Letter from occupied New York

With City Hall behind barricades, Mayor Rudy Giuliani is getting ready to take his show on the road.

Published December 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Our only mayor, Bob Newhart's Evil Twin, opened the new year in Arizona, where he showed off his crime statistics to the right-wingers at the "Dark Ages" frat blast in Phoenix and took in the Fiesta Bowl football game. During his absence, it rained four inches on us, while three feet of snow fell on Chicago. That very same week we learned New York also had fewer homicides last year than Richard Daley's city on the lake. So not only are there more murders in Chicago than in New York, among 4 million fewer residents, but the weather is worse. Which is another reason for Rudy, after his two terms are up, to run for senator, if not vice president.

Nevertheless, and even though we were very wet, we worried more about the mayor than we did about ourselves, or even Chicago, while he was gone. To say that Rudolph Giuliani is a control freak is to say that Attila the Hun was antsy. There was reason to fear for his mental stability out there in the wild West, in the painted-desert whereabouts of Kit Carson and Zane Grey. Suppose they didn't give him a whirlybird to napalm Thelma and Louise? Suppose those Navajos refused to convert their kivas into condos? Suppose Geronimo demanded more than his fair share of TV face time? What if Grand Canyon mules insisted on crossing at the wrong midtown intersection?

Imagine our relief when Rudy returned to his bunker without conniption. His very first day back, he threatened to defund New York City's Campaign Finance Board because it proposed giving $4 for each one raised privately by candidates for a City Council election next month, if those candidates forswear corporate donations. Although this proposal had been endorsed by a coalition of the League of Women Voters, the Citizens Union, the City Bar Association, the New York Times and Common Cause, the mayor accused them all of "stubbornness," "arrogance" and "intellectual dishonesty." It's the tone he takes not only with critics but with any Chicken Little or Tiny Tim who thinks out loud without his permission -- with judges who say that the voters, instead of Rudy, should decide if the Yankees play baseball in Manhattan or the Bronx; with members of the City Council who override his vetoes; with journalists who want information on how "workfare" is playing out; with the comptroller, the public advocate and the Independent Budget Office, who all had to sue to force him to give them the facts and figures they needed to do their jobs; with City University of New York students who seek in lawful assembly to protest tuition hikes.

The last five years in New York have been less about government than they've been about obedience training. Rudy's a guy with a built-in balcony, from which he barks our marching orders. Lawful assembly, and such free-speechifying as may attend its occasion, are particularly sore points around here. Before he was even elected the first time, in October 1993, candidate Rudy opposed letting Louis Farrakhan speak at Yankee Stadium. In March 1995, a wall of cops surrounded City Hall, with horses, scooters, nightsticks, riot gear, barricades and Mace, to keep 20,000 high school and college students from marching on Wall Street. That June, Rudy kicked Yasir Arafat out of Lincoln Center. The following May, he would use armored cars against homeless squatters. The first official act of his second term, last New Year's Day, was to close his own inauguration to the public, after which he directed the Metropolitan Transit Authority to remove from buses and subways a New York magazine ad that took his name in vain, which was followed by checkpoints and roadblocks in Greenwich Village against anarcho-syndicalists and other rowdies, and video surveillance cameras in Washington Square Park.

When cabbies last spring objected to a new set of onerous regulations, they were met with ridicule by Rudy, an accusation by his police commissioner that a proposed convoy of protesters constituted a "terrorist threat" (wonderfully coded, since many cabbies are Middle Eastern), a deployment of livery drivers as scabs (later ruled unlawful by an appellate court) and an army of cops with tow trucks who closed the East River bridges to any taxi without a fare, forcing angry drivers to walk from Queens and Brooklyn to Manhattan. "They know we broke their strike -- destroyed it really," Rudy boasted. "Nobody showed up today. And that didn't happen just because we allowed business to go on as usual. That happened because we had a plan to stop them from doing it."

In May, when street artists whom he'd hounded from the city sidewalks tried to heckle his appearance at Cooper Union, they were arrested. In September, the city refused a permit to Khallid Abdul Muhammad for his Million Youth March, suggesting that he agitate instead on Randall's Island. And when Muhammad won won his right in court to gather on Malcolm X Boulevard, the cops closed all the subway stations and cross streets so nobody could join in along the route. In December, demonstrators seeking to observe World AIDS Day and mourn the 77,000 New Yorkers who've died of the disease were likewise denied a permit to rally in City Hall Park, and likewise went to court to win their case. Then, when 150 of them showed up, they had to pass through motorcycle cops and metal detectors before they arrived at a parking lot surrounded by a brand-new eight-foot chain-link penitentiary fence and looked down upon by sharpshooters.

Nor was it an accident that the organizer of the rally, Housing Works, had already seen its $6.5 million worth of contracts with the city canceled. Why should a thrift-shop sponsor of drug treatment, job training and employment programs for homeless people with HIV expect anything better from Rudy than, say, the City Council, whose time-servers till a couple of weeks ago were forbidden to stage photo ops on the steps of City Hall because maybe they were closet Montana militiamen. Or Repohistory, denied permission by the Department of Transportation to put up posters commemorating famous civil-liberties cases. Or Bill Weinberg, the radical journalist who spent a night in the Tombs and the following Saturday cleaning up dogshit in Tompkins Square for pasting a "GIULIANI IS A JERK" sticker on a lamppost. It's not as if any of these people were baseball players or astronauts or Disney puppets or Columbus Day Italians.

I am reminded of another great leader, who complained in Moscow in 1920: "Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?" This was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

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Meanwhile, our Rudy, who began by threatening to abolish the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Civil Rights Division, to sell off public hospitals and East River bridges, to cancel the city's contract with Legal Aid; who'd subsequently propose uniforms for teachers, a casino on Governor's Island, a $15 million bomb-proof bunker for himself in the World Trade Center and turning the homeless out of city shelters after 90 days (which proved to be illegal); who has dumped every police commissioner, superintendent of schools and any other vassal who got more ink or air time than their feudal liege; who has belittled his predecessors and ridiculed his own task force on police brutality and won't even talk to the black community ("They're going to have to learn to discipline themselves in the way they speak"); who has declared Holy War on squeegee men ("drug-addicted psychopaths"), licensed street vendors (350 banned during daylight hours from Midtown and the Financial District), bicycle messengers and delivery boys (mostly immigrants), hookers and sex clubs, underage drinkers, aggressive panhandlers, Fourth of July Mafia fireworks, Chinese New Year's celebrations, salsa music on Amsterdam Avenue and boom boxes everywhere -- meanwhile, this Rudy has been busy on a dozen other Draconian fronts:

He has abolished remedial classes at City University. He has tried to eliminate subway and bus passes for schoolchildren. He has closed libraries while expanding the Museum of Modern Art. He's cut every social service for the poor, from medical assistance to foster care to food stamps to heating for the elderly, and slashed the budget for parks and recreation, hospital workers and after-school sports and enrichment programs, while offering zoning variances, tax abatements and customized incentives to First Boston, Depository Trust, Viacom and the Stock Exchange. He has bulldozed the community gardens of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans to make room for yuppie condos, forced single-mother welfare recipients onto "workfare" even if they can't find child care, ordained that the disabled show up in downtown municipal offices to prove that they are indeed disabled, abolished the methadone program and unleashed a gleeful police force to do whatever it chooses in the Mussolini meantime, from invading mosques to no-knock wrong-address raids on black and Latino homes. While it might not be true that the cops in the 70th Precinct stationhouse who raped Abner Louima with a toilet plunger actually advised him that "It's Giuliani time!" the spirit is accurate enough. The city also stands to lose as much as $1 billion in damages from 53,000 illegal, pre-arraignment strip searches of "misdemeanants" arrested in 1996 and 1997 for such minor offenses as scalping a ticket, driving with a suspended license or selling a pair of sneakers on the sidewalk without a vending license. (But who cares about the Fourth Amendment when you've got a police commissioner who wants a DNA specimen from anybody ever arrested in the imperial city, including subway turnstile-jumpers?)

I am reminded of the late Donald Barthelme, who wrote, "We have rots, blights and rusts capable of attacking the enemy's alphabet," plus "real-time online computer-controlled wish evaporations." Barthelme went on to add: "There are flowers all over the city because the mayor doesn't know where his mother is buried." I am also reminded of Kafka's Castle, Potemkin's Village and Godard's Alphaville. According to the Community Service Society's July 1997 report on poverty, 1.5 million New Yorkers had a standard of living equivalent to that of a family of four getting by on less than $12,000 a year. When another 100,000 lost their food stamps in August of that year, the number of soup kitchens and food pantries increased from 800 to 1,000, serving 60 million meals per annum, but turning away 2,600 people every day.

How mean is Rudy? So mean, to wrench a Molly Ivins quote from context, "He wouldn't spit in your ear if your brains were on fire." Which is why the municipal unions are so scared of him that leaders of District 37 -- the city's largest municipal union, representing everybody from social workers to crossing guards -- fraudulently rigged a 1996 vote to ratify a wage freeze contract. More than six weeks after the votes of all the other locals had been tabulated, rejecting this contract, clerical workers Local 1459 suddenly reported an amazing 10-2 margin of approval, putting the wage freeze over the top. District 37 is now in trusteeship and its leaders have resigned in disgrace, while Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau tries to decide whom to indict first.

This is what happens when you elect a former prosecutor. With concrete, he barricades his own City Hall. He thinks of himself as Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick or E.L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate, but he's a lot more like William Blake's Urizen, "self-enclos'd, all repelling" -- "Dark, revolving in silent activity,/Unseen in tormenting passions,/An activity unknown and horrible,/A self-contemplating shadow,/In enormous labors occupied." One almost wishes that the widespread rumors of romantic hanky-panky with his press secretary, Christyne Lategano, were spot on -- especially if you've ever seen Rudy's wife, Donna Hanover, pushing a bit too hard on the perky pedal at the harmonium of her cable TV recipe show on the Food Network, between interviews with a meat-thermometer salesman and a flack for "The Great Fluff Off" at the Year of the Marshmallow festival. Talk about your Miracle Whip.

But crime is down, unless you count police brutality. And so is the caseload of parasitic welfare cheats, although after three years of slave-wage workfare the Giuliani administration refuses to tell us how many have graduated to real jobs, or whether those jobs used to belong to someone else, once unionized, since downsized. And so is the number of hospital workers, especially in the cafeteria food services, which will teach that union what happens when you don't endorse the mayor. And thus the city is safer for all those delirious professionals who venture out at night in their yupscale neighborhoods, sun-dried as if in extra-virgin olive oil, crouched to consume a minimalist bistro meal of cilantro leaves, goat-cheese medallions and half a scallop on a bed of eurodollars, tethered by their red suspenders to gaudy balloons of avarice and ego. Oh, the quality of My So-Called Life! Like Bombay, we have a huge low-wage work force and a filthy-rich managerial class and produce products consumed elsewhere. As in Singapore, we're caned for littering.

Once upon a time, the whole idea of New York was to derive from our rainbow mosaic an energizing principle; to find, in diversity, our jumping beans. And once upon a time, the idea of government involved taking care of the young, the old, the odd, the powerless and strangers. But that was before we decided to measure everyone by his or her ability to produce wealth -- and to morally condemn or punish anybody who failed to prosper. Look into Rudy's prosecutorial eyes. He is evicting patients from a state-run psychiatric clinic in Brooklyn in order to punish a city councilman who crossed him with a homeless shelter no one needs. He is dispatching our garbage on scows to New Jersey, not having bothered to ask New Jersey in advance, like some sort of Flying Dutch DeLillo Cleanser. Wouldn't he have been much happier back in the heyday of the sci-fi Cold War squelching Triffids, Pods, Blobs and Body Snatchers? Man-eating dandelions! Meteoric slimeballs! Bloodsucking carrots! Collectivized Bolshevik killer ants!

I am reminded of Fox Mulder and the Unabomber. Of Max Headroom, and Mark Pauline's robot scorpion. Of the Vampire of Dusseldorf, the Silesian Bluebeard, Jack the Ripper and Brian De Palma, who explained: "I don't particularly want to chop up women, but it seems to work." I am reminded of Gabriel García Márquez's autumnal patriarch, and "the solitary vice of power." Scariest of all, I am reminded of another poor-boy-made-good lawyer out of synch -- of Richard Nixon, alone in a darkened wing of the White House, as if Watergate had been a play by Samuel Beckett, listening on tape either to himself or maybe Elvis.

By John Leonard

John Leonard is the Culture Watch columnist for the Nation, media critic for "CBS Sunday Morning" and television critic for New York magazine.

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