Friday, March 4, 2016

it is better if you come in

Today I am in love with New York City. My hands smell like fish, which is seasonally appropriate, given that it is a Friday in Lent.

I woke up this morning to see snow outside my window: there were gentle flakes falling on the train tracks, and there was a coat of snow blanketing my tree. I was ignoring my alarm, since there were no classes to teach today. But as soon as I saw the snow, I was shocked out of sleep.

And despite the slush that ices the sidewalks, somehow managing to be both slushy and icy, the city is beautiful today. From the tips of the leaves in Central Park, to the hellhole of Time Square subway station, somehow it is all now so beautiful in a way I could never see before. I am no longer angry at the jostling commuters in the lifeless passages of the NQR trains, but I am in awe at the creatures running underneath the brightly optimistic Roy Lichtenstein mural.

I gape at all the people that pour off of the shuttle, and I spot a woman in a Postal Service uniform. I can't catch her eye to ask her which way the post office is, since I forget if it's on 45th or 41st, and so I simply follow her through the corridors of Grand Central Terminal.

She walks much more slowly than I do, at a glacial pace that I would usually find irritating, but not today. Because today it forces me to notice all the life around me: the genuinely joyful-looking sales associate in the MAC store, the woman buying fish in Grand Central Market, the men laughing together in Cafe Grumpy. We pass by an angry man who is yelling at the army officers, who are surrounding, protecting a young, bearded hipster, accused of bumping into the angry man, from the angry commuter's vicious volleys. I follow my Postal Service employee down the Lexington passage, and I see the post office, so I shoot past her, thanking her silently for her involuntary guidance.

Suddenly, the glory of the foggy grey sky, and the city full of people wash over me, and I am in love with each face that passes me. I am delighted to learn that you can buy international postage for letters at the self-serve kiosk in the post office. Even that small fact is full of wonder today.

Because today is a day that I am in love with New York. I am in love with the adventure of riding the subway with hundreds of heartbeats surrounding me. I am in love with the motion of the underground and the honking bustle of the bus. I am in love with the stories weaving their way around me, and the houses lit up like little stages, wherein there are so many people living their family dramas.

I am in love with the slush and the taxis, and the boldness that I assume with natural ease as I jaywalk across West 96th. I am in love with the lingo of apartment shopping and the silly game of cat-and-mouse that entails, and the casual critiques of square footage and the posturing of being unimpressed with granite counter-tops. I am in love with the terribly grouchy bus driver, and the great swath of humanity I encounter each day. I wonder why it took me so long to fall so in love with them. And what it is about the bright red brick of the school building and the church that took so long to make my heart skip a beat, as it does now as I gaze fondly on the warm red brick, frosted with snow.

I collapsed last night in my bed, my jeans still molded to my hips. I sipped a cold beer as my warm room sapped all the weariness from my bones. Outside the train clattered past, bearing all those weary workers home. The cold night air descended on my tree, wrapping the city in darkness and fog. I listened to This American Life, sipping the beer, sinking deep into the peace of my bed, feeling young, alive, and lithe, cased in blue denim and the comfort of being a singular being in a starry quilt of millions.

I thought that my Lenten discipline should be learning to love right where I am. I thought that, lying on my bed, with my feet resting on the wall, as I used to lie as a child. I thought that passing by the Conde Nast advertisement posters in the Grand Central Shuttle passage. I thought that as I walked up 95th street, and stared inside the brownstones, marveling at the beautiful homes--homes that would be ordinarily beautiful elsewhere, but are extraordinarily beautiful in New York. I thought that as I walked up Park Avenue in the twilight, my favorite walk in all the City. And I pass all the apartments full of lives lit up by chandeliers and ceiling fixtures. I stare up into the windows, catching not a glimpse of people, but of their habitats. Of the environments their lives are lived in. The bright lights draw me like a moth to a flame. I am dazzled by the snapshots of lives I glimpse through windows. The small portraits painted in mahogany bookshelves, high ceilings, and kitchen cupboards.

And I pass my favorite chocolate Labrador, who looks old--perhaps 13 or 14--and who refuses to go on walks with his owner. He simply lies down on the sidewalk, and try as he might, his poor owner can never persuade him to move. This dog is done. He collapses on the concrete. He is most definitely not going on a walk. I wonder how his owner ever got him out the door in the first place.

I lie on my bed, thinking of that dog. Thinking of how comfortable it is to find stillness in a city full of motion. But I think of how much I love the motion; love the faces, and the people, and the lives swirling around me.

Charlie and I run to the ramen bar, in need of a stiff drink. We arrive to find our friends already there, Sapporos in their hands, fresh from an evening of activity in the Park--Central Park, in case that needed clarifying. And we laugh, and talk, and debate the value of American Beauty, and suddenly I am in another world. A very small world of sit-coms and college nights, where there is nothing in the world but your friends, delicate pork buns dripping juicy sauce, and sake in cans, and laughing together in a bar, all the other customers melting into the background. I didn't know this world was here in New York, but here it is: the simple joy of sharing food and drink and life and conversation.

I think of the abuelas at mass next door. And the warm glow of the monstrance that fills the adoration chapel. I marvel at the steeples that rise out of every street corner, and the familiar cadence of the Eucharist that hums underneath the activity of the city.
I think of all the chapels I have stopped in, all the pews that I have cried or given thanks in, and I marvel at the immanence of God in the man on the street corner and on the cold stone altars.

Finally, I wonder why I love New York so much now, in a way I never could before. Perhaps, I think, it is because I'm leaving. New York is already touched with the bittersweet joy of departure. It's easy to love sidewalk garbage if it's through the rosy lens of nostalgia. I am not going to stay here. I don't belong here, maybe, and because I know I'm leaving, the City is exerting all his magic to try to make me stay. And so I am duly charmed by her:
I take the Roosevelt Island tram across the East River.
I am by myself. As in, it is just the driver and myself. It is a stormy night, filled with mad katabatic winds. The tram shakes in a great gust of wind. Our glorified ski car shakes on the cable. I gasp, the lights of the Queensborough bridge beside us. The driver tsk-tsks wryly. It's a stormy one out there. And I am enchanted by the birds-eye view of the city, and passing the high rises so that I am eye-level with 4th floor apartment windows. I am completely in love with the useless and unnecessary adventure of flying across the East River on a windy night. I laugh goodbye to the driver: we are now companions, having shared a miniature adventure.

For just a second, I am angry at New York. Angry at New York for making staying hard, and leaving harder. Angry at New York for hiding all her incandescent beauty, and then playing her hand right as I decided to leave. I am angry at New York for being such a terrible, awful place: full of dirt, injustice, and discomfort. And I am even angrier that right now, I cannot see it. And I wonder if there's something wrong with me: why am I so happy with this city I know is a shit hole? I imagine something is wrong with my vision; I've developed a critical blind spot when it was most important to be objective. But I cannot help but feel that I have finally learned to see a beauty that was there all along.

I groan with resignation, knowing that New York has won, as she always will. She will always have the last laugh, she will always hold the trump card. She makes it impossible to stay, and when you finally escape, she punishes you for going, by poisoning all of your memories of crowded subway cars and rude jostling, the smell of filth rotting on the August sidewalks, dodging leaking fire hydrants, with an irrevocable stain of sehnsucht.

I wonder:
If I stayed, would I be able to retain this vision of her beauty?
I wonder:
Am I finally seeing the enchanted city that so many of my friends delight in?
I wonder:
What was missing before, and what has arrived now, that even the 6 train at rush hour has become a singular and charming blessing?

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