What life lies there
It is deep summer, and my eyes are closed against the sun. A cicada sounds the heat, and is answered, crescendo for shrill crescendo, from a century-old oak. A blue jay makes raucous remarks about my right to the backyard, spreading news about my intrusion to a cardinal in an elderly apple tree next door. I hear a mail slot clank, a screen door slam, a sprinkler start up so enthusiastically I can almost see the silver spirals hit the sky, and the distant drone of a power mower seems like part of someone else's dream.
There is nothing unusual about this symphony for a small American backyard, except that my backyard is in New York City, buried in garish layers of myth and hype.
When my older son started college in Michigan last year, his dorm buddies there only knew about two kinds of New Yorkers: the rich and powerful and the poor and threatening. He was very obviously not rich and powerful, so at first they figured he had to be a sort of hood. When they discovered that he worked all summer and was neither hustler nor thug, but was just like them, they were very surprised.
When an Ohio family visiting New York for a nuclear disarmament rally stopped by with one of my son's Michigan acquaintances, they too were surprised to find modest houses on tree-lined streets in Queens, and a style of furnishings familiar to academic families all over the nation: garage sale eclectic.
My New York is unknown and unguessed-at by people as close as Westchester County and as far away as Oregon. The media have spawned a myth that has made strangers of us all, presenting the nation with a narrow, larger-than-life island of skyscrapers whose stony streets are thronged with beautiful and successful people protected by hordes of police from hordes of criminals.
The United States hears the sounds of the city only as the media choose to amplify them: blaring music, hysterical sirens, mugging victims' after-the-fact screams. The media's New Yorkers have to plug music into their ears to protect themselves from the throb of jackhammers and the seismic rumble of subways.
But halfway between the homogenized suburbs and the high-powered internationalism of the city, there is an unsung middle American heartland where everybody knows the difference between a robin's song and a starling's croak, and where the cries of children in tiny plastic pools are interrupted only by the bell of the ice cream truck on summer afternoons. This New York is the invisible umbilicus of the metropolis, connecting gossipy little Cheever-towns, encased in protective rings of commuter trains, to the dazzling Day-Glo Manhattan of Discomania so dear to Hollywood tastemakers.
My New York is a scattering of individualized neighborhoods patrolled by civic associations and PTA mothers, where people talk to each other whenever they have to wait in lines, where they exchange coupons or comments on the local examples of the decline and fall of civilization, like the closing of a convenient food store or the opening of an off track betting outlet.
There are hand-lettered announcement cards all over the supermarket bulletin boards: garage sale, comic books exchanged, cars fixed, dog lost, cat found - nothing you couldn't find in Ashtabula. But while we know about Ashtabula, Ashtabula doesn't know about us.
The people who swarm into the local garden center on weekends to buzz the new shipment of salvia and impatiens never show up on nationwide TV. They are of colors and cultures as rich and varied as the blooms they hover over together, but they are not the stuff myth is made of. They are the stuff the city is made of, and it is much more than their own little gardens that they help to keep green.
In New York, you can tour areas burned out or built up, and sample the newest , oldest, best, and worst of everything. You can eat your heart out in Bloomingdale's and eat moo shu pork in Chinatown; you can gape in the Village, discover Yorkville, and shop for bargains on the Lower East Side; you can visit a museum devoted entirely to American Indians or to broadcasting, see a preview of the latest three-D movie or a festival of silents, dance on a roof or under the ground, walk over derelicts asleep in doorways, mingle with millionaires at the opera. But you still haven't seen my New York.
You can watch films about it, read about it, fly over it, sail around it and never discover where invisible New Yorkers hear crickets by night and mockingbirds sing out in the perfect stillness before the dawn.