Is the Myth of City Life More Significant Than the Real City Itself?
Continued from previous page
Fortunately, there’s also the other side of the coin and the story, and if my own view of the city is at odds with the threatening camera angles, it’s not only a matter of optics but also the result of my early reading of nineteenth-century French and English novels in preference to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Born and raised in the province of California, I imagined New York as did the young David Copperfield seeing London from a distance as “an amazing place...I vaguely made it out in my own mind to be fuller of wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth.” The rumors tended to be confirmed in The New Yorker magazine by Dorothy Parker, A. J. Liebling, John O’Hara, Alexander Woollcott, and E. B. White. They didn’t shy away from the notion of a gladiatorial arena (neither did Honoré de Balzac or Charles Dickens), but they made space on the bloody sand for the artist, the actor, and the musician, as well as for the stockbroker and the merchant. For the free play of the mind as well as for the indentured service to a market.
By the time I read White’s essay “Here Is New York,” I was a city-side reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and beginning to suspect what he meant by the city’s capacity to bestow “queer prizes,” among them “the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy” that place the inhabitant in “the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.” The meaning of the remark came clear on a cloudy afternoon in Central Park when I came across two men seated on a bench, each with a fanciful parrot resting on his shoulder, engaged in intense discussion accompanied by decisive gestures and rapid changes of expression. The parrots were identical; the two men were as unlike one another as a ferret and a panda—on the near end of the bench a small and heavily damaged white man in a threadbare raincoat, early seventies, not many teeth, sunken chest, furtive demeanor; at the far end of the bench a handsome and handsomely tailored black man, gold jewelry, stylish hat and brocade vest, broad-gauged grin, majestic presence.
In answer to my questions, I was told that the parrots were the only two of their particular species ever to have made it north of the Panama Canal, that the two men had met by accident while out walking their birds on 125th Street, that each had come to regard the other as the only man in America with whom it was possible to hold an important conversation. E. B. White had attributed New York’s “poetical deportment” to the fortunate meeting of minds among people come to town in search of “some greater or lesser grail.” Here then, seated with parrots on a bench in Central Park, was the transfer of energy that is the source of the city light. “The metropolis,” as per the observation of Ezra Pound, as “that which accepts all gifts and all heights of excellence, usually the excellence that is tabu in its own village.” What suburban opinion deplores as abomination (traffic, crime, noise, confiscatory taxes, extortionate rents), the urban disposition regards as the price of escape from the tyranny of the small-town majority, as the cost of the blank canvas (i.e., the gifts of loneliness and privacy) on which to discover the portrait of oneself.
If the city is as one wishes to see it, an illusion maybe more real than a drainpipe or an arrest warrant, I drew my own postcard of New York during the 1960s in the drawing room of George Plimpton’s apartment on East Seventy-second Street. Then the editor of The Paris Review , a literary journal that published the leading writers of the moment, Plimpton’s generously metropolitan spirit accounted for his insatiable curiosity and irreducible enthusiasm. He was in the habit of throwing parties, to which the guests didn’t come with the thought of reading their names in the papers; they came, as did the parrots to Central Park, to meet with a like-minded passion, with the hope of finding somebody else in the room similarly bent on a career in the theater or inclined in the direction of a brothel, possibly obsessed with a reciprocal fondness for Chinese poetry or German leather. Usually the room was filled with cigarette smoke, the conversations apt to become disruptive, rhapsodic, insulting, unintelligibly arcane, intelligibly erotic. Bearing in mind that it was George who was buying the gin, nobody took offense. They shared the sentiment once voiced by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Fresh air and innocence are good if you don’t take too much of them—but I always remember that most of the achievements and pleasures of life are in bad air.”