Washington Square: A Meditation

As I sit here by my open window looking out over the treetops toward the west, the sound of a hurdy-gurdy floats up to me, detaching itself from the ceaseless rumble of traffic. The grinder is playing a waltz, I do not know what waltz, — some cheap thing. But there is sadness in it, and there are memories. In college, in those days when one went about with his senses like a harp, ready to be struck musically by every lightest impression, something — a story of Coppée’s perhaps, or just the sound itself floating into the Yard — gave the tune from a hurdy-gurdy power to make me drop my book and dream in a vague, delicious sadness. So now, on this spring afternoon, the sounds float up to me above the rumble of Washington Square, out of the heart of a titanic, hurrying, commercial city, and I drop all work to listen, plagued with the thoughts of other days, with girls’ faces revolving past on shoulders that gleam, with the sound and scent of soft breakers on a beach, with all the silly, sweet memories of youth.

And as I listen, the sound in some still way melts in with the warm breath of spring, transfiguring my view over the treetops and the ugly roofs into a thing of beauty. I fall to wondering how we who dwell in New York can keep so blind an eye for what magic the town may hold of pleasant vista or strange loveliness flowering in its dusty ways. Not all can dwell, as I do, six stories up above a green oasis; but walks and parks are free, and that white fountain down there in its ring of yellow tulips holds a rainbow for every passer-by. Even now the sun is sinking lower toward the distant heights of Hoboken, and the rainbow must have formed. I shall go out to see.

As I reached the centre of the Square and sat down on a bench just west of the curve of asphalt around the fountain, which is roped off into a skating-rink for the children, the sun did shoot its rays between the fresh young green of the elms into the heart of the fountain spray. Breeze-blown from the south, the white spray danced and swayed, tossing cool drops over the ring of yellow tulips till a strip of curb glistened, and the ragged children ran with shrill cries through the miniature deluge, for all the world like the sparrows which darted through the edge of the fountain itself and winged up into the trees, their backs agleam. And in the swaying white mist, as if the heart, of it held imprisoned light, the prismatic colors formed and dissolved and formed again, now into a perfect bow, now into glittering fragments of violet, green, and red.

The spring hats this year are wonderful affairs, — an acre sown with flowers. Beyond the fountain one of the green ’busses rolled by, its top loaded with sight-seers, and the hats of the women made it a gay garden in transit down the Avenue. The benches to right and left held a curious company, — nurse-maids in neat attire, little mothers of the poor, sad wrecks of the under-world floated up to wait in the sun for the Bread Line, a young man richly dressed writing on his knee with a gold pencil (is it a sonnet to the fountain? I wondered). And everywhere, on walks and asphalt, the children swarmed, skating, playing strange, halfremembered games with chalk-marks, shouting, falling down.

I looked up. To the north, where the dusty vista of the Avenue began beneath the white arch, that perfect block of houses, red and sunny and comfortably homelike for all their dignity, laid its level cornice line against the blue sky. Elsewhere the high warehouses might close in about us, — I saw my own gay Japanese curtains to the east fluttering not half-way up the height of the buildings that flank my abode, —but to the north the Square remains other-worldly, domestic, decent, with ivy climbing up red walls to an even roof-line, and here and there a purple window-pane. The white arch, the sunny brick dwellings to left and right touched with ivy, the trees, the children, the roll of passing traffic, the gay gardens atop the ’busses, the warm May air conquering even the omnipresent smell of dust, — all were centred about the white fountain spray, flashing prismatic colors in its ring of yellow tulips. So, suddenly I knew it for an opal set in gold, a great iridescent opal dropped by careless Beauty our dusty city ways among, and left to burn forever, so priceless and so cheap. I wondered if the young man had been writing a sonnet called “ The Opal ” with his gold pencil. It should be written with a gold pencil. But I did not ask him. In the bottom of my heart I mistrusted that he was reckoning his margins.

And now I have come back here to my sixth-story windows, and the sun is setting. The sun sets every day across the river from New York with the same regularity it observes elsewhere. But we New Yorkers seldom see it. Something is always in the way. We seldom see the sky at all. I remember one winter evening coming out of the theatre with a friend, and walking homeward down an ever more deserted Broadway. When we reached Union Square we were almost alone save for the passing cars. And he, feeling a presence, suddenly looked up. “ By Jove! ” he exclaimed, “ that is the moon up there! ” I like to come here at the noisy day’s end, aware of my books in the dim corners and the spirit of Mozart in the piano, to sit by the window while the sun goes down over the dingy roofs, sometimes behind the Judson Memorial tower, —that misses the graceful strength of its counterparts above the plains of Lombardy because the demands of city space forbade the gradation of apertures increasing in number, one a story, to the open arches of the bell-loft, dictating instead uniform rows of windows down the entire face; sometimes behind the solid bulk of the distant appraisers’ building; or, in winter, a near-by, towering warehouse, all windows, so that the red sun pierces it clear through, making it a hollow shell of flame. It is surprising how the dreary sameness of that expanse of roofs into the west is lost in the magic of the sunset; how season by season, night by night, it changes, is transfigured, under the glory of cloud and light.

I wonder if any Himalayas of this world are half so high, or hide behind their snow-capped peaks a Thibet half so mystery-alluring, as the cloud-ranges of the sunset ? Up into the blue they have piled to-night, range on range, white peak on peak; and Hoboken is a city at their feet, the last trace of man before the leap into the snow and wonder. Quite real they are, so solidly banked and moulded into form by deep clefts and ravines of shadow. They are not clouds, but New Jersey gone suddenly mad for the stars. The sun sinks behind them now, and their tops take fire. Above them salmon streamers drift, and where the sun has dropped is a gulf of golden light. Between them and me each smoky housetop flies its steam-jet like a plume of rose. Dusk has gathered in the city streets. The toiling ants down there see nothing, and think of dinner. But beyond my plumed field of chimney-stacks, beyond Hoboken fading into shadow, tower the Himalayas with peaks aflame, and my soul has gone forth to climb into the radiance, up, up above a gulf of gold, in quest of the sunken sun, the vision of that Promised Land no man shall cease to long for till he dies, his last steps pointing westward.

I was startled finally by the brusque alarum of the telephone bell. When I returned to the window there was only a dull sky streaked with clouds. A police wagon was clanging through the Square. There was the smell of dust. I shall go to dinner, — but alone, and to some quiet café where the barbaric custom of music does not prevail. I decline to gulp my roast to rag-time.

But as the sky itself refuses to make a practice of showing off thus gaudily every day, so maturity holds for us no more affecting lesson than this: that the human soul cannot be questing at all hours, and for its occasional outbreaks, its relapses into the “ vagabond and unconfined,” we must pay ever more dearly, as the years go on, in spent energy and sadness. I am paying to-night. I have come back from dinner and a call, and now I hear below me a band of Italians crossing the Square toward the south, singing in parts. The tune ought to be Santa Lucia. But it is n’t. It is I’m afraid to go Home in the Dark. That is a sign we are assimilating our foreign population! I catch myself repeating the inane words. Incidents of my dinner, my call, pleasant recollections of a woman’s voice, the rustle of her dress, her hand-shake, come back to me — but not the memory of my sunset this afternoon. I should like to dwell on it, sitting in the darkness to live again the kindled life of that hour. But it may not be. The glow has gone. I am just one other sleepy atom in five million living in layers in New York. I will go to bed — but first a long look at the duskfilled treetops, the deep dome of the sky, and the cross that burns on the Judson tower, the watchful night-lamp of our Square.

All day the city has been painted on a Japanese screen, all my day, at any rate, which began as usual at noon. I sailed down the North River on a ferry-boat into a hazy south wind, and only the unforgettable and unmistakable height and ugliness of the Singer tower reassured me we were not floating into a picture. When Man has n’t himself done something in the night to change the Babylonic sky-line on the nose of Manhattan Island, — erected a new forty-story building or two, — Nature sees to it that the aspect of those mortared Alps is varied from day to day, from hour to hour. I have never seen them twice alike. And never before had I seen them at all as they were to-day, etherealized by the mist, monochromatic, ghostlike.

The sun was warm; it had not been a cheerless day. Yet the pearly mists, felt rather than seen, blurred out the horizonline till sky and harbor melted into each other on a level field of soft gray; a black ferry-boat or two, a white gull swooping, the only break on the first fold of the screen. Then to the left, on the next fold, the Battery began, and swept up higher and higher till the final panel was crowded to the top with huddled, soaring blocks of gray, outlines merely of titanic buildings a shade darker than the field of the screen, no windows visible save here and there where the sun reflected from an angle, no color save one green copper roof and the gay ripple of the Stars and Stripes high, high up on the Singer tower, out of the haze against the blue. Fold by fold it was a perfect composition, massing, gradation, color, everything Japanese, save the titanic suggestion. That, perhaps, would have staggered the little yellow workman, toiling with his silks and needle.

To-night my own view, after the red sun-ball had sunk, was a picture of the Square by a Japanese artist, lovely, monochromatic, remote. Against a soft gray sky, tower and buildings stood up in sharp outline, — it is curious how mist sometimes accentuates rather than blurs outlines, — blocks of deeper gray. The steam plumes, laid level by the south wind, were white feathers tossed against a pearly background. And down below, the early lamps flared out between the branches. They made the leaves that strange, unnatural green of stage-foliage. The whole scene became oddly unreal, a theatrical setting by a Japanese artist. But when I stepped back into the room, till the window framed only the soft gray sky above Hoboken, all but lost in the mist, and the gray tower and chimneys with their white feathers of steam, it was again a single-panel screen, a perfect panel, lovely, monochromatic, remote.

Much has been written in praise, more perhaps in derision, of the Alpine peaks that man has reared on the lower end of Manhattan Island. As they boom suddenly out of a fog at the voyager up the Bay, too stupendous to be the work of our pigmy hands, Dantesque, unbelievable, there is something terrific in their suggestion of material energy and power. They are a symbol of the nation, reared on its very threshold to awe the stranger at its gates. But, to the lover of classic form and sweet proportions, who is not so much impressed with material power as depressed with the sight of a building sixty feet square and seven hundred feet high, they may well be but a chaos of ugliness — yet chaos on so vast and Babylonic a scale that it has a kind of perverse impressiveness for all that; by dark, indeed, a fiery splendor now, for the Singer tower rears a golden shaft six hundred feet aloft and pricks its incandescent battlements upon the night.

But this afternoon was a new effect, common enough among the high hills, and so doubly suggesting the kinship with nature of these steel and mortar Alps. The air has been heavy and dead all day, under lowering clouds, and the smoke-pall has gathered over us. I crossed on a ferry to observe the lower end of town, and found everything conspiring for the effect. A sea-turn had brought fog up the bay, which clung to the surface of the water and felt with lean, ghostly fingers about the feet and knees of the towering buildings. An unusual swarm of tugs on the New York side of the stream, vomiting soft-coal smoke, had hung a further curtain in the lower air, dark, impenetrable. The few low buildings on the water-front were invisible. Invisible were the bases of the mortared mountains behind them. Marble, brick, or sandstone, they reared up twenty, thirty, forty stories out of the drifting mist and smoke, like peaks above the clouds. They were without base, without support, suspended in air. The effect was stupendous, the effect of limitless height like nothing so much as that gained from the summit of Mount Washington when you look across the billows of a cloud ocean and see the cone of Adams like a dripping rock in the sea. I returned on the same ferry. As the boat neared the New York shore, and we slipped in under the curtain of fog and smoke to a view of the piers, the old buildings by the water front, the L station up a cañon street, I felt like one waking from a dream who would fain have slept. And I battled in no pleasant temper with the swarm of homing commuters who impeded my passage from the boat — men and women who add figures and pound typewriters all day long up in those Alpine heights, save for an hour at noon, when they eat their lunches on the summits.

A little later I fought my way through Fourth Street, again against a human stream, a mighty river of sweat-shop workers flowing into the East Side: the men unshaven, dirty; both men and girls pathetically under-sized, foreign, babbling in a dozen tongues. When I broke into the open, the corner of the Square was alive with them, like a stirred ant-hill. They were all so small! When I inadvertently jostled one on the walk he gave way before me so easily! If I had put out my strength I could have tossed him into the street. A whole rushline of them would be as paper to an American schoolboy full-back. Up here, from my sixth-story windows, however, I see nothing of them. I shut out the sound and vision of them. I wish I could forget as easily the horrid sense of physical weakness, amounting almost to disease, that came over me when that pastewhite, unshaven buttonhole-maker fell away from the rude shove of my shoulder!

Midnight has passed. The wind has shifted into the west, and somewhere behind me, over that teeming East Side where the paste-white buttonhole-maker lives with six hundred thousand of his kind, the late moon has broken through the clouds. Southward, under sordid roofs, men and women are sleeping. Northward, behind those red-brick, aristocratic fronts that line the Square, men and women are sleeping, too. Down in the Square on the benches, under the lamps and the vivid green leaves, like stage foliage, more men are sleeping. No women are there, thank God— though last night one was huddled behind a column of the University building, directly below the motto, “Perstando et Præstando Utilitati” — ironic commentary, or demonstration, as you choose. Only the top of the arch is visible above the trees, gleaming white and lovely in the moonlight. Behind it, in the middle distance, like another, smaller moon, is the face of the illuminated clock in the Jefferson Market tower. An arc lamp flashes on the far heights of Hoboken, like a setting star. The Judson cross, the night-lamp of the Square, watches over all. I can hear the fountain splashing softly, and the rustle of the treetops. “In such a night as this” — the words come into my thoughts, almost to my lips, for Beauty has laid her spell upon the Square and made it the magic setting for immortal verse.

And yet — those teeming tenements to the east, that paste-white, unshaven little man who fell away with sickening weakness before my shoulder! The scene is no less lovely for the thought, Beauty walks with careless feet amid our dusty ways and scatters trophies of her spoil, be it the façade of a mansion or the gold of piled oranges on a push-cart against the dark of a foul-smelling tenement door.

Yet who can look with untroubled eyes whom a thought has plagued? There are green vistas where no such thoughts be, and virgin hill-slopes under the moon. Great, restless, million-teeming, cruel city, closing remorselessly in about the green oasis of my Square, with its opal fountain in a ring of gold, beauty you have, but you wear it like a garment to your shame, a garment with many a rent and seam. If I have sought your beauty out, if I have tried to nurse it, to dwell with it, the instinct that prompted me has but grown with the practice, and yearns now for a fuller satisfaction, a less clouded joy. I look out over the moonlit Square, over the white, gleaming arch, to the lamp on the distant heights, and know that one day I shall dare defeat, shall dare to lay my burden of ambition down and strap on the wanderer’s pack of dreams, for the call of freedom is in my ears, the memory of meadows daisy-starred is tugging at my heart. Fame, what is it ? “Success is in the silences, though fame is in the song.” A life well lost is better than a death well won. So, on that day when courage comes, I shall arise, with only one long backward look at this my Square, and pass to where beyond Hoboken there is peace!