My wife and I have a corner room on the 22nd floor: not high by Manhattan standards, but high enough to reduce people on the street to the size of Lego men. There’s an office building directly across the laneway, a big-stoned ornate building. It was built early last century, like our hotel.
I like to see the people in their offices. A fair-haired young woman sits side on to the window. She types and clicks for hours at a time without turning from her screen. Several stories down there’s a dark, curly-haired man who sits at a big desk, his white-shirted back to his window. He gesticulates a lot, seems to talk almost constantly. His energetic arms take up a lot of space.
Another guy wanders from room to room in the little suite where he works. He has a screensaver of a tropical beach on a computer he rarely disturbs. I feel more familiar with the environment of the tropical beach than with the world of the young man who comes to three rooms in Manhattan and moves around in them all day. I wonder if he feels like he’s getting anywhere?
New York, especially Manhattan, this overbuilt, kinetic island, makes you ask questions about consciousness and ambition. Cities are pretty good places for making their inhabitants feel like there’s nowhere else they should be. I always felt that way when I lived, for decades, in sprawling, suburban Sydney. There were so many things going on there; so many different people doing so many different things. I didn’t want to be away from it. I didn’t want to miss out.
New York takes this story and amps it up. It’s like the difference between the Moon and Jupiter. And just like Jupiter, New York is colourful and probably mostly gas.
But it is intoxicating gas. It’s as if all of us are dizzy at a nitrous party or speaking in Minnie voices after sucking on helium. It’s as if even the homeless people, with their carefully balanced shelters of plastic sheeting and cheap umbrellas, would rather be here than anywhere else in the world.
There is that feeling that you’re living in a movie. Walking along an uptown avenue with friends one night, the beautiful brownstone houses made me feel like we were living lives that were more important than we knew. You can feel that way in Paris, or London, too. The great cities of the world make a person feel like she could make a ripple or a wave.
You can earth yourself in Central Park, gratefully watching a squirrel run or ducks circling slowly in the water where quadrilateral ice chunks are forming. It is disturbing that all of the rocks, trees and waterways in the Park are post-colonial human-made. It’s as if nothing on the island could conceivably be better than what the invaders and immigrants here felt it their right and power, indeed their duty, to create.
Claudia and I take the subway to the southernmost tip of Manhattan, to The Battery, where guns were stored by the invaders to defend their occupation—firstly by the Dutch to defend then-New Amsterdam from the British.
In 1626 a representative of the Dutch West India Company ‘paid’ a Lenape tribesman for the land there. The company man had the strange idea that land could be bought with a string of gold metal discs.
There’s a interesting description of the rival colonial powers and inter-tribal conflict—they all had guns before long, native and invader—in New York state here.
Today, Claudia and I were unaware of that history. From the Battery Park, Lady Liberty stood across the choppy grey water, perpetually concerned. I did know that this is where the United States government enforced customs in the days before income taxes, early last century. Isn’t that amazing that there was a time before income tax?
The name of Alexander Hamilton — nineteen-century nation-builder and treasurer, hero of the Broadway musical— has been given to a gorgeous Beaux Arts Customs House here. At the entrance are grand, romantic statues representing the world’s continents as women. America is a giant, energetic young woman, with her foot resting on the head of Quetzalcoatl, the Mayan sun god and a Native American warrior at her shoulder.
The building, all ovals and ornate carvings, with a splendid rotunda inside, houses the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. On the side of the seven-story building are sculpted heads representing the races of humanity. I found it striking to see Indigenous faces sculpted in a classical style.
Inside, the collection almost overwhelmed me with exquisite, precious objects: beaded and embroidered clothing that speaks of small-figured, beautifully groomed people; a spear that can killed a buffalo from a galloping horse; a photograph of a Native woman bound up in corsets and hooped skirts, showing she was unafraid to find a way for herself and her people amongst the ruins and complexity of the occupied land.
In the subway, the names of the stations are written in coloured mosaics. Some of them are furnished with artwork. The music of buskers fills the echoing chambers of the stations. Their audience is mellow or irritated or bopping—depending on the music (and maybe the weather).
Today’s been a day of mist and rain. The spire of the Empire State Building was covered in fog so thick that its coloured lights couldn’t shine through it when we walked to Korea-town for food this evening.
Claudia’s happy in New York and especially loves it in the rain. She’s mad for taking pictures in puddles—she loves the reflected coloured lights in a rainy city. In darkening rush-hour, she managed to mildly disturb even po-faced New Yorkers by bending down over black lakes by the gutters, absorbed in the light and the camera. I watched the traffic.
With some persuasion earlier in the week, the hotel gave us a leg-up on our last night here, allowing us to occupy a suite on the top floor. Suddenly we can see all the way up the avenue to the river. Buildings: famous and quotidian, solid and half-built, are all around and below. You can’t help but see into other buildings.
‘I think that place across the way might be a brothel. Three of the apartments have naked or nearly naked women walking around in them,’ Claudia says. I took a look across later, and there was that g-stringed lady showing off her skin in an apartment with the guitar resting on the windowsill. A couple of floors down a young woman was lying on the bed to zip up her jeans. It’s consoling to know that slender people sometimes do that, too.
‘Maybe. Some might be aspiring actors and models,’ I said.
As the lights of the city came on, Claudia had to go out. Shimmering lights on wet city streets were calling her.
‘I’m going over that way’, she called to me as I laughed with a friend on the phone. ‘I’ll get a photo of the hotel lights from the street.’
Later, I stand by the window and looked down onto the streets below. Maybe I can pick my wife’s comfortingly familiar walk among the scattered dark shapes of the pedestrians on the shining streets.
I finish my Korean food—seaweed and kimchi and a spiced tea egg—and wonder vainly whether one of Claudia’s photos of the hotel building will show my face at the lighted upper-story window. Perhaps we’ll find that she incidentally captured some interesting poses from the apartments across the way when she develops her photos taken in that direction, across the roof of Madison Square Garden, later.
I watch the lights of a thousand cars driving up and down the avenues. Ferries on the river retire to their moorings. I’m musing about the dreams of the people on this island.
I’ve seen Mayan faces on the streets, familiar to me now after our time in Mexico: brown women, short and round like me, many working here for very ordinary wages. There were also many Filipinos—those great world-travelling and labouring people. I guess the traffic here is orderly compared to Manila. We met workers from Haiti and Puerto Rico, too. New York is cosmopolitan. But the power and privilege remain in the hands of a kind of commercial monoculture.
The towering advertisements are all over mid-town and Broadway. Somehow, we’ve seen it all before, now that we all have little talking bricks with attention grabbing screens in our pockets. It’s all about buying things and selling yourself.
I’m not buying any of it. Claudia and I are at the end of our trip. Limited finances have a strong simplifying effect on consumerist appetites.
The broad path made by the Lenape and Nanticoke Indians and their trading partners in the northern part of the island is now congested Broadway, crawling with tourist buses, the sidewalks clogged by broke actors begging for a buck, dressed as acrylic animals or lycra-suited superheroes.
Uptown, I feel like the Impressionist paintings in the MOMA are trying to break through the psychic noise of the people who visit them, people looking for other ways of understanding what it is to be European or American, what it is to be human. Distracted, I keep wondering: How do they get to keep all this plunder, all these treasures of other people?
Down in the Battery, the soulful objects created by Native American people bide their time, radiating knowledge and energy to those of us keen to listen.
And the Central Park rocks and trees, just settling in after less than two-hundred years, reach their curves and branches out to the people of New York.