Here in NY, unlike where I live in Iowa, there are plenty of places to go to in the mornings—and maybe even more at night. I still go to bed early, like an Iowa farm boy. I don’t go to the office in the morning because I don’t have an office. Haven’t had one in years. My mother once said to me, “Russ, you’ve never had a job. It’s not like you haven’t worked hard; you’ve just never had a job, like most people.” I understood. I know my life, at least that part of it. I have no marketable skills and no college degree. I’m essentially worthless. I said to her, “With any luck, Mom, I’ll never have a job.”
This morning I’d rather talk with someone than write. I’m a stranger in this town, and New Yorkers are a very busy lot. But if you can catch one on the subway, on in the Park, you’ll have a conversation, and chances are it’ll be interesting, because no matter what else they have, New Yorkers have a point of view. It’s often altruistic.
I’d barely entered Central Park when an older woman smiled at me. I smiled back. It was a rare exchange. Neither of us felt threatened. Neither of us had a “bad boy barrier” to maintain. We didn’t have to pretend that we were too busy to exchange smiles. And neither of us had tattoos. Here tattoos are as common as noses on faces and on any one body, usually much more numerous. I used to wonder what people advertise with all their ink. I used to ask them about their tattoos. In New York that would be exhausting. There aren’t that many hours in a day.
There’s almost too much of everything in NY, except for quiet. Get near Penn Station late one afternoon, anywhere around 34th and 7th Avenue. Cars, buses, and air conditioners grind their innards away; people talk, metal subway cars barrel along metal tracks underneath sidewalks jam-packed with humans…the roar is fantastic, unimaginable, and indescribable, because no single component of sound stands out. It’s just noise, great, big, unfathomably complex noise. I’d defy the most sophisticated computer analysis to make sense of it.
Here everything’s in motion all the time. How do they keep all the wheels turning? Doesn’t anything ever break, need oil, new parts, new belts? How do they handle all the garbage?Every life in the city hinges on the reliable provision of motion, of transport. Maybe one day the place will simply grind to a halt, catch its breath, and everyone will ask the questions there’s never time to consider.
I’d love to be here during a big snowfall, to live for a whole day in a white Manhattan hush, to feel the silent essence of New York, the sound and feeling of New York without the commotion. It’s true, New Yorkers are intense. They can be loud. Conversations I’ve witnessed have an argumentative quality, like two competing salesmen talking, each one throwing in loads of extraneous detail to clinch the deal. I suspect that even if all the traffic were eliminated, the city would still roar.
The surface, the active layer of the place is fight. Fight for some breathing room, a good place in yet another line, a clean bathroom that you can just open the door and use. As soon as the light turns green, drivers blow car horns. Frustration abounds. Anyone who drives here routinely has got to be crazy, oblivious, or both.
I’ve seen such loving behavior here, too. With so much life going on, it’s simply unavoidable. People have to express love; it’s natural. Kids cutting up with their buddies, couples embracing on the subway, toddlers simply toddling, all smiles and wonder and sticks dragging on the pavement. There’s a strongly human side to this monster of a city, a very caring, warm, human flavor, a determination to reach some kind of ideal. I get touched often by simple sweetness. The smiles are fantastic, so warming.
I see so many beautiful people here. Those smiles are absolute. Trust me on that; I spend a lot of time alone, so what I see here falls upon a fairly uncluttered and open mind.
Life looks hard here, even for the wealthy who can afford the high cost of comfort. Very little is convenient, not in the way things are convenient in the typical suburban US city where there’s much more land and the private car dominates. Not everything can be within easy reach in New York. There simply isn’t enough space for that. Nor is there economic room for everyone, especially in Manhattan. Rents are in fantasy land. It’s dirty. The summers are indefinably hot. Drop below the sidewalks into a subway platform and it’s even hotter; the air down there has been struck dumb, paralyzed until the next train blasts through. The winters are “…so cold that a person could die,” sang Allan Sherman back in the 1960s.
Why is NY the destination for so many? It’s got rivers and it’s near the ocean, so, even before airplanes, most people could get here. Then the French gave us that wonderful statue, and things really took off. Easy access is handy for commerce, of course, but the real foundation of New York is storytelling and story making.
There’s Broadway and Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway. The name simply has indisputable cache: what more need I write? No performer or director or playwright worth his salt wants to be far from it. Tourists flock to it. Other cities, perhaps dreaming dreams as grand, unabashedly appropriate the name. And, speaking of grand names, put this is your mind: without some really smart, long-range thinking that took root many years ago, Central Park might be Central Parking.
Madison Avenue creates stories, sells them to their own men in the dark grey suits and then to the world, as does Wall Street. People all over the planet buy them. They wear them, eat them, smoke them, drive them, have sex with them, marry them and divorce them. The entire world turns on those stories. And in every moment in New York, untold fortunes change hands—all because someone liked a story and bought. The flow of bucks turns on what’s hot and what’s not in storyland.
And every minute, the millions who live here add to the story of the city that’s its own continent. As long as the place remains above water, the eyes of the world will look upon it as the most potent symbol of a great land.
It’s all aboutreally.