FOR MANY YEARS my morning began with a short walk. I’d cut a path across the kitchen and click on the teakettle. As the water boiled, I often looked out my back window at the street below. It wasn’t an exciting street. There were a few florists, a sushi bar, and above that, a karate studio. I liked it, my view. For fifteen years it was my weather channel (are people carrying umbrellas?), my newspaper (do people look sad?), my art gallery (the tiling of buildings some days looked cubist), and my clock. If people were hustling east in lines, it meant I was late to my desk. When I could hear the hup, hup, hup from the karate studio at the end of day, I knew it was time to stop working.
Last year my view went away. A forty-two-story skyscraper hotel sprang up, one brand-spanking-new floor a day, even under lockdown. For some reason, they stopped building before putting the final cladding on the exterior walls. One day it will be full of travelers. I know this from the steel-and-glass hotel, which shot up on the other side of my apartment last year; there will soon be a web of cubicle-like specimens of humanity on greenish display. Person before mirror straightening tie. Hotel cleaner flattening bed sheets. Or most likely, and depressingly, person in hotel sitting alone on bed and scrolling through phone.
What a strange world we lived in until quite recently—one where office workers tore through space and time to sit alone for hours in small clad boxes. Where we dug up the remnants of organic decay, refined it, lit it on fire to fuel jet engines, and endured near-space travel, all to spend one hour together, maybe two tops, while flicking impatiently through our phones. Or at least that was often my impression of business meetings. New York City hotels are in their own way the ruins of this time. They are cathedrals of loneliness.
So I am going to miss my backyard; even if it was a car park, it was outside. People behave differently outdoors than they do inside. They move with the assurance of animals rather than the tentative and abrupt behavior of animals in cages. They walk, wheel, and move with purpose; they dance around each other. You can’t move on a New York street without acknowledging the presence of others. Excusing yourself, pirouetting, bumping.
I have seen some miraculous things from my perch over all this dailiness. Once, at two a.m., I watched a small dark dog bevel arabesques into the untrammeled snow of the car park. Like he was typing a message to the heavens with his paws. I saw men park, get out of their cars, and pray. I watched a couple make love, but turned away at their intimacy. Too many people to count stopped to urinate. But sometimes people would just pause and look up, like some voice from above had called out to them. If I ever had an urban sublime, it was this car park, surrounded by Garment District buildings, observed by mourning doves. Often at dawn, especially in summer when the sun rises early, the walls would turn colors like a canyon at first light, and as a westerner I would feel a little more at home.
Such things are not always fungible, these markers of dailiness, of living in one place. Who else got bored of Instagram during lockdown, no matter how good the photos our friends posted of their discoveries in paying attention? A view is not a view unless it is intimate, and sharing a view with five thousand followers turns it into artifact, or worse, a commodity. This was the year I learned, among other things, that a certain privacy is crucial to real wonder. Partly because I often saw it. In spite of the numbers of cell phone zombies you see on the street in New York, peoples’ eyes often drift upward as they walk in Manhattan, especially if they’re alone.
Sometimes the most magical things defy depiction. For instance, I heard a story that the developers who first bought the lot behind my apartment building dug down and found an underground stream beneath the concrete and bedrock. They discovered they were going to have to dig down much deeper. So, the story went, the lot traded hands until a builder was found who was brave enough to do it. They then spent weeks pumping water in to coax the stream a different direction. I took many photos of this process—none of them came out well.
That’s okay, I suppose, because the meaning arrives through its metaphor: there’s so much around us we cannot see, and there’s also so much we can. The gap between the two is where wonder lives. Depicting that gap is nearly impossible, and yet we have to try. It’s how novels are written, how great vistas live in representation in museums all over the world. We also have to save some for ourselves. More and more, I also think this is where sanity lives. Living in a time of an erasing horizon, I’ve found my eyes still go upward, reflexively. The way when you enter a church, your eyes are trained to peer down its nave at the cross.
Beautifully expressed. Such personal reflections, these vignettes of everyday life are precious. Thank you for sharing them.
Thank you. To live and see in that “in between”, in that tension, in that liminal space is my task for the rest of my life. And I think, like you, to be grateful and perhaps mostly gentle.
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