Dispatch from a lost city

On the train up to New York, where I am working this week, I read Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life.  Pete Hamill is, in many ways, a very unlikeable man, and the book breathes a certain belief that to state one's sins firmly is to be forgiven for them.  But the book is nonetheless still very good in many ways, not least of them the powerful invocation of a New York City before television, widespread automobile ownership, or Urban Renewal.

Perhaps because of this, I've been paying particularly close attention to my surroundings this trip.  I've been living in DC for eighteen months now, long enough that the streets of New York no longer absorb me as unremarkably as water surrounds a fish.  At odd moments, I find myself surprised by their utter familiarity.

It's hard to describe if you haven't grown up in a big city how comforting and homey it is to walk along streets with fifteen story buildings rising on either side.  A friend who recently left Washington for more rural climes said, right before he left, "I know you won't understand this, but I find the bustle of DC stressful."  He was right; I don't understand it.  Another friend, who grew up in suburban Florida, tried to explain it to me.

"All these people," he said, pointing at my apartment walls, "all around you, all the time."

"I know," I said, beaming.  "Isn't it cosy?"

All those people give New Yorker's the kind of privacy they crave most--perfect anonymity.  I love the fact that in Washington DC, I rarely pass a day in my neighborhood without running in to someone I know.  But I confess it would be nice, occasionally, to be able to run out for milk with your hair a mess and your rattiest old sweatpants on, and not be confident of running into someone you used to date with his new girlfriend in tow.

The streets full of people, the tall buildings, call back to something in my childhood, walking along them with my hand in my mother's, when their towering presence made me feel as safe as if they'd been keeping the Mongol hordes out.  And walking among them calls up--not memory, exactly, but a thousand memories faded into wordless sensation.  I imagine one feels that way about wherever one grew up, but for me, today, it was turning off Broadway into a street lined with trees and tall buildings, pressing into the shadows with sunny broadway twenty feet behind me and the noise of the traffic already fading.

This made me feel the sad impossibility of conveying anything like the New York I grew up in--not the New York of spaldeens and knickers, definitely, but the world that replaced the world that Pete Hamill mourns.  We had the little old Jewish ladies who made rugelach in the rent-controlled apartments they'd occupied since 1946, the Hungarian pastry shop, the German-Jewish butcher who gave a slice of bologna to every child who came in and the pizza places still run by wizened Italians--but we also had the heroin addicts playing chess on the poured-concrete tables that had been, for some reason, installed beside every housing projects on the Upper West Side.  There were the grim, bare streets where the trees had been allowed to die and all summer the sidewalks glittered bleakly with broken glass.  Graffiti on every train car, children bathing in open fire hydrants.  I still remember many scenes from my childhood in the grainy footage of the opening to Good Times.  The show was about the Chicago housing projects, but they looked enough like the ones on Columbus Avenue to permanently embed themselves in my childish mind as stories of home:



Or rather, near home.  I went to school with the kids from the projects, but I returned home to a nice middle-class building west of Broadway.  But small children don't register economic distinctions.  To them, the buildings are all scenery.

What defeats me is the sheer volume of details.  Today in the building of my father's elevator, I read the elevator inspection certificate--chiefly because it noted that the elevator had been briefly shut down for failing inspection.  These certificates from the New York City Department of Buildings are in every elevator in New York.  I must have stared at thousands of them in my life as I rode from floor to floor; they are an excellent way to avoid looking at the other people in the elevator.  But before today, I don't think I ever consciously noticed that they existed.  Had you given me a thousand years to list things about New York City, I doubt I would ever have recalled them.

They aren't important, in themselves, except the fact that I never really noticed them makes me wonder what else I am not noticing, and which of those unnoticed things really does matter.  All of them, in some sense--they city is the millions of tiny details that everyone in it has in common.  Even when you're in it, it's already something of a lost world.