A New York State of Mind
Only a second: the span separating a drink from a sip. It slipped into that space effortlessly. Just an innocent question. The kind you ask a memory that has disappeared into an incomprehensible life elsewhere.
“How is NYC? How is it to be back in the USA?”
The Question. The returnee’s kōan, the sound of one hand clapping.
Sooner or later, it always comes, but no one really wants the complicated answer. Much more preferred is something pleasantly trite, reassuringly vapid, and decidedly unambiguous. “Great” with a little humorous anecdote about fat America on the side. Chuckle. Check conversation topic box. Move on. Easy like Sunday morning. That is how it is supposed to go. Instead, a Jackson Pollock splattering of disjointed, rambling, hemming and hawing, caveat-peppered babble spilled forth. This is the complicated answer.
We arrive in New York City on the heels of the hurricane and land in an America in the final throes of a presidential election. In two days, the US electorate will decide if we have made a very very bad decision returning to the USA. The hope and change may be a more sober version this time around, but it still
obama and ruby bridges
Obama installs in the Oval Office Norman Rockwell's painting of Ruby Bridges, the little girl who integrated William Frantz Elementary School in 1960. He invited her to the occasion.
(picture from the Washington Post)
sticks to the collective narrative about self-evident truths, rising boats and tides, lamp lifting for huddled masses on distant teeming shores, and the rest. It blunts the cancer of fear-mongering, jingoism, and xenophobia that has consumed the Republican Tea Party. The hope and change isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t terrifying. It makes moving to America seem possible. Or at least not insane.
One part of the answer to The Question, the pleasantly palatable part, is enveloped in a heavy cloud of nostalgia. It is as if a Norman Rockwellian super-viral infection has triggered a massive overproduction of the memory gilding enzyme, suppressing the mundane and greatly accelerating the production of overtly sentimental postcard images of Americana.
The first is Thanksgiving day. Snow falls silently on a red clapboard Vermont farmhouse tucked on the edge of a field. Beyond the white blanketed field is the merest hint, a purplish smudge on the horizon, of rolling mountains. Within, two sisters sit at a big wooden table hunkered over cups of steaming cafe au lait. A turkey cooks in the stove, pies steam on the counter, and the sisters fill in the pieces of their lives with stories and laughter.
In the next week, memory slides over the darkness seeping out of Connecticut and focused instead in the Pacific Northwest. The cliched dreary grey of day fades into a drizzling moonless night. Inside, firelight leaps across the room and holds at bay the cold and wet clawing at the windows. Around a piano and a guitar, carolers gather to sing songs about Christmas miracles. The quotidian cynicism and unbelief of the rest of the year has been banished and replaced by the bizarre Dickensonian-Tiny-Tim-God-Bless-us-Everyone sentimentality that every once in a while appears unannounced and unexpectedly in life.
On Christmas day, snow falls. Brightly wrapped packages are piled high under an evergreen twinkling with lights and ornaments. There is even a star on the top of the tree. Stockings hang over the fireplace and sleepy parents and grandparents nestle into blankets watching children gleefully shred wrapping paper in a not yet disgusting delirium of Christmas excess.
The memory’s cotton-candy construction of the recent past strains the bounds of credibility, but there is the other part, the ambivalent part, the part that makes the answer to The Question complicated. This part is the fear. The fear pushes in on
memory’s gilded distortions, like the darkness enveloping a solitary streetlamp’s pool of welcoming light.
The fear is both personal and cultural. Personally, there are misgivings about the city, a wariness of the inescapable tug of the vortex, the rat race, the ubiquity of stone and glass, and nature being unwild, cultivated, and controlled. It is the dread of waking, pushing away groggy nap dreams, and realizing the city has consumed thirty years of a lifetime. But this unease is more imagined than real, the puerile fear of monsters lurking beneath the bed. There are, after all, worse fates in life than being banished to the unreality, or hyper-reality, of New York City. Shockingly, many people actually desire this. And in the end, leaving is really only as complicated as getting on a plane and not coming back.
The real mind eater is cultural. It is bigger than New York City. It is the suspicion that the facade is crumbling and the inmates will soon be running the asylum. It is a fear borne of an America where ‘lone wolf’ lunatics are so quotidian they don’t warrant mentioning until they take their assault rifles to elementary schools. An America
O come all ye (probably not very ) faithful!
where paroxysms of outrage erupt and then are almost instantly swallowed by the non-action apathy of the status quo. This cultural fear mocks all of the soaring rhetoric and American dream melting pot mythology as nothing more than a convenient lie masking seams threatening to rip apart. Or more ominously, seams that are being pulled apart by a fading majority struggling against the inexorable march of demographic transition and willing, or perhaps desiring, to have the whole thing consumed in the flames of their apocalyptic psychopathic fantasies. This isn’t America the beautiful, it’s America the asylum. And we just checked in.
But whatever America might be, New York City is something different. Or maybe it is everything that America and the rest of the world is individually, expressed collectively and simultaneously. It is the multiplicity of the world defined singularly, a petri dish of humanity seething like a termite nest and scurrying amongst the shadows of giants. Who knows how any of it works. The insignificant and easily overlooked, like the trash getting picked up, is simply miraculous. Squashed onto the 34 square mile island and spilling across the rivers and into the outer boroughs is a kaleidoscope of
20 million faces and tongues from every corner of the world. The builders of Babel’s descendants regathered. The city is the living embodiment of the experiment of the United Nations and/or Bedlam unfettered.
Excepting time set aside for the important business of standing in lines, the entire city seems to be rushing headlong into an ever receding future of more and better. Inexplicably, everyone agrees that this pace is perfectly tolerable. In the rat race, time works differently. It trips and falls over itself in its White Rabbit dash further down the rabbit hole. The distinctiveness of the moment blurs and folds into the frenetic and frantic famed New York minute. Beholden to its time, the city lashes all comers to its wheel. The calculus of NYC, however, warps not only time, but also space. There isn’t enough of that either. Closets are bedrooms; ovens, winter storage space. Add a very large serving of obscene wealth, recent immigrants, tourists, a healthy dose of Judaism and the artistically inclined, and stir vigorously. Adjust to taste and pour over ice, and you have something close to the New York City cocktail. A cocktail strong enough to make Steinbeck remark that “Once you have lived in NYC and made it your home, no place else is good enough.”
Of course, that may have been the spirits talking.
New York may yet prove to be the greatest city on earth, but two months in, the stuff of greatness has largely been shelved by the annoying tasks involved with moving from the dark side of the moon to the center of the universe. The up-til-now has been consumed with apartment searching, understanding 3 and 4G telephone distinctions, furniture gathering, job finding, going to laundrymats, and dealing with the heinous fact that winter is really cold. Just beyond the barrage of the banal, tantalizingly close, are museums overfilled with the cultural heritage of the world, the theater, live music, tiny famed Village venues, every known cuisine in the world, and spring. Now that the mundane has settled into patterns of predictability and the chaos of moving and holidays subsided, we are acclimatizing to the new ‘normal’. Let the greatness begin.
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