Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Everyone in New York is Having More Interesting Conversations Than You Are, Unless You Too Live in New York

Is it just me suffering from this delusion? Do people of other occupations wake up with the sneaking suspicion that every day they did not live in New York City is a day they’ve somehow wasted? Do garbage collectors in Peoria aspire to collect garbage in New York? Or is it just writers who worry they’re missing out?

I’ve lived in 5 foreign countries and traveled to a score of others, yet every time I go to New York I feel like a country rube fresh from the pig waller. I’m constantly gawking up at the mountainous glittering heights of the buildings. My hair is not expensive/punk enough. I’m overdressed or underdressed. (This time it was underdressed; every woman in the Lower East Side this summer appears to be wearing an empire-waisted dress that goes to the ankles.) In most places, this sense would make me feel self-conscious, but New York gives me so much to look at that I stop thinking about myself for hours on end, a relief no pastoral landscape can provide.

Much as I loved Colson Whitehead’s rant about the fetishizing of Brooklyn writers in the Times a while back, I have no borough fixation. It’s the whole of the city. I can think of no other place on earth that is simultaneously beautiful, hideous, and completely exhilarating. I don’t know how the natives do it: living in a constant state of astonishment seems like it would become exhausting after a while, so maybe the people who live there tune out a little bit, just to protect their own psyches.

We went up this weekend to see our dear friends and to meet my husband’s sister and her husband at the soon-to-be-history Yankee Stadium. That was good, but not as good as watching their kid run through the spray of a fire hydrant in the Bronx, and not as good as buying bagels from a Polish √©migr√© in a tiny baker’s hole off Houston, and not as good as seeing a bored girl in a silver-sequined bikini taking a smoke break outside a burlesque club at midnight. And nowhere near as good as hearing a group of young, hipster New Yorkers on the 4 express train have an incredibly boring conversation about the hot weather—which made me feel—weirdly—not smug, but gratified: They live in the coolest city on earth, and they’re still human enough to have that boring conversation about the weather, the one you have with people you like but have run out of things to say to.

All in all, my favorite moment in New York this time was sitting quietly on a rock in Central Park with my husband, watching a pair of turtles chasing each other through the pond and watching an enormous koi—the rouge color of the sun on a hot summer evening—drift beneath the green water, so slowly it was almost still. From where we sat, the horns from traffic and the shouts of the guys selling bottled water near the horse carriages seemed very far away, and I wondered: What can that fish hear, under there? Can it feel the engines and the subways and the generators thrumming under the water? Do its gills shiver with the city’s wounded thunder?

I could end this with any number of amazing NYC poems, but one of my favorite poems about the city (I’m being presumptuous here, I guess, but with some reason) is by a buddy of mine, Andrew Kozelka, who was living in New York on 9/11 and wrote one of the best damn books of poetry I’ve ever read. It’s called The Ages, and this poem arrives toward the end of them. There may be echoes of Auden’s “September 1st, 1939” in those last lines. In my book, that’s no bad thing.

The Smoker

He’s just seen the end of peace
Tilting overhead:
And now the whole city
Looks up in horror
And everyone screams, runs about—
Except for him. He sits down
And smokes a last cigarette,
Makes a small prayer:
Among the beasts
Who inherit our silence,
Let there be one or two
Who are calm when the light comes.


Gina said...

There are so many ironies here, I scarcely know where to begin. I was in NY while you were, though I didn't know it, attending a literature workshop in Maxine Greene's apartment next to the Guggenheim. One day were were all asked to bring in a poem. As the only one there that didn't live in the city, I brought what was already on my desktop - Auden's "September 1, 1939". Given the manner in which my week ended, being told of the news literally as I was boarding the train, realizing, when I got home, that you'd been there, too, and why, having felt the hum and buzz and breath of the city in my bones all week and now faced with a long drive to pick up Liam from Tenn, dreading the quiet self-examination of the pastoral landscape and the echoing, lonely silence of the apartment again...I am comforted by how familiar your sentiments are to me. May the fish here can feel the subway's rumble, too; sound does travel extraordinary distances underwater. I don't know what's next - being stuck in Auden land somewhere between "Stop all the clocks" and "The more loving one" , but I'll keep reading Carrie, if that''s o.k. . . .peace.

M. C. Allan said...

hey G: I saw on your FB status line that you'd be in the city and was wondering if we could touch base ... but as I suspected, our trip ended up as the usual whirlwind, made even whirlier by the fact that we were hanging with family. Re: NYC, every time I go up there I find it such a relief to be distracted from my own neuroses. Then, of course, I have to leave and resume quiet, normal life; I think that reality usually hits me right around the Whitman rest stop on the turnpike.

Auden is hard to beat, on any subject, but that's one of my favorites of his. I remember during the FIRST Iraq war, actually, reading it and thinking that Bush senior's speechwriters had been stealing from it -- though of course, when poetry gets pilfered for politics, you end up with "a thousand points of light" rather than Auden's layered, heartsick ironies.

I'd love to hear about your workshop up there. Check in and treat this space as yours. I'm still fumbling in the dark!

Maggie May said...

read your comment on my page and came here to be so happily surprised with your writing. great voice. you are a poet but you write prose engagingly, i could hear you doing a column. glad to find you!

i really enjoyed your friend's poem.

i've never been to NYC. can't wait.

M. C. Allan said...

thanks, MM! I'm still figuring out this blogging thing. hoping to build community and support the craft of poethy (say that with an artsy lithp :)

You gotta get to NYC. it's overwhelming, in the best way. you know those experiences you don't fully process till years later? every trip to NY is sort of like that -- I suspect I'll process this latest sometime in 2011 and my brain will just suddenly melt out my earholes.

rt said...

hi, carrie
everyone is new york is having LOUD conversations. frank o'hara said they went like this:
"we go eat some fish and some ale it's cool but crowded
we don't like lionel trilling
we decide, we like don allen
we don't like henry james so much
we like herman melville."
... i imagine the more nuanced conversations cannot be overheard.
... besides, isn't geography irrelevant now? i mean aren't the best conversations online?
thanks for andrew's wonderful poem and the bagels. this place on houston reminds me of a shop called (in crude hand lettering) 'new jersey eggs' which was open thurs-sun. was in a lithuanian section on lower east side and they sold eggs, the best challah bread and maybe that was it. would love to know if it's still there.

M. C. Allan said...

RT, are you being tongue-in-cheek about geography being irrelevant? Surely we haven't gone THAT far yet; when I look up from my screen, I still see an actual skyline rather than 1s and 0s -- thought it may be only a matter of time! -- and I think the skyline we see infuses everything, in ways we don't entirely comprehend :) Lots of good online convos, fer sure, but we can't share baba ghanoush and falafel while having them ...

I love the O'Hara version of NY conversation, though. (More like a grocery list of cool, in which hipsters agree to purchase the same brands, than an actual in-depth discussion.)

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