Afoot in New York City 

April, 1999  

 In the Metropolitan Museum of New York, there is a collection of pieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany. I adore the museum (who wouldn’t?) and it is the only place I’ve managed to visit on each of my trips to the city. It calls and lures and insists. I had not planned to go on my March visit-I wanted to see other things, other places, and yet, when the bus stopped to collect new passengers, I found myself dashing off the bus into a pouring rain, unable to pass it by. 

And of course there are wonders to behold, but my favorite is the stained glass by Tiffany. The first time I saw it, coming around a corner into the open courtyard in which it is hung, it snared me completely. No picture can do it justice. No description could ever equal the experience of seeing it glowing in that quiet spot, a masterpiece of color and light. It fills me with that exquisite sense of wonder that good art evokes-a feeling of dazzlement and happiness and astonishment. I stand there and breathe it in, and my eyes rest and wander from place to place, drunk on the colors. And I always think the same thing: this is only little pieces of glass. Ordinary glass. How incredible that such a wonder should be wrought from something so common! 

Next to it, all other stained glass seems to be only an imitation. Oh, some of it is beautiful, and any bit of stained glass offers a kind of magic when the early morning sun shines through it. But none of it captures the sheer breathless wizardry of that Tiffany view of a valley. 

People seem to love or hate New York City, but to me it’s like that Tiffany window–other cities pale in comparison. And it’s nearly as hard to write anything original about the city as it is to describe the difference between a very fine piece of stained glass in the local cathedral and a Tiffany. But because it’s a place I think everyone should visit at some point, I’ll do my best. 

The pleasure of New York lies in two things. The first is that it boasts a unique alchemy, a kind of magic mirror for dreamers: it will deliver whatever you expect to find. And because of this, it gains its second benefit–the people; people born there and people who move there, and people who visit there. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there are so many visual pleasures to be found. That gorgeous, glittering skyline. Central Park. Rivers of yellow taxis, pouring down the narrow canyons. Shop windows filled with anything you could want, the sidewalks and buses packed with every kind of human who exists in all the world. 

As long as I can remember, I wanted to go to New York. But I was not interested in the Glittering White Way, or the plethora of museums, or in the wildly expensive shops on Fifth Avenue. I didn’t care about the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island or Central Park. To me New York meant one thing only: the heart of the entire publishing world. I wanted to walk down those streets and see the names of the famous publishing houses–Harper and Row, Random House and Redbook. I wanted see the buildings to which all my mail, all my hopes and dreams of publishing had flown.  

I wanted to see the mail slots through which my unsolicited manuscripts had slid. I wanted to see brownstones, but only because famous writers had lived in them. And although a kindly uncle once offered to fly me there for a graduation present, I refused. I had made up my mind that I would only go to Manhattan if I could go there as a published writer. 

It took ten long years after my uncle made his offer, but I did finally make the trip on my own terms. I paid my way with writing money. I flew in with a writer friend for a writing conference, and we came into LaGuardia at night. Lights glittered over the rivers, and on the tall buildings of the island of Manhattan as the plane circled, and there was such a breathlessness and excitement in my throat that I nearly wept with it. It looked exactly as I’d imagined. 

It will look exactly as you imagine, too–because of that magic mirror effect. The effect is doubled for dreamers, I think. All kinds of dreamers. For anyone in the arts, New York is the acknowledged center of everything that matters (well, okay, there are a few exceptions), and to be there, to succeed there, means to conquer the world. But other dreamers find what they need there, too. It is a city that offers sanctuary to people who dream of simply being accepted as they are, people who didn’t fit in their hometowns, those who marched so out of step that home was a misery, not a comfort. 

 It is a place for dreamers from other lands, too. New York City has been and emphatically remains a city of dreams for millions and millions of immigrants from all over the world. Current immigrants, fresh from far away places, and a heavy percentage of all of our ancestors. Chances are very good you had at least one ancestor pass through that city of dreams, and their walk through those streets still runs in your genetic code, in your blood, somewhere. 

Immigrant culture gives the city both its special exuberance and taste of excitement, and some of its dark side. Everywhere are West Indians and East Indians and American Indians. Middle Easterners. Eastern Europeans. South Americans and North Americans. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tahitian. On every comer is another ethnic restaurant. On the buses, the accents and languages flow and rise and mingle in a distinct and heady stew. Languages I’ve never heard and could never identify. Languages so wildly different from each other they might as well be bird calls. Beautiful and lyrical, guttural and harsh, singing words and grunting words, and all of them an entire, whole, complete language unto themselves. It’s humbling. It’s also exhilarating to be reminded that we are a nation built entirely on immigration, and our collective cultures is what gives us our special flavor, as well as our particular problems, and nowhere is that more evident than in New York. 

Perhaps because I’d just finished a book regarding a problem of immigration in the Southwest, and the tangle of immigration law was so fresh in my mind, I particularly noticed new immigrants on this visit. A handsome man who’d written little songs to familiar tunes to entertain tourists mile they waited in line to board the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, making fun of all the dire warnings given to tourists-don’t look up or they’ll know you’re not from around here; keep your pocketbook safe, worry about the crime–and turned them on their heads. I saw him again later at Times Square, with a different song. The young family on the bus, speaking an eastern European language I could not place.

But not only immigrants caught my attention. New Yorkers have such a reputation for rudeness, but everywhere we went, we met with extraordinary friendliness. The bus drivers who discussed among themselves the best route for us to take, the clerk at the restaurant who took us outside to show us the entry to the subway-“so much faster than the bus!”; the museum guard who told me about her writing. Everywhere, I fell into conversation-in line for tickets to half priced theater tickets, I found myself in a long discussion with woman behind me and the couple behind her. The woman ended up being a travel writer, and the couple behind her, natives of the city more than willing to give their view of the best of their town. I think of the bus driver who kept up a cheerful running commentary urging the young to be polite and give up seats to the elderly, who made everyone on the bus chuckle more than once. 

All those people make a great city. 

Go, at least once. Just to look into the magic mirror and see what you see. To experience the heart of our immigrant culture. To see what happens when a billion bits and pieces come together to form a city that’s a work of art. To see yourself in a whole new way-maybe even dream a new dream. Who knows?

Till next time….. 



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