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Sharing A Cab

By (December 1, 2012) No Comment

“The story of New York is a story of immigrant battling with immigrant, ceasing to battle with immigrant, but always ready to battle with new immigrant.”

What can a tour guide say about the most famous city on Earth that hasn’t been said? A lot, it turns out, if the tour is given by Anthony Burgess, who seems able to write at length about anything. His Time-Life The Great Cities/New York tells a story of New York City much like one you’d hear during a long, meandering conversation over drinks with a singularly well-read friend. It’s the most entertainingly bizarre guide to a city I’ve ever come across. It illustrates how terrifying it must have been to be a New Yorker in the 1970s, then cushions the blow with fond experiences and fascinating historical background; the entire book is riotously bipolar. I guess this also makes it the most honest outline of a city I’ve ever encountered.

This book is one of Time-Life’s Great Cities series. There are a several dozen of these oddities, and they seem to have mostly fallen by the wayside over time; I’d love to run into a copy of another city. Burgess was a transplant from Britain. Before he came to New York he’d been traveling around Europe, mostly living in a mobile home. “I knew where I no longer lived,” he writes in his autobiography, “but was unsure of the place of my repatriation. I felt at home only in the Bedford Dormobile, which had no address.” He was offered a professorship at City College, teaching the works of James Joyce and Shakespeare. Around this he juggled a lecturing tour of the United States and his work for the theater, as well as teaching a creative writing program at Princeton. As Burgess claimed to have become more at home in New York than London during his time there, he perhaps makes for the best kind of writer for ever-changing New York: the live-in tourist. He is aware of the pitfalls of the subject: “My problem is, I think, mainly a stylistic one: how to write about New York City. The only verse-form that seems proper – free yet biblical, lyrical yet catalogic – was long ago pre-empted by the New York poet Walt Whitman… besides, this is a prose age.” And we’re off the races. He waxes wonderfully, often dipping backward into history from his present – which was 1976 – and we’re richer for it.

While his New York is akin to the one I experience today, there are a few notable differences, and none strike me more than what’s written between the lines of Burgess’ explicated history – a feeling of belonging to history. Every neighborhood, every experience is a point inextricably rooted on a timeline, whereas the central characteristic of New York life today is its ephemerality, its divorce from history. The bustle of modern day Manhattan is a veneer placed over the historical setting, encapsulating itself; Burgess views his world as a part of the history it represents. Maybe severance from the past is a consequence of our more globalized world, although I’m sure New York had its own brand of ephemera then as it does now.

Coming from a time before digital reproduction, the numerous photographs contained in the book speak in a more impressionistic tone; the blanched, industrial browns of a smog-choked skyscape; the glacial color scheme of the George Washington Bridge in winter, a partially frozen Hudson River beneath; the eerie greens, oranges & reds of a city lit entirely with incandescent bulbs. This is not the city I know. I kind of wish it were.

Today, the air is no longer opaque; the sleek, mirrored city face of glass and steel Burgess sees on the rise in his discourse on New York’s architecture now dominates nearly every metropolitan skyscape, even the illustrious brick-laid city. Some of the ethnic neighborhoods described are still thriving, while others have been so assimilated as to be unrecognizable to the modern eye. Looking at the one street that now passes for Little Italy, it’s easy to imagine that all the current talk of an Italian enclave in Manhattan is just myth (the surrounding boroughs and New Jersey are another story). Meanwhile, Chinatown is the whirlwind of dingy industry it always seems to have been, and I share every train ride into Williamsburg with at least one person of Jewish Orthodoxy.

It’s impossible to describe relations in New York without delving into cultural differences and the ethnicities to which they are attached. I’m along for the ride with many of Burgess’ big-picture proclamations about people in New York – while maneuvering around the sort of racial language that makes my modern ears cringe with perceived indelicacy – but occasionally Burgess seems to steer into the dismissively derogatory:

To burble over the ghetto dialect known as ‘black English’, enthusing over its ingenious syntax and expressive beauties, as some progressive whites do, is to laud a deprived language. To opt out of English is to opt out of New York and America.

He’s talking about the problems of the municipal school system taking on so many different cultures and languages, and the amount of opportunities to be afforded in a freedom-soaked environment like New York. Burgess was a City College professor at a time when equal-opportunity efforts lowered the admission requirements so as to be more inclusive. For one who reveres the written english word, teaching the works of dense, complicated greats like Milton to some whose first language isn’t english – and whose connection to their culture in a transplant community lies through language – can’t have been easy. “To live in New York … is to use English as a lingua franca.” Even the sound of New York changes over time, and not just by our technological innovations. A preoccupation with sorting out languages has collapsed into a sort of weary acceptance; New York administration now recognizes six distinct languages.

There is one mammoth standalone event on the recent minds of New Yorkers, and Burgess touches on it with an unwitting but eerie prescience:

Fewer [New Yorkers] still will admit to loving their city. This may have something to do with the lack of cataclysmic civic experience – the kind of experience that elsewhere poses a feeling of civic unity… God forbid that New York should ever be blitzed, but sometimes only the knowledge of an enemy without can compel an urgent sense of brotherhood within.

New Yorkers banded together in the face of September 11th, and a national patriotism certainly has been strengthened as a result, but a decade out it may be a stretch to think of the lingering memory as a widespread cohesive force in the city. And would we want it to be? I don’t think such a singular brotherhood could still be called New York.

The last full section of The Great Cities/New York utilizes the neat little conceit of imagining the timeline of twentieth-century New York happenings as minutes ticked off on the clock (here Burgess the fictionalist makes his first appearance in the book – an odd thing to put in a nonfiction guide, and even more oddly fitting). The dizzying layers of major events flying in faster than the characters can adjust to them gave me a brief stab of vertigo:

The bartender turned on the radio. The voice of Douglas Corrigan came through the crackling static, all the way from Dublin. He had just flown from Brooklyn, solo, but without a flying permit. He was hotly denying that he had done anything wrong. ‘I guess I flew the wrong way,’ he kept saying.
‘Only way to cross,’ said the florid Englishman. Over the radio came a new sound – that of the Sixth Avenue El being dismantled. ‘Well, must be on my way. Got to go to Boston. Got to get a cab to La Guardia.’
‘What you wanta see our Mayor for?’ asked the old man.
‘Mayor? Said nothing about a mayor. La Guardia, I said. That’s an airport, just opened.’
‘I’ll share a cab with you,’ said a thin-faced Yankee. ‘Drop me at the New York World’s Fair, Flushing Meadow Park, Queens. I hear your King George and Queen Mary are coming to see it. We’ll show your anachronistic monarch a thing or two.’
‘Get your own cab,’ the Englishman said. He had just been listening attentively to the radio. ‘I’m on my way home. War’s just broken out.’ He left. The barman said to everybody:
‘Foreigners going bang bang at each other. Krauts and Limeys and Frogs. Polacks and Bohunks. Foreigners.’
‘We’re all foreigners,’ said our man.
‘You speak for yourself bud.’’

1976’s New York City bears only a passing resemblance to 2012’s; it was more divided, individualistic, and raw, a milestone in what became today’s more muddled world. Only a year after the publication of this book, extended blackouts and resulting riots tore violently through the city. The molds were still being cast. It would be the mother of all ironies if the breeding ground of American multiculturalism lost its history in the face of a more widespread mingling of peoples. Or maybe it’s the sterility the increasingly steep cost of living in fashionable areas lends to once-kinetic neighborhoods. The romantic version of New York life perhaps comes at the price of safety, as Burgess encapsulates neatly:

A tense city, and yet I thrive in it. For violence is only one side of the coin. Dante’s Florence too, was violent and so was Shakespeare’s London. In a totally tranquil city you will find dusty ideas and no art; human energy can erupt in an offence against a person or his property, but it can also do so in a symphony. New York’s destructive dynamism has its mirror-image: a dynamism that is creative, ever-moving, self-renewing.

Constant destruction of the past as a necessary paving to the future. So then maybe the link from past to present has always continued, chaotic centers of human experience simmer down from a boil and decay – maybe to give rise to new energies, maybe to falter – and I’m too entrenched in my now to realize it. Where will New York be in another forty years? Maybe it takes a particular mind like Burgess’ to always see the timeline – and now, he and his New York will be a part of it.

Kennen McCarthy pushes buttons behind the scenes of Open Letters as its compositor.