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Anxious strolls

Finding nontraditional morality in Brooklyn


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It’s good to be needed. So I drove to Brooklyn to help a sleep-deprived couple with a baby. My job included daily walks to Prospect Park.

People in Brooklyn are afraid of the coronavirus, but I was more concerned with catching a stray bullet than a disease. In college I had a friend whose aunt lived in New York City, and she would walk home from work one foot on the curbstone and one in the gutter so the bad guys would leave her alone. That’s before Rudolph Giuliani cleaned house. Hers is my age group now, but old age and feigning mental illness are no deterrence from attack in these times, I am thinking as I push the pram.

On night 70 of Portland’s “mostly peaceful protests,” youths hurling rocks and glass bottles at police to administer social justice to the East Precinct station were met by a pair of white-haired women pleading for calm. For their troubles one was circled with yellow tape and splattered with paint by a young man twice her size. Others laughed, and a female yelled out, “This isn’t your world anymore!” while another called her the B-word.

While proceeding up Washington Avenue to Grand Army Plaza, I kept eyes out on both sides of my head.

The young female spoke truly. It isn’t that old woman’s world anymore. Nor mine. So though I tried to make myself look elderly and an uninteresting target (I haven’t colored my gray roots since January) while proceeding up Washington Avenue to Grand Army Plaza, I kept eyes out on both sides of my head.

Of course, that’s no guarantee either. I’ve seen the street surveillance videos of the 92-year-old woman pushed to the ground by a young male stranger passing her on a sidewalk in Gramercy Park in Manhattan; and of the 80-year-old man yanked to the pavement by a young male stranger in Bedford Park, the Bronx.

Camus’ lawyer character, Clamence, in the novel La Chute, having come to realize he is a hypocrite and all his righteousness as filthy rags, figures he may as well go whole hog and contemplates “jostling the blind on the street.”

Thus does absence of God beget random violence. Clamence continues in his meditation on the weak and defenseless pedestrian: “From the secret, unexpected joy this gave me, I recognize how much a part of my soul loathed them; I planned to puncture the tires of wheelchairs, to go and shout ‘lousy proletarian!’ under the scaffoldings where laborers were working, to smack infants in the subway.”

It is not as if he has no more morality; it is rather that he’s swapped the old one for a new one.

In an English tavern in 1763 a conversation between the 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell comes around to Boswell’s mention of “an impudent fellow from Scotland who affected to be a savage, and railed against all established systems.” Johnson’s comment is that such people are mere attention seekers—but on the off chance that the Scotsman is a sincere iconoclast and not just a poseur, Johnson says: “If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.”

Back on Washington Avenue with my grandson in tow I am thinking about all the nontraditional morality swirling around me—women holding hands with women; rainbow flags that no longer refer to God’s promise to Noah; the magnificent 50-foot entry portico to the central branch of the Brooklyn library, its bronze doors flanked by two enormous limestone pylons adorned with gilded relief carvings depicting the arts (the southern pillar) and science (northern pillar)—and placed above the portico in towering letters: “B-L-M.” One window on the south side bears a large sign with a saying by Bayard Rustin: “I believe in social dislocation and creative trouble.”

If you believe that too, I will count the silver when you leave my house, and walk my baby stroller near you with a touch of fear and trembling.


Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her commentary has been compiled into three books including Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides in Philadelphia, Penn.

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