“But what if You-Know-Who is re-elected?” our neighbor Victoria asked. We were sitting on our porch. I had grilled some kosher steaks. Part of my naturalization process (I’m an immigrant from Germany): Every summer I host at least two grill parties.
“If Lord Voldemort gets re-elected, we’ll declare our independence,” my wife said. My wife has always been very practical about these matters. “The Republic of Riverdale. Sounds good, too!”
Riverdale is where we live. Technically Riverdale belongs to the Bronx, but it is more affluent than other parts of our borough. North of us is the city of Yonkers; south of us, a neighborhood called Kingsbridge. Most Manhattanites don’t even know we exist (thank God). The Republic of Riverdale would have a little more than 48,000 citizens; mostly white, many Hispanics, quite a few Jews. We live in a pretty goyische part of Riverdale, which means that apart from us there is only one other Jewish family on the block. Our house belongs to a row of red-brick houses built in the forties. Of course, we all know each other. Our children have playdates. Among our friends are Jews and Christians and Atheists, African-Americans, Koreans, people of Irish and Estonian descent. The Republic of Riverdale.
“No, I don’t think Riverdale should become a republic,” I said. The thing is, I’m a monarchist. My fellow Americans tend to think I’m joking whenever I say so. I’m not. I happen to believe that the best form of government is the constitutional monarchy—more stable than a republic, less prone to authoritarian tendencies (think the UK, think the Netherlands), and last but not least, much more beautiful. I love the pageantry that comes with monarchies. And of course, the most humane and civilized entity ever to exist on the European continent was the Habsburg Empire. (Yes, I have a picture of His Apostolic Majesty Kaiser Franz Josef hanging in my study.) But Riverdale, alas, is much too small to be a full-grown monarchy, let alone an empire. Hence: a Duchy.
“Who would be the Duke?” Victoria asked. “Or the Duchess?”
“We could import one,” I said. “Importing royalty is a time-honored tradition. Perhaps we could find a descendant of Ranavalona III and ask him or her to come over and be our Sovereign.” Seeing the blank stares around the table, I explained, “Ranavalona III was the last Queen of Madagascar. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Madagascan Duke or Duchess?” We raised our glasses. “The Duchy of Riverdale!” And: “To our independence!” Yes, I added silently, independence from the rotten Disunited States of America.
All this happened some nine months ago—or in other words, in a different era. Already, it has become hard to imagine that people—real people, not images on a screen—congregated on our porch to share a meal and some excellent Gruner Veltliner. The Duchy of Riverdale has become a community of people who cautiously avoid each other, greet each other from a distance. The last time I talked to Victoria she was walking her dog: I talked to her standing on the stoop of our house. The other day we took a walk around the block. We waved to our Korean neighbors from in an empty parking lot which overlooks their porch and chatted a bit. Our son, who is seven, has not had a playdate in a long time. I don’t know when he’ll have a playdate again. I don’t know when we’ll be able to leave the house again. The statistics are grim. I expect that very soon the hospitals and morgues of New York City will overflow with the dying and the dead.
At the same time, I notice that people have become more considerate. Kinder. The other day we had a conversation with our neighbor Bob (from porch to porch). He is elderly and lost his wife not long ago to cancer. We exchanged the latest news on the virus. My wife told him that Mo Willems (author of such classics as “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!” and “Time To Pee!”) now hosts an hour of “lunch doodles” every day at one p.m. on YouTube. Perhaps his grandchildren in Boston might be interested?
I suspect that there are hundreds of Duchys, Domains, Fiefdoms all over the country. Thousands, perhaps. Somewhere I read that all over the DC area militias are forming, armed not with guns but with smartphones, delivering groceries to elderly people, running errands for them. I expect nothing from the coward in the White House who shivers with fear of the virus and compensates for his fear by tweeting racist nonsense. I expect very little from the Federal government. But I have heard Governors tell the truth and I have seen Mayors behave like statesmen.
Ever since the election of 2016, I’m no longer sure I like America. But I like Americans. Not the screaming crowds at the fascist rallies which Hair Furor likes so much, but hard-working, decent Americans whom I’ve met here in New York and in the Midwest (my brother lives in Minnesota) and New Mexico and California and some other places in between, many of them immigrants like myself.
I came to America in 2007 with two suitcases and a guitar. I became an American citizen five years later, in a ceremony that moved me more than I would have thought possible. Why did I immigrate? I won a green card in the lottery. I was 42 years old at the time, worked for the literary weekend section of a well-known German newspaper (Die Welt), living a comfortable middle-class existence. I gave all that up: my beautiful apartment in Prenzlauer Berg (a section of Berlin which has since become very trendy), my cushy job, my claims to a German pension. I knew it was now or never. I had fallen in love with New York City. I wanted to live there. Also, I had grown a bit weary of Germany—weary of the self-righteous lectures about Israeli politics, weary of the constant need to explain myself, weary of the spiritual poverty of Jewish life in Germany. (I’m not very religious, but I’m not unreligious either.) My first year in New York City was lonely. During my second year, I met the woman who became my wife. Seven years ago, our son was born, and when he says the blessings over grape juice and bread on Friday night, I know that I’m the luckiest man alive.
As soon as I had become a naturalized citizen, I joined the Republican Party. For this, I had two reasons. One, everybody in my family—my wife, my brother, my sister-in-law—was a Democrat. This is a two-party-system, I thought. Someone ought to be a member of the other club. Two, I’m very small-c conservative in my personal habits. I like traditions. I like institutions. My natural instinct is to respect religious people whatever their faith may be. When something is called “progressive” I immediately wince. (The Armenian genocide was progressive. So was eugenics. And Lenin.)
But by now I’m convinced that the Republican Party is not a party, it is a mental disease. I changed my party allegiance in January 2017 when Lord Voldemort gave his nice little blood-and-soil inauguration speech. There is, I believe, an important difference between the two political parties in the United States. Faced with their inner darkness, the Republicans plunged right in. Those few who failed to do so were shunned, mocked, ostracized. The Democrats also had a moment when they faced their dark and irrational side, their Freudian “id”. The dipped in their big toe; they dipped in their whole foot. For a few weeks, I was afraid that the Democrats would go the way of the British Labour Party (which has turned into an abomination). But in the end, the Democrats decided, “We’d rather not”, and voted for Joe Biden instead of the cranky socialist from Vermont.
To be very clear about this: Should there be elections this November, I want the Republicans to suffer an overwhelming and humiliating defeat. This would be the only thing that could save them. Before new life can blossom from the ruins, there must be ruins.
Talking about ruins and blossoms, here is something else that has changed: my appreciation of Germany. When I was a new immigrant, there were moments when I thought, “How wonderful I’m no longer among se Tschörmanns.” Now I’m not so sure anymore. Sometimes I catch myself watching YouTube videos of Hamburg, Regensburg, Munich, taking virtual walks. I recognize that many things are better over there: not just the health care system or the gun laws. Watch the speech Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, gave about the coronavirus. She is sane! She talks like a human being—a mensch! She behaves responsibly and tells the truth! Wouldn’t it just be miraculous to have a President like that?
The Germans have come a long way since World War II. They have also come a long way since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Germans have reason to be proud of their humane Constitution—their Grundgesetz—of their open, multicultural society (Turkish Germans have long ago risen into the German middle class), of the way in which they remember Nazism (in most German cities you now find stolpersteine—small brass tablets in the pavement with the names of Jews who were deported and murdered), of the way in which they dealt with the legacy of the Stasi, the East German secret police (every German citizen was able to view his or her personal Stasi file). Yes, there is the dreadful Alternative für Deutschland, an extremist right-wing party in the Bundestag. But at least the Alternative für Deutschland is not in power. And Angela Merkel doesn’t try to appease them. It isn’t the Germans who are putting children in cages. We are.
I started typing this essay before the sun came up. Now another day has broken in the Duchy of Riverdale. The silence is unreal. Birds are chirping, the sun is shining through bare branches. I’m suffering from high blood pressure; I have a history of asthma. If the virus finds me, it might well take me. I don’t know how many more mornings I will see. I don’t know whether I will ever see my son’s bar mitzvah, whether I will dance at his wedding. The news is becoming more dire by the hour: the health care system is already beginning to be overwhelmed. Soon there will be no doctors, no nurses left to tend to the sick.
The world is no longer looking to America for leadership—it is looking to South Korea, to China, partly also to Europe. Every 150 years or so mankind goes through some major catastrophe; usually, it comes out better at the other end, but for those living during the radical change it is not so pleasant. Maybe this is how the American Republic ends—with an insane President at the helm, ruled by a sinister cult, making an unstoppable pandemic much worse than it needs to be. But I hope and pray for the America of the Duchy of Riverdale, and the countless hundreds like it across this massive country, to pull through and revitalize the whole.