I’m in New York City for a few days. Though I grew up here, this isn’t exactly like coming home. For this is twenty-first-century New York, not the city I grew up in, and I’m the twenty-first-century Sy Safransky, not a boy named Seymour (what were they thinking?) who lived in a semi-attached house on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn with his dog and his turtle and his goldfish and his mother and his father and his father’s mother and his father’s father and his younger sister, with whom he shared a room just big enough for two beds and a small dresser. There was a closet, too, where all the Jews killed by the Nazis were stacked on top of one another. Wandering the halls were the ghosts of his mother’s parents, and of his mother’s uncle who raped her when she was a teenager. And when Seymour got into bed at night, hundreds of Japanese soldiers descended in waves from some godforsaken hill in the South Pacific, and it was up to him to stop them. Downstairs there were books he was too young to read about the war that ended the year he was born, a war that left most of Europe and large parts of Asia in ruins; a war in which not just 6 million Jews but more than 60 million other men, women, and children were killed; a war from which his country emerged victorious, like a high-school quarterback who’d thrown the winning touchdown, only to witness the goal posts torn down and the stadium razed by the likes of Nixon and Reagan and Bush the elder and Bush the idiot son.
History laughs as the wind lifts her skirts. It’s too late for modesty now.
I didn’t become distrustful of the conventional wisdom overnight. It took the cultural ferment of the sixties. It took a handful of iconoclastic college professors. It took the nuclear-arms race and wrenching assassinations and civil-rights demonstrations and protests against the war in Vietnam. It took working as a journalist and observing the cynical actions of people in high places. It took lysergic acid diethylamide, which allowed me to peer behind my own Iron Curtain and catch a glimpse of God. It took Ram Dass and Alan Watts and Lao-tzu and Carlos Castaneda and Chögyam Trungpa and A Course in Miracles and a disembodied entity named Seth. It took waking up a little and doing everything possible to keep from falling back to sleep.
It helps to remember that all the bad headlines and all the good headlines are made from the same twenty-six letters.
When an old friend learned that The Sun has a Twitter feed, he wrote, “Twitter? I remember when Sy specialized in number 2 pencils and an Underwood manual typewriter. You’ve come a long way, baby.” That’s true, John, but it hasn’t been easy for a technophobe like me. I fretted when I bought The Sun’s first computer, and when we started using e-mail, and when we built our first website. Even today, as we put the finishing touches on a digital version of The Sun, I worry that I’m making a colossal blunder — even though the online edition will never replace the print magazine. Still, I wonder what vaunted tradition I imagine I’m upholding with my neo-Luddite tendencies — I, who insist on wearing round, wire-rimmed glasses because John Lennon wore them nearly a half century ago. How odd to be worshiping the signature spectacles of a long-dead cultural icon even though I’m in my sixties and wear bifocals. If Lennon wouldn’t have found this hilarious, my name isn’t Seymour Ira Safransky.
Though he never changed the family name legally, my father went by Safran rather than Safransky for “business reasons,” he said. In other words, he wanted his name to sound less Jewish. But being culturally assimilated never held much appeal for me. Though I wasn’t an observant Jew or especially proud of my ancestry, neither was I ashamed of it. To take a scalpel to my surname’s big Jewish nose would have been one more victory for the anti-Semites who longed to rid the world of Jews — or, at the very least, to exclude them from their alma maters and their country clubs.
It’s five in the morning. A light rain is falling. To help settle my stomach, I didn’t eat yesterday. My stomach stopped hurting, but I was hungry all night. Well, you can’t have everything. Today I’ve got an appointment with an acupuncturist. Maybe his needles will make everything all right. Or maybe, given how cranky I’ve been lately, irritable bowel syndrome is a diagnosis I need to accept. Maybe the punishment fits the crime. Maybe, instead of giving up gluten or soy or dairy in an effort to heal myself, I’d be better off looking in the mirror and saying, “Cheer up, old man.”
The raccoon is back. It snuck in through the cat door just before dawn, ate all of Franny and Zooey’s food, then bolted away when I came downstairs. Now we’ll need to keep the cat door closed at night and deal with Franny and Zooey’s frustration that they can’t come and go as they please. Is this fair to the cats? Is it fair to us? Maybe the raccoon thinks it has as much right to live here as we do. Maybe it doesn’t want to be a second-class citizen who envies the sweet deal Franny and Zooey have: free medical and dental, central air and heat, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of food, and two doting humans who apparently have nothing better to do than to cater to their every need. Talk about a welfare state! Maybe the raccoon wonders why there isn’t a little more compassion for another intelligent, furry mammal whose brothers and sisters have lived in these North Carolina woods a lot longer than some Jewish guy from Brooklyn who moved here to be closer to the land.