Tuesday, March 08, 2005

New York

I was watching a TV show tonight - I'm in a hotel in Minneapolis trying to do something meaningful for the good of the Internet, so I have cable, which is unusual for me. The TV show was about someone who couldn't deal with the aftermath of losing his wife when the twin towers went down, and the hijinx that ensued.

I had a thought. I'm not sure what to make of it. The thought was, "I'm not a good enough person to live in New York." Weird, huh?

When I was a kid, I lived in the country, in the boondocks, and I went to New York once for a protest against cruise missiles. This was during the cold war, when we were afraid that cruise missiles would destabilize the situation in Europe. Weird thing to look back on, considering how it all came out, and the horrible *other* things they're doing with cruise missiles now.

Anyway, when I came to New York that time, I thought New York was something like hell on earth. You have to understand, I grew up surrounded by greenery. My eyes were not accustomed to finding beauty in the visual gibberish that is the city of New York. To me it looked like a place that was falling apart, and that could only be full of misery.

The truth is that when I was there, in 1982, New York wasn't in great shape, and there was a lot of misery there. Really, there's misery everywhere, so New York can't be an exception. But then life happened, and I spent a bunch of years on the west coast, in pursuit of some kind of happiness - a house in San Francisco, a real lasting relationship with an interesting woman, a successful career.

The house turned out to be a lesson in the origin of the word "mortgage." Death. The relationship wasn't good for either of us. A visit to a good friend in New York, whom I do not see enough of anymore, led me to thinking that maybe there was something good about New York, and my eyes were a little bit adjusted to the visual jumble of a city after so much time away from the soil. So when my life in San Francisco blew up in my face, I moved to New York.

I lived there for a year and a half. Wonderful things happened there. My life blew up a second time, but in a good way this time. I wound up having to leave, to live in Bisbee, Arizona, to pursue what I had begun to see as a meaningful direction in my life. In Bisbee, I met my wife. We now live in Tucson. Tucson is wonderful. I am happy to be living there.

But there is something about New York that still draws me. It's not an unkind thing - not the pain of withdrawal. It's more that when I see New York, there is something vivid about it, something true, that I miss. There is something about New York that is paradise. Most of us see New York only on TV, in TV shows like the one I saw tonight, with the caring hostage negotiator, the gruff cop, the pampered yuppie. I got to see a different New York when I lived there.

New York is nothing like what you see on TV. Sex and the City shows a tiny piece of a bit of a scene that some New Yorkers live in, so in that sense it's true to life, but it doesn't give you a feel for what it's like to breathe the air of New York as your own. I lived near the World Trade Center towers when I was in New York. I used to shop in the mall underneath the towers. I would go there in the morning, to Ecce Panis, to get a cheese brioche to go with the coffee I brewed at home.

The walk would go like this: I'd put on my overcoat, take the elevator downstairs, step out onto the sidewalk. The wind would be blowing down Greenwich street toward me. I'd walk by the Deutsche Bank building, and see all the people inside at the little corporate cafeteria there. I'd walk further up the street, past the local grocery store, with the too-expensive food. Usually I wouldn't see very many people. But then I'd walk in to the World Trade Center.

The World Trade Center, in addition to being a very tall pair of towers, was a center of transportation - the PATH train from New Jersey dumped its passengers into a station underneath the towers, and they would then walk up into the mall under the towers to go either to their places of work in the towers, on Wall Street, or whatever, or they would cross into the Metro station and take a train uptown or across to Brooklyn to go to work.

It's impossible to describe the feeling of that crossroads under the towers. I would walk in, chilled to the bone from the winter wind, past the HMV record store, into the underground plaza. A wave of people would be walking up from PATH trains. Try to picture it: I'm not talking about a line, or a column. Imagine if you had a cup of water, and a large bowl, and you held the cup of water above the bowl, and suddenly upended it, so that the water all came out of the cup at once, in a ball, and fell into the bowl all at once. It was like that. The people were the ball of water, and the PATH train escalators were the center of the bowl, and this happened continuously during rush hour - there was no sense of pulsing. It was just a steady flow. And this was not a small plaza - it was probably half the size of a city block. And nobody bumped into anyone else, there was never a voice raised, as I walked directly through this flow of people to my own destination and back there was never a moment of discomfort or a feeling of me being in the way or them being in the way. We just flowed through each other, like water does.

Having that many people all in one place is something that, if you have never experienced it, is hard to imagine. If you live in Claremore, you just can't imagine it. If you live in Northfield, you can't imagine it. You have to go there, and experience it. If you open yourself to the experience, I can't imagine that you could be other than moved by it.

These are the people that the hatred of Osama's pals was focused on. These are the people that the misunderstanding of much of the United States is focused on. The place they live is very different than the place I live, and I live in a city. It's even more different than the place where I grew up, in the middle of nowhere.

I think it's hard for people who live outside of New York to understand it. We think that the people are somehow different, harder, corrupt, something like that. The aren't. The people I met in New York were as kind as any Tucsonan, as kind as anyone I know in Claremore, as kind as anyone I know in Northfield. They are good people. They are not the people you see acted out on TV, except for a tiny few, whom you never meet on the streets of New York.

And a remarkable number of people in New York are wise, and thoughtful, and sensible. They don't understand what it's like to live in a place where most of the living beings near you are cows, it's true, and sometimes that comes out as misunderstandings with the people who do live near cows. But New Yorkers, from deep in the blue zone, have more in common with the rest of the country than they or the people in the rest of the country know.

I wish... I don't know what I wish. It sounds so hackneyed and cliched to wish that we could all be friends. And that's not precisely what I wish. But it's something like that.


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