NEW YORK CITY - New York, New York, what a wonderful town. Our town. A big town with a small town feel. A small town with a big town feel.
I tell the cabby to take me to 92nd and Fifth. "Are you going to the Jewish Museum?" he asks.
"I went there to see the Russian show," he says. "I'm Russian, a Sephardic Jew. I was born in Uzbekistan, in Samarkand. Most of my family now lives in Israel."
He's in a talkative mood (like most New York cabbies I meet). He loves Ariel Sharon. "He's doing the right thing," he says. "It's what Americans would do if we were in their place. He's going after their terrorists, like we're going after ours."
He wasn't always a cabby. He and his wife had a mom-and-pop shoe store before Sept. 11, but it was downtown on Broadway and went bust after 9/11. No customers. He shrugs, like a character out of a Shalom Aleichem story. "That's life," he says. "We're still lucky to live here."
He lets me off at the Jewish Museum to see the show called "New York: Capital of Photography." Here are lots of photographs of people like my cabby, ordinary people doing ordinary things, bearing the vicissitudes of urban life as immigrants in a city of promise that doesn't always deliver on the promise. The camera is a streetwise observer bearing witness to human worth and consequence in humble circumstances.
These are not pictures a tourist takes to send back home saying, "Wish you were here." Their angle for the immigrants is parallel with the street, snapped by foot-soldier photographers who catch eloquence in aspiration that has not yet shaken its shabbiness. It focuses on the poetry of possibility, even when some of that possibility is lost, as it was, at least temporarily, for my cabby and his wife.
Post-9/11 New York lends poignancy and power to many of the photographs in this exhibition, expressing the ineffable lifelines emanating from the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side to the imperious skyscrapers of the prosperous financial district. When the photographer captures the elegance of opulence generated from the wealth of the financial district, it's offered without judgment, a spectacle to enjoy, a moment of shimmering luxury that we're permitted to indulge.
The emphasis is on what Max Kozlov, the art critic who curated the show, calls "this vast catalogue of miscellany." Whether of poor or prosperous, these enigmatic images grasp at universal meanings in the trappings of personal experience.
But there is also an argument in many of the images, strong statements about how these immigrants, when offered opportunity, can make a difference for themselves and for the rest of us. In fact, the images of impoverished immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, juxtaposed with la creme de la creme of the culturally genteel in their penthouses, asks a provocative question: Which group will be most enriched from participation in our democracy? It's a question we must ask again today.
At the Museum of the City of New York, another show examines the lives of Arab-Americans who came here from the Middle East - Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The photographs observe Christians, Muslims and Jews in the diversity of their cultural traditions. In one, a Muslim woman with her hair covered in traditional scarves holds a photograph of her son, a New York national guardsman who was a rescue worker at Ground Zero.
Complementing these photographic shows of New York is a contemporary drama called "Two Guys," playing in a tiny theater Off-Off-Broadway. It's a two-character play of dialogue between a grieving fire captain who must give eulogies for several of his men who died at Ground Zero, and a young newspaperwoman he enlists to help him write what he wants to say.
Different actors rotate in the parts and the New York Times observes that the drama is so powerful in its raw tragic reality that one night a fireman in the audience ran from his seat in need of air when the words overwhelmed him. Actor Tim Robbins almost broke down in the part one evening when he began to talk about a fun-loving fireman named Barney, who headed for the Twin Towers even though he was off duty, heroism that rose from a sense of self-imposed duty.
The World Trade Center was destroyed by suicide bombers who were messengers of death, but they couldn't destroy the Tower of Babel. The photographs and theater remind us that our heroic men and women speak the same language. What a country. What a city.