In the city

By

From our apartment on New York's East 57th Street to my office in Rockefeller Center is roughly a mile. I can walk the distance in about 25 minutes, depending on the vagaries of the traffic lights.

As a matter of geometry, I could choose among dozens of routes between the two points, all of identical length (in this part of Manhattan the streets and avenues are laid out in a tidy grid, in contrast with the lower part of the island, where the narrow streets often track the twisting paths of 17th-century New Amsterdam). In practice, however, there are no more than 10 or 15 routes that I follow.

As all the routes are equally efficient, I make my selections on strictly aesthetic grounds. There are blocks, even entire streets, that I scrupulously avoid because they bore me.

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Conversely, there are sights, sounds, even smells, along the way that lift my spirits, and I chart my course between these welcome buoys as the sailor sticks to the safe channels that wind among the reefs and shoals.

Stepping through the door of our building one morning, I wheel left, heading west. At the intersection with First Avenue I face the first of the many decisions I will make in the next half-hour.

I can go straight, continuing down 57th Street past its art galleries and boutiques to the intersection with Fifth Avenue. There, looking north, I would be able to see a corner of Central Park and perhaps a few of the horse-drawn carriages that line up to take tourists clopping through the park.

Then I could turn south (pausing to glance into Tiffany's imaginative display windows) and walk down Fifth Avenue, passing the smart shops and the neo-Romanesque Presbyterian church in whose intimate chapel my brother-in-law was married on the most ferocious January afternoon in living memory; and arrive in due course at Rockefeller Center.

I elect this day to forsake 57th Street, though, and turn down First Avenue. From here my course will become jagged as I trek alternately south and west, favoring some blocks and shunning others. Like a computer my thought continuously scans the possible routes, flashing onto the screen of my mind patterns that instantly dissolve and rearrange themselves with each change of direction.

Approaching D'Agostino's, a large supermarket, I remember to stay on the opposite side of the street. New York City blocks lack alleys for delivery vehicles, and the trucks that resupply the grocery store pull up to the curb before the front door. The driver of each truck rigs up a series of skids along which boxes slide from the side of the van through a trapdoor in the sidewalk and into the store's cellar. Getting around this contrivance can be tricky, particularly when the morning sidewalk is lined with the sturdy bicycles mounted with deep canisters on which teen-age boys will make deliveries throughout the day.

On I go, passing fruit and vegetable stands, Chinese laundries, shops of every description, and delicatessens where people line up at the takeout counters to buy toasted bagels. Missing a green light, I pivot abruptly and walk west on 55th Street. Across Lexington Avenue I come to Central Synagogue with its distinctive onion-dome towers; a bronze plaque informs me that the synagogue , which was built in 1870, is ''the oldest Jewish house of worship in continuous use in New York City.,''

South again on Park Avenue, heading toward the elegant Helmsley Building and, behind it, the taller Pan Am Building; both sit squarely astride the avenue which, like a stream, splits and bends around them. This haughty grande dame of New York's avenues is divided by a raised median planted with small trees and shrubs. At Christmas the trees are covered with tiny white lights; looking north from this point after dark, one sees a ribbon of light stretching for miles between the stately buildings. In the spring tulips and daffodils stand in bright ranks around the trees.

I'm tempted to continue on to 51st Street to admire anew the Byzantine dome and mosaics of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church (''St. Bart's''), but, torn, I swing up 52nd Street to cut through the public concourse of the Olympic Tower. I never tire of its lush green plantings or the three-tier waterfall that cascades down marble walls into a pool beside an open French restaurant with wrought iron chairs and linen-covered tables.

Emerging on 51st Street, I marvel at - as though seeing it for the first time - the white Gothic grandeur of St. Patrick's Cathedral. I walk along the cathedral's north side and turn down Fifth Avenue to look at the bronze portals and stone filigree in the front. Directly across the avenue stands an enormous statue of Atlas with the world balanced on his shoulders. The Christian and pagan symbols seem comfortable in each other's presence, their apparent incongruity harmonized in the nobility of their art.

I have arrived. I turn into Rockefeller Center at 50th Street, moving past the sunken ice skating rink with its monumental gold statue of Prometheus and into the beaux-arts entrance of my office building. Above me the tops of the skyscrapers catch the morning sun like mountain peaks, their shadows still falling across the narrow canyons below.

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