The invisible New York -- a world of dreams and striving
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.