Our 15 days out West gave us a taste of what life would be like lived under an immense sky and on an immense, essentially empty stage — my imagination could break free and fill that stage with every kind of weather and historical event. When we walked in raptor tracks at Red Gulch in the Shell Basin, it felt as if the creatures had passed two hours before we arrived. In a weird topsy-turvy shift, the ancient rhythms of geology in an ancient landscape made the events of 70 million years ago immediate and thrilling.
Now we found ourselves dodging Christmas walkers on Madison Avenue, hemmed in by infinity of buildings, cabs, sirens, cell phones conversations, blaring horns, shouts and alarms, and I felt wrapped in a perfect cocoon of anonymity, a receptacle opening to and burrowing into all that immediate energy. A little money in one’s pocket and a place to stay where one can escape the crush of all that sensation makes all the difference – the city rises before you, glutted with wonders.
For years when I visited New York, I would get off the bus at the Port Authority, and the sliding spaces between other walking New Yorkers were like the straightaways on racing ovals. My balance was impeccable. I could slice between them without ruffling their coats. Suddenly they saw my back hurrying away from them at 5 mph.
My companions then watched me take off at what seemed like a sprint. I can walk at great speed under normal circumstances, but New York was Indy, New York was the Belmont on that final stretch to the ribbon; aware of how quickly a New York day vanishes, I was determined to race down its streets and fly along its avenues. In On the Road Kerouac speaks of “the too-huge world vaulting us….but we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”* New York “vaults” you all the time; I thought you had to hurry to the next open spot, the next packed street, one-in-a-million store, wild movie, grand museum, the next crowd watching three card Monte performed on a cardboard table by a twitchy hustler. If I didn’t hurry, I’d miss it, it being something I would never see in
Bucktown. New York never whispered to me. It shouted, “Run.”
Now though I tried to slow down everything. I wanted to notice that which might be lost in a blur.
In New York, always eat before walking, and we began with perfect coffee in the Tick-Tock Diner at 34th and 8th, and the good, fat food of eggs and bacon; clouds of languages passed all around our table – German, a Scandinavian tongue, the hard consonants of British English, Chinese, Dutch, Hindi; a busboy squeezed along the side of our table us singing a song in Spanish.
Now out into the sun and flowing crowds and across Avenue after Avenue to Madison, looking at the wonderful masonry on so many buildings in the Fashion district, and simultaneously a dozen, two dozen, more, stimulants vie for my attention with every step. New York is an in-out city, out into the light filtered between skyscrapers and then into museums and stores, theaters and restaurants. Its
interiors promise another kind of education — so now we turn off the street and into the Morgan Library at 36th and Madison – J.P. Morgan’s former residence whose rooms of scarlet wallpaper and gold-leafed splayed ceilings fully match the wealth of its former owner.
J.P. sent his employees to Europe and all over the United States to buy one-of-a kind artifacts and documents, paintings, tapestries, mosaics, books, sculptures and manuscripts. On display were original drafts of Beethoven’s “Ghost Trio” and a Mozart composition, an original printing of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a letter dated December 5, 1692 from one Rebecka Eames, issued from Salem Prison of Massachusetts who petitioned the court to free her; in it she refused her confession of witchcraft (her petition was successful). Sitting flat on a background of cream in a glass case, the life mask of George Washington, taken in 1785 by a French sculptor who asked the great man to lie down
There must be a genetic pagan in us, some feature we carry in our atoms that believes there is magic in preserving, studying and ultimately touching objects touched by the revered and the great. Maybe it is another of our retorts to the fact of our own deaths; we spend millions to save the best efforts of the best of us, to at least endeavor to make those creations immortal. Looking at all that had been saved by Morgan, for one second I imagined returning home and carving stone tablets, inscribing them with my memories and burying them deep in my backyard.
The Library was hosting a celebration of Charles Dickens at 200. One of his manuscripts was opened to a page where I read: “My only comfort is in motion. If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.” His “daily constitutionals” took him 20 to 30 miles at a shot. I cannot match Dickens’ distances, but I feel a kindred spirit in his devotion to movement.
Into the sun again with the Chrysler building at 42nd and Lexington to our north east – its elegant spire still looks as if it is receding into the future, as if our aesthetic tastes haven’t caught up to it yet. Criss-crossing side streets and cutting west and north to 43rd and the Avenue of the Americas and to the International Center of Photography to view 9/11 exhibits and the Depression era photos of Peter Sekaer, a Dane who found his most profound subjects in the faces and landscapes of an ordinary America under unthinkable pressures.
New York’s floods you with boundless impressions, and I found myself trying to store away all the images and thoughts my memory was accumulating; they may inspire ideas and connections you want to use later, but the onslaught of a New York state of consciousness is so ongoing, its volume pouring through your mind in a storm surge, that you know you will lose much of the power of these waves because they stop only when you collapse at night in your hotel room. Only in that small room can your traveler’s imagination rest from a kind of delirium induced by the City.
We ate at a small French brasserie, talking the whole time between mouthfuls, our blood up, our imaginations filled.
Walking north on Fifth Avenue to 58th to see the windows at Bergdorf Goodman, a street shouter, a 20 year old kid in a gray hoodie, walked next to me for 30 feet and demanded as to why I had dared to bring scuffed shoes to the city and that, “Yes, yes, you better get a haircut too”. Instead of turning and bracing for something ugly, a reaction absolutely certain 20 years before, the crowd around us laughed, I laughed, and the moment was over.
Late afternoon and a front is blowing up the Avenues. A light rain begins to fall in the growing darkness. Bergdorf’s windows, lit from within, are filled with fantasy figures of animals and jewels and expensive clothing. The windows glow in shades of red and green and a light powder blue.
Darkness and walking fast along 59th to Columbus Circle, we chose a small restaurant where we could sit at the bar and eat.
The rain had stopped by the time we left the bar. The air around the skyscrapers above Lincoln Center was filled by ambient light reflected down from the cloud cover. The squares and fountains there were crowded with families, and groups of young women, dressed smartly, talking all at the same time, with couples in tux and gown, with single men in $500 overcoats smiling into their cell phones and twenty-something’s laughing, afloat on their youth. All this happy life.
The world seems filled with places I want to live – a Wyoming cabin surrounded by deep snow, a warm heart beating in the midst of inexhaustible space and wilderness; a Manhattan studio, an amiable haven in the center of a blessedly exhausting, inexhaustible city.
*On the Road, Jack Kerouac, Chapter 8