Sunday, April 29, 2012

on set: Welcome to the World's Best and Biggest

A few weeks ago I went to New York with my dad for three days. I've been trying to write about it off and on since then, wrestling with the twin devils (as far as writing goes) of busy life and the inexpressibility of my subject. I'm ignoring the first one for a few moments here, and closing my eyes to charge blindly into the face of the second.

I've lived in Minneapolis my whole life, and still my knowledge of it is patchy and thin. Three days in the metropolitan monster that is New York City barely served to give me a sense of the flavor of the place. And one of the reasons for that is it's chock full of flavors, each one iridescent with detail. To begin to attempt to say something about my experience instead of continuing to bluster with inarticulate admiration (my typical response to questions about the trip: "It was... awesome.") I'll try to chop it up.

Vertically, there are three strata. On top there are these buildings. They're big and there's kind of a lot of them.
In the middle are the streets. Full of people belonging to all sorts of different strata themselves. Well-dressed businessmen with vintage briefcases brush shoulders with European tourists with long coats and square glasses and scarves and classily awkward hair, families with little girls with pink backpacks, a guy calling out "Something for the homeless, folks?", a businesswoman wearing a well-cut navy blue pea coat, a guy on a run, a loud group of girls with H&M and Macy's shopping bags--students, tourists, street workers, office workers, protesters, performers, tourists, salesmen, locals, foreigners, English, Irish, Socttish, French, Spanish, Italian, Indian, Russian, German, American.

Then there's underneath: a whole other world of people, places, and plans.

      If I had to pick one idea to focus on in trying to convey the flavor of what it was like to be in New York, it would be, This is it. This is America's greatest city--the world's, some say. This is where the richest people have apartments, and the most workaholic have jobs. This is the home of the publishing houses of half the books in the bibliographies of my papers. These are the yellow taxis, the famed financiers, the massive museums. This is Central Park, Times Square, Broadway, Ground Zero, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, Trinity Church, Carnegie Hall. It was like being on the set of the film of the American identity and consciousness. Not only literally--the NBC, ABC, MTV, David Letterman Show, and Good Morning America studios, the myriad landmarks I could pick out from movies--but also more intangibly, in the sense that this is the standard, the Big by which Minneapolis is small, the In by which most stuff is out, the bright lights by which the stars are dim. It's an odd feeling to be inside a superlative, to feel that there's nowhere farther to go, that This Is It.

      And then I remember it isn't, and once again an earthly bubble is popped, an illusion upheld by distance and aura discredited. Incredible as this city is--as posh and poverty-stricken, as artsy and strong-hearted, as colorful and human and superhuman, as tall and long and wide and deep, as lively and lovely--it's not even close to being ultimate. And thus, as I in wonder and smallness wander through its surging streets, my mental boundaries are pushed up a little further, a little closer to "the City that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God." (Hebrews 11:10)

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