When something new and Dynamic wants to come into the world it often looks like hell, but it can get born in New York. It can happen. It seems like it could happen anywhere but that's not so. There has to be a certain kind of people who can look at it and say 'Hey, wait a second! That's good!' without having to look over their shoulder to see if somebody else is saying the same thing. That's rare. This is one of the few places in the world where people don't ask whether something's been approved somewhere else.
That, Phaedrus thought, is how the Metaphysics of Quality explains the incredible contrasts of the best and the worst one sees here. Both exist here in such terrific intensity because New York's never been committed to any preservation of its static patterns. It's always ready to change. Whether you are or not. That is what creates its horror and that is what creates its power. Its strength is its looseness. It's the freedom to be so awful that gives it the freedom to be so good.
And so things keep happening here all the time that have this Dynamic sparkle that saves it all. In the midst of everything that's wrong, it sparkles.
Like the kids. You don't see them but they're here, growing like mushrooms in secret places. Once Phaedrus went to a museum on a weekday morning and there were hundreds of them pointing at all the minerals and dinosaurs and grabbing each other's arms and holding hands, laughing and watching their teacher from time to time to see if everything was all right. Then suddenly they all vanished and it was as though they had never been there.
What you see in New York depends on your static patterns, What makes the city Dynamic is the way it always busts up whatever those patterns are. This morning, in the restaurant, this black, jet-black thug-like guy with a dirty wool cap pulled over his head comes in. Dirty blue satin sports jacket, Reebok shoes, also dirty. Orders a coffee which they have to serve him because it's the law and then what does he do? Does he pull out a gun? No. Guess again. He pulls out a New York Times. He starts reading. It's the book review section. He's some kind of an intellectual. This is New York.
Wham! You're always seeing something you're not set up to see. It's not been all bad, this rich-poor contrast. When you pass a lot of static laws to cut out the worst, the best goes with it, the sparkle disappears and what's left is just a lot of suburban blandness. It's been a psychological fuel that's jet-propelled a lot of people into doing things they might have been too lazy to do otherwise. If everybody here had the same income, same clothes, same background, same opportunities, the whole city would go dead. It's this physical proximity and incredible social gulf that gives this place such power. The city brings everyone up a notch. Or down ten notches. Or up a hundred notches. It sorts them out. It's always been that way, millions of rich and poor all mixed together, skyscrapers and parks, diamond tiaras in the windows and drunken vomit on the street. It really shocks you and motivates you. The Devil is taking the hindmost right before your eyes! And just beyond the beggars go the frontmost, chauffeur-assisted, into their stretch limousines. Yeow!! Keep moving! Don't slow down!
You see the people who smile at you and are ready to cheat you. Sometimes you miss the ones who scowl at you but secretly support you in every way they can.
When you talk to them they treat you with a ten-foot pole, but at the other end of it you sense this guarded affection. They're just survivors whose rough edges are all worn smooth. They know how this celebrity of a city works.
It was getting darker now. And colder too. An edge of depression was approaching. Sooner or later it always appeared. The adrenalin was about normal now and still dropping. His walking had slowed down.
Phaedrus reached what he recognized was the edge of Central Park. It was windier here. From the northwest. That's what was bringing all this cold weather. The trees were dark now and billowing heavily in the wind. They still had their leaves, probably because it was nearer the ocean here and warmer than back at Troy and Kingston.
As he walked along he saw the park still kept its quiet, genteel look despite everything.
Of all the monuments the Victorians left to the city, this masterpiece of Olmstead and Vaux's was the greatest, he thought. If money and power and vanity were all they were interested in, why was this place here?
He wondered what the Victorians would think about it now. The skyscrapers all around it would astonish them. They would like the way the trees have grown so big. He had an old Currier and Ives print of the park that showed the park almost barren of trees. Probably they would think the park was fine. Elsewhere in New York they would have other opinions.
They certainly put their stamp on this city. It's still here, under all the Art Deco and Bauhaus. The Victorians were the ones who really built New York up, he thought, and it's still their city deep down inside. When all their brownstones with their ornate pilasters and entablatures went out of style they were considered the apotheosis of ugliness, but now, as their buildings get fewer every year, they give a nice accent to all the twentieth-century slick.
Victorian rococo brickwork and stone work and iron work. God, how they loved ornateness. It went with their language. The final ultimate proof of their rise from the savages. They really thought they had done it in this city.
Everywhere you still see little signs of what they thought about this city. All the baroque brownstone friezes and gargoyles waiting for the wreckers' ball. The riveted iron bridges in Central Park. Their wonderful museums. Their lions in front of the public library. They were sculpting an image of themselves.
All this unnecessary ornateness they left behind: that wasn't just vanity. There was a lot of love in it, too. They gussied this city up so much partly because they loved it. They paid for all these gargoyles and ornamental iron work the way a newly rich father might buy a fancy dress for a daughter he's proud of.
It's easy to condemn them as pretentious snobs, since they openly invited that opinion, and ignore the history that made them that way. They did everything they could to ignore that history themselves. What the Victorians never wanted you to know was that actually they were nothing more than a bunch of rich hicks. For the most part they were rural, backwater, religion-bound people who, after the Civil War had disrupted their lives, suddenly found themselves in the middle of an industrial age.
There was no precedent for it. They really had no guidelines for what to do with themselves. The possibilities of steel and steam and electricity and science and engineering were dazzling. They were getting rich beyond their wildest dreams, and the money pouring in showed no signs of ever stopping. And so a lot of the things they were later condemned for, their love of snobbery and gingerbread architecture and ornamental cast-iron, were just the mannerisms of decent people who were trying to live up to all this. The only wealthy models available were the European aristocracy.
What we tend to forget is that, unlike the European aristocrats they aped, the American Victorians were a very creative people. The telephone, the telegraph, the railroad, the transatlantic cable, the light bulb, the radio, the phonograph, the motion pictures and the techniques of mass production — almost all the great technological changes that are associated with the twentieth century are, in fact, American Victorian inventions. This city is composed of their value patterns! It was their optimism, their belief in the future, their codes of craftsmanship and labor and thrift and self-discipline that really built twentieth-century America. Since the Victorians disappeared the entire drift of this century has been toward a dissipation of these values.
You could imagine some old Victorian aristocrat coming back to these streets, looking around, and then becoming stony-faced at what he saw.
Phaedrus saw that it was nearly dark. He was almost at his hotel now. As he crossed the street he noticed a gust of wind swirling dust and scraps of paper up from the pavement before the lights of a taxi. A sign on top of the taxi said 'SEE THE BIG APPLE' and under it the name of some tour line, with a telephone number.
The 'Big Apple.' He could almost feel the disgust with which a Victorian would greet that name.
They never thought of New York City that way. The Big Opportunity or the 'Big Future' or the 'Empire City' would have been closer to their vision. They saw the city as a monument to their own greatness, not something they were devouring. The mentality that sees New York as a "Big Apple,"' the Victorian might say, 'is the mentality of a worm.' And then he might add, 'To be sure, the worm means the name only as a compliment, but that is because the worm has no idea of what the effects of his eating the Big Apple are.'
The hotel doorman seemed to recognize Phaedrus as he approached and opened the gold-lettered, mono-grammed glass door with a professional smile and flourish. But as Phaedrus smiled back he realized the doorman probably 'seemed to recognize' everybody who came in. That was his role. Part of the New York illusion.
Inside, the lobby's world of subdued gilt and plush suggested Victorian elegance without denying the advantages of twentieth-century modernity. Only the howl of wind at the crack between the elevator doors reminded him of the world outside.
In the elevator he thought about the vertical winds that must be in all these buildings, and wondered if there were compensating vertical downdrafts outside. Probably not. The hot elevator winds would just keep rising into the sky after they left the building. Cold air would fill in from horizontal currents on the streets.
The room had been cleaned since he'd left and the bed had been made. He dropped the heavy canvas sack of mail on it. He wouldn't have much time to read mail now. That walk had taken longer than he'd thought it would. But he felt sort of tired and relaxed and that felt good.
He turned on the living room light and heard a buzzing sound by the bulb. At first he thought it was a loose bulb, but then he saw that the buzzing was coming from a large moth.
He watched it for a moment and wondered, 'How did it get up this high in the sky?' He thought moths stayed close to the ground.
It blended with the Victorian decor of the place as it fluttered around the lampshade.
It must be a Victorian moth, he thought, aspiring eternally to higher things. And then, reaching its goal, burning to death and falling to the dust below. Victorians loved that kind of imagery.
Phaedrus went to a large glass door that seemed to open onto a balcony. There was too much reflection from the room to see what was on the other side, so he opened it a little. Through the opening he could see the night sky, and far away, the random patterns of window lights in other skyscrapers. He opened the door wider, stepped out onto the balcony and felt the cold air. It was windy up here. And high, too. He could see he was almost at a level with the tops of the buildings way over on the other side of the huge dark space of Central Park. The balcony seemed to be made of some sort of gray stone, but it was too dark to see.
He stepped to the stone rail and looked over.
. . . YEEOW!! . . .
Way down there the cars were like little ladybugs. They were yellow, most of them, and they crawled along slowly, just like bugs. The yellow ones must be taxis. They moved so slowly. One of them pulled to the curb directly below him and stopped. Then Phaedrus could see a speck that had to be a person get out and go into the entrance he himself had come in . . .
He wondered how long it would take to fall all the way down there. Thirty seconds? Less than that, he figured. Thirty seconds is a long time. Five seconds would be more like it . . .
The thought started a tingling in his body. It rose to his head and made him dizzy. He stepped back carefully.
He looked up for a while. The sky was not really a night sky. It was filled with the same orange glow he and Lila had seen at Nyack. Only much more intense now. He supposed it was atmospheric pollution or even normal sea mist or dust reflecting the street-lights from below back down from the sky, but it gave a feeling of not being really outdoors at all. This Giant of a city even dominated the sky.
How quiet it was now. Almost serene. Strange that way up here, looking down on all the noise and jangle and tension below, is this upper zone of silence. You don't even think about it when you're down on the street.
No wonder multi-millionaires paid huge sums for space up here in the sky. They could endure all that competitive life down below when they had a place like this up here to retreat to.
The Giant could be very good to you, he thought. . .
... If it wanted to.
Lila didn't care where she was going. She was so mad at the Captain she could spit. That bastard! Who the hell did he think he was calling her that - 'A bitch setting up a dog fight.' She should have hit him!
What did he know? She should have said, 'Yes, and who made me one? Was it me? You don't know me!' She should have said, 'Nobody knows me. You'll never know me. I'll die before you know me. But boy oh boy, do I ever know YOU!' That's what she should have told him.
She was so sick of men. She didn't want to hear men talk. They just want to dirty you. That's what they all want to do. Just dirty you so you'll be just like them. And then tell you what a bitch you are.
This is what she got for being honest. Wasn't that funny? If she'd lied to him everything would be fine. If she was really a bitch did he think she would have told him all that stuff about Jamie? No. That was really funny.
What was she going to do with these shirts now? She sure wasn't going to give them to him now. She was tired of carrying them. She spent hours looking for them and now she had to take them back. Why did she have to try to be nice to him? She never learned. No matter what you do they always want to make you look worse than they are.
You're not doing anything wrong, you know, you're not hurting anybody and you're not stealing anything, you know, and still they just hate you for it anyway, for making love. Before they get on you're a real angel, but after they get off you're a real whore. For a while. Until they get ready again. Then you're an angel again.
She'd never been on the street every night. She wasn't one of the bad ones. Just sometimes when she felt like it. She liked it. She always did. She liked it all the time. Every night. So what? And she didn't like it always with the same man. And she didn't care what people thought about her. And she liked money too, to spend. And she liked booze too and a lot of other things. Put all that together and you got Lila, she should have told him. 'Just don't try to turn me into somebody else. 'Cause it won't work. I'm just Lila and I always will be. And if you don't like me the way I am then just get out. I don't need you. I don't need anyone. I'll die first. That's the way I am.' That's what she should have told him.
A store window showed her reflection. She looked like she was hurrying. She should slow down. She didn't have to hurry so fast. She didn't have anywhere to go except to the boat to get her things off.
It was dumb to tell him anything. You can't tell people like him anything. If you do, they're gone. All he wanted her for was to prove how big he was. He didn't care what she said, he just wanted her to be some kind of guinea pig to study or something like that, when he really thought all those bad things about her all the time.
He never talked straight, but she could tell he was picking on her in his mind all the time for things she said. Trying to treat her so 'nice.' He always wanted to know what she thought but he'd never tell her what he thought. Always playing around the edges. That's what she couldn't stand. She never should have told him that stuff about nerds like him. That's what did it. Nerds like him couldn't stand to hear that.
She knew how to handle people like him. They're not hard to live with. All you have to do is let them talk. You've got to build someone like him up all the time or they get rid of you. She'd probably be going on the boat to Florida tomorrow if she'd kept her mouth shut. She could have taken care of him whenever he wanted it. Jamie didn't mind. Jamie didn't
care who she slept with. Everybody could have been happy.
Jamie didn't like the Captain either. Jamie always knew what people were thinking. If somebody thought he was going to make trouble for Jamie, Jamie had him all figured out.
A black witch on a broom looked at her through a display window. It was almost Halloween time.
She didn't know this part of the city. If she'd ever been here before, she'd forgotten it. Or maybe it had changed so much she didn't recognize it. Everything was always changing here. Except the big buildings.
When she first came here she used to think there was somebody up in those big buildings who knows what's going on here. They would never come down and talk to her. After a while she found out nobody knows what's going on.
Why wouldn't Jamie even give her his address? He acted so different. Something was wrong. She didn't like that friend of his. Maybe it was just the Captain being there.
She had never been on this street before. There was something about it she didn't like. It didn't look dangerous, just grungy. Jamie always told her, 'Look around, and if you don't see any women walking by themselves, watch out!' But there was an old lady with a dog farther up the street.
. . . So, if the Captain was all done with her, that was nothing new . . . She was used to that. She'd find something . . . She always landed on her feet.
A little shop had some bottles in the windows and dirt and junk. She always thought they were going to fix things up some day around here but nobody ever fixes anything. It just gets worse and worse.
An old church had a padlock on the doors and a sign saying it was closed. The sign was all faded so it must have been closed for a long time. In a wooden box under the window all the plants were dead. It didn't look like her grandfather's church. Her grandfather's church was bigger and it wasn't in a dirty city like this.
She'd get a room for a while, a few days maybe, and then look around. That sounded good. She didn't want to go back on the street. It wasn't worth it. Jamie said not to do it, and he knows. He said it was too dangerous. It isn't like it used to be.
She didn't like this street.
She could always get a job waitressing. She knew how to do that. Then after a while something better would turn up. If she tried to think that way it would make her feel better. But first she had to find some place to stay.
She walked for block after block. She kept an eye out for room signs, but didn't see any.
She passed a big hole in the street with orange and white stands around it to keep people away. There was steam coming out of the hole. A man with a cement sack was staring at her. He wasn't going to do anything. Just staring.
She started to read the writing on all the other signs. Leave Fire Lane for Emergency Vehicles . . . Snow Route . . . No Standing During Emergency . . . Vehicles Towed, Moving $9.95 An Hour . . . Painting. Get Free Estimates. 10% off . . .
Maybe the signs would tell her what was going on . . . Drugs Rally . . . They meant 'no drugs rally' . . . Irving's Pantry Deli . . . Greyer Butcher Block . . . Clothes Closet King . . . Audio breakthroughs . . . We Sell Kosher and Non-Kosher Foods . . . Natural Health Food store. 20% Off All Vitamins . . .
Behind an iron fence was a tree with red-orange berries. She remembered a tree like that in her back yard. She used to pick the berries but they were never any good for anything. What's it doing here? The big steel fence kept people from picking the berries. If she tried to go over there they'd throw her out. Some pigeons were there under the trees . . . The pigeons could be there but she couldn't.
Somebody got inside the iron fence and did spray paint all over the wall. She could never figure out what all that writing said. It looked like just names or something. But they write it so funny you can't see what they're trying to write. They never say 'Fuck You' or anything. They just write these strange things like there's something they know that nobody else knows.
. . . Driver . . . Electric Company . . . Keep Driveway Clear . . . One Way . . . They never tell you what you want they only tell you what they want . . .
Some words in Hebrew on a wall. Napoli Pizza. Franklin Cleaners. Since 1973 . . . Police Line. Do Not Cross Blue Lines. Police Department . . . A lot of barbed wire on the buildings. There didn't used to be all that barbed wire on the buildings. There didn't used to be all that barbed wire.
There is a guy lying on the sidewalk. Some people are walking by him without looking at him . . .
Personal Touch. Fine Laundering And Dry Cleaning. Hotels, Hospitals and Clubs . . . Athens Plumbing and Heating . . . Hilarious Non-Stop Laughter. I Couldn't Stop Laughing - McGillicudy, New York Times. Winner Tony Award.
Lots of plastic bags were lying around . . . One Way . . . They never tell you what you want they only tell you what they want . . .
These shoes hurt. This street was getting worse. Sidewalks were coming apart here. They're all broken and slanting so that if she didn't watch out she'd turn an ankle. She could fall on all that broken glass. The glass was from an empty window where it looked like somebody had tried to break in.
It was beginning to get cold.
She should be doing something different than this. What was she doing here? Something was wrong that she should be living like this. She should be somewhere better.
She crossed a street and when she looked down it, it looked like there was water down there. That must be the river, she thought.
She decided to get a cab. She still had to get to the boat and get her suitcase off before it got dark. It was too far to walk. Already her legs felt worn out. She hadn't walked this far in a long time. A cab would cost a lot but there wasn't anything else to do. If only she hadn't bought these dumb shirts.
But when she came to a corner she saw a restaurant sign down across the street at the other end of the block. That looked really good. She could rest and get something to eat and call a cab from there.
When she looked through the restaurant window she saw that the menu was expensive. The tables inside had cloths on them and cloth napkins.
Oh, what the hell, she thought. It was time to celebrate something. Being through with the Captain, maybe.
Inside it wasn't crowded. A little old lady waitress was laying out napkins on the other side of the room. She saw Lila and gave her a little smile and came over slowly and showed her to a table by the window.
At the table Lila sat down. It felt really good to sit down.
The waitress asked her if she would care for anything to drink before eating.
'I'll have a scotch and soda,' Lila said. 'No, make that a Johnnie Walker Black and soda,' she smiled. The waitress didn't seem to have much expression. She went off to the bar.
The street out the window looked like some of the streets in Rochester. It was old, without many people on it. In some dirt by the gutter under an old fire escape a cat walked slowly, looking for something. It pawed the dirt first to one side and then to the other. It couldn't seem to find what it was looking for.