New York

More Humans in New York

Line-ups are a fact of life in New York City. If you want to get in on a good thing, you have to wait your turn for whatever that is. Shakespeare in the Park, for example, or rush tickets for popular sold-out shows, Seamus Heaney's memorial at Cooper Union's Great Hall, for which my friend Liz came equipped with reading material and a substantial snack.  But really, they're a gift, those line-ups. Some of my most memorable meetings with New Yorkers have come about as I shifted from foot to foot, or leaned against a wall, or perched on a narrow ledge inside a theatre lobby. Years ago, it was a pair of Asian-American lawyers I chatted with, and who, after the show, invited me to join them for lunch the following day at a popular Chinatown restaurant, where there was also a line-up.

This year, waiting a couple of hours just to put my name on a wait list for the Annie Baker play "John," I met the composer/lyricist Tom Megan from Boston, who was in Manhattan to see a couple of shows and do some business relating to his own work.  Our conversation ranged from Joyce, to his new piece on W.B. Yeats in the afterlife, to the book I'd brought to pass the time, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, to the formulaic nature of most musicals, to the difficulty of surviving as any kind of artist. We both made it into the show and met to compare notes during the two intermissions. Afterwards, waiting at the bus stop to sum up our impressions, a woman joined us, another writer, of children's books, Fran Manushkin, and while Tom went his way, Fran and I continued on the bus to a smokey Grand Central. Apparently there had been a fire, but obviously not so big a fire that it made the news the next day; not in New York, where minor fires are a footnote.  The traffic delay only gave us a chance to chat more about our impressions of "John," and about other theatre experiences. A Sondheim fan, she confessed that she wants to make her personal exit to the strains of Sondheim's "Sunday".
Nathan and LeCora, 8/14

Then came Friday morning in Central Park, waiting for free tickets to the wonderfully energetic "Odyssey," presented by The Public Theatre. Tickets would be handed out at noon, but the first people must have arrived before 9 am. I ended up sitting on a bench between two men. Irwin -- after some chit-chat about where to find coffee nearby, the dominance of cell phone conversations, the casual exhibitionism of youth -- revealed that he has always been interested in philosophy and has lately been studying the stoics. The conversation wound around to death, to his father's last words.

Nathan and LeCora, 9/15

On the other side, Ray Healey, a Ph.D in English from Columbia, with a varied career in journalism behind him, who is now teaching English, as he always wanted to do, at Hostos community college in the Bronx. Ray was reading Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, because he intends to use it in his classroom. Our conversation ranged from climate change, to student activism, to literature. Since the tickets are handed out in order, I was able to see both of my line-up companions again that evening as we all sat enthralled by Todd Almond's upbeat, contemporary version of Homer's epic.

But maybe the best part of the night came before the show even started.  Waiting to enter the Delacorte Theatre, who should I see but a brother and sister I had met in a similar situation the previous year. In August 2014, I sat with Nathan and Le Cora for an outdoors jazz concert at St. Peter's Church in midtown. The fabulous Amina Figarova quintet. I asked if I could take their picture and promised to visit the church where LeCora sings on Sundays. I would have done it too, except I forgot the name of the church. But there on that warm Friday evening in Central Park, as if to remind me of the church's name, if not the power of meaningful coincidence --or synchronicity, as Carl Jung called it -- were Nathan and Lecora one couple ahead of me! I had to take another picture.

Chris became surprisingly introspective...

"Chris became surprisingly introspective. 'I did examine myself,' he said. 'Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.'"

These words came from Christoper Knight, the man known as the Hermit of North Pond, in Maine, as quoted in a GQ article by Michael Finkel. Christopher Knight lived for 27 years by himself in the Maine woods, in a well camouflaged tent that was not discovered until he was arrested. He claimed never to have lit a fire and to have survived off food and supplies he stole from cabins and camps, where he was eventually found. The whole story is fascinating, a man who could live so long without human interaction, and how it affected his sense of self.

Plato, having asserted that no man can be entirely self-sufficient, determined though an arcane (to me) mathematical formula in (Laws), that the ideal size for a city would be 5040 people who would be ruled by guardians educated to guide the citizenry wisely. 

Aristotle was looser in his estimate of the lower limit, saying (in Politics) that a city need only be large enough to be self-sufficient and that a city must not be too large to have order and strict rule of law. He felt it important that people have the ability to know one another... to select officials without personally knowing them he describes as 'haphazard'. The ideal upper limit "...the largest number which suffices for the purposes of life, and can be taken in at a single view."

Now we have New York City, where not only are there eight and half million people in the five boroughs, but an estimated 800 languages spoken. Even standing atop the highest of the many high buildings, it is impossible to take in the population in a single view. Impossible to talk to everyone even if you could speak all those languages, and anyone who personally knows the Mayor and city officials is probably rich or involved in politics, maybe both. In this vast city it's doubtful that anyone feels free in the way Christopher Knight felt free as a hermit. And, though people constantly do it, so much so that a comedienne set-up a "selfie-prohibited zone" in Central Park, self-definition is not as easy as taking out a phone and snapping a picture of yourself. People are identified by how they look, the clothes they wear, what they do, where they live, what they eat, where they shop, how they speak. Yesterday on the number 6 line heading downtown,  a man with perfectly symmetrical corkscrew curls, maybe two inches long, beautifully arranged all over his head, checked out his "do" in the window glass while his daughter, with the exact same style, idled on the one available seat.

There are probably urban hermits living in some old buildings or hiding out in Central Park. One cranky and clever loner finagled a multi-million dollar settlement out of a developer for finally agreeing to move out of the Mayflower Hotel so that it could be torn down to make way for a luxury condo building. Folks such as him live as alone as Christopher Knight did, but their isolation is not geographical, and in this electronic age they may not reach the kind of eccentric peace he found free of mirrors, cameras, application forms, social media; free of the glances we consciously or unconsciously respond to, or the glances that don't come, that we also respond to. Despite all the people to "perform" for, with everyone searching for reflections in their phones or the number of friends or followers or "hits" they have, the only watchers may be those who review surveillance camera footage.


Quebec to Montreal to New York

Aur revoir, belle ville, this cold sunny morning. Cold, sunny. On to snappy Montreal, St. Catherine's Street a profusion of red ...  poppies for Remembrance Day,  roses for Hussain, luscious long stemmed red roses, one of which survived the long walk up St. Urbain to Mile End, and fit perfectly in a wine bottle at Hil and Lil's place. Lunch at the Local Café, smoked salmon on a Montreal bagel. Leonard Cohen singing Halleluhjah. Snow flurries outside the window later that night, and in the morning.

Yes the morning, over the bridge, a last look at the St. Lawrence. Stop, the border; go, welcome to New York. Lake Champlain, Champlain, Champlain. The one long whistle blowing around bends, rock-cobbled coves. Thoreau came this way in 1850, started in Boston and travelled to Montreal for a fare of seven dollars, his goal being to take one honest walk in Canada "as I might in the Concord woods on an afternoon."
    Lake Champlain, then darkness, then New York City. Up the subway stairs at 14th St and 1st Avenue, and it's like someone has injected me with a sudden spurt of oxygen. Everything is faster, crisper. Nine-thirty, people indoors, out of doors, wind blowing, garbage blowing, darrrk, yet bright under the lights of Tompkins Square where the yellow leaves of a spreading tree glow as if with fairy light.

   Up a flight of stairs, up another, another, another, finally arriving at Five W, where friend Liz greets me with tea and we talk and talk and then sleep and morning breaks. One day. One day?  Heading down and over to Soho, I hear a man calling from a shaded door well. Bunny, Bunny! A cardboard flat of pizza slices rests on the edge of a garbage can, just in case somebody is hungry enough to ignore the proximity of God knows what. Walk, walk. There, McN's, the bookstore with its see-through book printing machine and an African American barista who styles his hair in an exuberant Mohawk. Good fusion, that. African American hair texture holds the Mohawk proud. And Allan, at last, in person, this native of the neighbourhood who is the King of graffitti photography and fills in his life story before we move on to Housing Works Bookstore and its tempting bins, tempting cases, beautifully arranged, the dark wood shelves, the dark wood railings around the balconies. But one day, one day! We say goodbye, we will meet again.

Uptown, Petra with the thin eyebrows, the blue shadow, the Slovak accent everyone mistakes for Russian. In the next booth a thin faced woman in dark glasses, her fine blown blonde hair, her lipstick smudged, with her maid. Or her attendant, or maybe I am making assumptions. Maybe this is not her only possibility for lunch but a joyous choice. Out the window of the Lennox Hill Grill city workers with brown Central American skin. A generation away from their indigenous ancestors who dressed in parrot feathers, perhaps, now outfitted in fluorescent vests and hard hats on the crazy streets of NY.

The day is going, what to see? William Kentridge's The  Refusal of Time. Fabulous. A non-linear narrative that comes together in a statement/observation as I sit on a chair between three huge screens, looped images, music that haunts, hollers, itself underscored by the elephant behind me, the machine that labours, the breath, the heart,  the tock of the clock, the beat of time that dares us to refuse it. More! More! Poetry! Seamus Heany's imagined butter coming up from a deep bog still white and salty, the precise sound imagery of his diction, all those poets and writers reading Heany's work with reverence and affection. Even Paul Simon, and the prolific Colm Toibin, all with memories of the great late man, but paying tribute with his own words. On, on, Venezuelan arepas, sleep. Goodbye till next time fifth floor Liz. On the crosstown bus fathers taking their children to school. Little Henry's boots are printed with orcas and they keep slipping off, as if the orcas are straining to swim away through the snow flurrying about the neighbourhoods of Manhattan.

To Penn Station, coffee from Zaro's, where two servers speak to one another in French, and I think of Pelagie, but no. L'homme vient de Haiti, l'autre de la Côte-d'Ivoire. "That's in Africa," she says. "My mother taught me."

11:35 AM, the Regional, #125 pulls out right on time, with stops in Trenton, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Wilmington Delaware, and Baltimore, Maryland, the city/state names rhythmic as the swaying car that carries me to Washington, D.C. Union Station. Be careful when you disembark ladies and gentleman. There is a space between the car and the platform.