefits of creative genius are fouled this way (my wife likes his work). Call me naive, but I suspect that he would recoil in horror if he was ever witness to the physical obscenity of what his comment expressed.

    To wrap up, while in the Pittsburgh area in 2009, I was bike riding with a friend of mine for 30 years and he was recounting an experience suggestive that Jews are scheming and cheap. He checked himself and I just let it go – made believe that I wasn’t catching on. I guess I became a comfortable part of his world. I visit him in Pittsburgh every year. They come to New York almost every year and we ride in the 5 Boro bike tour together as we will do this year. I hope he has been learning from me over time. Certainly, I am learning from that Lily-White Western Pennsylvania Country Bumpkin!