New York is surreal. With ease you can feel absolutely alone and isolated in a city of ten million or you may turn a corner and run into a good friend. Walking down any street in Manhattan I have encountered a half dozen languages half of which I could not identify. In a city that is portrayed as a concrete jungle, it is a concrete jungle that, in springtime, blooms. The streets and corners are lined with crabapple trees in blossom and tulip trees in full bloom. On a block of two hundred year old apartment complexes, you may find a single corner, a triangle, reclaimed as green space, with a wooden gazebo and lined in blazing yellow daffodils shouting to passersby that spring has finally come.
There is something about this city that is so vitally alive. At home, I find it hard to leave the house. Going outside takes effort, and I find myself with little energy. Here, even when I try to sneak away for a midday nap, something carries me back into the streets, down cement rivers into humanity of every stripe and flavor. I literally want to make out with every other person I see. I want to physically experience the way they taste, the uniqueness that they add to this most cosmopolitan city.
I arrived in the East Village early today for a meeting with local folks from the Green Party. We are going to have dinner at one of my favorite spots in town, Itzocan Cafe—a French/Mexican fusion restaurant. Yet, less than half a block away, I find myself sitting in a hipster honkey tonk bar sipping a vanilla rum and diet coke. The juxtaposition is Dali-esque in its absurdity. Where else in the world would you find a Mexi-French-Hipster-Honkey-Tonk street corner?
I spent nearly a week meeting with folks in New York, wandering the streets, marvelling at the architecture and at the poverty thrown up against unimaginable wealth and luxury. And it was so telling in so many ways that the places where poverty was the most apparent so was the vibrancy of living. The streets that were perfectly polished, with stately 250 year old town homes were conspicuosly quiet, almost inhumanly quiet in a place where from river to river to ocean there is not a square of land unplanned or unoccupied. On the upper east side luxury affords the residents with an eerie silence where in Crown Heights poverty brings a manic street energy that proclaims against the quiet that those that can not afford silence are there and alive despite the odds.
I have been to New York perhaps a dozen times in the last eight years. But never before have I spent so much time walking and listening to the negro streets as the poet Allen Ginsberg put it. I had no short of background music to which to read his poem Howl. The same sense of life and rage and pain and joy and hell and hurt and the raw sewage and purity of life that he wrote about forty years ago is still all right there. The streets may be better kept now, the subways a little safer (though for sure not cleaner), and a fresh layer of makeup painted over the old lady's face but she is still New York nee New Amsterdam and I am in love with her.