Why We Need Zion
Civilization and Its Contents

Only Eighteen Inches: Why We Need New York

IMG_0136 "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy."  
(E.B. White)

Do not stumble over the language.  In the Summer of 1948, when E.B. White wrote these words, "queer" meant simply strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint.  And it's true, isn't it, that most of us would not regard loneliness (as opposed to privacy) as a gift.  Nor would we naturally associate loneliness or privacy with a teeming city like New York.  Yet it can be a gift and can often be more easily found in the city than the suburb, in the city rather than the small town.  New York is, in its own way, a Zion, a place to look and listen and soak up a world through which God is speaking, its canyon-like streets, mountainous buildings, and rippling streams of humanity every bit as revelatory as those of the natural world.  It is a place to prize the gifts of loneliness and privacy as a vista from which to see things one may not see as easily elsewhere.

I do not always eat alone.  I do have friends, some I even enjoy having a meal with.  Yet eating alone in a large city permits observation.  About seven years ago (I always say "seven years when I cannot really remember how long it has been but know it's been quite some time), I was eating alone in Milwaukee.  The food in the cafe was inconsequential, neither so good nor so bad as to be memorable.  Its acceptable nature allowed me to do what I had come for: watching and listening.  What I heard and saw became part of a poem.  I looked out the window and saw, for example, a bum passing by, and he became "santa claus looking worn &/ frail, an overdressed rabble of a/man, bearded, half-blind, under-/nourished, with a sack of treasure/on his back."  Seeing him I realized that what separated me from him was not only eighteen inches of glass and sidewalk but the grace of birth, place, and family circumstance that put me here and him there, that but for eighteen inches of grace he and I were much the same.  

Turning to my side, however slightly so as not to arouse attention, a man and woman --- lovers, friends, or associates --- were engaged in conversation, and the "woman sips, motions, shrugs,/dismisses, her upturned laugh/rippling through the air."  Did I detect under the laughter and banter a darker current, a deep pool in the city's canyon?  Only 18 inches away, maybe I did, maybe I didn't.  Observations are often tentative.

In his short essay, White describes a phenomenon many of us likely know from eating alone in the city.  Taking his lunch one day in an inevitably crowded cafe, perhaps the now-closed Schrafft's on Fifth Avenue that my wife may remember from New York excursions with her mother (not to say that she is much older than me!), no doubt at a little table by a little table by a little table, with conversations heeped one upon another, he found himself inches away from an actor he recognized though did not personally know. It bears telling:

When I went down to lunch a few minutes ago I noticed that the man sitting next to me (about eighteen inches away along the wall) was Fred Stone.  The eighteen inches were both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.  My only connection with Fred Stone was that I saw him in The Wizard of Oz around the beginning of the century.  But our waiter felt the same stimulus from being close to a man from Oz, and after Mr. Stone left the room the waiter told me that when he (the waiter) just arrived in this country and before he could speak a word of English, he had taken his girl for their theater date to The Wizard of Oz.  It was a wonderful show, the waiter recalled --- a man of straw, a man of tin.  Wonderful!  (And still only eighteen inches away.)  "Mr. Stone is a very hearty eater," said the waiter thoughtfully, content with this fragile participation in destiny, this link with Oz.

I know exactly what he means, the connection and separation of that eighteen inches, the slight and yet profound rubbing of one life against another in the city.  It's possible to feel both a deep loneliness and yet a deep participation in the life of a city, both a continuity and discontinuity of existence.  Mostly, I like it.  It's a place of great revelation, for "fragile participation in destiny."

In another reflection from his walk around New York, White falls to simile to describe the city: "A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.  The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines."  I think I know about those internal engines, the labyrinth of tunnels, power lines, water and sewer pipes, and who knows what else that lie underneath the city streets.  Pause at the corner of 44th Street and Broadway and feel the subway train pass beneath, and it's as if the city lives, its internal engines droning.  Stand outside the Amsterdam Theatre and ponder the feet that have moved through its doors, sense the community of saints and sinners that stretch backwards and forwards in time --- the communion of humanity.

But there is something deeper still.  An eternal engine powers all the activity here, and when I stop and listen I hear it: the bruised glory of humanity, the sometimes misdirected creativity and ingenuity of a people made in the image of a Builder of worlds.  Walking down Seventh Avenue, past the shops and restaurants spilling life onto the streets, I sense there's faith and love and hope --- eighteen inches away.  In the car horns and drone of traffic and jumble of conversations, I'm hearing life, and it is glorious and sad all at the same time, both a hymn of praise and a lament of loss.

It'd be easy to avoid the city.  I could light out for The Rambles of Central Park and lose myself in a relative wilderness.  I could stick to the vast emptiness of the West, hole up in my home, retreat to a hotel room.  But the city is my destiny.  It's where the people of God live, where a distance of eighteen inches will, soon and very soon, mean nothing.  Where even the gifts of loneliness and privacy will be swallowed up in love, remembered, if at all, as mere shadows of the Real.