Listening to the Arabs of New York
Queens, New York, September 11The thick river of walkers pouring out from the Queensboro Bridge cat's cradle of steel cantilever at 3 p.m. today bore every mark of a successful event, like those to raise funds for AIDS or Parkinson's disease. Far from the numbing terror of the utter destruction of the World Trade Center, smiling crowds ambled unhurriedly, but purposefully, under unblemished sunshine.
But a second look at that expanse of pure blue was disquieting to a native New Yorker, raised under the screech of LaGuardia. The sky was too blue. Not a single white condensation trail spreading into a gauzy haze. After two hijacked transcontinental jets were steered with murderous accuracy into the Twin Towers, the skies were emptied save for fighter planes on patrol. When they swooped low, some people on side streets cowered as if another hijacked jet were incoming.
News reports had already begun speculating that Osama Bin Laden, a known terrorist harbored by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, was behind the attacks. These neighborhoods of Queens have become home to countless Arabs. Could the crowd turn vicious on rumors of an Arab connection to the bombing?
In one of three Arab-run delis in Queensboro Plaza, a Latino boy of maybe 10 years enjoyed grilling the nervous thirtyish man behind the counter at the Plaza Deli and Grocery. The gap-toothed boy glowed the way a child does when he finds he's got one over on an adult, watching the grownup sputter silly denials, like denying a bad toupee.
"Are you an Arab?"
"No, I'm a Gypsy."
"You're an Arab."
"No, I'm a Gypsy."
"No you're not, you're an Arab."
"I am a Gypsy. Next person?"
The only Gypsy on Queens Plaza is the palm reader upstairs from the fishmongers and check cashers. The workers at the three delis studding Queensboro Plaza South are largely Yemeni. But one man already knew to hide, from even a child.
Facing west outside the deli, the crowd streamed undiminished almost from the moment cops started directing it at 9:45 a.m. In the delis, the disposable cameras sold out first, and Poland Spring water was running short. People begged for workers to make change for phone calls in tones that grew in anger while cell phone users, who long ago exchanged their reassurances with their families and lovers, chatted idly. People didn't gather in groups muchsupport and comfort came from scrolling down speed dial lists.
Workers made less eye contact than usual at Yafai Deli. One Palestinian worker was eager to share his thoughts, working hard to get them out in English.
"People here want to work. They want to eat," the weathered 59-year-old said. "They don't know about the TV thing. Nobody have it," referring to broadcasts showing Palestinians dancing with joy over the strike against America. "They are idiots; they are nothing," he pleaded. "We feel no good. Everybody is angry because it's not easy [to live in America as an Arab in the wake of the attacks]. My heart is below, it is broke."
The man, who asked that he not be identified, found that the hate on television made him more of a New Yorker than ever. Eyeing the Palestinian celebration in flickering images, he said, "I have no place there."
Police Officer Jimmy Acevedo was making a court appearance when havoc broke downtown. But here at the mouth of Queens he was directing the wayward to subways away from Manhattan. "The only trouble we've had is with some people wanting to go back for siblings, but they can't," he explained.
About 20 yards away, a St. John's of Queens Catholic hospital ambulance was wending its way through the crowd, siren blaring. It was a common sight as every emergency vehicle that could squeeze across the bridge into Manhattan did. But this one was heading, empty, further into Queens. Its purpose became clear when cops pushed phalanxes of the sweaty and inconvenienced back, like prying open a vise. A suited middle-aged white man had collapsed. His nose bled, he looked dazed, clutching his PDA. You could see him trying to focus on a face, any face, in the swirling crowd lined up a block to get to the 7 train stairs. Tagalog, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, and Japanese buffeted his thoughts as people of all stripes made him the new topic of conversation.
The spectacle didn't lessen lines at the Friendly Deli on the corner a few feet away. It's the kind of place where hookers know they can find a bathroom at 1 a.m., and office workers know they can grab a cigarette pack on a lunch break. A 44-year-old Moroccan accountant who asked that he be called by his name as translated into English, Richard Golden, watched the towers go down from his sixth floor office in the city's Transportation and Education building on the north side of the plaza. "I thought, 'God forgive me, This is too sophisticated for the Arabs,' " he recalled.
After his building was evacuated, he came over to the deli to help out with the crowds, but was wary. Clashes between Arabs and Americans wound him.
"I feel like I'm living between the horse and the horseshoe. We are the American citizens who get it from both sides," Golden said. "When we say we love this land, we get looked down on by our own people. They say, 'You're sold to the West.' " But many Americans are suspicious of Muslims and Arabs in even the best of times, he observes. "With the atmosphere, how should I say this, so volcanic, I usually tend to stay away. You can pay either way, for taking either side," he reflects. "But now, just you asking me about this, I feel something has lifted. I feel much lighter, happier."
As the crowd dwindled toward 5 p.m., one man had no trouble in finding levity. Dressed in a neat olive shirt, thin tie, and khaki pants, he accosted passersby with invitations to an "eat my ass festival for artists" at the Phun Factory, a graffiti museum. An Orthodox Jewish student with a yarmulke and tzitzis cloth watched with evident disgust as he sat on the rim of the only planter not piled high with trash, commenting that, "America has been given a wake-up call."
Not the party promoter. He chanted "Eat my ass" with abandon, hawking $30 tickets to his party. It's a routine he honed outside the gate of the nearby P.S. 1 Institute for Contemporary Arts throughout the summer, following packed "warm-up parties" that ended with Labor Day.
A crowd is a crowd.
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