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 émigré 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.
He’s just seen the end of peace
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.