Letters From the Editor
An hour then seems short. But you have this down coat. It was designed for arctic expeditions; there’s even a mesh pocket inside the chest where alpinists carry their water bottles so they don’t freeze while they’re climbing. It has a hood meant to accommodate helmets, and since your head is already enormous, your total height is increased by four inches. And you’ve worn this coat to the gym, because then you only need to wear a t-shirt and sweatpants – the point is, the coat is heavy enough to keep you warm when it’s 20 degrees outside. The snow stopped an hour ago. The air’s silent and freezing. It hurts your head.
You stop. North 6th and Havemeyer. That worm, the one boring through your head, is gone. Frozen dead.
You decide to drop your sneakers off at the apartment and keep walking. What’s to lose? Your street’s busy with commuters and the night crowd, but two blocks away, in the shipping district, where no one even parks let alone walks, it’s silent again and deserted. And from there it’s only three blocks to the East River.
This was the challenge. I get to the river, walk down to the shore. I’m standing by the water in the cold, wearing sweat pants, duck boots, and a jacket large enough to smuggle children. And I stayed there, in one place, for 20 minutes, happier than I’ve been in a long while, staring at Manhattan in the dark, from the lower east side to Spanish Harlem.
You undoubtedly have friends who claim when they go to museums they like to only look at one painting, and they sit there for an hour, absorbing. Right. Anyway, maybe you’ve said this too, but we all know that that hour’s no longer than six and a half minutes, but it sure sounds good when you’re trying to party-chat about your deep personal relationship with Franz Kline.
But I actually did stay for 20 minutes. I checked my watch.
(I’ve been known to say I’ve stared at a Kline painting for an hour straight; six and a half minutes is probably a stretch too.)
But the thought went, I wonder if I can get this right. Write it down. I wonder if I can describe this.
So you’re on the eastern shore of a wide, flat river in the dark. The sun set a little while ago. It’s freezing outside, so cold your knees hurt. No sand, just detritus around your feet – cans, junk – and small boulders. On either side of you are 2-acre-sized lots crammed with weeds, concrete, scrap metal, dumped pylons, abandoned huts made of sheet metal where kids live in the summer. The only sound is the water, then traffic on the FDR. Occasionally a truck cooks quickly by in the background.
And from where you’re standing, when you’re looking straight out, it’s only 1500 feet across the choppy water before the mountains of buildings rise up from the water, short buildings downtown, spikes around 14th Street, gradually taller then falling again, a million twinkling lights, two million, from one end of the horizon to the other, like a far-off range of trees on fire, every building two-thirds lit in the windows, a third blacked out, with a slight orange shadow around the peak, the Empire State Building on the left done up in red pants with a white top, and then a flat plum sky that whisks to a husky navy blue, then black. Immense. Stunning. A few stars. A thin moon to the south. It’s a jaw-drop, flat and glistening in the cold, shimmering like a mirage.
That’s a long paragraph. I could also say: Stick your head in a freezer; picture the Miramax titles reel. Done.
Anyway, this is one of the reasons I live in Brooklyn. One of the reasons I love the cold. I was 18 in central Maine again, late at night rewinding the beginning scenes of Manhattan where Woody Allen narrates his novel’s opening chapter over a montage of city vistas, caught in black and white by Gordon Willis. At the end there’s a shot of fireworks blasting over Yankee Stadium (or is it Shea?), and if you look close, there’s a train scrolling by along the bottom. That was tonight, the traffic on the FDR, the light bulbs in the skyscrapers. After three apartments in four years spaced over two boroughs, including Manhattan, I’ve never counted myself a New Yorker, and I don’t plan on dying here, the only real way to earn the title. (I had lunch with a friend today who’s only lived here for eight months and already he knows it’s his city for life; that’s not me.) So maybe that’s why the view matters so much to me – it’s my view, where she’s beautiful, close but across the water. It’s a view you can’t find in the city. And maybe that explains one of Manhattan’s oldest problems, never being able to see itself despite its constant self-awareness.
You walk home, nerves repaired, knees popping. All you’ve got is food on the brain. You feel good. In five minutes you’ll be surrounded by whiskey and cheese, and everything seems to be OK.