I just spent three months in Manhattan, my first time despite two decades of living a suburban stone’s throw of the City limits. I left the ‘burbs and spent my early twenties happily living in San Francisco. I had no desire to move to New York. There was just too much of everything: noise, people, concrete. But then a Manhattan internship called and I had to answer, no matter how reluctantly.
I mentally braced myself, but in this city of irony and excess I was taken by surprise by the number of things that moved this old robot heart of mine. They were all odd little moments and intangibles, which I’ve tried to record below..
When you’re riding the subway just minding your own business and suddenly another subway sidles up , window-to-window, and offers this little human tableau to you like a bouquet, a little compartment of humanity clicking right there alongside you, lit up like a stage.
I don’t know why I get such a kick out of this phenomenon, but it’s like a friendly pop to the sternum every time, a little smile jolt. Maybe it’s the visual metaphor of the thing - you’re sitting alone in this shadowed tunnel and bam! Someone appears beside you, in a compartment just like yours, minding their own business, another light in the darkness.
I love the past and the future, the rust and the cranes.
The old buildings, the broken hinges, the layers of paint, the faded logos of forgotten companies, the abandoned neon: the whole array of them, all together. The buildings are like chess pieces arranged just so, except for when you get down to the Village, where it’s like someone got drunk shook the table. Some of the pieces are grubby, some marbled, some chipped, some steel. They all show the history of the game.
You have all of old New York spread around you and then you walk on the High Line in the rain and see the new construction sites from above, yawning open like a broken tooth, all concrete and rebar and potential. One day people will walk here, will hang paintings and rearrange sofas here, and then this fresh rebar will be torn down to make way for a new building And New York will still be New York.
I was a kid when I first read about ancient Rome, how when archaeologists started digging beneath the ruins, they found another, even older city underneath the foundations. Mind sufficiently boggled, I imagined whole depths of cities, all the way down to the molten core of the Earth, temples and roads and libraries, stacked up a like a house of cards. I never really had a frame of reference experience for what those archaeologists felt until I really started exploring New York, because that’s what it was like - cities within cities within cities, individual ecosystems of hardware stores, restaurants and dry cleaners. Apartments stacked to the sky. You start to get your bearings in the East Village and then you hang a right and it unfurls towards the horizon like a cartoon rug, a whole new microcity. It’s Rome, it’s Narnia and you can feel the ghosts, the pockets of cities around you, beneath you, above you.