I live in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, a trendy slice of South Manhattan which defines “gentrification”: expensive wine and cheese stores, fru-fru patisseries, Google and Twitter’s East Coast headquarters on 17th. There’s the High Line, the new Whitney Art Museum, and Chelsea Market, so lots of tourists mix with a strong LGBT community of residents.
The election hit Chelsea hard. There’s still a civic trauma which is quite discernible and similar to 9/11 in terms of mass psychology. After 9/11 various horrible things happened here. First was the smell, for days, like burning hair wafting from Ground Zero. There were months of funerals and the grim motorcades of flat-bed trucks emptying the smoking pile of N.Y.P.D. cruisers which had been crushed like matchbox toys, up 3rd Ave and over the bridge to Queens, or wherever they bury deceased cop cars. Everybody on the street would look, and we didn’t know it but all our lives we’ll remember those slow trucks carrying our crushed cop cars.
Then the human impact. University psychology doesn’t cover mass shock for an entire city assaulted by a foreign foe. My mother who grew up in England in the War told me about this. After the shock, the horrible W.T.C. Falling Man, the matchbox-crushed N.Y.P.D. cruisers, it was we who didn’t fall. Things got strange though. People were so nice to each other. We New Yorkers are a polite species (really!), but after 9/11, everybody was even more polite….. to strangers. Except, interestingly, not to our loved ones and that was the weirdest part. I’d hear loud domestics on cell phones, couples being snippy in public, and snapping at their kids. My own home became disharmonious. It was an edgy, scary time to be near the center of the cyclone.
Recently I’ve been reminded of those unhappy memories by this election. Except this time we’re not facing an alien Saudi terrorist, this time it feels like half our own country has punched us in the face. Mr. Trump isn’t popular in New York and all year I only saw one red hat hoping to Make America Great Again on one old, fat, white head. 9/11 was a one-off event we all came together to recover from, but this is a national dread which will rise to a crescendo in a few days on January 20. That is when the prime time madness will begin.
I’m straight, but I joke that living in Chelsea I’m “gay adjacent” because so many of my neighbors and friends are. One told me he feels like our country has elected the bully who used to give “the fags” swirlies in their high school toilets.
Others feel it also. I visited my Muslim friend Joe who owns the pet store my dog walks me to. I expected him to be upset about the election – he’s a terrorist remember, being Muslim. But Joe is apolitical. He wasn’t as upset about the election as I was. He was upset about his business and gave me a handful of his business cards to “Give to (my) dog friends”: “David! All my customers are staying home, not pet shopping. Business is down my friend.” Chelsea is a very pro-dog neighborhood and Joe usually does well. He notes Mr. Trump is a man who has never owned a pet.
As I was leaving Joe did venture a concern about the Iran deal. I told him what my guess was: Trump will probably tear the actual deal up, entertainingly on TV, call Iran the “Great Satan,” and Bannon will make another horrible movie about it all. After that expect a tweet: “Announcing the Trump Grand Trump Middle East Peace Plan and de-Nuke Disarmament deal by President Trump!”– which will be the exact same deal he ripped up earlier, but renamed and including a (secret) annex with a Trump Presidential Towers and Bar & Casino in Tehran. Tax abatement paid for by the Islamic Republic. It’s like watching a train wreck before the train leaves Ethics-Central Station.
Smaller proofs belie the hurt here in Chelsea. Proofs like the recyclable bottle bin in my building being full of empty alcohol bottles. Are my neighbors all drunk? – I wondered, and slipped my own empty vodka bottle in without anybody seeing. In the past month, six (!) friends’ relationships (gay and straight) have busted up. No solid causation there, but it is a hell of a co-relation. A doctor I know spoke of a “parade” of his patients “in mourning” over the past month, and a social worker acquaintance said glumly it was “good for business.”
When I wear my “Stronger Together” Hillary Campaign T-shirt downstairs I get high fives from strangers, attaboy slaps, and folks I don’t even know wanting to talk. We are a Political Country now. In mentally healthier, non-Political Countries the citizenry aren’t so engaged: elections are undisputed, institutions solid, and you call the police if you’re in trouble. Voting is more abstract, just like selecting from different brands of toothpaste: slightly different administrative models.
In Political Countries, however, policy is right in your face. In Syria it is violent and immediate and terribly fast. Even in less chaotic places like Iran, citizens line up to vote before sunrise for questionable elections. Iranians take politics extremely seriously: they argue about it all night, and it’s a hot topic in mixed company.
Are we moving closer to the Iranian-Syrian model of existence? Here in NYC it’s hard not to feel a sense of hostility from “flyover country,” where many of our families are from. There is a hatred of us, the “Acela Corridor people” as The Atlantic’s David Frum described us. We are the elites, the “over-educated” (!), gays, or atheists with our atheist little dogs. We are “Secular Progressives” to millionaire Bill O’Reilly on Fox.
This all came to a head on a recent Sunday night. My friends and I went to hear the Stonewall Chorale in a nearby church as we usually do. America’s first (1977) gay and lesbian choir, it is named after the Stonewall Bar a few blocks away – now a National Monument – and a local institution.
After the concert the chorale’s Artistic Director Cynthia Powell told the audience that we were going to witness a wedding. Ms. Powell announced that the ceremony would take “8 minutes,” and if anybody wanted to leave they were welcome to. Being only “gay adjacent” – I thought – “Oh, it’s going to take a few minutes longer than the concert was scheduled, so they’re letting people who are in a rush leave on time.” Out came the groom and groom. Moments later, during the vows, I realized Ms. Powell’s earlier announcement was to allow anybody who didn’t want to be trapped into being part of a surprise legal gay wedding to leave. Presumably to keep their Jesus intact. Not a soul left.
What a wonderful 8 minutes. Even for the gay-adjacent, it was comforting to share the joy of the couple. The audience of several thousand felt that No matter what happens outside this (Christian Church) building, there is still a civil society in here, now. Then we all walked out into the cold Manhattan night together, gay and gay-adjacent alike, and everybody felt a little better. Because as Hillary Clinton’s motto went, in Chelsea we’re Stronger Together.