My few days in New York City are something of a blur. They were then, and are more so now. It's a city that I didn't like, but that has gotten under my skin, such that I am writing about it. I haven't ever felt the need to put pen to paper about Paris or London, though I could imagine doing so for Berlin, amazingly cool city that it is. But in this case, for this big city of big cities, more specifically for Manhattan, I want to.
The impressions and images that remain with me aren't just the stink of a big city, the human urine in the corners of stairwells, the pervasive acridity of dog pee along the apartment streets where a hundred apartment-sized wanna-be dogs have marked their territory. They aren't the claustrophobia of the endless buildings, skyscrapers, streets, cars, taxis, tourists, advertising imagery. I was a minuscule cog in the city's machine, tiny and insignificant but still a part. And I found that very surprising. New York has a harmony to it that surprised me. An endless patience for multitudes. Everything was smaller in my sight than in my imagination: Central Park a beautiful yet conceivable oasis, the Empire State building immense but not crassly so, iconic sights reduced in size simply by being real somehow... but not the city itself. That I can't conceive of and the city therefore feels larger than its parts.
And ridiculously smaller. There was a woman sitting, melting, in a subway elevator near Columbia University, Upper West Side. She sat behind a barrier in the industrial sized elevator, water bottle in hand and she showed me the esky she brought to work with her every day for her refills. Her job was to press a button, up or down, for the commuters. That's it. Her view of the world during her day was the endless faces entering and leaving her oppressive box. So too the doormen who sit patiently behind the entrance doors of apartment blocks, uniformed and waiting. The inescapable queues for food, tourist attractions and transport, more waiting. The rats darting beneath the subway tracks, catching the eye, while waiting for the next monstrously loud train. Being told by my friend to keep the apartment door closed at night to keep the rats out. Watching him handle his own rats in his laboratory at Columbia University. He showed his a daily kindness such that they would go to him easily, but told me of colleagues who did not and had to be vigilant not to let theirs escape.
I visited MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, and saw a drawing in the German Expressionism exhibit, drawings of artists following the loss of hope after World War I. A man and woman were collapsed against each other, parents grieving for a lost child. Collapsed into each other, joined completely in a grief that is a complete horror for me as a father. Nearby was a painting by Jackson Pollack that resembled a Pro Hart original, surrounded by admirers and the brand-curious. Immediately beside it, mostly unremarked and unnoticed was a stick thin metal sculpture of a woman that seemed to watch the crowd wryly, watching the obsession with brand names, famous names, infamous names. Anything with a name. The Statue of Liberty, Fifth Avenue, Macy's, Trump Tower. Lists of things to do and see in a Lonely Planet guide.
Finally I felt New York City's, Manhattan's, creativity. I wanted to write while I was there. I didn't. The city was aggressive in its noise, heat, smells; it was exhausting. Bookstores, little more than retail outlets for me in Australia, became safe havens of quiet and reflection, places to sit and recharge, to feel other worlds within the strange world outside. After being assailed by the city each day, I wanted to return to the quiet of my friend's apartment and write. I could imagine being there for that purpose.
I met an Australian lady in Los Angeles who said she hated New York. That you either hated it or loved it, as though she were an authority on this. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I flew out of JFK airport on my fifth day. But I keep thinking about the place.