It's good to be back in the city. I missed it. The brass-monkey wind off the Hudson River, the extra dollar you pay for every pallid veggie at the cramped little supermarket on the corner, the car alarms, regular as cuckoos. Increasingly, I feel like a local here - it may be a city in America, but it's a world city, and one that's easy to feel at home in. Then I read an article in the Village Voice, about what can happen to legal immigrants and long-term residents under the new terrorist-unfriendly regime if they merely obey the law and turn up to register their status. Or this one, about university students in Colorado jailed for taking slightly less than a full courseload.
It takes a lot to stand up to that sort of treatment, and sometimes all you can do is go a little native. Take an encounter I witnessed in the week after September 11, 2001. There was shouting down on the street that went on a little too long to be just another parking dispute. I looked out the window to see a turban-wearing Sikh taxi driver being berated by a short, grumpy white man in jeans, who was shouting something about "you people" and "our buildings" and "go home," interspersed with some of the choicer epithets available to the speaker of American English. (The sort of words, in fact, that I once saw characterized in a tabloid newspaper article about a fallen fireman as "good-natured insults," as in "I saw the poor fellow only yesterday, and I hailed him with a good-natured insult").
It was a tense moment, but fortunately the volatile guy was hedged about by large university students telling him to calm down; the taxi driver turned his back, waved his arms dismissively and carried on loading suitcases into the cab. But the angry white man didn't let up, and eventually the taxi driver had had enough. He turned around and yelled, with syllable-perfect subcontinental diction, "Don't you be telling me to go home, mister! I have lived in this city for twenty years! This is my motherfucking country too!"
I hope that anonymous gentleman has all his papers in order as the registrations and the arbitrary detentions continue. I'm not male, nor Muslim, nor from any of the targeted countries, and I'm starting to feel nervous (not without reason -- a friend was turned away at the border about a month ago, on a passport technicality; like me, she's just trying to finish a Ph.D. at one of the country's top academic institutions). For the moment, though, this is my host country, with or without that streetwise adjective. In fact, I'm pleased to know that I am - according to the NZ Listener, where my name was tucked away in the list of contributors to a year-end roundup of good books -- a "New York mother."
A New York mother. It's true, of course. Yes officer, I cannot deny that I am domiciled in New York, and the state of the floor this morning reminds me that I do indeed have an offspring (one who is, at the moment, deeply fond of trains, Tupperware, and the totemic flour-sifter spirited away from the kitchen and into the toybox). It may also be germane, perhaps, that one of the books I reviewed in that issue of the Listener is a incisive and witty account of 21st century mothering in New York.
Indeed, over the last dozen or so years that I've been traveling and grubbing round in libraries and teaching and writing and learning all over the world, "New York" and "mother" were the two invisible items at the top of my wish-list, desires so strong and so potentially jinxable that I hardly dared say them out loud. To suddenly have both in the same year - especially a year so grievously marked by death at home and downtown -- felt like winning some cosmic lottery. "I'm living in New York," I'd remind myself on days when the garbage trucks shrieked and the streets reeked and the windowsills were black with the dust of god knows what. "And I birthed a baby in the West Village at lunchtime and caught a cab home that same evening!" Truly, this is my motherfucking city too, as long as my visa status holds - oh yeah, and that's my mothersucking baby, the one with the American passport (although much good that'll do me if they ever decide to throw me out).
So on my stroppier days, I feel like wearing both words on my chest like medals (I know, I know -- in this column, I often do). But it's different, choosing to emblazon "New York mother" on your own tank-top in silver thread (note to the style-conscious: London mother Madonna wore a similar item on her latest tour), and being made to wear one of those embarrassing stickers that bleats "Hi, my name is... New York mother." It's a question of context, that's all; as a writer among writers I would have liked to be counted as a writer too. The one with the baby on my hip, sure, but you'll notice that's a pen in my other hand, and a laptop weighing down the nappy bag. (Was it Norman Mailer who said that a real writer "writes with his balls"? I prefer to use my hands, it's just so much tidier, and besides, my boobs are busy).
The parental is political, we all know that. And despite the unimaginably seismic shifts of the last few decades that have made full-time fathering an almost respectable choice, and full-on fathering practically a requirement, it is still a profoundly gendered issue. As someone much smarter than me said, when it comes down to it there really are only two kinds of people in this world: mothers, and their children. Most of those mothers (and most of those children) do other things too, so it seems only fair to recognize that teensy fact in strictly parallel terms.
Everyone who's ever had the temerity to birth and raise children and do something else as well has wrestled with the knotty problem of why it is that the "working" in "working mother" refers to something other than mothering, whereas a "working carpenter" bangs things together and a "working actor" isn't waiting on tables that week (there's a nice article on precisely this topic in the latest Brain,Child magazine). Not to mention why it is that a woman who performs the jobs of teacher, manager, chef, chauffeur and more for her family doesn't even merit the adjective "working" - she's just a mother.
And every single one of those women with access to writing implements has chronicled the identity crisis the whole thing provokes ... in other people, mainly, but in ourselves too. It's all been done, more cleverly and concisely than I can manage here; check out The Price of Motherhood by Ann Crittenden, for starters, and London mother Allison Pearson nails the dilemma of the middle-class working mother perfectly in her poignantly tragicomic new novel I Don't Know How She Does It (read it with a large glass of mother's ruin and a box each of tissues and chocolates). And Tillie Olsen got there years ago, with Tell me a Riddle and Silences.
It didn't really bother me in the end, to be tagged a "New York mother" amongst all the "Wellington writers" and "Eketahuna editors" and "Christchurch critics." It gave me good fodder for this blog, for one (see, now I'm the taxi driver and you're my captive audience while I go on about it for the next couple of miles - better pray that light turns green soon!). And, to be fair, on the same list of contributors there were an "orchid-grower" and a "hairy poet," so I wasn't the only one to be characterized as something other than a wordsmith. But yo -- next time someone wants to call me a Noo Yawk muthah, gimme some respect and spell it right!