Letter From Queens:
by Ben Gassman
Reflections on a Homegrown Disruption
Two women on the street in Astoria at 6:30 in the morning:
“What did Obama ever do for me?”
“What did her husband, the first one, ever do for me?”
“And she’s a lunatic.”
I come back with coffee and the super looks up from collecting leaves, gives me a fist raised in victory, and exclaims something I pretend not to hear. His wife shakes her head at him.
This is not “the Brexit.” This is not a troubling elsewhere victory of reaction with sideswiping ramifications. This is on my block.
On the train some look shocked and stunned. Maybe they are just tired and hung over.
I stop to buy a Gatorade in the bodega by work. The cover of the Daily News has a picture of the White House, and the headline reads “House of Horrors,” so I buy it, and the woman behind me says, “Ughh. We really...I can’t even look at that.”
Back outside, I observe a large white man walk up to get his coffee from a little kiosk and say with a bit of glee, “There’s a new chief in town.”
I wonder if my barber is satisfied in the same way. A few weeks ago, in the aftermath of the Billy Bush tape, he told me he wished Trump would stop saying stupid things and say he’s gonna put America and Americans first. That he’s gonna keep the terrorists out. That’s it. Because he’s much better than her.
When he says things like this I tend to ask him about his grandchildren.
My barber came from Greece in the late ’50s, leaving behind a barren economy and political turmoil, an anti-communist teenager eager to make manifest a pretty standard issue American Dream. He did. He has a trade, owns property, and his children are professionals. Without formal education, he is one of the worldliest and most intellectually curious people I know. He is a forger of community. In the course of fifteen minutes he talks winter plans in Greek with another old man, greets a contractor with the Croatian he’s picked up playing bocce in Whitestone, in Spanish tells a livery driver from Medellín how handsome he’s about to look, and in Greek-inflected English spins an improbable story about a beard tax in tsarist Russia, as the Uzbek-Armenian who guards the next chair laughs and says, “sort of.”
I know that he also thinks people should stick to their own kind in marriage, that it’s better to be safe than sorry with Syrian refugees, and that Astoria has always been “family friendly” because the Greeks kept “certain people” out in the ’80s and ’90s.
But these sentiments tend to land without force, with the poking quality of Archie Bunker’s animosities as laugh lines on All in The Family. Maybe it’s because we, the customers, sometimes push back and other times act as laugh track. Maybe it’s the simple fact that the barbershop is a zone of various masculinities, most of them whitish, where the threat of the language diffuses and doesn’t often land specifically. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that the barber could retire, that he doesn’t need the money, but that he couldn’t fathom not spending at least three days a week taking in, and remaining part of, an ever-changing Astoria.
Archie Bunker can’t leave his Queens neighborhood either. Perhaps it is loyalty to home; perhaps it is the simple immobility of his station. We never know for sure. This is part of his appeal. When he walks into his house and finds his wife, Edith, in a kimono, having a pajama party and says, “Take off that chinky bathrobe,” I laugh because Archie is left utterly alone in his living room, the only person not having fun, the only person not embracing what the widening world offers. “It’s like an opium church in here,” he goes on. “A bunch of commies doing hijinks.”1 Edith and her friends keep laughing, and so do I. Archie is full of impatient prejudice, he is hateful; he also has loyalty to place and utterly lacks power outside his home.
I’ve spent most of my thinking and writing life idealizing the multicultural, working class cosmopolitanism of Queens— not always polite, but often friendly enough despite suspicions and small prejudices. As a playwright who starts always with the voices of this place I grew up, even when not explicitly writing about it, I relish moments where the offhanded articulation of an ingrained, discriminatory distrust is complicated by a gesture or action that undercuts it, that drops a bridge between old tribal boundaries. These micro-tensions, read optimistically, suggest to me a more honestly empathic humanism than that of the straitjacketed tiptoing “I’m not racist; I don’t even see difference” folks. Admittedly, I often lessen the bite of the Archie Bunker strain of the Queens voice when celebrating it as part of the borough’s full auditory tapestry. Sometimes I gloss over it just enough to avoid the way its sharp undercurrents complicate my preferred narrative of what the borough is. Sometimes I outright ignore it, pretend it isn’t there. However, this is, and long has been, part of the landscape of sound, thought, and opinion throughout Queens, familiar in the first person by way of my grandfather—himself the son of immigrants—and the sidebar jabs he would take at the expense of my friends Jin and Jamar when they came over. Of Jin: “His parents own the laundry?” Of Jamar: “Watch for he don’t steal something.” To be fair, he could be similarly impolite with respect to our own kind. Looking at my bar mitzvah photos he asked of a friend crossing the dance floor, “What, she’s on her way to the clinic to get her nose fixed?”
This voice runs zig-zag north, south, east, and west through the borough, cutting creeks through the general curious tolerance of what is often touted as the most diverse county in the world. As offensive as Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker’s comments to Sports Illustrated on the 7 train in 20002 were to many of us from Queens, now, as ever, there are bars from Astoria to Howard Beach to Douglaston where Rocker would find camaraderie.
And this Archie Bunker strain, that of the impolitic white man who grumpily says what he means about the changing world around him, the “lovable bigot,” a character type I frequently afford unexpected grace or wisdom in plays— a character I go to the barbershop to listen to and keep in my internal record of the voices at work in the world— is represented by Trump in an outsize, angry, bullying way, though unlike Archie with no evidence of a guarded, tender heart. Trump, unlike Archie Bunker, doesn’t have a son-in-law expressing progressive views in humorous counterpoint to his offenses, a man he tacitly tolerates, yet deeply loves, despite their differences. Instead he has a son-in-law born into another real estate family who mostly whispers in the background. And who talks, when he talks publicly at all, without evidence, about how the private Mr. Trump is a kindly family man.
However, the critically alarming mutation of the Archie Bunker strain in Trump has nothing to do with a lack of lovability. It is that Trump—unlike Bunker, a dockworker and cabdriver, or my grandfather, a union jewelry engraver—is not of the working class he claims to represent. His voice works to his advantage in masking this.
Trump is manor-born, but with the benefit of a regionally identifiable accent, as the manor happens to sit just comfortably far enough past the last stop on the F train in Jamaica Estates, Queens. Trump, like Archie Bunker, and like his cheerleading mentor, Bully Emeritus Giuliani, sounds like he is from a place. We all know about his privileged upbringing intellectually, but what we experience viscerally by way of his voice can erode or compromise what we know. The seduction of voice and the tension between what voice says and sounds like and what it means, this is what makes life interesting and complicated, and what makes television, movies, and plays compelling.
And you do hear place in Trump’s voice.
I imagine this is what the union steel man in Western Pennsylvania who can’t make his mortgage payment viscerally identifies with when he catches the billionaire who values “greatness” on the radio. It is easy to mistake this sound, this accent, the dropped R’s and the shifting and elongating of single vowels, as a sign that Trump knows how much place and the traditions of place matter, that he is steeped in a place. But he is not. He is a man who whined about being confined to developing in Queens until he was spoon-fed a little chunk of midtown Manhattan by his father. He is a man who ever since has tried to write Queens out of his biography and write his name everywhere else and on everything he thinks should be his. His impulses are that of a terrible, artless graffiti writer, the laughingstock of a boarding school crew, whose name wouldn’t stay up fifteen minutes on a Hillside Avenue mailbox.
I thought I read the headline wrong when I woke up in the dark before the alarm and looked at my phone. I thought I was misunderstanding. And then I was shocked, and had a feeling I had had at 19, waking up the day after I’d crashed a car on the Belt Parkway at 5am, racing home from somewhere I shouldn’t have been. This feeling that something violent, jarring, and irrevocably disruptive had really happened. The small optimism about what people think and want in the deep reaches of their hearts that peeked out from under my cynicism after seeing Obama elected, the burgeoning of a hesitant faith in the slow good work of American democracy, began a sudden and reflexive recoil.
I remember going back, awed and excited, to reread in November 2008 something in Tony Kushner’s Angels In America that had angered me eight years earlier when I encountered it for the first time in the wake of George W. Bush’s sort of electoral victory. “What makes for the prospect of some radical democracy spreading outward and growing up?” Louis asks at the beginning of a stream of navel-gazing questions semi-directed at Belize, his dying partner Prior’s former lover. Louis wants to believe in American democracy. He wants to believe that Prior is not reviled by America, that he himself is not reviled by America; that the virus causing AIDS is incurable because it is, so far, incurable, not because so many of its victims are gay men whom those in power would prefer not to save. But he’s not sure. He’s trying to convince himself. “Why does the power that was once so carefully preserved at the top of the pyramid by the original framers of the Constitution seem drawn inexorably downward and outward in spite of the best effort of the Right to stop this?”
I have spent the past eight years with the guarded sense that on this point Louis turned out to be right, that power is diffusing slowly to all the people. With a cerebral, empathically inclined legal scholar in the White House, who also happens to be a black man, America was at least orienting towards fulfillment of the lofty promises of its foundational language.
But all does not necessarily indicate inclusionary spirit or a rejection of historically implied power structures. Now it is the Right that is pulling power downward and outward in a coalition of disruptive, reactionary populism, almost as mind-boggling for those who feel enfolded into it as it is frightening for those whom it explicitly leaves out. It is not just that out of work union steel man in Western Pennsylvania. Upper middle class white women in Orange County, California; Dov Hikind, the political leader of Orthodox and Hasidic Jewry in Borough Park, Brooklyn; and David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana, have all got their man. I am left confused and terrified by what American democracy has proven capable of, in a way that I couldn’t begin to be as an 18-year old who voted Nader and was sad about what I took to be theft by cowboy Bush.
And the woman I love feels defeated in a way that from the distant land of my body seems much deeper and more profound. Which scares me even more. I say I guess America is more misogynist than it is racist. And then I say I’m sorry. And she walks away.
I’m left on the couch thinking about what Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between The World and Me, recalling to his son the night a grand jury chose not to indict the cops who killed Michael Brown. “I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you,” Coates explains, reliving his own struggle with how to fulfill obligations of honesty and love as a father at that moment. “I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed that it would be okay.” Walking back into the apartment, with the victory fist of my Serbian super, and his heavily accented (a sub-strain of the Archie Bunker) “Our people will have jobs now” fresh in mind, I was thinking of that moment and trying to take a lesson from Coates. I wanted to acknowledge the experiential gulf between us, and offer love and support through silent, steady presence. But I fell back on articulation and ironic apology.
When critics (and so many of my students) say that Between The World and Me is problematic because it doesn’t offer hope, they are missing the value of a testimonial record of the conflicted happenings in silence, of inner struggle, which is a highlight of the way we engage with those we love in the hardest moments, the crisis moments. Does the pain of our loved ones require honesty and silent air in which to burn out, or does it require a masking balm that may give temporary relief but prove no cure at all? The answer is unclear. And testimony of the inner turmoil of navigating that minefield is present in Coates’s letter. It offers a primer on solidarity, which unlike hope, you can touch.
I will never have the visceral understanding of the symptoms and afflictions of patriarchy and misogyny that this woman I share couch and life with has. But I can be there when she is ready to sit back down.
From the long view of history maybe this will be seen as a small hiccup, a mini convulsion on the way towards a more inclusive sensibility, a landscape where content of character outweighs ethno-racial and gender markers in importance. From the long view of history maybe this will be like the knee jerk reflex that precedes full-fledged leaving behind of past stratifications.
But we never fully leave behind the past.
Maybe from the long view of history, this year of lone wolf jihadist terrorism, of Brexit, of the welcoming of the rhetoric of the white supremacist right into mainstream American political conversation, of its climactic ringing endorsement by democratic vote, of the seeming disinterest in Trump’s disinterest in paying taxes, of the callous disregard for the plight of Syrian refugees around the western world, particularly in the United States, and of Silicon Valley’s continued new gifts of disruption, will be pointed to as the moment when youthful, “socially progressive” Palo Alto libertarianism and angry, racist, misogynist white populism began to notice each other in the mirror. Will one recoil, or will they consciously initiate fusion?
In the hours after Trump trumped, some person or group of persons vandalized the Muslim Student Association at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering in downtown Brooklyn where I teach. Trump was written in red on the door. If you don’t flinch at the date (the seventy-eighth anniversary of Kristallnacht), or at the resemblance to swatstikas graffitied on Jewish businesses in major German cities in the mid 1930s, the years before Kristallnacht, when racial laws were not yet fully codified and Jew hatred was merely atmospheric, perhaps you should look again. Spend another moment or two shuttling these images back and forth in your mind’s eye. What do you come up with?
I want to imagine the perpetrators will be found, and we will learn they are two immature numbskulls from the hinterlands who just got here for freshman year, but I hear my Serbian super, I hear the Yiddish inflected voice of my grandfather, and I hear what might sound to outsiders like the pure Queens voice of the candidate now christened. Whether these voices truly have anything in common with Duke’s people across our networked nation and their fantasy of a Zionist shadow behind everything wrong in their lives, they are a chorus now, and I am reminded of the diverse coalition of city-kid peers who beat up my friend’s little brother outside of Brooklyn Tech in the weeks after September 11, 2001. They probably had no idea he was Bengali, had no certainty he was Muslim, but they could tell he was brown. Though I want to blame the world beyond my borough, beyond my city, I know this act of anti-Muslim vandalism at NYU could just as easily have been committed by a kid from Astoria who went to Bryant with his buddy from Little Neck who went to Bronx Science.
Perhaps this will be marked as year zero of the new fascism. Of course year zero always has precedents. And the new fascism will be different in name, scope, and gestures from that which rose between the 1890s and the 1930s in Europe and Asia. To predict fascism is an oversimplification of something scary that we don’t yet quite know. But the election of Trump; the anger of the out-of-working class in the postindustrial outposts of Americana he claims to represent, and of their tragically foolish urban collaborators; the pervasiveness of the digital sphere in the tactile world, the flattening of the media landscape and the obliteration of the “biased” influence of traditional news outlets; the ease with which this “democratization” allows us to find agreement and communion, confirmation that what we think is right; the ease with which any contradictory thought fades away, only to resurface as mighty, awful frustration—perhaps worth shooting at—in the real world, which isn’t half as consistent as the Facebook feed; all of this suggests we are on a dire path.
As our interconnectedness pulls us further and further apart—in our bedrooms, our family rooms, our neighborhoods and cul-de-sacs and developments, in our cities, in our states, in our countries, and in our relations to those from outside our national spheres—our rugged digitally interfaced individualism has the potential to disrupt everything we know.
Or maybe this moment will mean nothing from the long view of history. Maybe in a hundred years Donald Trump will mean to some progressively minded young person in a mostly cosmopolitan city dosed with a smattering of anger at the continued shifting topography of ethnicity, race and gender in the wider world what William Henry Harrison means to me.
But in whatever way this moment comes to be understood, and even if it recedes towards a vanishing point, it should be evident that our march is not naturally towards progress. Disruption is not inherently bad. The symbolic disruption of the presidency as the province solely of white men was a monumental step towards the rhetorical claims of what America is, and was so greeted with ecstatic warmth around the world, with forgivable premature climax even by the Swedish Academy. And we have made democratic steps forward since. But disruption does not by default bring us towards the better.
A cerebral legal scholar and lifelong organizer will soon leave the office, and a real estate developer who talks of stomping and jailing opponents, deporting undocumented immigrants who he assumes are in large part rapists and murderers, of barring Muslims from the country, of grabbing a woman he doesn’t know “by the pussy,” and of the greatness that he wants for YOU—and who does it all with a voice that shames my borough, my place, more than it has ever been shamed—is walking in. If we don’t recognize the dangers of disruption for disruption’s sake, its accumulation will eventually leave each of us utterly alone to hang or strangle by our bootstraps.
- All In The Family. Season 3: Episode 17.
- “Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing...The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners.” Pearlman, Jeff. “At Full Blast.” Sports Illustrated 91.25 (1999): 60. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
BEN GASSMAN is a playwright from Queens.