Native sonship

Traveling back home on the Sunday bus, we think what a shame it is that we do not get to New York more often. City of cities - we have lost our adeptness with you. It is an embarrassment, and something of a betrayal, for a citizen of the East not to be quite able to manage New York. The city is supposed to be, in some sense, everyone's idea of home. We are all, in our notions of public self, streetwise. We are all the man in the street. And what streets are more quintessentially metropolitan than these? Set us down anywhere in Manhattan, and we should be able instantly to lose ourselves on the sidewalk, hurrying to work, strolling about after lunch, choosing which block to descend, homing. Yet now, on this January Sunday, just hours out of the city, we sense, emerging within us , that most common of American outlanders, the person who lives in a constant state of having-last-been-to-New-York-about-five-years-ago. It was all so familiar, the city; but we took so many wrong turns.

The most remarkable thing we saw in New York was a white subway. It pulled into the shuttle station at Grand Central, its whiteness dull but perfect; and, while the crowd did what any New York crowd would do - pushed inside without a glance or gesture, as if nothing could be more ordinary - we thrilled for a moment, wondering, as Ishmael wondered at the white whale. Was this a sign? A warning? A social experiment? A dare flung to the graffiti artists? Or was it the ultimate graffito itself, some bold urchin's monolith? We got off at Times Square and, from the rising escalator, gazed after the train as it disappeared behind the descending angle of the wall.

The graffiti of the subways, for all the boastfulness of signature, fascinate and repel us because of their anonymity, their mystery. We can scarcely imagine the vandals who embody these acts. And the graffiti have begun to leak out. Here and there they creep up out of the subway stations along the walls of stairways. Or they appear, inexplicably, in splashes on buildings - little eruptions of that interior life.

Perhaps the subway has come to serve the city as a kind of garish dream world , where the torrential colors and surreal faces, vivid and silent, arouse our lurking fears and desires. The dread of violence is there, and all the improbable fantasies.

''Beyond the Wild Wood comes the Wide World,'' says Rat to Mole in The Wind in the Willows. ''And that's something that doesn't matter, either to you or me. I've never been there, and I'm never going, nor you either, if you've got any sense at all. Don't ever refer to it again, please.''

In New York, so wide and worldly, no such reassuring injunction is possible. This country of adjoining neighborhoods obliterates all sense of some out-there beyond the native safehold. New York is out there.

Maybe it is this quality, of being all-encompassing but somehow alien, that imposes on the people here a curious opaqueness. They stream at us, these people; and each one, as we seize him in a momentary glance, obviously belongs here. But the glance fails to connect. It is not merely that these people are strangers; we fail even to place any of our countrymen, whose individuality both asserts itself and is withheld.

Along the passes and crossways, bag people stand like sentinels, mute or muttering as we approach. Across the street, two high school girls lean in a doorway, smartly made up, talking to each other, wearing the earphones of hidden radios. In a coffee shop, a man at the takeout counter orders his coffee entirely unadorned, adding emphatically, as if he doubted being understood, ''No milk, no sugar, no top, no bag.''

Life may be lived in the open here, in a way that would seem unthinkable to rural people. There is the grandmother who sits on a bench in the little triangle of pavement, among the men reading newspapers or resting their dogs. The grandmother coos and chats at the baby in the stroller as the men commune with their pets or the news - all of them surrounded by rushing traffic.

People in their apartments, we're told, collect ornate chunks of building facades, bits of colored tile from the subway, and seats from dismantled sports arenas. There is a passion for New York curios, shards of ''found'' New York, as if the citizens, by filling their homes with such relics, hope to domesticate the city - retrieve it: as if they might coax or summon from these fragments a visceral sense of the whole.

The thought of all this decorative clutter, straining impossibly toward wholeness, seems odd now on the bus, in the country, traveling through the seamless terrain. That indecipherable subway, dead white on the outside and sullen motley within, lurching in blackness under the streets, would be utterly out of place here among the deserted meadows.

For an innocent moment, we think of that singular fellow, Mole, who ''saw clearly that he was an animal of tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden plot.'' We envy Mole his sense of place.

Are we a native of the country, then, or the city? In our mind, we see the city's people as they steam along the streets, then, from the window of the bus, we see one of the country's street people: a black man walking the road alone. A solitary traveler in the empty landscape. It is getting cold outside. And we cannot help but remember how this morning, Sunday, similarly alone, we made our way to the bus station in New York. It was chilly on the sidewalk, and to gather some warmth we walked over the grating where gusts of steam rose from the subway.

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