View from Rue Saint-Georges

Hell Is Lines and Other People

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | August 24, 2016
Seamus Murray/Flickr
Seamus Murray/Flickr


It’s always thought provoking to fly from Charles de Gaulle to JFK, or vice versa. The juxtaposition of Paris and New York—sister cities, perhaps, but certainly not twins—allows you to reflect on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the culture you happen to be (re)entering. I had a particularly acute version of this experience this past week when, after a long and tiring flight, my almost-three-year-old daughter and I took our places in the labyrinthine disaster that is the semi-automated passport control and customs checkpoint at JFK.

As the two of us squeezed through that maze, I had time to study the hundreds of other travelers suffering alongside us. When coming from Paris, a big city that swells to around 10 million, if you count the greater metropolitan area, and proudly holds the world’s “most visited” title, it can be sobering to glimpse what real diversity looks like. The headlines back in France over the past week have been dominated by the burkini bans in parts of Corsica and Provence. In the case of the former, the sight of covered women at a beach in Sisco left three cars torched and four people injured, and resulted in riot police being brought in to repel a crowd of 200 marching into a housing estate with a high North African population, shouting “this is our home.” I thought about that at JFK, where in my immediate vicinity there were several dozen Hasidic Jews, men and children with peyes and borsalinos, women in below-the-knee skirts and wigs, as well as numerous Indian travelers in saris and with bindis on their foreheads. As the black and Latino and Pakistani airport personnel ushered us through the corrals, I also spotted several Muslim families of varying degrees of religious formality, men in oil-chic cowboy hats, teenagers in saggy sweats, more than one mother in face-covering niqab.

It’s perhaps a cliché to point out, but nonetheless worth repeating and contemplating further, that everyone here seemed to exist not just in a collective post-flight trance, but also in that special New York nonchalance or psychological impenetrability—or maybe just self-centeredness—that allows a Hasid to collect her baggage next to a veiled Wahhabist without so much as a passive-aggressive glance. America (including New York) is flawed in countless ways—but it is hard to argue that this isn’t great.

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