Is It True There is a Place For Everyone?

While visiting New York City recently, a thought crossed my mind, “Is It True That There is a Place For Everyone?”
The City for [not] Everyone

The City for [not] Everyone

Apparently, everyone who moves to New York becomes a New Yorker instantaneously! New arrivals to the city attest to that, as do former New York City residents, ask me about the latter. I moved to NYC from Boston, MA in 2005. Interestingly, I never felt a belonging to Boston, perhaps because I lived there as a student and within the Boston students “inner enclave”, shut off from the locals! No doubt, Boston is the epicenter for high intellectual learning in America, offering abundant students opportunities: to hangout with fellow students, enjoy student events and student life. Though, migrant students into Boston live largely oblivious to the presence of real “natives” or “locals” in the neighborhood, whose claim to belonging is not a two-year, four-year, or seven-year stint in pursuit of an academic hood and cap!
So, when I moved to NYC, it did not take too long before I felt a sense of belonging. I caught on so quickly like a wild fire, assumed my entitlement on the first day I stepped out to start my job in Manhattan. Every morning and evening when I took the train Brooklyn-Manhattan-Brooklyn, I felt as much a part of the subway ride, the street experience, the music and rats on the illustrious subway. NYC brought back memories of Kampala, my city of birth in Uganda. Similar hustle and bustle, and “everyone got an attitude and knows it” style.  Like NYC, Kampala has something for everyone, street fanfare – art, food or accessories vendors, bike or food service delivery, lost souls and homelessness, plus abundant space to make, break or re-make anyone. In 50c lingua, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
But there is a price to pay for that “Free society” kind of Kampala or New York mindset. Certainly true in NYC! You will meet a lover for a minute or day, an admirer of your art, an ear to listen, a dance partner, entertainment, or free exhibition, gallery or museum opening with free cocktails!  None of these ‘freebies’ promise to stay for-ever, especially when you are living it out solo in The City! In that sea of people, it is 10!% possible to feel lonely. Single life is abundant in NYC, finding love is water in the desert, tougher for women who out-ratio men in the city. Out at a bar or dance lounge, you will mingle and easily make ‘friends’ for the night. But they will quickly become strangers as you exit; don’t try to claim you know them on the streets!
My recent trip to NYC brought back all those memories, images  and mixed emotions, looking at lonely people, homeless, robotic pedestrians, wannabes, freestylers, hustlers, friends and lovers. The city looked calm; even Chinatown looked too cool and clean for my liking, sadly! Not to suggest that I did not see happy people, street performers, beautiful boutiques, trendy stores, global brands or juicy splashdown sales. Or the corporate careerists, bubbly college students, colorful fashion, minimalist eateries.
Truth is, I did not feel the Joni “Squeal’ Ernst, “The Greatest Country on Earth” vibe! I didn’t feel as much bustle and energy that tourists feel and bring crowding NYC streets, or the colorfulness that fills NYC streets on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Rockefeller Christmas Tree or the Caribbean Labor Day Carnival. It was a cloud of loneliness that typically engulfs NYC residents whose lives do not allow them a joyride on the the cities  Citi Bikes, to look up in the skies and count the clouds, a walk in Central park, a minute break to enjoy the street performers on 14th street, the gifted artists on the subway platform, or the “bright city lights” of Times Square. I saw many more lost far from the magnificence of the Big Apple, for whom sinking $4.99 into a street meal would mean a lifetime of bad investment .
Yes, NYC reminded me that there is a place for everyone! From dog walkers, street artists, natural foodies, executives, academics, fashionistas, bus drivers, tourists, smokers, little schoolers, corporate junkies and hourly workers. They wore their “I am a New Yorker” attitude, but the streets also told another side of their stories. There was a lot of emptiness! From Canal, through Chelsea to 14th street, it was not the “Brand NY” anymore, per me. Even parents walking home from school with their children along Broadway and 14th street, or mom and daughter seated in a pizza joint in The Village did not stimulate my duct bile for “My New York”.
The young woman, who spent over thirty minutes in a restroom at Dunkin Donuts, turned the clouds grab! After waiting [im]patiently to use the bathroom, for what could have been thirty minutes, she came out looking timid, reminding me of the ‘hard-knock’ living it out in The City.  She was carrying many bags in her hands, looked a little ‘freshened-up’, put on her ‘fresh jacket and scarf, and headed headed out for the day. Thankfully, DD provides the opportunity to use a restroom sink and sitting area, for those without a permanent home or waiting area.
Lest we forget, NYers come together in time of great need, to share stories of inspiration, pain, achievement, accomplishments, sacrifices and life events. Indeed, no better platform captures the sprit and convergence of the New York sprit than Humans of New York (HONY)! In true American Spirit, no better non-institutionalized non-conscious establishment can replace HONY, providing a platform for NYers to be the random strangers becoming friends, they are good at, reach out for one another in words, skill or process, and share concern, courage and encouragement with each other.
With all its variety of global cuisines, the breathtaking architecture, the ‘walking’ Zombies, the burbly or mechanical lifestyles one encounters on NYC streets, plenty are prancing up and about the streets in desperate search for “the next rent gig”, for love, security and stability. “The Place for Everyone” is also a scary place for plenty of others looking for more than a cosmopolitan affair or wild city dream. True, NY eats natural, organic and minimalist, except when worshiping at the altar of Haute Couture, splashing off Runway, or committing to remain Forever 21. Public spaces are abundantly curved out with seats in the middle of the street for a coffee, bite or to bask in the lunch-time sun at Herald Square, illustrious runways at Bryant Park and dog play park at Washington Square. New York City wants to be that artistic piece that never fades of anyone’s imagination and longing, a lover entrapping one into a lifetime relationship. Yet with all its welcome and host to feet from all walks of life, its spirit does not belong to everyone, its soul ages with time, and its culture is a mixed bag of post-realism, hullabaloo and a lot of emptiness!

Learning about Veterans Day from my sixth grader

I cannot recall the last time I went to church, so the order of events at my neighborhood celebration of Veterans Day 2014 caught me off guard. Not because I was unaware we were meeting on religious ground – Our Lady of Victoria Roman Catholic Church; I assumed our event would be independent of any church business. I thought we were only using the church grounds out of convenience, and because this year, the Cub Scout Pack, to which my son belongs was running a food drive benefiting the church pantry. Which reminds me of something that I recently learned at our Cub Scout meeting; the Boy Scouts of America is a Christian Organization. Yes! Our little Cubs promise all …”For GOD..” What does this non-religious mom do….?

Anyway,  the blessed Father of Our Lady of Victory, our host, spoke at the opening ceremony of our Veterans Day celebration. Thereon, the activity was a Scout-Veterans affair. I attended, as a chaperone to my son, the Tiger Cub Scout. Once we got to venue, we waited for about twenty minutes before start. Most in attendance were members of the Catholic Church, and from within our local community, who appeared n-synch with the whole nine yard of church-dos. It took me back to my early days of elementary school attending Catholic school, where we started every morning with mass at the area Catholic Church, performing routine stand up, sit down, stand, then sit, then stand and sit…

That is not the gist of my writing, dedicated to how celebrating Veterans Day through my son took me to another place of personal revelation. For the first time in my life, I am increasingly proud of belong to a country [oops! did I Michelle O-that😜]. I feel a sense of belonging to a people, a community and a country more than all the years of my life living in my country of origin – Uganda and coming of age in America! Particularly since having my son, I have engaged in more Americansque activities here and abroad, as an American. I recall being in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup [Soccer/Football], and waving the American Flag at the opening of the games, supporting Team US throughout the tournament, even when they were playing another African team, to the [un]pleasant surprise of fellow African spectators!

Back in Uganda, I had an overdose of love, care and attention from my Ugandan people. I felt a higher sense of family more than all my years growing up. Not that I did not know or like my family already, but living with my family together with my son gave me a profound understanding, love and appreciation for my family. They cared for my son like he was their own, and loved him with the same zeal as I love him. They made me comfortable recalling the famous African saying, It takes a village to raise a child.” I thank you family! Yet,  I felt that “I am an American” feeling, sometimes, especially perpetuated by my own family and friends, and anyone who met my or my son.

Since coming back to the US, after a short sojourner abroad, I have new-found love and appreciation for this country, discovering more America than the many years I lived here before having my child. I am increasingly “living the American dream”, enhanced through my son born in the Peach-state, and a product of two Africans continental and ‘old diaspora’.  I am allowing myself to experience plenty of mainstreamed American holidays and cultural celebrations: My first Halloween experience was when I took my fifteen-month old son on “Trick-or-Treat” in the neighborhood in GA. We did it again last year in our current neighborhood, and twice this year “Trunk-or-Treat” with our Cub Scout Pack, and our with neighborhood family friends. Yes! I buy my son these exorbitantly priced Halloween costumes I would never have thought of before, and dress myself up too, as a superhero or ninja, depending on the theme my child gives me!

I have breached self-set taboos against engaging in religious festivities, becoming “Santa” at Christmas. I do this to allow my son to dream and imagine wild and free, of ‘hardworking mysterious fairies, one who rides deers with elves, and descends down the chimney on brings presents to “kids with good behavior during the year”, and another who rewards kids with $$ for dispensing out their tooth. I tell him not to bother himself that his non-magic-believing muslim cousins say santa and tooth fairy aint real! Yes, I now support Hollywood, taking him to movie theaters.

Participating in Veterans Day celebrations with my son this year gave me a more intrinsic appreciation and a feeling of belonging to a community and a country. I grew up in a country where the patriotism is owned by the generals, the self-avowed ’liberators of the nation’ from previous autocratic regimes. The same generals are still running the country, twenty-eight years and counting! They hold everyone in the country at ransom, to accept their form of national patriotism as sacrosanct, non-derogable and non-contestable. The country is theirs, independence day celebrations are ‘dispensed’ only to those who agree with them, heroes are decided by them, and rewarded on their terms, and national resources are managed and appropriated on their terms.

Our Veterans Day celebration was a community affair, conducted by men and women not identified in overt display of military regalia, except a few that wore their uniforms for the prestige of having served the nation, decorated with lapels of awards/accomplishment. The Catholic Father, retired military and the scouts and girl guides were in charge, with equal participation of ordinary citizens. We were not intimidated into thanking the men and women in military uniform who served our nation. We were not obliged to kiss the feet of generals or shut up to their pronouncements.

Instead, we Pledged Allegiance to the Flag with pride, sang Star-Spangled Banner and America The Beautiful in joy and celebration, and deeply thanked whose people who put themselves in harms way to liberate the nation, protect and uphold the spaces that we enjoy. Beautiful memories filled me about the men and women who bore arms to protect their countries, like my younger brother, who might never get real recognition for daring to put himself in harms way. On my son’s side is Grandpa Mendez and Great Grandpa Samuel Arnold (RIP), and grand-uncle [is that the American word?] Sam, all who served in the US military.

Our Veterans deserve more appreciation and protection. They deserve to return safely and admirably, and never have to lack food, shelter, clothing or paid employment, because they put their lives on the line, believing it is their duty and calling to protect the lives of all Americans!