Yesterday was the 4th of July, and while I did not go to a barbeque (that’s ahead, on Sunday with the fam), I did enjoy some fireworks in the sky on my drive home from my mom’s. What I did not enjoy were the fireworks that someone set off either in our driveway or just behind it at 12:35 am–and I am not talking just fire crackers, but full blown stars and sprays of color and booms of sound basically right outside our window. I couldn’t see who it was, and that’s probably a good thing.
Unfortunately, I was so startled awake from a sound sleep that my heart was racing and I could not go back to sleep. I got up instead, reached for my book stack, and read Here is New York by E. B. White. It is a charming little book, this edition with essentially two essays about that grand place I call home: White’s original 1948 essay and Roger Angell’s 1999 “Introduction” to this edition. Both are worth your time, which they won’t take much of; I read them both in an hour in the middle of the night and will definitely read them again.
White wrote this essay after having moved out of New York; he was enticed back one hot August to write a piece about New York for Holiday magazine. This interestingly gave him three perspectives from which to view the city: young newcomer, eager and full of hope; resident, working, living and falling in love; out-of-towner, returned tourist noticing the changes. In fact, the changes are integral to White’s essay; New York changes at an amazing pace; both he and Angell, writing fifty years later, note that it is “the reader’s, not the author’s, duty to bring New York down to date.” White focuses on the gifts of New York being its privacy and loneliness–probably not the first two words that come to mind when you think of New York. Yet, he makes it work in his own way, the way one can be private in a crowd of people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and lonely on a crowded subway.
White has great disdain for the commuter and depicts a stereotype of a frazzled man boarding trains like a lemming, working in an office like a drone, and living like a plastic man in the suburbs. I cannot agree with White here, but I can appreciate his view, especially remembering that 1947 was immediately post-WWII, and the dream of the suburbs was looming large. In addition, White’s New York is Manhattan only–like many a native and transplanted Manhattanite, that is New York, with only a sidelong glance at Brooklyn and bare mention of the Bronx; Queens and Staten Island are a suburb and ignored, respectively. Nonetheless, Manhattan is the New York most tourists flock to, and writing for a travel magazine and being a former transplanted Manhattanite himself, it is natural that this be his focus.
What is charming is not only White’s style that is both descriptive and contemplative, but also noticing how much has not changed despite the demise of the Automat, the Layfayette Hotel, and others. Roger Angell thought White would have deplored the crime and violence and poverty of New York at the turn of the millenium as well as the proliferation of chain magnets replacing Mom & Pop stores in the neighborhoods he described with reverence. Yet, Angell notes, there were positive changes too that he would have like to share with his step-father.
Twenty years later, I read Here is New York for the first time and am charmed by it and them. I think White would still find something to love in New York and still find the privacy and loneliness he describes as New York’s greatest gifts. Despite the proliferation of flashing colors, loud sounds, and constant connectivity, New York still harbors its old self, its neighborhoods, beneath the veneer of neon and plasma.