I read the following passage in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008), a novel of immigrant New York, and I feel as if I’ve stepped through the looking glass:
The route, unfamiliar to me, passed through the old Tin Pan Alley quarter, blocks now given over to wholesalers and street vendors and freight forwarders and importer-exporters—UNDEFEATED WEAR CORP, SPORTIQUE, DA JUMP OFF, signs proclaimed—dealing in stuffed toys, caps, novelties, human hair, two-dollar belts, one-dollar neckties, silver, perfumes, leather goods, rhinestones, street-wear, watches. Arabs, West Africans, African Americans hung out on the sidewalks among goods trucks, dollies, pushcarts, food carts, heaped trash, boxes and boxes of merchandise. I might have been in a cold Senegal. Black-skinned buyers carrying garbage bags wandered in and out of stores while overseers and barkers and hawkers, dressed in leather jackets, fur coats, African robes, and tracksuits, jingled keys and talked on cell phones and idly heckled passing women and shouted for custom.
Change the details, and the passage could describe a scene on the Lower East Side a century ago. The goods may be different, and the skin tones, but the feeling is identical: commerce, hustle, jumble, push, profusion. And to the American observer, an ineradicable otherness. Here is Henry James, hard by Delancey and Hester, in 1907: “There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds.”
My mother’s parents immigrated to Toronto in the 1920s. Her father worked in the garment industry, scraped by during the Depression, and dreamed of higher things. Her mother lived in Canada for 45 years and never learned enough English to talk to her grandchildren. She would spit in our hair to ward off the evil eye. My father and his family came late, to Brooklyn, in 1939. His father had a zipper business, wholesale. My father filed away his Yiddish accent at Eastern District High School, then City College. I feel their swarming in my blood.
I have a friend who lives in Riverdale. She’s from the suburbs, like me. Her husband, whose father was a red-diaper baby, did well on Wall Street. Lately she’s been going around the city, mostly to immigrant neighborhoods, to help distribute money to non-profit groups: descending into the gabble to do good works, just like the ladies who went downtown in Henry James’s day to spread a little light among the huddled masses.
My father’s family lived in Williamsburg, the epicenter, now, of hip, when they first came over. Riverdale, also getting slightly hip, was where my parents lived when they were newlyweds, before they made the jump to Jersey. We circle back, a couple of generations later, to a city we no longer recognize. We float on the swell, sustained upon an unregarded sea of immigrant energy. And a hundred years from now, the Jamaican bourgeoisie will be ministering to the latest haul of wretched refuse, and Pakistani scribblers will be documenting it.