Live a little better

Every time I head out to JFK for a flight, I pass the 1960s-vintage Lefrak City apartment complex on the LIE. Each time, I find myself haunted by its slogan, “Live a little better.”

I cannot imagine a more note-perfect appeal to the complex’s original target audience, second-generation American Jews hauling their way out of the laboring class, scrimping and saving to send their kids to dentistry or accountancy school. It’s the “little” that does it – you can almost hear the echoes of the Yiddish ein bissel in that one canny word. It captures everything you need to know about the people this complex was designed for, and the (largely self-imposed) limits they lived with.

To say “self-imposed” is not to deny the impact of the very real quotas, barriers and other manifestations of a thoroughly institutionalized anti-Semitism they endured. But the walls were internal, too, and I’m tempted to say that these were the truly insurmountable ones. The constrained sense of possibility was something surviving from shtetl life; in one light, it might look a lot like self-effacing modesty, but in my experience it more usually took the form of public martyrdom. It was a way of seeing the world that literally was not capable of conceiving of a life more than a little better.

LeFrak’s masterstroke, clearly, was to find an aspirational formulation acceptable to a people with a comprehensively crippled sense of self-worth. But better than whom? Better than what? Is the proposition that one would, in enjoying Sam LeFrak’s “total facilities for total living,” improve on everything one had known before? Or ascend to a status “a little better” than one’s envious peers and extended family?

I may never fully know. The original target audience is fled and gone, and I don’t suppose there will ever be another cohort so bereft of the sense of entitlement our society specializes in instilling in its members. Even in humble, hardworking Queens, it’s hard to imagine there’s anybody left who only wants it “a little better.”

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