New York Stories

Last week we spent a few days in Manhattan. While I was there I had flashes of previous trips to the City. There have been few enough so that all six or seven journeys north are memorable.

In many ways a trip to New York City is about as different as life can get from living in the suburban upcountry of South Carolina. A trip there always feels like true travel to a foreign place. Strange things always happen. The energy comes in waves. There’s the density-a million and a half people living in 22 square miles-but it’s not the density that makes the air feel so different and strange in New York. It’s the intense life of the island, the way the folkways and culture of the mythic place have developed their own rhythms and surprises. It’s the power and the madness and the excitement.

I was just out of college when I first visited. It was January of 1978 and I’d been invited to read poetry at a famous literary speakeasy in Greenwich Village. New York was a literary place, a city full of writers and publishers. I took the train north by myself and stayed four nights with Jim Foster, a high school and college friend who was in journalism graduate school at Columbia University.

The train pulled into Grand Central Station soon after a record snowfall had blanketed the island. I took the subway uptown to 125th Street and emerged into a world quieted by two feet of snow.

As I started walking to my friend Jim’s apartment I witnessed a cab rear ended by another driver in the sludge and ice. The cab driver opened his door, walked back, dragged the other drive out of the other car, and they begin throwing punches in the middle of the street.

“Ah, New York,” my friend Jim said laughing when I told him the story in his tiny warm graduate student apartment.

That trip north was probably the most memorable of my handful of visits. Maybe it was the magic of the snow for a Southern boy. Besides a successful reading and the fight, I’d also had lunch with two starving actor friends I’d met the summer before at Breadloaf School of English.

They lived like characters from “La Boheme” in the village, and we ate a late lunch in a small cafe they frequented. The Italian owner had done his basic training at Camp Croft, and after he found out I was from Spartanburg he’d tramped out into the snow to a market to buy ingredients for a special family pasta dish he wanted me to taste that was not on the menu. “For my Southern guest,” he said as he brought the meal to the table.

There were other trips and memories-the time several years after college I hiked a hundred blocks uptown in bitter cold (is it always winter in my memories of New York?) carrying my backpack rather than take the scary subway or a pay for a cab. I dreamed the avenues were forest trails and I was hiking the city as if the canyons of buildings were the Montana wilderness.

And then in 2000 I visited during January again and met a student there who was in town working on an independent publishing project. We repeated the hike I’d done years earlier in the opposite direction, walking from midtown all the way to the World Trade Center, ending the journey with lunch at a small cafe in the shadow of the towers. A year later that cafe was destroyed when the towers fell.

All these memories came back last week as I felt it again-the palpable energy of New York. I don’t know if the City holds the mythic place in the imaginations of those generations younger than me. Time, easy travel, prosperity, and the media blitz of TV and the movies have bled a little of the excitement and mystery out of a trip far north into Gotham City. It’s still there for me. I’ll always remember the skyline across the Hudson as the train approached that January long ago. The skyline’s now changed and so have I, but New York remains a mythic place in my Southern imagination.

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