The invisible New York -- a world of dreams and striving

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

A fog has crept in all night, gradually swallowing up Manhattan from top to bottom. From the Hudson River bluffs overlooking the city, nothing is there. Only an occasional wisp of siren-cry carries across the water. Yet you feel the presence of the place - so vast, rich, and teeming with life. You feel the heaving motion and upthrusting energy of the city.

Once, late at night, I sat by the ocean in Florida. There was no moon, and in the pitch darkness I could not even make out the first line of breakers hitting the sand. But I could hear the whisper of the sea. And I could feel its presence.

The sense of immeasurable possibilities pervades both memories. The beckoning ocean and the welcoming city.

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The invisible New York.

The invisible New York does not make an easy acquaintance. You get the uneasy sensation that nothing is finished here. Everything is beginning and in transition. Motion is the law, power is the object. Both motion and power lie at the heart of what the invisible New York is all about.

You get to know this New York best from your childhood, as an ambient presence. You have to see it without your eyes. Not the city of skyscrapers and bright lights, but a city of dreams, achievements, people.

I rode the subways endlessly when I was 12 years old, discovering the city from underneath, traveling the hundreds of miles of tunnels under its streets. Then for years I searched the streets themselves - from Harlem to the West Village, from Queens to the silk stocking district - groping for the life of the city in the amplitude of its public ways.

Recently, I returned after a two-year absence to look at the city afresh. Everywhere, the same thoughts await me in the same streets. If I walk through Jackson Heights, I come across my breathless youth running through the narrow yards. And in every street and corner are pieces of my life belonging to the city. That is the mystery of New York. Not the buildings - they are like the shells on the ocean's bottom - but the life itself.

The life of friends and acquaintances: actors, bankers, writers; people living in three-room flats with little air and no sunlight; people working in restaurants, loading trucks, pushing pushcarts, pushing pencils. People who never worked at all.

The memories of these people are legion; and they illustrate something about the complexity and humanity of the city:

* A young waitress I met while working as a short-order cook. We talked one afternoon about the city, and she seemed to listen with every atom of her body. Her name was Jill Clayburgh.

* Jim Lanigan, who helped break the city's corrupt political machine in the ' 50s by running against, and defeating, Carmine DeSapio, the powerful political figure. This man worked in the Roosevelt administration and also knew Nehru. Today he is developing a program to feed the world's poor.

* A young boy who left New York with me to hitchhike around the country. His father was a free-lance writer who made a lot of money. He was a sensitive, quiet kid. I haven't seen him for 20 years. But a friend was approached on the street by him a year or two ago. He was begging for money. He had spent years in institutions. He was one of those who simply do not survive the city's hard underside.

I can't recall the half of such people, living in extremity of one kind or another.

The art of decades has been fed by their dreams and disillusionment. New York is rightly famous for its actors, musicians, and artists. But the thing you see, as you walk these city streets, is that the stoicism, humor, desperation, humanity, serenity, and power of New York are not only in its artists and writers, but in its multitudes.

Standing on the corner of Park Avenue and 48th Street with the currents of the city coursing around you, it is impossible not to recognize how New York exemplifies the speed, power, and energy of the age. That's why the best and the brightest are often attracted here. They come to test their greatest dreams against the harshest challenges.

''New York is the city where dreams are possible,'' says Vartan Gregorian, head of the New York Public Library. He ought to know. Mr. Gregorian passed through New York decades ago as a foreign student, feeling as insignificant as the crumbs brushed from a table by hurrying city waiters. He returned two years ago to set the city's staggering library system on its feet and to become the toast of New York's cultural elite. ''This is a town,'' he told me, ''where an individual can really make a difference.''

You dream the most beautiful and unattainable dreams in this city. The city disturbs you, yet it feeds you with desire and vision. It makes you want to achieve.

Sidney Lumet, the director who filmed ''Prince of the City,'' ''Serpico,'' ''The Pawnbroker,'' and 21 other films in this city, has spent a lifetime reading and recording the life of dreams in the city's multitudes. In a recent interview, he mused about ''the constantly shifting, ethnic possibilities of New York'' and ''the new influx of Asians, of Russians, and Israelis disaffected with Israel.''

''The history of culture is the history of great cities,'' he added. ''Athens , Rome, Paris, Berlin, London.'' And, now, New York.

You think, when you come to this city, that what matters is the physical Goliath, the buildings, the traffic, the noise. No, it is the yearning and striving of 7 million people. In tenements, in high-rises, in doorways. That is an intense amount of dreaming and desiring, all compressed into a very small piece of the earth.

The intensity is evident on a Friday evening, walking the streets of Manhattan, through the garment district and down to the West Village. One sees thousands of faces in the space of a few hours. And this is what you miss if you breeze through New York on a weekend holiday: the incredible sense of community about the place. Whether you wander through the traffic-choked avenues of midtown, or into the relative tranquillity of Brooklyn's neighborhoods, what you see, if you look closely enough, are people who live and work together every day , who come to recognize each other as part of a vigorous, ever-changing city tapestry.

The vivid weave in this tapestry lies in the drama of the working man and woman who put bread on the table, care for families, want more for their children than they have had. They are the anonymous faces on the subway. The dense pattern of their lives gives the city its immeasurable energy.

Louis Molina comes down every day from his small house in a far-flung corner of the Bronx to work in ''high quarters'' on the city's skyscrapers. Molina is just finishing a job on the Chrysler Building. From his perch high on scaffolding rigged around the building's sky-high spire, he looks out at the taller Empire State Building and says, ''I have high hopes for that building. After we are through here, maybe we can take that one on.''

High hopes. The city of dreams. A blanket of haze spreads over Manhattan; but a blazing sun illuminates everything. Up here, you sense the two summary feelings of New York: It is terrifying (especially from a scaffolding, 87 stories up) and serene. A behemoth, surging in its energy and abundance. The works of man thrust up around you everywhere.

And there in the buildings, behind the walls and windows, is the real New York. You can never see it all at once, for it remains hidden in its multiplicity . . . immense and unforgettable.

The inivisible New York.

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