Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chapter 5 (The Secret Soul of the City)

(Image callously ripped off from James F.)

(First, a totally unrelated topic: In the last post, I suggested that #Occupy had disappeared from the news. It would seem that my report of its death was somewhat exaggerated.)

Not long ago I was asked to read some of my work at a local "coffee shop" type event. What I ended up choosing to read was a digressionary chapter of an unfinished project (other excerpts have been posted here once or twice before). Between you and me, I was clearly stealing from that chapter from Lalka I posted some time ago.*

Chapter 5

On my third night in Boulder I dreamed of New York.

For the first few years after stepping outside the Port Authority with Gilliam and taking in the north and south of Fifth Avenue in a prolonged wide-eyed sweep, I lived in constant amazement at my new home. Though I grew up on the rim of Providence and spent my truncated university days in Boston, neither town could measure up to The City. Even when I had lived there long enough to know my way around the streets and associate every intersection with its nearest subway station, my tendency to walk with my head tilted back and jaw hanging open frequently elicited sneers and rolled eyes from passersby who mistook me for a New England bumpkin on vacation.

For the newly arrived, it is often the case that the price of admission to a life waking, working, and sleeping in the hub of the human world spares one little means of purchasing the luxuries and perks for which the city is so renowned. As a lowly copy shop clerk I could barely afford my share of rent on our Manhattan toehold, let alone pay for theater tickets, cover charges, cab fare, designer threads, Apple gadgets, or tabs at two-drink minimum lounges. I lived on a tight budget, bringing my lunch to Kinko’s in a reusable bag, carrying my coffee in a thermos, and subsiding on canned soup in the two-bedroom Murray Hill apartment I shared with Gilliam and four strangers.

My home had a fine view of Lexington Avenue, infrequent roach sightings, and a furnace that only broke down once a month or so. Excepting Gilliam, I did not much care for my roommates – for reasons which anyone who has ever occupied a living space with four people with whom they shared nothing in common but an inability to afford their own place will appreciate. But for the most part, the apartment remained a peripheral concern. I spent as little time there as possible. When my shift ended in the late afternoon or early evening, I never went straight home, preferring to stay outside and wander the grid until I simply lacked the strength to walk any farther.

On its best days, the city was mystical. Intoxicating. During the spring I felt like Walt Whitman; I wanted to climb up on the upper deck of a tour bus and enumerate Manhattan’s wonders over a megaphone. The bridges, the Bowery; Broadway’s boisterous swagger and the supernova spectacle of Times Square. The stone cathedrals and stained glass saints; the lustrous obelisks of midtown, blinding in the afternoon sun, blazing to spite the worst of any winter. The drummers in the subways, singers at the crosswalks, the students and seekers smoking on stoops; old Cubans contemplating checkmates across stone tables, the brilliant and beautiful people at the museums exchanging confidentialities in whispered French and Cantonese. The parks, the piers, the Corinthian columns and cobblestone streets, the statues in the squares; the delirious rush of the midnight J train tearing through space over the livid churnings of the East River, and the Lower West Side looming above the trees at sunset, inverted and shuddering in the Onassis-Kennedy Reservoir…

On its worst days, New York was altogether nauseating in its appalling reality. It was a hundred-thousand madmen digging through the garbage, pleading for McDonald’s money, and howling in crowded subway cars about George W. Bush, the aliens, the FCC, and Babylon. It was doomed doomsday prophets, crackhead fistfights, rag-men sleeping on the sidewalks in the sleet. It was pigeon shit. It was piss on the stairwells, crusted condoms on park benches, charred metal spoons, and garbage – garbage everywhere. It was single mothers with deep lines in their faces dragging screaming children by the wrists, one in each hand; it was old men who knew they’d work until they died, and when they died, they’d die alone; it was the palpable weight of loneliness and exhaustion on the late train, and it was the periodic thump of recognition that your face is only one of eight million, and the other 7,999,999 pairs of ears around you have no time or interest for what your mouth might have to say to them.

None of this was new to Gilliam, who, unlike me, did not come to the city as a carpetbagger. Having grown up immersed in New York’s sensations, scenes, stenches, and idiosyncrasies, he barely seemed to notice them. His parents still lived on Roosevelt Island, but he never spoke to them. I never asked his reasons – and reasons he surely had – but it seemed most likely he wished to live as little beholden to them as possible.

After returning home from Boston, Gilliam subsided on a slew of temporary sales positions, often working seven days a week. He selected his jobs carefully, only taking ones that paid commission – preferably those that allowed him face-to-face time with his marks. Gilliam could sell an icemaker to an Eskimo, provided he had the chance to shake his hand and look him in the eye. With the money he pulled in, he could have easily had an apartment to himself, were it not for his plans. The bulk of his earnings went straight into savings and stocks, not to be touched until he had amassed enough to start his business – once he figured out what sort of business he intended to start. Despite making at least seven or eight times more money than me, the weekly budget on which Gilliam lived was as meager as my own.

He kept a close watch on events and trends within Manhattan’s cultural sphere, intending to know his way around The Scene once he had the cash and clout to gain admittance to it. More than anything else, he paid attention to events in the art world. Although modern art held little fascination for him (self-congratulatory rubbish, he called it, though never when anyone who mattered was around), Gilliam was keenly interested in the things with which modern art was associated: cosmopolitan multinational crowds with fat wallets, thick rolodexes, and empty heads; trust-funded, easily-impressed girls attending SVA and FIT; journalists, bloggers, bankers, trendspotters, and socialites, all tipsy, talkative, and accessible; and, most importantly, free booze. Since neither of us could regularly accommodate fifty-dollar drink tabs, we went to galleries instead of bars. Once a week or so, Gilliam would call me at work to tell me about an opening that evening in Dumbo, Chelsea, or the West Side, and I’d rush home after my after my shift to shower, change into one of my rotating sets of dress clothes, dab cologne behind my ears, and pick up a pack of Nat Shermans at the corner store, primarily for their value as a conversation starter.

The art was pleasant to look at, even if I usually didn’t understand it. If the bottom-shelf chardonnay and cans of Rolling Rock left anything to be desired, it certainly wasn’t a better price. Because it was all free, and since I felt so ill at ease in a building full of strangers who all seemed to know each other, I returned to the makeshift, intern-staffed bars at least four times an evening – however long it took me to feel as in my element as Gilliam, who scarcely needed a drop before he could approach an attractive or interesting stranger with a business card in his extended hand and wearing his I’ll give you the world grin to tell them who he was, what he planned to do, and how they could be a part of it. His story changed from night to night. I think he was waiting to hear himself tell the right one; the one that had the greatest likelihood of becoming real with the help of the person to whom it was addressed.

His successes were mixed. He got invited to a lot of parties, filled up his address book, and let a lot of sloshed professional women and grad students take him home, but never found the investor, collaborator, or untapped innovator he needed. For my part, I met a lot of new people, but nobody ever wanted to know what I was doing afterwards, and the phone numbers I handed out on napkins never got any calls. Still, there was never a shortage of brief, intimate conversations with strangers who were eager as I was to discuss the city, their work, and their aspirations over a cigarette – whose tips I usually replaced with a pinch of green herb.

It was on these nights that I sensed the wonder of the city most acutely. Exiting a gallery after sunset, lightheaded, high, tired from my day’s work, having lost sense of myself in the noise and jostlings of the crowd, and finding the city awash in its own light, I invariably found myself pausing at the curb and gazing out at the streets and up at the towers, contemplating where I was, what it was, and what it might all mean.

The hardest thing is knowing what to ask. The object stands before you, too massive to be apprehended within its own vicinity, but nonetheless solid and self-evident. But no less evident is the riddle – and it reaches an especial salience in the mind of the stoned and tipsy college dropout in his early twenties.


It is impossible to grasp New York in its byzantine entirety. Though you might take your first and last breaths in the Presbyterian Hospital between ninety intervening years; though you could master the grid, commit to memory all the significant names, dates, and places, follow the cyclical seasons of neighborhood decay and revitalization, ride every tour cruise, and tread every foot of sidewalk on either side of every street, at the vital core of any individual conception of the city rests a kernel of inscrutability that resists all reason’s attempts to crack.

What is the city? How was it created? And for what purpose?

Is it within the mortal mind’s capability to chart the lengths of every street, track the paths of every copper wire, know the heights, foundations, and interiors of every structure, plumb the depths of every sewer pipe and subway tunnel, and calculate the converging, colliding, and diverging paths of the tens of millions of human beings to walk its streets since the first bricks of Fort Amsterdam were laid in 1614? Could human intelligence appraise the efforts of desire, design, and will that transformed the bucolic island of the many hills into a veritable organism of amalgamized stone, machinery, and human masses?

I sometimes thought of Archibald and Aristotle. We are what we repeatedly do; it is with cities as it is with men, which are the very atoms of metropolis. The city’s nature can be understood by what it does: its identity rests upon its function. But what was that function? What could New York be said to do?

And I wondered why I should be at such pains to understand a thing erected by men; built by human hands and conceived by human minds – hands no stronger, minds no greater than our own. How could it be that a human creation could defy human understanding?

Sometimes I would loiter outside the gallery and nurse a cigarette, waiting for somebody to approach and ask for one. I’d light it for them and ask what they thought about the city, what it was, and what it meant. Most of the time they didn’t understand what I was asking. The ones who understood could never answer. Though I kept pressing them, and they kept mulling it over (or pretending to), their cigarettes were always finished before any appreciable progress could be made, and they never hung around for much longer afterwards. And I would end up going home and watching VH1 with my roommates, only to corral my thoughts.

One October evening, we left an opening at an art space in Dumbo – myself, Gilliam, and a gregarious Romanian photographer he had met inside and who was eager to show him her work back at her apartment in Queens. It had stopped drizzling. After breathing in the evaporated perspiration of two-hundred bodies for the last three hours, we all agreed we should take a walk, so as to savor both the evening and the seventeen glass of white wine we’d consumed between the three of us.

We found ourselves drawn westward, and soon stood at the rocks straddling the bank of the East River. Partitioned between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, a segment of Manhattan rose from the gloom, lit by innumerable yellow beads strung in rows across the massive, motionless forms of the Lower East Side. At the towers’ base, the double-tiered FDR Drive flowed with living light, passing with the same liquidity as the waves slapping against the stones at our feet. My companions’ conversation about David LaChapelle became small and distant as the tantalizing problem of the city’s being reexerted itself.

I asked myself the same questions, arrived at the same incomplete answers, and came no closer to a conclusion than I had on any of the last twenty, thirty, or fifty nights like this.

For the first time, I thought to consult Gilliam. I asked him: what is the city?

Gilliam said nothing. His fixed, laconic gaze toward the opposite bank told me he considered the question useless. The photographer answered for him: it was New York, she said, the greatest city in the world. When I pressed her for specifics, she only elaborated so far as adding that this was where it all happened and that there was nowhere else like it.

I asked Gilliam a different question: what made the city? If we couldn’t grasp the whole of its nature, could we at least understand the physics by which it assumed its form?

Of course, said Gilliam (not a little drunk): having, wanting, getting. The exchange of what one has for what one wants.

The five boroughs that are New York form the four-chambered heart through which the life of our world flows. It is the magnetic pole of means, and means attracts means. And so all things are drawn irresistibly toward the city.

This, Gilliam said with a grand gesture toward the rows of towers across the river, is where all the currents converge. It is the fulcrum of civilization; the citadel of humanity; the very fountainhead of capital. Why should the man in need to drink content himself with waiting for the well to fill or praying for the rain to fall when he might tap into the very wellspring with a little exertion?

But what makes this place the wellspring, I wanted to know.

The people who come here to search for it, Gilliam answered. Listen: a star is a star because it is massive. A star becomes massive by first being massive – by existing at the center.

The photographer remarked at the profundity in his choice of metaphor. Gilliam ignored her.

Human beings have needs that must be met if they intend to continue being human. The means to acquire the things to satisfy these deficiencies flow through the city like an underground vein pushing against the surface. By seeking means, we make the means, and make the city grow. It has always been this way, ever since we decided to stop being apes and start being people. There is no other alternative. If the heart stops pumping, the body must die.

It sounded so simple. I could not question or refute any of this – especially not when Gilliam answered with such assured conviction while I was at pains to even produce a question.

I asked Gilliam, for the first time, why he was so dead set on his grand plans. Why wasn’t it enough for him to work and be paid for it?

He thought about it. A train roared eastward on the Manhattan Bridge, and he waited until it passed to give his answer:

Because it’s what a man is supposed to do. A boy follows. A man leads. The architects of our world were people who refused to content themselves with just getting by. The city was built by men – men with ambition, who would rather provide for themselves than be provided for by others.

His face was lit up by the flash of the photographer’s camera. His focus broken, he shrugged and commented on the weather before sitting back down.

I considered what he said, and knew that Archibald and my father would have agreed with him. It was early yet, and I had tomorrow off. I resolved to spend the rest of the evening revising my résumé and searching job listings once I returned home and sobered up.

We parted ways soon afterward. Gilliam and the photographer headed for the F train with their hands in each others’ back pockets, while I walked crookedly toward the ACE station at Red Cross Plaza. At the entrance, a young vagrant with a southern accent asked me for a cigarette. I gave him the whole pack of Nat Shermans from of my pocket (there were probably twelve left) and waved off his thanks.

The platform on which I waited nearly thirty minutes for the uptown train was deserted, save for an old bum with bleeding gashes on his face who lay passed out against support beam, and a gorgeous girl about my age wearing a dress that matched the paint upon her cherry lips. She listened to a pair of earbuds and stared unflinchingly at the white tile wall across the track.

I paced and ruminated what Gilliam had said. It weighed up well enough, but something in it still seemed to ring hollow.

The city was built by human beings who had to find the means to meet their wants, and their efforts made the means by which other human beings could meet their needs. Ten, twenty, fifty million simple, and singleminded efforts toward an interminable gradient of individual necessity. Thus the current flowed, and the city accrued like sediment gathering at the mouth of a spring. New York stood, then, as the product of twenty generations of human endeavor. While its people lived through labor, the city piled up around them; turbid waves left in the wake of human life, remaining for the next generation to push through, coalescing, splitting, and mutually destroying one another. And thus New York was made, sustained, and transformed – though not through any deliberate intelligence or focused purpose.

At last, the train arrived. The girl in the red dress boarded a different car than me. The vagrant remained snoring against the rusted pillar. I got on the train and shared a car with six or seven inexpressive faces with eyes that only opened to check the station stops and lips that remained press together except to let a cough pass through.

The train rushed through the darkness at the city’s roots, and I realized that the city wasn’t the cause, and it wasn’t the end. It was only the side effect.

Twenty generations of human beings in the pursuit of their day-to-day interests had pushed and shoved each other across four centuries for the things their natures on each of the 147,000 days of those four hundred years, and the city was the imprint of their actions. How could the product of a hundred million different human efforts toward a hundred million different ends in a hundred million different directions be understood, except as incoherence?

And this was the heart of human existence: a mechanism built by an appetite with no aim, plan, or goal but to keep itself fed and sheltered for a time and live in such a way that life was free from want as could be managed. An indeliberately constructed labyrinth, continually rebuilt and expanded by the men who wandered it – mastered by the thing their fathers made!

It was raining when I emerged from the subway. Thirteen streets and three avenues stood between me and my apartment. I didn’t have the cash for a cab. Somewhere in Queens, Gilliam was dry, warm, and probably sharing a bed with his Romanian photographer, and I would have to hear all about it the next day.

While I waited at a crosswalk for the light to change, a Lexus swinging a right struck a puddle, drenching me from the waist down. I thought about how none of this would be necessary if I had a car of my own, and decided that moment that placing myself in a position to afford one must become a top priority.

The rain came down harder. I ducked into a bar to wait it out. After five minutes, the bartender noticed I wasn’t buying anything and told me to leave unless I planned on having a drink. The cheapest beer they had was six dollars, which I hadn’t the luxury of being able to part with. He pointed me toward the exit, assuring me of his sympathy – but rules were rules. No purchase, no shelter.

Home at last. I couldn’t get inside the room Gilliam and I shared because our other roommate – a postal clerk in his mid-thirties – was loudly copulating with the latest boy or girl he’d brought home from the Pyramid Club. In the other bedroom, our one female roommate yelled at the boyfriend on the other end of the phone about his reluctance to let her move in with him. Our remaining two roommates sat on the living room couch in the grip of some psychedelic drug or other and watched Mr. Ed reruns with the volume turned up to drown out the screams and grunts from behind either bedroom door.

Too much noise. I shivered it out in the kitchen with a cup of tea and can of tomato soup, and grudgingly washed the dishes my roommates left in the sink to pass the time, vowing that one way or another, I would be living somewhere by myself this time next year.

The last pinch of herb in my pocket barely amounted to a puff, which I exhaled through the open window. Our apartment was on the fourteenth floor – the window in the kitchen pointed north along Lexington, where the Chanin and Chrysler Buildings billowed upwards to eclipse the electrified sky. From the towers’ unseen foundations extended a glowing thread that gradually widened, quickened, and at last segmented into cars and cabs humming in the breeze as they passed below. The whole visible city seemed a baroque carven canyon through which flowed a miraculous clockwork river that radiated golden light.

Magnificent, I thought – and in the living room, Wilbur asked Mr. Ed if he thought they would ever understand women, and Mr. Ed answered: "Don't try. Just enjoy 'em."

And I decided, on the advice of a talking horse, that for all of her strangeness and ugliness, and for all the sense I couldn’t make of her, I loved New York and could never bring myself to leave her. It seemed just as rational as anything else in that place on this night.

A few months after that night, I gave my two weeks’ notice at Kinko’s when a respected international manufacturer hired me to fill an open position within its editorial department, where I would assist in the drafting and editing of its product manuals. I moved into an apartment of my own and bought a Volkswagen Beetle. My thoughts turned from the secret soul of the city to the operational particulars of motorized tie racks, shoe-shining machines, paper shredders, and electric toothbrushes, and how they might be most succinctly expressed to the masses of searchers and spenders too wrapped in their own business to sort their own ties, shine their own shoes, destroy their own documents, and exert their own arms to clean their own teeth. I stopped smoking herb and started smoking Marlboros; I stopped visiting galleries and started visiting bars. My relationship with New York settled down. It no longer confounded me, and it was only in dreams that the city appeared to me with the same bewildering beauty and strangeness I saw when I first arrived.

That night in Boulder I dreamed of the Chrysler Building in the rain.

* Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. - T.S. Eliot


  1. Sorta. Maybe. Hm.

    I started working on it in 2010. After getting about 60% of the way through, rewriting a couple of chapters, and not liking how it was shaping up, I realized I could maybe make it work if I changed all the characters. SO I REWROTE 90% OF IT.

    Right now it's in stasis. I'm definitely going to finish the thing, but not until I'm 100% certain of what it is and what it needs to be.

    Uh, the short answer to your question: not yet. But it'll get there someday.

  2. This is amazing. Visceral. I gotta give it another couple of reads and a good night's sleep to fully appreciate what I've just read.

    Life is crazy.