There is a spot in Yonkers near a curve on Palmer Road, just up from the intersection of Mile Square Road, high on the hill above the Dunwoodie Golf Course, where on a relatively clear day you can peer from the red Chevrolet station wagon and glimpse the towers of midtown Manhattan about 16 miles to the south.
"Look, there's the city!"
And the city it was to my brother and my sister and me, and our parents too, a postcard of a foreign land of skyscrapers and lights, like the distant backdrop of our movie set lives in the near suburbs. Of course, we lived in a city - two hundred thousand people with its own hardscrabble downtown where my father worked in the composition department of the daily newspaper. The Herald Statesman was founded in the middle of the Civil War as the Yonkers Statesman, later merging with the Yonkers Herald to form the afternoon paper where Dad worked. He took the bus down Palmer Road past the golf course every day, and must have looked south to the Empire State Building a thousand times from that bend in the road.
And unquestionably, he thought to himself: "Hey, there's the city."
I am past the curve in the road at the top of my own life , and I can see "the city" now from a different vantage point. New York was an exotic and little-visited neighbor in childhood, but it became a furtive destination in adolescence, the backdrop for college and my early journalism career, headquarters for a couple of business concerns, one end of the daily commute for two decades, and my intellectual and spiritual home forever. I have never lived any place else, nor have I ever really wanted to.
Looking back through my dirty life and times (to borrow a line from Warren Zevon, the muse of a very different American city across the continent) means looking back through my New York, a phrase I don't employ lightly, tapping these words as I am only a mile or so from the childhood home of E.B. White here in Mount Vernon - another of those small cities ringing the big one, urban places like New Rochelle, Yonkers, Union City, and Hoboken where people stood along river banks or high on a hill and said, "look, there's the city."
"New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact area the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant," wrote White in 1949. "It carries on its lapel the unexpungeable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings."
Those queer people and undertakings reverberate for me now but unlike White, I don't feel the need to say "here is New York" but rather, "here was New York" - at least over the past four decades, a time when the city shifted, and leaned, and heaved, and groaned, and suffered, fell and rose and bronzed in the sun of forty summers - and changed. New Yorkers often bemoan the changes. We can be a sentimental lot. The past in New York always seems more vital, more real, more alive - even in black and white - than the present in this town. There's too much building, too much of the municipal eraser at work scrubbing away the past, tearing down and building something shinier. But it's been that way since they filled the public cess pit just north of the old northern walls and built City Hall back in the 1820s. Yet I think that in this New York, with its vast unbridgeable distances between the wealthy and everybody else, and the limiting of actual residency among the middle class to the very edges of Manhattan and the swelling, refurbished outer borough hubs, there is a sense of something lost.
It wasn't that way when I was the skinny bridge and tunnel kid in green sneakers, tight Lee jeans and an old dungaree jacket skulking past the door at Max's Kansas City or CBGB, or gaping at the massive public festival of lewdness that was Times Square three decades ago, or splitting fries in the old railroad diner near the West Side Highway before taking that bridge back to the suburbs at night. That was famously grimy time, now celebrated in costume exhibitions underwritten by billionaires at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - itself a secret palace of the people, where my artist true love and I paid a self-suggested admission of a buck apiece for the privilege of browsing Winslow Homer and Cezanne before a cozy cup of coffee and a shared danish in gorgeous Greek court cafeteria that once defined the classiest place in New York to eat lunch off a plastic tray. All gone, of course. The Met now has a spiffy new public dining concourse in the basement with myriad ethnic food stations and an endless array of niche bottled beverages; it could be Peoria.
A few years ago, I looked up at the ceiling above the bar at McSorley's Old Ale House down on 7th Street and saw perhaps a century and a half of accumlated filth, stuck stubbornly to the little artifacts and items the timeless saloon keeps up there. In some city bureaucrat's office, there must be a waiver. Along with Houdini's handcuffs, there are dozens of dusty wishbones that may carry the teeth marks of Melville and Whitman. That kind of layered grime, like the bacteria-infused growth rings of New York's massive family tree, is rare in today's city. Does that melancholic nostalgia touch me in middle age? Yes, I find it does. "Circumnambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon," wrote Melville. "Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries."
We're still fixed in those reveries, even if New York's docks are generally limited to tourist boats and commuter ferries. While everyone else on this continent looks toward New York at one time or another, we lose ourselves in thoughts of elsewhere - and it's not merely reveries that drive those without seven figures in their investment portfolios away from the city. It's the reality of economics. Thence by Whitehall northward brings you past Bowling Green to lower Broadway, and two years ago that route led to the encampment of a leaderless protest movement known as Occupy Wall Street. There were minstrels in that camp. It was entertainment and street threater and urban camping, an ad hoc committee of this generation's bridge and tunnel kids, white middle class young people in the main, staging small dramas and forced marches, sometimes rather bravely in the face of police truncheons, pepper spray and plexiglass shields, against cops who were unions members acting against their own economic and social interests to please the bosses in the towers that overlooked Zuccotti Park.
There were ghosts there as well, souls from the tallest towers that once overlooked that park and almost every public space for miles. And I felt those ghosts keenly during those times when I walked through the rag taggy Occupy troops and sampled their rhetorical wares. They were the ghosts of office workers, and cops, and firefighters who left New York in the blaze of one blue morning when I too was at work in a New York office building.
These were all stories to be told, and since those early days at my father's side in visits to the Larkin Plaza newspaper offices just up from the old Hudson River pier in Yonkers, visits I remember best by the smell of the melted wax used for paste-up and the crush of my father's big hand, I have felt the urge to tell those stories under my own name, in a place where other people might read them. A few weeks ago, I spoke to a class of Syracuse University writing students under the able tutelage of my old blogging buddy, Professor Lance Mannion, and one them asked "why do you blog?"
Because I'm compelled to, I answered, almost by obsession. And by blog, I mean write - a not-so-silent sentinal. So this is a start to a circumnambulation of my New York, a journey I may need to capture for myself with stops in Yonkers, Flushing, the Lower East Side, Morningside Heights, Riverdale, Broad Street, GrayBar, and in watering holes all around the town. We'll see.