New York City is a hard town to parse. It thrilled Whitman to walk its waterfront, the path around the old city reservoir, the raucous nightlife at the taverns, especially Pfaff’s, a beer cellar for the hipsters of the 1850s. The Brooklyn ferry, where some of his best visions were born, was a floating laboratory for observing humanity. All that pulsed with life and told him the New World had long replaced Europe as the center of modernity. He thrived on being the silent, anonymous observer, the solitary singer of the dark streets. He was lonely, but he was also curious, profoundly eager to expand himself to his limits in this wonderland of brown brick, blackened wharves, slums, and factory districts. He admired, he says in “Song of Myself,” “the butcher boy’s shuffle and breakdown,” the muscular black driver on his dray pulled by powerful horses, the scum of the earth, the dandies, the roving eyes of shy homosexuals like his lover Peter Doyle, a tram conductor, with whom he allowed himself the luxury of a photograph together on a kind of love seat. Posed, surely, but real enough, and full of amorous but guarded energy. But like everything else that came his way, it was often at the urging of his imagination, his desire to be part of some greatness he couldn’t grasp with his own hands. Take the famous butterfly that perched on his index finger in another photo. It turns out to have been nothing but wire and colored paper, a fake. He admires it with his eyes crinkled under great bushy eyebrows, maybe the first real hustler of the city, an advertising man who knew how to use symbols to promote his own brand.
A more fastidious and cautious admirer of the city was Henry James, who returned to America after some forty years of sipping tea with the dowagers in their great townhouses in London. Like his character John Winterbourne, in Daisy Miller, he was perhaps too fussy and formal after long years in the Old World to loosen up and figure out how to be an “American” again. He depicts Winterbourne as a kind of prototype of J. Alfred Prufrock, too refined, too shy, too morose to throw his arms around a girl named Daisy and make love to her. Like so many other of James’ men, he has a failure of nerve at the crucial moment, the same failure that Tiresias says he also felt before the "hyacinth girl" in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” thus ending his chance to become a fulfilled man. The turn of the century marked a prolific set of portraits of men who had lost the wilderness in their blood; whatever became of the frontier, it had moved west and left behind shadowy, introverted intellectuals more comfortable measuring out their lives with coffee spoons than elbowing their way to the front of the line.
But in “The Jolly Corner,” published in 1908, James tries to imagine what it would be like to come home from Europe after thirty years and take up the raw commerce and aggression of the New York businessman. The result is a terrible failure that leaves his character, Spencer Brydon, collapsed in fear in the lap of a kindly spinster, Miss Staverton, who had warned him that the ghost he tried to corner in his apartment building was too disfigured and bestial to be confronted. Indeed, that ghost was the man Spencer would have become had he stayed – tough, profoundly masculine and crude, but the stuff of America in every respect. When he sees his other self in the half darkness, he faints and comes to smelling Miss Staverton’s perfumed hands and her consoling whimpers. James knew that whatever New York might be, it was a shocking departure from the culture and civility of London and Geneva, where money was not the object of living, but rather the fuel that drove manners to their ultimate pitch of perfection.
In James’ The America Scene (1907), the notes and journals of his trek through America in 1904-05, the question he asks himself as he rambles around in the immigrant neighborhoods of Manhattan is, what is America making in all this hurly-burly of the races, the hybridizing of Africans and Asians, Irish and Polish and Arabs, and all the rest. Every few blocks he hears a new language, and moves on. He had never witnessed so much genetic chaos in his life, and fretted that the figure evolving might well be something so strange and coarse, that western civilization would be left far behind by this hodge-podge of bloods. Time magazine published an issue in the fall of 1993 on “The New Face of America: How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society,” with a composite photo of a young attractive woman showing Asian eyes, an African nose, Latina cheeks, etc. The attitude expressed by this photo-rhetoric is that the result will be good, thank you very much, Henry James. Nothing to be afraid of. And it was all happening in the great pressure cooker of New York.
I had all these sources swirling around in my mind as I walked the streets of the city just a few days ago, with a Swedish couple who had come over to be with us and to celebrate our wives’ birthdays. It was a first time for the Swedes, but I had banged around the city ever since I was a teenager. My wife had been to the city on and off over the years, but never really got to know it well. I had never “made it” here, as the old song has it. I had been an office clerk, a translator of French correspondence for a dis-barred lawyer I worked for a few months, a rep in a plumbing supply house near Cooper Union, jobs that paid me fifty a week, just enough to rent a room in a tenement and to eat my meals at delis in the Village. I was coming back to see the same lumpy streets and traffic jams I had known almost fifty years before. My youth was gone, my eagerness dissipated, my yearnings all played out, so who was I as I dodged and jostled my way through the crowds, and darted across streets?
I suppose I was still the same man at heart, anxious to discover something of myself in this hard town. But all I really saw was a ferocious energy that had lost some of its amplitude and had narrowed down much more to the quest for money. The charm of the older New York was swept away in the crush to modernize, to rebuild, to sheathe the past in indestructible veneers of glass and aluminum, to keep the rents climbing to new heights. There were fewer dark alleys, fewer brownstones still standing in mid-town. The crowds were multiracial and from every corner of the world, but what I mainly saw were young women’s faces with down-turned mouths, eyes narrowed as they hurried along on new high heels, clutching purses, looking worried, even frenzied as they battled the roar of the traffic and the onslaught of neon signs and screeching music, the drafts of cold air rushing out of restaurant doors. No one had time to talk or to idle along.
Everyone was in a frantic hurry to get back to work, or to run errands during lunch hour. Here and there men smoked a few yards from a doorway to an office tower; a waiter might linger at the brass rail outside before new customers came in. The laughter I heard was from workers unloading Fed-Ex trucks in the street, or wheeling carts loaded with office supplies, computers, all the stuff needed to keep the city racing toward some elusive goal. The blue suits flew by me, the high heels clicked rhythmically, the messengers sped by on bikes, and the cops stood around trying to control the flood of taxis jockeying to beat a light or swap a lane. It was all a great blur of contradictions, a waterfall of data sloshing into my ears and eyes, a crushing weight of irrelevant sounds and strategies for getting around anything slower than the panic of sweating, hurtling human beings. And almost everyone carried a cell phone into which they were talking loudly and holding a paper mug of Starbucks’ coffee. Nothing else mattered but the deal in progress and the coffee to spike the heart into a dizzying overdrive.
After three days of battle, I was worn out. I could no longer keep up with the pace on the streets. I had eaten fairly well, but the prices were outrageous. The World Trade Center museum charged thirty dollars for admission (eighteen for seniors); the Guggenheim wanted another thirty, and when we paid it, we were given a soulless collection of stenciled dates hung on the walls of Frank Lloyd Wright’s concentric ramps , with hardly anything else with which to bathe the eyes and float the brain away. The Impressionist paintings seemed so far from here, a moment of fantasy concocted in a time buried under miles of granite. Crowds milled and shoved, guards eyed your every movement, checking where your feet were placed as you gazed at a few boxes of On Kawara’s New York Times pages. I kept thinking I am in a desert of luxurious emptiness, a vast paradise of false hopes. I was a wanderer in an illusory landscape in which nothing sheltered or comforted me. And the women on the streets were not happy; they frowned, they sweated, they glowered if stared at too long; they were running, not walking; they were rushing to some appointment with time and space, but not meaning. The men loped and sauntered and generally found all this mayhem tolerable. But the old folks suffered and the kids were dragged and bullied into staying in line.
New York had emerged all right; it had gathered up the races and cultures of the world and sent them hurtling down sidewalks that felt more like steep ramps descending into the unknown. We were all running, dashing sideways, leaping ahead of someone else, elbowing when necessary, with the sound of terror and wailing all around us as we entered into the dismal future of American capitalism, now the world’s capitalism. Differences of blood and tradition didn’t matter here; everyone was equal before the awful specter of perfect freedom, the right to choose among endless, slightly varying objects of desire in all the widows, but nothing that promised to quench our spiritual and moral thirst for meaning. We were bodies, consumers, drudges and peons, high heels and wing tips, suits and dresses, stockinged legs and trousered legs, all hurrying through the endless mazework of the city, looking for something, worried about the time, the next pay check, the diminishing power to purchase what we didn’t need but had to have