Stay awake

27 11 2008

Given so much killing, this would not be the worst way to live:

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(From a building across the street from Temple Emanuel-El, on Fifth and 65th.)

—–

So this is a bit of a cheat—I adapted this from a comment I left elsewhere:

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, moved to successively larger cities, and now live in New York City.

Needing to get out of the house today, I bopped over to Manhattan and strolled through Central Park. It was a bit late—the light was low—but I could catch a few images of this grand and humble place:

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(stretched this one out a wee)

(jacked the contrast on this one)

I wandered around the neighborhood east of the park for a bit, taking in the discreetly exclusive apartment building between Fifth, Madison, and Park, exchanging greeting with doormen leaning out of doorways, and peeking into warmly-lit restaurants serving dinner this Thanksgiving. This is the genteel and lovely New York of near-past movies, recalling generations of families lucky enough to live within those warm lights.

Not that most New Yorkers have done so, of course. This was (and is) a city of working people, crammed together in slouching tenements which call forth a history neither genteel nor lovely.

Still, it is as easy to fall in love with the romance of hard times as it is to yearn for a sepia-lit life overlooking the park. To live amidst the tumultuous grace of history!

One of the things I love (and mourn) about this place is precisely that sense of history: when I walk through the Financial District early on a Monday morning I see the old iron sconces on the side of one building, the Art Deco doors on another, and the amazing mosaic at the entrance to the ITT building. It’s all still there.

Except, of course, it’s not. The old tenants have moved out and a pharmacy or bank or Starbucks has snuck in, and where o where is the idiosyncratic New York I moved here to find? Where is our tumultuous grace?

It’s there and it’s gone. New Yorkers are constantly bemoaning the loss of the ‘real’ city, the one which existed when they were teenagers or first moved here or yesterday, the city which justified the high prices and the crowds and standing-room only train cars. But this is the real city, today, and while I wish there were still Italians in Little Italy and working-class Jews on the Lower East Side, there are Poles in Greenpoint and Russians in Brighton Beach, hasidim in Williamsburg and Crown Heights and mosques in Bed Stuy. The Hare Krishnas and Scientologists lurk in the Union Square train station, and I even saw one brave soul setting up a McCain/Palin table not too far from the saxophonist. People from California and Cameroon and Oklahoma and New Zealand are tucked into corners all over this city, criss-crossing and occasionally bumping into one another. There’s the Stonewall Bar and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (finally fully open this Sunday) and the wrecked earth from the Sept. 11 attacks posed in Battery Park.

This city erects and erases and absorbs its histories and cultures, mystifying and horrifying and, finally, gratifying those of us who are still learning when to hustle and when to slow down.

Where is your tumultuous grace? It’s there and it’s gone, wherever you are. Pay attention, wherever you are.