A trailer truck starts up and its diesel fumes billow across the sidewalk. People gulp the hazy air and then close their mouths and hold their breath while they walk quickly through the fumes. Six or seven steps later they gulp another quick breath. At the steps to the subway, they hold their breath again. The garbage piled against the wall alongside the subway steps smells in the morning sun. They run down the steps, holding their breath, and at the bottom they sniff the heavy mixture of sweat, hot grease, urine, metal, day-old apple cores and cheap perfume. They try to push onto the packed subway cars and ride to their dreary jobs and they are defeated by their city each day before nine o'clock in the morning.
At night, the streets are empty and the doors are locked and addicts and rats prowl the streets, and demented criminals, who claim addiction when they are caught, wait to pull somebody into a hallway or an elevator.
Bella Abzug, who has been standing in courtrooms and dealing with poverty and civil rights cases for 22 years, is made for the district. She can stand on Ludlow Street and recite the history of the buildings, who lived in them, when they were originally condemned—much of the downtown East Side was first condemned in 1906—and who isn't doing anything about it and why. She is made for the New York of standing in police precincts or faded tenement hallways. Someday, the 19th Congressional District will be recorded as a victim of the war in Vietnam, just like Hue and Danang.
Still, in the worst stage of its history, at a time when New York deteriorates so quickly that one must wonder if it can survive as we have known it, one quality remains constant. It is the city where you can make it, and make it big. Bigger than you can in any other place in the world, if you have the nerve and verve and push and skill and timing. And this part of life in New York is something that Bella Abzug knows too.
She stood, the other afternoon, in a doorway leading from the kitchen to the backyard of her townhouse in Greenwich Village. A girl working in her campaign sat at a table taking phone messages. A television crew was to arrive at three. The Baltimore Sun would have somebody in at five. A French writer and photographer wanted to see her. Newsweek wanted to check something about her. For people trying to write for newspapers, or find something interesting to put on television news shows, Bella Abzug is the name they think of first. And Bella Abzug knows what it all means.
"Javits," she said. "He'll never be out there leading. He's always following. I went to see him over the McGovern-Hatfield bill. I wanted his support for it. So he says, 'I have to wait to see how Church-Cooper does before I do anything on McGovern-Hatfield.' So I said to him, 'You know, senator, we're sick of waiting for you. Not once have you used your power to stop money from being used for this war. You're always waiting. Well, forget about it, senator. Your time is up.' "
"You told that to him this early?" she was asked.
"Sure I did," Bella said. "I don't lie. He'll see." Then she threw a very good right hand.