New York is a glamorous city, constituted mostly of nobodies. They crave the lights, and if they tell you differently, they’re lying. Only dreamers come to New York. As a matter of course, few people have control over their lives. You live at the whim of your boss, your landlord, your grocer, the stranger, the judge, the bus driver, the mayor who won’t let you smoke. On the other hand, you live at the whim of your whims, and that is most exciting thing there is.
And so begins Charlie LeDuff’s book of character sketches of the nobodies that inhabit the city. I love reading stuff like this, real stories about ordinary people. I also love reading blogs of strangers and getting a glimpse of the day to day lives of people. Everyone has a story worth telling. LeDuff shows that the nobodies of the city are somebodies. Profiled in this book are local drunks hanging out in the bar, circus midgets, freaks from the Coney Island side shows, transgendered prostitutes, firefighters, aging fishermen from Sheepshead Bay, Russian showgirls from the Brighton Beach nightclubs, Polish maids from Greenpoint, homeless bums, used car salesmen, and old guys who spend too much time at the Aqueduct race track. I love it. These are the people who make New York the special place it is.
This being a book profiling the lives of working nobodies, race is often a topic of conversation. There are tensions between hispanic and white, hispanic and black, black and white, American Indian and everyone else. But more often than not, people try to be understanding to their fellow workingman or woman, in spite of racial differences:
Two Hispanic men come in [to the bar] for a shot and two burgers to go. They leave without saying hello. ‘You figure these guys come to this country and can at least learn the language,’ says one road worker to the bar, lined with blacks and whites. ‘Take it easy, bud,’ Jimmy Williams tells him. ‘Didn’t you see their hands? They were working men. One of us.’
This book was reminiscent of Studs Terkel’s Working, which also celebrated the lives of ordinary working men and women, which I wrote about here and here. This type of anthropological writing really gives value in what “ordinary” people have to say about issues more typically discussed in general media by professors and researchers. Race, class, gender, politics; all that good stuff are in these books. This type of writing lets people speak for themselves and allows their words stand on their own. There is something so valuable about having the opinions, thoughts and stories of the people written down on paper (or blogged online).