Monday, January 15, 2007

Love in the Age of Guantánamo

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

804 words

Don't tell Marina, but my first love's New York. I figured out I was a dyke here, found my feet in a city where so many people are foreign that everybody's at home.

There's a sense of joint ownership. Maybe because we're all pedestrians. "Whose streets? Our streets!" That's a chant of every march I've been in from queer St. Patrick's Day protests to demos against police brutality.

It's not always a combative thing. During one bad breakup, I paced up and down the East River promenade staring across at the Domino factory in Brooklyn consoling myself with the smell of mud and water and burnt sugar.

For celebrations, we walk to a Thai restaurant on Bayard Street, weave our way down the Bowery crowded with restaurant supply shops and light fixture stores and Chinese restaurants. Afterwards, we come back up Elizabeth where you can watch Chinatown melt into little Italy into yuppie central.

Saturday, I was out in Queens. Returning, I got on the el train at Bliss Street, squeezing in next to this cute Latina in a orange and yellow MTA vest. There were a couple of cheerful drunks in the seat across, a Chinese lady screaming into her cell, and a Hispanic couple with their kids scrunched up against the windows.

It was dusk. Practically a stone's throw away, Manhattan rose out of the fading light like an oasis. In the middle was the angular Empire State Building, and the flashing scales of the Chrysler like an exotic swordfish even Hemingway wouldn't try to put up on his wall.

Lights came on in a boogie woogie of yellow squares in a grey sea, prefiguring the bling, bling of brilliant light in a purple backdrop that you get later, all that striving and concrete and glass transformed into a kind of radiant beauty that even we exhausted New Yorkers could see.

If I could, I'd stretch out my arms, and write an ode to the city and people and nations seething here, from the busboys and stockbrokers and waitresses to the conductor driving the train, and the one with the mellifluous voice opening and shutting the cranky, grinding doors people battle to keep open.

New York is America amplified, flooded with opportunity and optimism, hunger becoming greed or activism, pride arrogance. Motion is pure speed, and democracy the comfortable egalitarian hustle of the subway and street. Here, the joyous American soup concentrates into its essential jus with just enough terror for spice.

I had a roommate once who was hit by a yellow cab and sailed fifteen feet through the air, getting only a few bruises. She dated a dyke bank robber, too, but that's another story.

My girlfriend Marina faced weapons a couple times, a crazy guy attacking her dyke theatre with a sawed-off shot gun (or was it a machete?), a mugger with a pistol in the street. Once, undercover cops tried to beat down her apartment door in a misguided drug raid. She thought it was junkies and called the police. They came.

And I could talk about poverty and hunger and AIDS and homelessness, too, or working three jobs, but when New York's too much, we can mostly take a bus or plane or boat and go somewhere easier. The city won't notice. That's part of the appeal.

And maybe what makes it so foreign to other Americans, the indifference that makes us alternately arrogant and humble, anonymous and intimate. We trade complicit curses when the train stops for a half an hour between stations, or flip each other off in traffic like old enemies.

Strangers come in, though, and we seem to pass in a blur of faces. They forget a crowd is one plus one plus one until it turns into a mob and all bets are off.

That's how most Americans see the world, as a great big blur, and if that was charming in better times, it's toxic now. It's not enough to oppose a troop surge in Iraq, on the fifth anniversary of Guantánamo.

They will remember, the men we stick in cages, and treat worse than the rabbits animal rights activists like to liberate. Their children, and siblings and parents will remember, too. The inmates of Abu Ghraib. The survivors in Iraq, and the people we left to starve in Afghanistan. Even the stones will rise up against us.

That's only the beginning. Last week, Bush tossed another match in the Middle East petrol heap by ordering a raid on Iranian offices in Kurd territory. All in our names.

I look out over New York and wait for lightning to strike twice. What good can come of this? My gorgeous, brutal city. When the U.S. screws up, we take it in the kisser. In the heartland, it's a slow death from rot.

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