New York


The Rains of New York

New York rain is a rain of exile. Abundant, viscous and dense, it pours down tirelessly between the high cubes of cement into avenues plunged suddenly into the darkness of a well: seeking shelter in a cab that stops at a red light and starts again on a green, you suddenly feel caught in a trap, behind monotonous, fast-moving windshield wipers sweeping aside water that is constantly renewed. You are convinced you could drive like this for hours without escaping these square prisons or the cisterns through which you wade with no hope of a cistern or a real tree. The whitened skyscrapers loom in the gray mist like gigantic tombstones for a city of the dead, and seem to sway slightly on their foundations. At this hour, they are deserted Eight million men, the smell of steel and cement, the madness of builders, and yet the very height of solitude. "Even if I were to clasp all the people in the world against me it would protect me from nothing."

The reason perhaps is that New York is nothing without its sky. Naked and immense, stretched to the four corners of the horizon, it gives the city its glorious mornings and the grandeur of its evenings, when a flaming sunset sweeps down Eighth Avenue over the immense crowds driving past the shop windows, whose lights are turned on well before nightfall. There are also certain twilights along Riverside Drive, when you watch the parkway that leads uptown, with the Hudson below, its waters reddened by the setting sun; off and on, from the uninterrupted flow of gently, smoothly running cars, from time to time there suddenly rises a song that recalls the sound of breaking waves. Finally I think of other evenings, so gentle and so swift they break your heart, that cast a purple glow over the vast lawns of Central Park, seen from Harlem. Clouds of Black children are striking balls with wooden bats, shouting with joy; while elderly Americans, in checked shirts, sprawl on park benches, sucking molded ice creams on a stick with what energy remains to them; while squirrels burrow into the earth at their feet in search of unknown tidbits. In the park's trees, a jazz band of birds heralds the appearance of the first star above the Empire State building, while long-legged creatures stride along the paths against a backdrop of tall buildings, offering to the temporarily gentle sky their splendid looks and their loveless glance. But when this sky grows dull, or the daylight fades, then once again New York becomes the big city, prison by day and funeral pyre by night. A prodigious funeral pyre at midnight, as its millions of lighted windows amid immense stretches of blackened walls carry these swarming lights halfway up the sky, as if every evning a gigantic fire were burning over Manhattan, the island with three rivers, raising immense, smoldering carcasses still pierced with dots of flame.

I have my ideas about other cities but about New York only thesse powerful and fleeting emotions, a nostalgia that grows impatient, and moments of anguish. After so many months I still know nothing about New York, whether one moves about among madmen here or among the most reasonable people in the world; whether life is as easy as all America says, or whether it is as empty here as it sometimes seems; whether it is natural for ten people to be employed where one would be enough and you are served no faster; whether New Yorkers are liberals or conformists, modest souls or dead ones; whether it is admirable or unimportant that the garbage men wear well-fitting gloves to do their work; whether it serves any purpose that the circus in Madison Square Garden puts on ten simultaneous performances in four different rings, so that you are interested in all of them and can watch none of them; whether it is significant that the thousands of young people in the skating rink where I spent one evening, a kind of velodrome d'hiver bathed in reddish and dusty lights, as they turned endlessly on their roller skates in an infernal din of metal wheels and loud organ music, should look as serious and absorbed as if they were solving simultaneous equations; whether, finally, we should believe those who say that it is eccentric to want to be alone, or naively those who are surprised that no one ever asks for your identity card.

In short, I am out of my depth when I think of New York. I wrestle with the morning fruit juices, the national Scotch and soda and its relationship to romance, the girls in taxis and their secret, fleeting acts of love, the excessive luxury and bad taste reflected even in the stupefying neckties, the anti-Semitism and the love of animals-- this last extending from the gorillas in the Bronx Zoo to the protozoa in the Museum of Natural History--the funeral parlors where death and the dead are made up at top speed ("Die, and leave the rest to us"), the barber shops where you can get a shave at three in the morning, the temperature that swings from hot to cold in two hours, the subway that reminds you of Sing Sing prison, ads filled with clouds of smiles proclaiming from every wall that life is not tragic, cemeteries in flower beneath the gasworks, the beauty of the girls and the ugliness of the old men; the tens of thousands of musical-comedy generals and admirals stationed at the apartment entrances, some to whistle for green, red, and yellow taxis that look like beetles, others to open the door for you, and finally the ones who go up and down all over town like multicolored Cartesian drivers in elevators fifty stories high.

Yes, I am out of my depth. I am learning that there are cities, like certain women, who annoy you, overwhelm you, and lay bare your soul, and whose scorching contact, scandalous and delightful at the same time, clings to every pore of your body. This is how, for days on end, I walked around New York, my eyes filled with tears simply because the city air is filled with cinders, and half one's time is spend rubbing th eeyes or removing the minute speck of metal that the thousand New Jersey factories send into them as a joyful greeting gift, from across the Hudson. In the end, this is how New York affects me, like a foreign body in the eye, delicious and unbearable, evoking tears of emotion and all-consuming fury.

Perhaps this is what people call passion. All I can say is that I know what contrasting images mine feeds on. In the middle of the night sometimes, above the skyscrapers, across hundreds of high walls, the cry of a tugboat would meet my insomnia, reminding me that this desert of iron and cement was also an island. I would think of the sea then, and imagine myself on the shore of my own land. On other evenings, riding in the front of the Third Avenue El, as it greedily swallows the little red and blue lights it tears past at third story level, from time to time allowing itself to be slowly absorbed by half-dark stations, I watched the skyscrapers turning in our path. Leaving the abstract avenues of the center of town I would let myself ride on toward the gradually poorer neighborhoods, where there were fewer and fewer cars. I knew what awaited me, those nights on the Bowery. A few paces from the half-mile-long stretch of splendid bridal shops (where not one of the waxen mannequins was smiling) the forgotten men live, those who have let themselves drift into poverty in this city of bankers. It is the gloomiest part of town, where you never see a woman, where one man is every three is drunk, and where in a strange bar, apparently straight out of a Western, fat old actresses sing about ruined lives and a mother's love, stamping their feet to the rhythm and spasmodically shaking, to the bellowing from the bar, the parcels of shapeless flesh that age has covered them with. The drummer is an old woman too, and looks like a schreech owl, and some evenings you feel like you'd like to know her life-- at one of those rare moments when geography disappears and loneliness becomes a slightly confused truth.

At other times...but yes, of course, I loved the mornings and the evenings of New York. I loved New York, with that poerful love that sometimes leaves you full of uncertainties and hatred: sometimes one needs exile. And then the very smell of New York rain tracks you down in the heart of the most harmonious and familiar towns, to remind you there is at least one place of deliverance in the world, where you, togethr with a whole people and for as long as you want, can finally lose yourself forever.

1947-Albert Camus




I'm crazy about this city. Daylights slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it's not easy to tell which are the people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blase thing takes places: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It's the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it. When I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-and-copper halls of apartment buildings, I'm strong. Alone, yes, but top-notch and indestructible-- like the city in 1926 when all the wars are over and there will never be another one.

The people down there in the shadow are happy about that. At last, at last, everything's ahead. The smart ones say so and people listening to them and reading what they write down agree: Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. the things-nobody-could-help stuff. The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you, all, and everything's ahead at last. In halls and offices people are sitting around thinking future thoughts about projects and bridges and fast-clicking trains underneath. The A&P hires a colored clerk. Big-legged women with pink kitty tongues roll money into green tubes for later on; then they laugh and put their arms around each other. Regular people corner thieves inalleys for quick retribution and, if he is stupid and has robbed wrong, thieves corner him too. Hoodlums hand out goodies, do their best to stay interesting, and since they are being watched for excitement, they pay attention to their clothes and the carving out of insults. Nobody wants to be an emergency at Harlem Hospital but if the Negro surgeon is visiting, pride cuts down the pain. And although the hair of the first class of colored nurses was declared unseemly for the official Bellevue nurse's cap, there are thirty-five of them now-- all dedicated and superb in their profession.

Nobody says it's pretty here; nobody says it's easy either. What it is is decisive, and if you pay attention to the street plans, all laid out, the City can't hurt you. I haven't got any muscles, so I can't really be expected to defend myself. But I do know how to take precaution. Mostly it's making sure no one knows all there is to know about me. Second, I watch everything and everyone and try to figure out their plans, their reasonings, long before they do. You have to understand what it's like, taking on a big city: I'm exposed to all sorts of ignorance and criminality. Still, this is the only life for me.

I like the way the City makes people think they can do what they want and get away with it. I see them all over the place: wealthy whites, and plain ones too, pile into mansions decorated and redecorated by black women richer than they are, and both are pleased with the spectacle of the other. I've seen the eyes of black Jews, brimful of pity for everyone not themselves, graze the food stalls and the ankles of loose women, while a breeze stirs the white plumes on the helmets of the UNIA men. A colored man floats down out of the sky blowing a saxophone, and below him, in the space between two buildings, a girl talks earnestly to a man in a straw hat. He touches her lip to remove a bit of something there. Suddenly she is quiet. He tilts her chin up. they stand there. Her grip on her purse slackens and her neck makes a nice curve. The man puts his hand on the stone wall above her head. By the way his jaw moves and the turn of his head I know he has a golden tongue. The sun sneaks into the alley behind them. It makes a pretty picture on its way down.

Do what you please in the City, it is there to back and frame you no matter what you do. And what goes on on its blocks and lots and side streets is anything the strong can think of and teh weak will admire. All you have to do is heed the design-- the way its' laid out ofr you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow. I lived a long time, maybe too much, in my own mind. People say I should come out more. Mix. I agree that I close off in places, but if you have been left standing, as I have, while your partner overstays at another appointment, or promises to give you exclusive attention after supper, but is falling asleep just as you have begun to speak-- well, it can make you inhospitable if you aren't careful, the last thing I want to be. Hospitality is gold in this City; you have to be clever to figure out how to be welcoming and defensive at the same time. When to love something and when to quit. If you don't know how, you can end up out of control or controlled by some outside thing like that hard case last winter.

Toni Morrison--1992

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

I know what you're thinkin'; you're thinkin' I'm crazy. You think I give a hoot? You people look at my shopping bags, call me crazy 'cause I save this junk.

What should we call the ones who buy it?

It's my belief we all, at one time or another, secretly ask ourselves the question, "Am I crazy?"

In my case, the answer cam back: A resounding YES!

You're thinkin': How does a person know if they're crazy or not? Well, sometimes you don't know. Sometimes you can go through life suspecting you are but never really knowing for sure. Sometimes you know for sure "cause you got so many people tellin' you you're crazy that it's your word against everyone else's. Another sign is when you see life so clear sometimes you black out.

This is your typical visionary variety who has flashes of insight but can't get anyone to listen to 'em 'cause their insight make 'em sound so crazy!

In my case, the symptoms are subtle but unmistable to the trained eye.

For instance, here I am, standing at the corner of "Walk, don't Walk," waiting for these aliens from outer space to show up.

I call that crazy, don't you? If I were sane, I should be waiting for the light like everybody else.

They're late as usual. You'd think, as much as they know about time travel, they could be on time once in a while. I could kick myself. I told 'e,m I'd meet 'em on the corner of "Walk, don't Walk" 'round lunchtime. Do they even know what "lunch" means? I doubt it. And "'round." why did I say "'round'"? Why wasn't I more specific?

This is so typical of what I do. Now they're probably stuck somewhere in time, wondering what I meant by "'round lunchtime.'" And when they get here, they'll be dying to know what "lunchtime" means.

And when they find out it means going to Howard Johnson'g for fried clams, I wonder, will they be just a bit let down?

I dread having to explain tartar sauce.

This problem of time just points out how far apart we really are. See, our ideas about time and space are different from theirs. When we think of time, we tend to think of clock radios, coffee breaks, afternoon npas, leisure time, halftime activities, parole time, doing time, Minute Rice instant tea, mid-life crises, that time of the month, cocktail hour.

And if I should suddenly mention space-- aha! I bet most of you thought of your closets. But when they think of time and space, they really think of Time and Space.

They asked me once my thoughts on infinity and I told 'em with all I had to think about, infinity was not on my list of things to think about.

It could be time on an ego trip, for all I know.

After all, when you're pressed for time, infinity may as well not be there.

They said, to them, infinity is time-released time.

Frankly infinity doesn't affect me personally one way or another. You think too long about infinity, you could go stark raving mad.

But I don't ever want to sound negative about going crazy. I don't want to overromanticize it either, but frankly, goin' crazy was the best thing ever happened to me. I don't say it's for everybody; some people couldn't cope. But for me it came at a time when nothing else seemed to be working.

I got the kind of madness Socrates talked about, "A divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention."

I refuse to be intimidated by reality anymore. After all, what is reality anyway?

Nothin' but a collective hunch.

My space chums think reality was once a primitive method of crowd control that got out of hand.

In my view, it's absurdity dressed up in a three-piece business suit.

I made some studies, and reality is the leading cause of stress amongst those in touch with it. I can take it in small doses, but as a lifestyle I found it too confining. It was just too needful; it expected me to be there for it all the time, and with all I have to do-- I had to let something go.

Now since I put reality on a back burner, my days are jam-packed and fun-filled.

Like some days, I go hang out around Seventh Avenue; I love to do this old joke: I wait for some music-loving tourist from one of the hotels on Central Park to go up and ask someone, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" Then I run up and yell, "Practice!" The expression on people's faces is priceless. I never could've done stuff like that when I was in my right mind. I'd be worried people would think I was crazy. When I think of the fun I missed, I try not to be bitter.

See, the human mind is kind of like... a pinata. When it breaks open, there's a lot of surprises inside. Once you get the pinata perspsective, you see that losing your mind can be a peak experience. I was not always a bag lady, you know.

I used to be a designer and creative consultant. For big companies!

Who do you think thought up the color scheme for Howard Johnson's? At the time, nobody was using orange and aqua in the same room together.

With fried clams.

Laugh tracks: I gave TV sitcoms the idea for canned laughter. I got the idea, one day I heard voices and no one was there.

Who do you think had the idea to package panty hose in a plastic goose egg?

Written by Jane Wagner, Performed by Lili Tomlin, 1985

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