A city of tangible aspirations, then and still

We discovered the city in the course of cementing our friendship: two young aspiring writers working uptown in an office building overlooking Central Park, both intensely aware that our present course was something of a detour, that our future lay in precincts yet unknown. Summer afternoons we took our lunches afoot, circling the park and adjacent neighborhoods, discussing politics and religion, literary ambition, and the rich history of the ground we trod.

Avid readers, we had only just begun to delaminate the city's parti-colored past with the help of a long shelf of literary and social critics - native sons whose encyclopedic knowledge of New York made the very bricks and stones shimmer with significance. There wasn't an inch of earth here without deep historical and poetic resonance, we soon discovered. And what those writers had passionately revealed was how personal that resonance could be. Brooklyn Bridge might be nothing more than a stone and steel suture across the East River until considered in the context of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, Arthur Miller and Thomas Wolfe. Just as literature could become personal - a book, a voice, a vision appropriated and held dear - so could the bricks and mortar that constituted New York then and now.

So we walked and talked, feeding each other bits of historical trivia along the way: Did he know that Gansevoort Street was named for Herman Melville's grandfather, the Revolutionary War hero? Did I know that Rachmaninov spent the last 20 years of his life on Riverside Drive? That Woody Allen, Leonard Bernstein, Greta Garbo, even John Lennon, lived just blocks from us? We spoke of the books we were reading - so many of them taking New York as setting, if not central theme - of the writers we admired, of the heights we hoped to climb.

We heard the voices of the past as we prowled those famous streets, even as we felt the pulse of the present writing the next chapter of the city's history, occasionally encountering contemporary giants at uptown lecture halls, college auditoriums, bookstore signings, or simply in passing on Fifth or Madison or Park. Perhaps, someday, we would insinuate ourselves into that palimpsest of literary significance, like our heroes. In the meantime, it was enough just to feel their presence, to reflect that they too had walked this ground.

In time my friend moved to the Midwest while I settled in the northern suburbs of New York, inaugurating a 20-year correspondence that continues still. In monthly letters we chronicled our literary and personal struggles, occupational successes and disappointments, the birth and growth of children, the death of parents. From time to time we arranged brief reunions in the city, recapturing the sense of awe and discovery that had marked our past encounters. We walked uptown, downtown - and, most memorably, near the tip of Manhattan in the summer of 2001.

We had decided, that August afternoon, to meet at the South Street Seaport for lunch and walk the cobblestone streets shadowed by the Brooklyn Bridge. But we soon wandered off toward Pearl and Wall Street, Trinity Church, the Tweed Court House, City Hall, and finally mounted the great bridge itself. It was there that the modern age began in earnest, at that masonry masterpiece, that bold declaration of the future - proof that any abyss could be bridged, any chasm crossed, any dream fulfilled.

Did he know, I asked (resuming our old habit), that every nut, bolt, cable, and hinge in the bridge, as well as the machinery made to fabricate them, had been created by the visionary Roebling family and their minions? That no "stock" parts had been used?

And did I know, he trumped, that 100,000 painstakingly detailed drawings of those very bolts, hinges, and machines had recently been discovered in a Brooklyn warehouse? What began in horizontal grandeur, we rhapsodized, had transformed itself into the vertical splendor of these modern missiles of steel and glass shooting a thousand feet into the air. They capture the first orange light of sunrise, holding it red and rusty at dusk.

It was so easy to take it all for granted, nothing more than background noise, the necessary condition for modern life. But that would rob life of imagination, will, and perseverance - to consider every pioneering breakthrough predestined, every heroic act fated.

We walked on toward Brooklyn, our eyes fixed on the twin cathedral arches of the bridge's supporting towers, the humming intersections of cables, the bright blue sky. Barges and day liners passed beneath us, the East River roiling with riptides and diesel wakes, gulls winging and screaming, the sun glinting off every reflective surface with late August intensity.

Far out over the water, we turned once more to look back at the city. During our lifetime, lower Manhattan had become a great aggregate of green and gold glass, the crenelated stone castles of early 20th-century banks and insurance companies giving way to soaring, sharp-edged pinnacles of reflected light. Behind them, tallest of all, rose the Twin Towers: stolid, white, gigantic. We stood in mute admiration of the energy invested in that congestion of industrial will - the dreams, both electrifying and pedestrian, realized through the resolve of a handful of visionaries. Backlit by the west-moving sun, the most recognizable real estate in the world seemed nothing short of miraculous.

At day's end I walked my friend to his train beneath the World Trade Center, then crossed Liberty Street to peer up the rippled surface of the south tower, dazzling in the late afternoon light. Head bent back, I felt a sudden dizzying disorientation. Here was yet another bridge, one that vanished somewhere in the boundless reaches of the blue, the converging steel beams drawing me toward the heavens.

Prosaic in design perhaps, but heroic in intent and implication, in execution. It seemed for a moment that one might set foot upon that vertical span and head straight for the stars. I backed away slowly, eyes still riveted to ascending glass and steel, the buildings slowly resuming their place as beacons above a city of infinite energy and imagination, a city with a past as vital and compelling as its future, with room enough in its narrow, shadowed streets for every act and aspiration of humankind - a city of limitless possibility.

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