Summer evening; riding to Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge.
When we come to the first traffic light on the other side, our cab-and all the
other cars stopped at the intersection-face a team of squeegee persons.
The bum who approaches us is a woman who can’t be over 35.
She has the bright agate eyes of an addict, and the indurated body of someone
used to sleeping anywhere, or with anyone, in a pinch. Her spiel is harsh and
charmless, laced with “fuck you’s.” Our driver drops a quarter into her cup,
she tells me “fuck you” for good measure, then the light changes and we all
I ask the cabby, an Indian man of about 55, if he thought it
was good business practice to give money to people who abused him and his
passengers. He explained with the immemorial shrug of the subcontinent that he
had no choice. The bum could walk to the curb and pitch an empty beer bottle at
his rear-view mirror; he had a friend whose windshield had been shattered in
this fashion. Better to pay and be done with it. It
was all very logical, and all very Dinkins Time.
The problems are always out there, waiting to return. So are
all the arguments for letting them return. An East
Village friend called with a gripe:
A methadone clinic was about to open in a pre-existing social-service facility
on his block. He presented a three-part indictment of methadone clinics: An
in-patient clinic, once established, can easily be changed to an out-patient
clinic; given the small infrastructure involved, an out-patient clinic can
easily become many clinics, operating out of the same social-service facility;
once that happens, the facility is in hog heaven, augmenting the salaries of
its staff with their double jobs as administrators of the methadone clinic(s).
Meanwhile, the block is listed in the Zagat
Guide for addicts: Good Cheap Shit Here.
How much of this indictment is NIMBY-ism? What other
drug-treatment alternatives are there? These are real questions. But there is
also a real point in the Villager’s lament, which is that the social-service
industry has a powerful interest in solutions which, whatever good they do,
also do good for social-service providers. Since their self-interest comes
cloaked in a mantle of altruism, only a politician with a soul of brass can
call them on it.
For eight years, we had one. Giuliani Time began with a
crackdown on squeegee men. We must make an effort to recall how out of the box
that crackdown seemed in early 1994. All the arguments of old New
York were arrayed against it, from the accountant’s
language of cost-benefit-“Why divert cops from serious crimes like murder, rape
and robbery?”-to the pleas of charity, exercised on behalf of
bullies-“Whassa matter, you can’t dig into your pocket for a quarter?”-to
the false pride of the flâneur in
being able to deal with all sorts, including bullies-“Whassa matter, you scared
of a few bums?” Mr. Giuliani didn’t listen to any of it. For him, laws were
laws, bums were bums, and fixing little problems would help fix big ones. The
squeegee men got the message.
So did the city. Mr. Giuliani did not apply the principles
of the Cato Institute to social spending. People argue about a billion here and
a billion there, and maybe it’s important, but the fact remains that New
York’s spending on social services is huge, and this
seems to be a concomitant of the modern state. What Mr. Giuliani did do was
express the conviction that New York
was more than a hospital for the broken, and an employment agency for hospital
workers. His enemies accused him of wanting to make it a prison for the lawless,
and he had that punitive streak in him. But his real contribution was to insist
that the city was primarily a place for the honest and decent to live and work.
It takes another effort to recall how radical this seemed at the beginning of
Giuliani Time. For decades, all the totem arguments and symbols of the city had
been totems of state-sponsored compassion. Mr. Giuliani broke the spell.
Well, that’s over. In a
few months, Mayor Giuliani will be as old as yesterday’s breakfast; perhaps
even as old as Madonna. What will the next Mayor do with his legacy, the
improbable halcyon in New York’s rake’s progress?
As I wrote in my first report on the campaign, all the
Democrats are bright guys (Fernando Ferrer presents himself badly, but he is as
bright as the rest of them). They have decades of experience between them; they
know their way around budgets and regulations. Here and there are flashes of
humor, like one lightning bug in a dark field. Moreover, they all-except for
Mr. Ferrer-profess to have learned from Giuliani Time and offer themselves as
kinder, gentler caretakers.
Could they be, in fact? Does any of
them have the will to face down the bum at the cab window and the personnel
line-items at the methadone clinic, and their million siblings? Intelligence is
not terribly relevant to this question, and the
strongest suit of the Democrats-experience-actually argues against them. During
all their years in government, they were part of the problem, cogs in the
ruling party of a one-party city running itself into the ground.
Mr. Ferrer is a moderate borough president who dresses in
radical drag every time he seeks higher office. Peter Vallone is a comfortable
old shoe whose solution to the Dinkins crime wave was to pass a tax-dropping a
quarter into the cup of the policemen’s union. Alan Hevesi can argue with
people who ask him questions at speeches, but he flees all other
confrontations; his latest roll-over-and-play-dead idea was to offer
reparations for slavery. Mark Green, with Bill Bratton in tow, holds out the
possibility that the most left could govern as the most right; as per the old
Vulcan proverb, only Nixon could go to China.
This is a slender hook on which to hang one’s hopes, and New
If the Democrats are as fresh as the dead cars at Willetts
Point, does the Republican Party offer any hope?
(To be continued.)