Monday, July 15, 2002

What’s it like to live in New York now? We are in some strange new place where the mainstays of thought and behavior have been turned on their head. We are in that twilight place where all is the same, all is different. It must have been a lot like this in the late days of Rome, when the population was still there, business went on, but the rulers all had strange Germanic accents and names and people could remember times when the lights were brighter, the food tasted better, things were a little more relaxed and exciting. When simple pleasures weren’t cherished for their very banality, for the comfort. When they were just part of the background noise of life and when you could really, with no excuses, take things for granted.

We can’t take anything for granted now. Things are hard. You have seen New York during times that were hard. You were here in the seventies, when things were seamy and there was a deliberate cheekiness to the way we defiantly took our hard times. We would laugh them off, whether it was in the discos or the squad room of Barney Miller, our hard times were like a badge of honor, because even though we were in tough times, we were tougher, and we had our grit and our streets and our ethnic courage and we became emblematic of something that you could call a creative golden age, everything from Mean Streets to All in the Family to graffiti art and Saturday Night Fever. Those were the seventies.

You were here in the eighties, and you can remember the first time you heard the word “crack.” On one of the coldest days you can remember, you leave a bus at Port Authority and come out into the neon-lit nighttime of late winter afternoon on Eighth Avenue, and small bitter black men in parkas lean against doorways stage-whispering the word, crack, crack, crack. You don’t know what they mean, but in your youth, your ignorance, you think they are peddling women. Either way, it’s to be avoided, but soon you learn about the rock and the guns and the killing and the gunshots, and later in the eighties you start to even hear the gunshots in different places, you walk in palpable fear sometimes, it’s all around you and nobody seems to be doing anything to stop it, and New York seems so cold all the time, cold like it’s always winter, cold like it’s a lonely place, cold like no one cares, and really, no one does.

Things got better, but now they are getting worse again. Yes, they rebuilt Rome again and again throughout the ages. Things happen faster now. Our modern cycles of decline and decay and rebirth happen in an eyeblink.


Did this really happen? Did we really spend the last ten years bringing life back to this city, making it new, only to have the joy of living here taken away in the blink of an eye? Out of a clear blue sky?

Did we really take for granted how lucky we are? Lucky to be alive, yes, that much we know now, but more – lucky to live here, lucky to have been here when it was innocent and carefree.

You used to watch movies of the thirties, when the city shone brightly in its black and white splendor, when even in the midst of a horrible depression the city was sturdy and glamorous, vibrating with the sounds of jazz and liquor and money and power and intelligence and turmoil. Ferment. A city that literally fermented and ripened over the years. And when you look at those movies, you’d see a city that was magnificent, that acted like it had just arrived at the party of World Cities, the dashing young prince of cities showing off among elders, confident and idealistic and bursting with the beauty of the new and powerful.

What was it like to actually be in New York on that last Saturday night, December 6, 1941? Was it anything like the calm, confident way we went to bed on Monday, September 10, 2001?


You can look out your window and pretend nothing is changed. The way the light falls is the same as it was in years past. Nostalgia is one way to make believe that the past is still out there, lurking just around the corner of our perception, every bit as real as the world in front of our faces. You look out the window and people still walk, they still dress up, they still take buses and cabs and carry shopping bags and talk on cell phones and some of them still laugh and many of them don’t.

You’ve noticed that this autumn had some of the most perfect weather you could have imagined. Too cruel, you think, because the more perfect the blue sky, the more you can’t stop thinking about what comes out of a clear blue sky. Looking up at the sky is a sad affair, now.

And you’ve noticed that the sunsets are especially bright these days. When you ride the F train back to Brooklyn and it edges out of Carroll Street, you climb into the sky and it’s streaked with color as if a paint box has spilled across the lower harbor. You look at the edges of Manhattan, and that’s no good, so you look at the colors and you think yes, even the Romans had sunsets, even on the darkest days in the darkest years they had their sunsets. Maybe the sunsets are from the dust, you think. Maybe it’s the stuff in the air that still carries a brittle tang, the air you can taste in the back of your throat. When Rome burned it smelled like pitch and tar and wood and dung. When New York burns it smells – tastes – of carpet fibers and plastic and polymers. And that loose white dust, the concrete that used to hold up the tallest buildings in the western hemisphere, concrete now discrete, and mixed with the ash from what can only be described as a crematorium. Some of us have gone back to dust, and that dust now flies freely among us, coloring the horizon every perfect blue afternoon.

Every breath we take is a breath of ashes.

--November 2001.
Keith Dawson