Sins of the City
For months now, New Yorkers have sought solace in the notion that black or white, Puerto Rican or Korean, rich or poor, they now live in a city united. Even the heavy-turned-hero former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, left behind his pit bull tactics in favor of solidarity and mourning. After September 11, stomping out the squeegee menace — the guys who wash the windshields of cars stuck in traffic and then ask drivers for a dollar — no longer mattered as much as remembering the dead from all walks of life.
But now the days of mourning seem to have come to an end. The New York Times no longer runs its daily, heartbreaking portraits of lost husbands and brothers and mothers and friends; and the war coverage that since September 12 has been found in an advertising-free section titled “A Nation Challenged” has been folded back into the ordinary events of the day.
For New York it’s back to business and time to rebuild: lives, commerce, even the city government. The new year has brought a new mayor; trouble is, he is resurrecting old ideas. First item on the agenda: the return of the squeegee man. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has declared the sponge-wielding demons guilty of one of seven “quality-of-life” offenses — the aforementioned 7 City Sins. Among the other nasties are homeless people, panhandlers, unlicensed peddlers, prostitutes and guys who get drunk and piss in the park. Pitting New York’s Finest against such sinners, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelley announced, will be a top priority of the new administration.
The number seven is no accident. Greed; Gluttony; Sloth; Envy; Anger; Pride; Lust. Seven may be lucky but it’s also long been the count of our failings, the Seven Deadly Sins, the transgressions that are fatal to spiritual progress. Round the turn of the last millennium, popular entertainment of the day included “morality plays” staged in public squares, in which a hero faced the temptations of characters bearing the names of the seven deadlies. Audience participation was part of the fun. Viewers heckled, jeered, and cheered their hero, called Everyman, along his path, booing down fat-gutted Greed, perhaps urging him to tarry awhile in the company of a saucy, buxom Lust.
The happy ending of a medieval morality play came when Everyman managed to run the gauntlet of sins and win the reward of eternal life. Today, Mayor Bloomberg plans to offer New Yorkers similar satisfaction. The city, after all, has become the hero of a nationwide morality play. Those who live within its borders have front row seats, and will be expected to play the same role as the audiences of old. Key to the success of “Operation Clean Sweep” will be citizen participation via a new NYPD hotline: (888) 677-LIFE.
For real. To hear Bloomberg tell it, after surviving disaster New York now risks being led to perdition by squeegee men and Gucci knock-offs. Meanwhile, the city has launched a legal crusade against an affluent Presbyterian church on Fifth Avenue that lets homeless people sleep on its steps. The city’s claim that it’s doing so only to protect the homeless (from what? The horrors of America’s premiere high-end shopping district?) is undercut by its branding them sinners. So it’s a sin to ask for a dollar?
Seven sins, seven dollars; the price of admission to Staten Island, departing mayor Giuliani’s power base and something like the vision of paradise promised by Operation Clean Sweep. On Staten Island, there are no public urinators, no panhandlers, no illegal peddlers, and not a squeegee man to be found.
But the traditional seven deadlies are readily apparent. Wherever you’re reading this, anywhere in America, you know what Staten Island looks like. Broad-shouldered highways and oceanic parking lots, cookie cutter houses made of stucco and artificial, weather resistant brick, the middle class prosperity that makes America the envy of the world and the chains that make us free: Home Depot, Staples, and Sears; Barnes & Noble, Circuit City, and along Victory Boulevard, a Starbuck’s that’s as big as a block in Manhattan. On Staten Island, our needs, desires, and let’s face it, our material lusts, all come super-sized.
Which is not to say that New York’s outermost borough is some kind of outer circle of hell. Who doesn’t enjoy a Venti Half-Caf Double Latte from time to time? Sins like gluttony are so deadly because we’re all so good at committing them. But when was the last time you had an overwhelming urge to squeegee a stranger’s windshield?
What makes Bloomberg’s 7 City Sins so deceptive is that they’re less a matter of who’s committing offenses than who is offended. It’s true that squeegee men can be scary, and that they’re not wiping the grime from your windshield for the sake of making things clean. But neither is Bloomberg. His seven sins combined account for only one percent of quality-of-life complaints. The top three complaints, animals, blocked driveways, and noise, won’t even be addressed by Operation Clean Sweep, even though last year saw only 20 calls to the police about squeegee men and 97,000 about noisy neighbors.
Of course, a morality play wouldn’t work with 97,000 villains, especially when the bad guy is sometimes you. When civic crusaders allude to the religious language of right and wrong, good and evil, sin has a funny way of being transformed from something in our hearts to something that lurks in alleys or sleeps on park benches, the boogeyman that’s gonna getcha if you dare venture into Sodom, Gomorrah, or New York City. Operation Clean Sweep is intended to beckon virtuous Americans back to the Big Apple with a morality play in which the seven sins aren’t personal temptations but the unseemly circumstances of others, a city where your virtue will never be called into question by a hungry man asking for a dollar. Something like Staten Island, maybe.
Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau were co-founders of Killing the Buddha. Together they wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible.