28.08.1994

Making a mugger’s day

Making a mugger’s day
 
LYNETTE BURROWS
 
New York
 
Everybody said it would happen if I went to New York. You'll get mugged, they said, and I did. Three days into my maiden visit I was strolling home with my brother at nine o'clock on a beautiful eve­ning. The streets were busy. It wasn't a particularly rough neighbourhood. Certainly not poor. Suddenly a small black man appeared from nowhere. There was the flash of a small knife and my bag was sliced from my shoulder and he was off down the road like a hare.
 
"Stop thief!" we yelled, with an ancient instinct to raise a hue and cry, but no one on the street moved, or even looked up. There was no sign of alarm and disapproval. A young man, sitting with a Chi­nese girl on some steps, com­miserated. "Happens all the time," he said. "You ought to think to yourself — well, it was me today, so tomorrow it'll be someone else." Thanks very much, I thought. It was like listening to a zebra describe life in the herd. "It's great if you don't worry about predators. They can't take us all, just five or six a day. Keep eating."
 
Then the police appeared, polite and rather sheepish. "That's bad," they said, without emotion. One pro­duced a small form and filled out the details on the spot. "What do you want to hap­pen if we apprehend your assailant?" said one, his pen poised. I brightened visibly. "Oh, a severe flogging should be all right, officer; we aren't vengeful people." The ghost of a smile flitted across his face. But he only wanted to know whether we would press charges if the mugger was caught.
 
"We're getting 2,000 extra police after next week," he said reassuringly. "Ever heard of Colditz?" asked my brother. "Guards, lights, guns everywhere and they still escaped." "No sir," said the cop. "Where is it?"
 
BUT New York is a won­derful place all the same. Much dirtier than London now, but with all the prototype buildings of which all but the most recent of ours are an insipid copy. At ground level they are nothing special, but, way up high their tops open out like giant flowers blossoming into every style of architec­ture and decoration.
 
"Cathedrals in the sky" they call them, which is apt; and yet it is odd. In Europe the churches open great doors to reveal their dazzling interiors, embellished in gold, mosaic and rich colour. In New York, places like the Woolworth building (started in 1910) express the desire to celebrate the achievement of enterprise and business which, together, will make everyone rich, happy and therefore good. It is heaven by a different route. They may not have made it yet, but then few have.
 
It is an easy jibe to say that New York is a shrine to the God of Mammon, but that is to ignore the amazing altru­ism of its people. Indeed, their solicitude for one another can be tiresome. I remember a discussion in England a few years ago of the new American verb, "to havenize" as in "Have a nize day" — and how to respond in a way that would rescue it from becoming a meaning­less formula. My brother's "Ah yes, thank you, I'm on my way to a funeral" is quite good; but even better is "Thank you but I have other plans." Response has been good so far.
 
I WONDER if British tele­vision showed the awful scenes last week of the circus elephant that ran amok in Honolulu. Some­thing upset the creature just as it was approaching the ring, and it suddenly attacked the trainer and assistant. The unfortunate couple were beaten to the ground and the elephant actually knelt on one of them and killed him. The elephant then charged outside and viewers saw the nightmare of a young man trying to fasten a gate on an advancing mon­ster. He fumbled in terror and the elephant burst through, knocking him down and trampling him.
 
It was shocking, and yet, after seeing it repeated dozens of times on televi­sions everywhere, one's abil­ity to feel shocked had quite gone. Yet I only once saw pictures of the elephant being shot, and on that occasion the announcer warned the viewers that what followed was disturbing and might not be suitable for children.
 
NEW YORK has a soft-porn television chan­nel where men with chest hair like a burst mat­tress and women with "good gracious!" breasts measure one another's genitals and play at a sort of sanitised sex that never produces arousal. Can you believe it?
 
We have heard so much from America about sexual harassment caused by lewd comments and dirty jokes; of the horrors of "date rape" and of the mini-contract signed by young men on uni­versity campuses stating "how far" they can go. At the same time Americans can watch a television channel devoted to a view of sex that is value-free and far less seri­ous and private than going to the lavatory. It is like having a rabidly anti-racist society that yet provides a television channel for white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Both extremes exhale into the same cultural air and they cancel one another out. It is a pity that in both scenarios, sexpot or feminist women come out badly; either vacu­ous or nasty.
 
Perhaps this is inevitable in a society dominated by busi­ness. Most of it is run by men, and women, overwhelmingly, work for them. The hired woman/victim stereotype reflects a truth that no amount of portentous postur­ing can disguise.
 
Perhaps that is one reason why the great cathedrals of commerce that dominate the skyline fail to touch the heart. What they lack, and can never have, is a niche into which to place an archetypal woman who is neither whore nor victim, but is the mother, wife and friend of real life.