As Jay Gatsby drives him to Manhattan, Nick remarks: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
Unfortunately, I came in through Newark.
As my cabbie rips through the soiled and hallowed walls of the Lincoln Tunnel and hocks a scornful loogie at a Tesla, I check my phone and learn that the friend I was to meet caught COVID-19. I feel the brutal, tender, cranial blitz of a tension migraine and I recall another New Yorker, Dorothy Parker: “London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.” Bull.
I flew to New York to screw my head on straight before returning to the Bay after a week of wining, dining and ruthless networking at a writers’ conference in Vermont that thoroughly unscrewed it. After resolving to be a writer and not an academic, I took time off of school to gain journalism experience. Having returned, I harbored some keen dread of completing a degree I would not use and a keener dread of graduating not knowing what to do.
Having grown up near San Francisco, I felt a vague sense of duty to try New York, if only to come running back sniveling over mutant rats and nor’easters. Now I was down and out in the town so nice they named it twice with nary a clue what “arts away” to cover. For dignity’s sake, I would not see “Cats.” I hit Greenwich Village.
Three martinis (gin), two jazz sets (Blue Note — try the veal) and one distressingly clear 35mm screening of “The Shining” (1980) later (Village East; tell ‘em I sent you) I was thoroughly cultured, sloshed and glum. I missed the light falling over the Bay — plum, amber, azure. There were no sunsets over 5th Avenue; it just got dark all of a sudden. I took the Empire State Building as a personal affront.
People back home lived high, calf-searingly high, but they didn’t build high unless they worked for Salesforce. They knew it was only a matter of time before an earthquake or fire or flood or urban renewal razed you, and then you’d have to build again, and then… The thought broke when a cabbie cursed me out for jaywalking down Bleecker. Everything here was too close and too noisy and too much. What was I doing here? Where was I going? What was that smell?
Like the bad Californian I am, I took my ennui east. Ciao, Brooklyn. Like the good cinephile I am, I hit another moviehouse: the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I yelped when the screen lit. It was Union Square. It was Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974). In it, a psychotically private and pathologically Catholic professional bugger named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired to wiretap a man and a woman as they mutter that “he’d kill us if he got the chance.”
The doomed woman is his client’s apparently unfaithful wife. He sees her murdered. Caul absolves himself of his work before a priest. He returns to the company. He sees the woman leave it in a limo and realizes that the couple murdered his client. He runs the tape once more: “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”
Caul’s obsession with the past distances him from it. I left Coppola’s lonely, jazzy surveillance flick refreshed and restored. I was in New York, damn it, and I was there to take its pulse. I thought of Caul and how his obsession serves the harm he seeks to halt. Street noise lulled all thoughts of home and for once I was grateful. The next day I did what New Yorkers were supposed to do and went to Central Park.
It was loud, hot and green. I thought of its architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who brought flowers and light to the industrial waste of 19th-century Manhattan. The New York dream was not like the Californian Dream of a new frontier, all future and no certain past. To leave off the past is to condemn yourself to its mistakes. Manhattan’s promise depends upon its history — the money is old and the fame is pedigreed and newcomers claw for a place in the pecking order.
I watched horses pull carriages around Bethesda Fountain, as they had since Olmsted unveiled it. The “Angel of the Waters” poised atop it was not some baptismal dream but a concrete blessing. The statue marked the opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which soused the fountain and a city long used to dirty water. Around me New York moved on, on, as it had for centuries. The water reeked like iron and rushed clear as gin. I thought, looking at it, that something good was about to come off. I had the sense I must hurry to meet it.