Thursday, November 28, 2013
Thanksgiving. New York
It's still Thanksgiving in Colorado. And in California, as I write this. And Hawaii. Though they must get a good laugh celebrating colonists settling down with natives for a fine feast. After we gave them syphilis and cholera and the common cold we gave them…. statehood. Hang loose haole.
The couple downstairs are in their late twenties I suppose. Kids really to me now. But they cook like grown-ups. The boy does. She sings and dances in the backyard and he digs into the kitchen and cooks. Like I remember and think grown-ups should and I almost never do anymore.
The hallway to the front door, usually a forlorn sort of space, smells of bread baked, and the melange of a long meal come to a close. It must have been a good one because their guests spoke in laughing voices all night.
And after the meal ended, they sang. Not traditional hymns or holiday tunes but a la Baz Luhrman, or besotted football fans, pop songs they took up and made their own. Fleetwood Mac mostly. Homemade karaoke, a little off key a little too brash but damn…. when was the last time I heard anyone sing after a meal.
Summer camp, college, Scotland.
The sun was brilliant today. That and the cold and the cinematically empty streets made a walk thru Brooklyn into a waking dream. I got off the subway at random, crossed thru the giant mall strewn thoroughfares of downtown, doubled back a block and found myself on Pierrepont st. Which goes into the heart of Brooklyn Heights, past St Ann's school, and smack onto the promenade overlooking Manhattan harbor and the City itself. The river sparkled, the helicopters circled, the skyscrapers shown, the great bridge coursed beside to my right and tourists filmed it all.
Isn't that the "magic" of New York? That it constantly reminds you you are not the only seer, not the only "user" in the too close to the true modern parlance, you are one of a jostled million. It is messy, jarring, inconstant and hard and yet it sweeps you into wonder all the while. Like a fervent dance out of Jane Austen, like a run down a ski slope you shouldn't be on, you come out wide eyed and breathing heavily, sometimes when you just went out to get some bread and the paper.
A man gardening in his sleeves in a guttered planter beside a house worth the cost of a fighter plane. Passed by 5 Japanese kids who'd found parking somehow on one of the most elite blocks in America. And why did they have cars? Two Russians and then 4 more Russians, the pair not knowing the foursome but turning at the sound of their own language going by. The guy with the Chilean flag on the shoulder of his jacket skateboarding badly as his girlfriend filmed it. Locals shaking their heads. And more locals trailing their kids in the playground of Columbia Place. This is their home. They call this epicenter "home". They come home…. to here.
And one of their homes, where they sleep and watch cable shows and run out of toilet paper and wish they'd tossed an old appliance when it screws up a holiday meal and whisper with their HS lovers in the lower rooms and then get surprised mom left their posters up twenty years later, one of these 6 story brownstones has a plaque on it that says "From 1939-1940 W. H. Auden lived and wrote in the top floor rooms of this building. New Years Letter was completed here." And two doors down another of these homes has a plaque that says "Thomas Wolfe wrote "Of Time and The River" in this house."
To put it in the vernacular , "WTF!?"
I mean isn't it enough that from any of these houses you could look out a wide-paned window and see one of the greatest, most mind-blowing cityscapes on earth? Now you have to take in to account that two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century did the same.
And for some reason, in New York…..that's reassuring. I don't feel dwarfed by the immensity of Manhattan or Auden, I feel in kind with them, with it. I feel his humanity and that of the city. It breathes closer. He sits there, the color of his eyes, of course a cigarette, and his fading hair.
What New York does so well is demolish charm. It strips affect. You almost always see the tools at bear here. You know how the trick is done or you know at least that a trick is being done and you acquiesce.
I stand at the promenade and I know the river's filthy and filled with undeserving dead. I know generations of people gave their lives trying to build lives around the shores of this urban palace. The financial district is strewn with some of the worst architecture in New York. The captains of industry on Thanksgiving even are waiting in line to land their Bell and Hueys. The Bridge is crammed with tourists and painted a military desert brown I suppose to shock and awe them. The BQE roars below spitting carbon dust over the living and the dead and as we gaze across the water and New Jersey retreats in ever more greying layers toward the rest of mundane America, I want to cry it's so damn beautiful.
What do the Chinese have? Death by a Thousand Touches?
I think New York has Grace by a Thousand Hands. Touching you daily, relentlessly, unpredictably, jarring and then enchanting, like inspiration, there one minute and gone the next mocking you, but there. Ever there. And like parenthood, or friendship, or love, ain't that the key? Just showing up? Being there. Reaching out. You head out into the streets of New York and good God the place itself just reaches for you. For some, that drives them nuts, for others it's the only gas they run on. And possibly in the middle, if you hang in there, I think oddly enough, the most immense city in America, the most competitive city we have, the most abstract set of right angled streets and buildings on earth can actually make you sane.
You get human here. You get democracy. You get American.
What an accident of history that this little island off the coast, so unlike the rest of the massive republic is in many ways its finest creation. The truest distillation of its ideals. Messy, muscular, polyglot, irreverent, but still protective of a gossamer beauty. In other words, the best of us.
I like that the bridge which holds it at arm's length from Greater America is called George Washington. A man of probably impossible virtue leading us from the kitchen of democracy back across to the places where everyone needs to be fed and housed and kept safe.
There's twenty six minutes left to the continental Thanksgiving 2013. In Hawaii, where the mountains majesty really are purple, there's hours and hours. I open the hallway door and there's still a little bread left in the air.