Thursday, May 24, 2007

sweeney's hot dogs: the 3rd world within

This great nation cannot stamp out the third world within itself, and I am deeply thankful for that. Though the spirit is strong, the fisc is weak. The spirit of America is to replace anything showing disintegration with a shiny impermeable surface (to eliminate time), to replace relationships with transactions (to eliminate human contact), and to replace history with fashion (to eliminate memory).

How glad I am that America cannot destroy the third world within. The way America decays, cracks, molds around the edges proves that America the modernist fantasy, a place of transcendent rationality, will not prevail in its quest. Even more, these decaying, moldy margins are in flux, growing here (as public and corporate investment shrinks), shrinking there (as investment grows). But overall I think they are spreading. I celebrate this long, slow defeat as a victory against an arrogant kind of humanity, an anti-humanist humanity enamored of machines and abstractions. Within the third world, humanity and its jostling, tenacious, piecemeal, pleasure-seeking self is paramount. Nothing is final in the third world, nothing is transcendent. The third world has no interest in atomic weaponry, no interest in “final solutions,” no interest in nightmarish versions of old religious hopes transplanted to state policy.

As soon as modernist symbols or believers begin succumbing to time, being pulled slowly into history, I can admire them, admire their dream, there like a statue within the garden of civilizations. Like with artists, one would not want to live with them and the intolerable eccentricities and demands of their dream. But once you have moved out and divorced the artist, you can appreciate the products of his mad vision, the skyscrapers, the nation states. Modernists, too, are insufferably stuffy when in control as high priests of Reality: but once they have been let go, to sit in the garden of the old folk’s home with an afghan over the knees, with nothing but stories of their spiritual cravings and remarkable achievements, one can forgive them their arrogance. In a word, when modernism is taken as yet one more rich fabric in the unending human tapestry, rather than as the religion-like be-all and end-all – when it becomes a fashion integrated into history – I can love it. But I still love the irreverent third world better, the third world that would not shut up during the sermon, even more.

From the side of economic justice, I am sorry to see the modernist utopia, of full employment under rational state justice and the free market, die. So when I saw the line of food trucks all along Long Wharf Road, philosophically I smiled; economically I grimaced; politically I was philosophical: hard times for more means long term potential for greater awakening, which can lead to more democracy and a resurgence of human culture and creativity back into the “scientific” economic realm. If the economy has a rational, scientific sheen now, iti s only because the degree of wealth concentration is so great that the economic gods yawning on clouds on high find it amusing to track the numbers, roll the dice, tinker with the rules, and reshuffle the deck. The numbers men make a convincing show as a priesthod so sober and boring one could hardly suspect the secrets they divulge are mere creations of man. One finds oneself believing that a market exists as an objective thing. But all Gods fall – and once they do they are poignant. I sincerely hope that one day I will have been able to love global capitalism, as a cultural period here and gone.

But for now, I am delighted tosee 8 or 9 trucks parked along Long Wharf Drive. I was on the highway rounding the bend to New Haven from the south. There was the harbor in front of me, and a god-forsaken strip of land along its shore, like an island cut off from the New Haven mainland by the highway’s roaring, impenetrable surf. I had never seen it as a place to welcome hope, or interest, or respect. Apparently this has been the view of the municipal powers that be: hence its status as a place of autonomy. Today it bloomed for me. When I saw the trucks lined up, faded flags drooping, behind the rose-seller’s truck (9.99 a dozen) that has been there forever, I saw a piece of land so godforsaken and damned to commercial dormancy (and a retreating state) that it has begun to re-emerge, in a limited way, as a new version of the commons that were seized by capitalists in England, centuries ago. This sacrifice of common economic and cultural space jumpstarted the industrial revolution. One can argue whether this (coerced) sacrifice was worth it or not depending on one’s view of the consequences of the industrial revolution, but what cannot be denied is that organic communal life was essentially killed off with the death of a collective space for economic and cultural pursuits.

With the coalescence of nation states, urban public institutions did emerge, in the form of assembly halls, coffee houses, taverns, libraries, and parks, and these developments are of inestimable importance. But these institutions did not belong to all people of a particular community: rather, they were places for a narrow sector of urban citizenry, men with the means to participate in the life of the state. the New Haven green, just a mile away, is a good example. Their participation was not as economic producers of a particular place, but as privileged consumers of particular strata. The role of the old commons was entirely different from the later secularized, delimited, and partially commoditized public spaces. These public spaces were under the eye of the state and church; the commons had been autonomous, state-neglected, beyond bureaucratic reach. These public spaces were cleared of all but private petty commerce – street musicians, vendors, coffee house owners; the commons had represented a space central to local economic interests, cultural self-representation, and moral participation. It was not fully communal, for families grazed their animals there. But it was not a space theat could be dominated by the few. In that way it put a check on local hierarchy. Membership in a community involved an ethical duty: to respect the equal membership of others in this space, this negotiated space.

In 2004 New Haven, and America as a whole, space is almost fully commoditized, and central places are owned by the monied classes (local, regional, national, global) and their businesses. The exception of course is, ironically, those spaces procured by the state early on for the genteel life of the bourgeoisie citizenry. Now, those former fora for bourgeoise life have in many cases been abandoned by the bourgeoisie and fallen into the hands of the urban poor. Bowling Green, New York’s oldest public park, dating from 1730, can be easily imagined as a space formerly reserved for upstanding citizens, and perhaps – perhaps – their womenfolk. It is an oval, symmetric space, representing a kind of rational enlightenment aesthetic. It is ringed by an ancient metal fence. One can imagine it as an island of public civility partly isolated from the bustling mercantile streets around it. Today it is occupied by bums and petit white collar employees of the nearby financial district. My point is that today’s bourgeoisie is in the process of abandoning these public spaces made by the state, save for those public spaces redeemed by private capital, as in downtown Nashville or Baltimore’s harbor sector, and turned into historic settings for bourgeoisie nightclubs, malls, and restaurants. My sense is that the tremendous affection of bourgeoise New Yorkers for Central Park is that it has not fallen victim to this trend of abandonment or commercialization (though in the eighties it came close to abandonment). It has resisted these trends through vigorous civic participation, continued municipal investment, and yes, limited corporate investment.

The New Haven green, like much of New Haven itself, has been abandoned to the poor. The odd sense one gets on the green is that it is still just as beautiful as when Victorian ladies strolled it in parasols. The city maiuntains it, and the churches are magestic. But the classes (and the governing culture) that gave rise to it historically are gone, as are their successors. The doors have been opened to the poor, but it has not been appropriated by the poor and given a new, different cultural life. It is as if the poor don’t mind walking across it, but sense the ghosts of the oldmasters still lingering there. Or more likely to them it is identified ultimately as “state property” and, since they themselves are marginal to the state, the Green with its dead structures inadvertently preserves memories of Puritan civility is marginal to them. The churches, too, as part of the green not of the state, also appear as relics uninteresting to the current poor masters of the city. There is a social emptiness, a cultural emptiness to the green. Yale University, which fronts the green, is turned inward to its own enclosed spaces reserved for the national and globalized elites. The green is a miscellaneous space: neglected by a bourgeoisie largely vanished, still maintained in its old form by the city, not culturally “owned” by poor blacks, nor appropriated by new commercializing interests, it is a scene of a civic past whose players have fled and whose political economy has died. The green is used for local events: though not privately owned, the green too succumbs to the logic of capital, without a human culture to animate it and culturally restructure it, it remains a state-owned relic of space: a place to be applied for, to be used as a thing, a resource. The silence there is a historical silence, a silence made deeper by the influence of money on space.

Long Wharf Drive is marginally maintained by the city government, but with no residents and no permanent businesses, it is empty. There is now a strip of grass along the water, with an asphalt path. Toward the harbor mouth stand several memorials: a big “V” with the names of Vietnam vets engraved on it. The letter “V” brings to my mind victory, an unfortunate coincidence. There is a monument to the Korean War dead: the forgotten war, forgotten no more. On the contrary, the city could hardly have picked a more forgotten corner of New Haven – and it is picturesque for being so. That the site is next to the harbor doesn’t hurt, for when the blanket of cloud slipped back today, the water shone and the opposite shore shone out.

I walked up and down the grass strip, peering at the menu boards on the truck sides without looking too obvious. I am afraid of being misread in my intentions, afraid of raising hopes in vain. The signs were mainly hand-painted or lettered, and many of the trucks were hung with flags indicating the food sold: a Puerto Rican and US flag hung together, Mexico, Jamaica. As I finally turned toward Steve Z’s truck, a sign advertising kielbasa and cheeseburgers for 2.25, I hesitated. No one was there eating. I looked back at Sweeney’s Hot Dogs, one of the plainest trucks there. Two men stood at the window, making orders. An instinct told me that such an undemonstrative truck had something else going for it, and I was right.

It wasn’t the food, with only hot dogs and red hots on the tiny menu with chips and soda. The window was tiny, and I leaned in, speaking to a burly forearm and belly. “A red hot please,” I said.

“Whattaya want on it?” came the crusty voice. I peered up to catch a glimpse of his face, a craggy visage topped with greying hair. The interior of the truck was old, but mostly empty. It was an oldness of a space long-used: old formica scrubbed clean, a wood counter bare and dry as a bone.

“Mustard, ketchup, . . how about onions?” I said.

“raw onions?” came the voice.

“Sure.” I saw the big arms pull open a bun, ungloved hands dunk a knife down and up, slathering mustard in the bun, squirting ketchup, scattering chopped onions. Up came a dog, speared out of the water. The hands seemed too big, smudging a little the precise movements. Behind Sweeney, seated on the driver’s seat, was a middle aged man eating. They had been talking. He looked at me.

“Have a good day,” said the old man with surprising directness and warmth after his near-silent pause to make my dog. As I backed away 2 older men approached the window familiarly.

“Heya Johnny! You know I got fucked over at that . . .” began one. I lingered, eating. Pigeons crowded me, drawn by a false rumor. I looked in the front of the truck and saw not one but two men in there, both eating. They eyed me, as if my unknownness drew their attention automatically, and my attention, even more.

“Its a regular league of nations down here,” I heard the other man say. “Italian, Jamaican – the spice of life!” Both men were cheery, taking pleasure in their visit, in their being recognized regulars, but also in the change they saw. My looks into the truck found something different and strange, a vibe I did not know. New Haven had been mostly white 50 years ago, but now that working poor white population was gone – except for men like this. They talked like men in 50’s noir films, wisecracking roughnecks not lucky enough to be the detective but maybe the toughs or patrolmen instead. As I walked up and down a few more times I saw several men eating and otherwise comfortably inhabiting the interior of the truck, a brotherhood built around the man, Sweeney, and his long-running embeddedness in this spot.

Several dogs followed me tenaciously, and one even jumped up on me and barked petulantly when I turned on him. I passed La Reina, a dull steel grey truck with a turning chimney. There was “Irene’s – is back!” , with a wooden board of peeling menu items. There was a Jamaican one, advertising jerk chicken but with no menu board, leaving passersby uncertain as to how to order. At the front was Bea’s, with a sign for an egg and ham muffin. I eventually walked back toward Tony Zulla’s. he was just rolling up his “open” flag. His arm had a martini glass with a nude woman lounging in it. But his voice was not the rough voice I expected.

“Yeah, startin’ to close up,” he said mildly. “You want somethin’?” I ordered a cheeseburger and he asked if I wanted bacon. I hesitated. “No extra cost,” he said, and I assented and realized he was making a special effort to draw a new customer.

“How long are you guys here?” I asked, meaning, how late at night.

“As long as we can,” he said, “Some make it through the winter if business is good enough.”

“Were there always this many trucks?”

“No, there’s more now. 2 new ones.”

“Why’s that?”

“So much traffic here,” he said. “Sweeney, he’s been here 40 years now. But you know, he’s cut back to the basics: hot dogs and red hots. Course, he doesn’t need to do the grinders, the fries, anymore. He’s got his regulars who go to him. But I would never serve a dog boiled 5 or 6 hours in water. Someone gets sick? Its not worth it. Mine are all grill-cooked. We call those ‘dirty water dogs.’” As I bit into the hamburger I realized he wasn’t messing around about good food. It was delicious.

“You do business out of your home, too?” I asked, pointing out a flier for holiday orders of Italian dishes.

“No, we cook it all in here,” he said gesturing at the oven. I asked him what kind it was and he told me how he had picked up each piece of the equipment for one tenth the original price at various auctions. He took evident pride in his skill of thrift. Rather than auctions at fixed times and places, particular auctioneers announced auctions they would run on their websites.

“You got the truck on e-bay?” I exclaimed.

“Yup. E-bay motors,” he said smiling. “My wife and daughter help out in the summer, so I even put in a toilet. I don’t know what these guys do. Its just like an RV.” Evidently a core of them – Irene, Bea, Sweeney, and he – had been there a long time. In them, a small-scale economic community had become fixed in a place which was not closed to others. As third worlders, they lived on small transactions which intertwined with a social ethic of cameraderie, regularity, and friendship. The space itself, a commons found or salvaged on the margins of the city, was owned by none of them, nor was it monopolized by informal claims. It is possible, of course, that they must deal with the underworld to maintain their belonging.

This strip of barren road beside the spare grey sea was where teenage boys used to race fast cars. It is rare, now, said Steve, but it still happens. There had been something poignant and remarkably revealing in one of our interactions. When he had offered bacon and I demurred, looking at the menu, and he had said, “No extra cost,” it revealed the startling fact that in this great nation still live classes of people for whom a quarter more or less for a burger makes a difference. That the quarter intrudes at all into the consciousness of some, as much as would 100 or 1000 dollars for certain others, is a startling fact.

My hesitation, and reassurance, reassures me anew – that the third world is still here. And it is growing, exploiting dead zones or blank spots on the economic or political maps of American cities or towns. These small-scale groupings, with their ways of business, and cooking, and relating to people, force open cracks in the machine-like modernist vision of the nation. No more desolate urban spot has been for me so beautiful, a place of flowering and philosophical hope, that is also a hope political.

1 comment:

CAROUSEL said...

Glad to see a post about Sweeney's Hot Dogs.

It brought back a lot of memories :)

thanks :)