Whenever I visit New York, I think of E.B. White’s 1949 essay, “Here is New York.” As you might expect, it’s evocative of the sights and sounds and even smells of the great city, a walking description of its streets and public places and architecture. Some things don’t change: throngs of shoppers in Midtown, the sometimes pungent mix of exhaust fumes, food, and garbage, the movement and anonymity. And yet some things do change, like the Bowery then is not the Bowery now:
Walk the Bowery under the El [the Third Avenue Elevated] at night and all you feel is a sort of cold guilt. Touched for a dime, you try to drop the coin and not touch the hand, because the hand is dirty; you try to avoid the glance, because the glance accuses. This is not so much personal menace as universal — the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and the advance stages of the disease alcoholism.
The poverty of the Bowery has now pushed on to pockets of North Harlem, or the Bronx. Or in the ostensibly blind man who moves through my subway car: “God bless you, have a good day,” he says. Places change but, as Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” And the huckster.
But it’s a week ago and we’re not walking the Bowery but over a great bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, upward through a crisp blue sky, behind us an island of skyscrapers. On every suspension line accessible from the walkway, pedestrians have attached locks, some engraved, leaving behind their own personal “I was here, I exist,” as if to prove it to themselves, to reach for one moment of fame. Turning to look at the city, I realize that no one must truly understand its dogma — the labyrinth of tunnels underlying it, the water and sewer pipes, the electrical conduits, the subway tubes, the myriad conversations, wi-fi signals, habitations and office cubicles, and the hopes and dreams both realized and blunted by despair. And yet, God knows its frame, the name of the least of its sparrows.
Walking on the Lower East Side, not far from the rise of the bridge, White encountered not the flophouses of The Bowery but the more “reassuring sobriety and safety of family life.” Heading east long Rivington, “[a]ll is cheerful and filthy and crowded,” he says,
Small shops overflow onto the sidewalk, leaving only half the normal width for passers-by. In the candid light from unshaded bulbs gleam watermelons and lingerie. Families have fled the hot rooms upstairs and found relief on the pavement. They sit on orange crates, smoking, relaxed, congenial. This is the nightly garden party of the vast Lower East Side. . . . folksy here with the smell of warm flesh and squashed fruit and fly-bitten filth in the gutter, and cooking.
Next day, Sunday, we attended church in the Upper West Side. Walking out, revived, we passed firemen washing their fire truck, a father with his young son, watching. To the firemen, the father said, “Thank you.” I know what he meant. I know he meant thank you for keeping on when so many of your fellow firemen died in the towers burning. Thank you for not giving up.
Rounding the corner of 83rd and Columbia Avenue, it seemed all families - mothers and fathers, and children on scooters, and in the sun-washed pavement I saw reflected something ricer than an atomized urban life — a community, people who greeted one another. Cafe tables lapped over the sidewalks, and families had brunch. Shopkeepers' doors were flung over to the breezes and some stood by their doors, beckoning. I began to think “I could live here.” We walked 25 blocks until, just past Lincoln Center, the Midtown bustle of upper Times Square began, and we tired, hailed a cab, and went to Langan’s, a favorite Irish pub where we passed the bar and sat in the back, where it was quieter, next to a table of ladies from the red hat club, their chatter muted by the piano and upright bass behind me.
Perhaps it was our pedestrian pace, but sitting there among the familiar wood-grained walls and white tablecloths I felt as if I had been in New York for a long time. Two days ago, I remembered, I was was walking in Central Park, all the way from the south entrance near the Children’s Zoo, past the Carnival of the Mall and Bethesda Terrace, through the nearly wild and relatively unpeopled Rambles, to Belvedere castle, where we climbed to see the Great Lawn and Reservoir and the north park beyond, and Harlem. The outer landscape gave way to the inner, and I remembered that almost 32 years ago, we were sitting in our hotel on our one-year anniversary, eating wedding cake left and saved for that day, and I had that sense, as you do at times, as God must at all times, that all times are present now. We were here, I think to myself, and New York is still here.
“At the corner of Lewis,” says White, “in the playground behind the wire fence, an open-air dance is going on — some kind of neighborhood affair, probably designed to combat delinquency.” It goes on still. Walking back through The Mall,stopping at the terrace, three African-American males, shirtless, have attracted an audience with their dance. Some white girls dance on the sidelines, egged on. On a park bench, we stop and pose for a picture, just across front he band shell. White: “Another hot night I stop off at the Goldman Band concert in the Mall in Central Park. The people seated on the benches fanned out in front of the band shell are attentive, appreciative.” Today, Shakespeare is being read.
“To an outlander, White says, “a stay in New York can be and often is a series of small embarrassments and discomforts and disappointments: not understanding the waiter, not being able to distinguish between a sucker joint and a friendly saloon, riding the wrong subway, being slapped down by a bus driver for asking an innocent question, enduring sleepless nights when the street noises fill the bedroom.” Sucker joints? Saloons? Some things change (air conditioning), some don’t (riding the wrong subway). And yet people long to be with people, else why would you live in New York?
The night we arrived we went to a concert at a club in Greenwich Village, just down from the fabled Bitter End, and we walked along streets where a youthful Bob Dylan was just a pedestrian, freewheeling, a nobody, while Woody Guthrie lay dying in a New Jersey hospital. I put out of hand to touch the building, something solid to root my dreams. After the concert, we sat talking with an old friend, a New York transplant from the Deep South. Until 1:00 AM. Until 1:00 AM. And that’s just the kind of thing you can do in New York, until 1:00, or 3:00, or all night if you like. Because you can. Because something is always open. And that’s the best kind of talking, late, when you can say what is on your heart, when you can drop the workday reticence. When you can be real.
I could live here, I say. I could forgive the man who cursed at me for getting in his way earlier that day. I could be gracious to another sparrow, falling. I could worship and work and listen to music and sit up and talk to all hours. I could walk 25 blocks at a time. I could greet people. I could smile. I could be disappointed and be enlightened and even change.
But I can do that anywhere, can't I?