Walking or driving around New York City, especially walking, I am of two principle minds.
The first is engaged in managing the interaction between three types information. That which I have carefully organized as my truth, that which has been flung haphazardly into storage, and that which is flooding in through my senses like refugees looking for a place to land and start anew. No matter how many times I step out of Grand Central Terminal into the rush, I never transcend from neophyte to master of my surroundings. I am always juggling that competing information no matter how much I just want to relax and enjoy myself. I put a good face on it I think. Maybe I’ve learned not to look like a complete rube. Maybe I can don an expression projecting “it’s no big deal.”
But really, I know the truth. I’m the guy in Stevie Wonder’s Living For the City who steps off the bus in awe (my lily white skin not withstanding.) “New York! Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything!”
I start walking around the city and the city starts poking at my insecurities. It whispers, “Your little observations are so quaint.” Then it screams, “Let me show you how much you don’t know!”
I’ve never been to Tokyo or Paris and it is possible that lacking the language of those places would produce a similar effect, but I’ve been to every major city in the United States and I’ve never experienced anything quite like what New York City does to my equilibrium.
“New York! Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything!”∽ Stevie Wonder, Living For the City
There are any number of amplified or alien aspects to city life that can affect visitors. Some are the usual clichés. You have the diversity of manner, appearance, and language of the people surrounding you. There is the relentless tug of “objects of significance” on your eyes. The buildings are really big. The ad on the side of a speeding cab wants to be just as important as the inscription on a statue of an early hero of the city. For many, it probably is.
What I experience is a type of dysphoria induced by New York’s built environment. It’s not the size of it. It’s the constant change. It may be that I like my history to recede in an orderly fashion. I would prefer to absorb my knowledge of the past in easily digestible spoonfuls. But the relentless making and unmaking of spaces, side-by-side with buildings that seem to have always existed disorients me. And maybe that’s the real root of the issue. I can’t absorb the history of this space. I can’t really make it mine. It’s too big. I can only sense the weight of it.
Of course, any environment can be rich and complex depending on how much you let your senses show you. A herpetologist, through careful study and patient observation will learn to see a complex ecosystem inhabited by a variety of lizards and their prey. The rest of us see only vast stretches of desert sand. Someone who inhabits the boroughs uncovers patterns and subtleties that make the complexity workable. “What do the cops notice or care about?” “What will they let slide?” What’s the best time to arrive in Park Slope if I hope to find a parking space?” “These Hamilton tickets are counterfeits.”
For visitors it’s a bit different. Our first response when dropped in the desert isn’t “What are the functional subtleties of this place, but rather, “Do I have enough water?” In New York its “Remember to not get hit by a bus.”
I recently walked the length of High Line Park. The High Line is an elevated freight railway that runs down the western edge of Manhattan. About a mile and a half of it has been converted to a walkable “greenway.” Its conversion provides visitors with the opportunity to literally transcend the chaos of the streets below. In many sections of the park, the old rails are still visible, but you have to do some imaginative work to picture what the space was like for most of its existence. Steel, timber, noise, and impenetrable grime. Now, walking the High Line, one can see the city as a museum diorama, or perhaps more accurately, an aquarium exhibit, as what we observe is certainly alive.
The city is massive, crowded, layered, kinetic, brutal and caring, ugly and beautiful. All the clichés. Ultimately for me, it is an indecipherable mystery.
Which finally brings me to the second state of mind I carry with me in the city. The one in the background. The one that sees a bit more clearly and concludes, “People probably shouldn’t live like this.”
But we will anyway, because as a good friend visiting from the Midwest recently observed, “It’s glorious.”