Letter Home

Copyright 2003, Adrian Robert

Dearest Bessie,

I'm sorry it has taken so long to write you since getting to New York City, but I can truly say I've been busy since getting here. It has also been taking me a lot of time to digest my experiences in a place which, though within the bounds of my own country, is in many ways further removed from my youth in our cozy suburb than any foreign place: New York City.

First off, I should tell you that life is a bit less glamorous than you might think from the way the movies and magazines let on. Even though there are shows and entertainment of all manners going on 7 days a week, that doesn't mean you have the time to go to it all. Mostly, like elsewhere, you spend your hours in the office, on the way to work, or lounging around the house recovering and recharging over the weekends. But I can't say this makes living in New York disappointing in any way. In fact, although my impressions have continued to evolve each week I've been here, I still remain amazed and delighted at nearly every turn, despite the prosaic lifestyle I'm stuck with.

One example of why this is so relates to the subway, which I take to work. Now the New York City subway is famous, or I should say, infamous. You might be thinking of graffiti-festooned cars, thugs, and taking your life (or at least your pocket cash) into your hands with every boarding. In fact the reality is thankfully less exotic, but still for the first few days I was here, taking subways was a novel, stimulating experience. Journeys below ground to stations that are never as clean or well-maintained as one would like, but yet completely ordered and functioning smoothly; surprise at the small numbers of seats provided for waiters; the rush of the train coming into the station; the glimpse of all the different people it brings by, some leering unabashedly out the windows at people waiting to get on, some staring catatonically ahead as if temporarily "turned off"; and then tinglings of fear, excitement, and shyness at being pressed in so closely with them; the almost astonishing airs of impersonalness that people use to deal with it.

But soon, as journey followed after journey, to the point that I began to recognize each station, each line, each brand of train as a familiar presence, I came to feel this public transport experience in a different way. I was nothing less or more than a "subway rat", I eventually concluded. Constantly crawling in and out of tunnels, peering at cryptic maps of colored lines, jumping out of trains and onto escalators on queue, with others of my kind -- almost smelling my way to the best route for any particular journey -- I was becoming a pale, adapted creature of the underground.

Gradually this too faded. I began taking books with me whenever I had to make a journey, finding new pleasure in these "in-between" times, such that I would sometimes even regret that my station had been reached so soon. I acquired a number of interesting habits of the subway rider (it didn't feel as much like being a rat any more), at first consciously, but quite soon almost like second nature. For instance, in most of the cars the seats are arranged in alternating sets of three facing each other across the car, and sets of two facing forwards and backwards. Due to the simple dynamics of space and individuals wanting as much as possible for themselves, these seats always fill up in a particular order -- first the two seats on the threes next to the door, then those far from the door, then the outsides and insides of the twos (sometimes the insides first though), followed lastly by the middles of the threes. Sometimes these last would not even fill at all until standing space was already packed fairly closely itself, such is the desire of Americans to avoid too much bodily contact with strangers. But if it must be put up with, people do it with aplomb, making as little fuss about it as possible. Indeed, one gets used to it quite quickly, so that it seems like you ignore everyone around, when in fact you may be paying close attention to this or that person who has caught your eye for whatever reason.

At any rate, that's a small part of life in the subways. I could go on for pages more, but it would surely bore you to tears! But one thing more should be said, which is that the quality of commuting life on the subway is immeasurably greater than that of the poor automobile drivers back home, who must constantly attend to the situation of their vehicles, regulating speed, turning and twisting this way and that, monitoring progress and deciding on lanes and routes. True, owing to the marvelous capabilities of the human brain, these functions can be automated to an extent, such that one can relax somewhat, perhaps listening to music, eating a bagel, or maybe even absorbing a "book on tape". But for my personality at least, being able to sit and read, or write, or listen to music, or -- not being separated and divided from them by the confines of a metal vehicle and the dangerous roadway in between -- simply observe the people around me, is a great boon to my lifestyle.

Now, what about these people that I've been mentioning, these "New Yorkers"? As you might expecte, they are a different lot from the average sampling back home. One illustration of this that struck me early on is the variety of hats that people wear. Get on a subway, or walk down a street, and you'll see almost as many different hats on people as you see hats. In the winter my head gets cold, but I've always hated hoods, because they're a pain, and wool hats, because they itch. So as you remember I found at a store a green plaid homburg of the sort grandfather might have worn (God rest his soul). It didn't itch, kept my head warm, and even did a passable job at protecting from light rains. But wearing this at home I always felt a little conspicuous and silly-looking, since everyone else had either a hood, a wool hat, or a baseball cap. Not so in New York. In addition to these standbys (which are actually in the minority), you see caps, fur, and felt hats of every description. Perhaps that man with the fur hat over there is a Russian. Maybe that lady with a feather in her cap fancies herself a "society woman". You even see the odd "Texan" hat. No one seems to be shy about saying "this is who I am", even if no one else happens to be saying it quite that way at the time. And everyone seems to acknowledge this, or is used to it in some way. No one stares or appears to be amused at a person's hat -- even the Texan ones.

So that's the first thing to say about New Yorkers -- variety, and unabashedness, fostered by an atmosphere of relative tolerance. And yes, people are tolerant in other ways too. New York, led by Manhattan, supports the highest population density anywhere in the U.S., and likely among the highest in the world. People have to get along here, or it wouldn't work. And they do. You can see it on the roads, in the way drivers will patiently wait for a pedestrian to cross, or will drive around a car standing in the middle of the street that by all rights shouldn't be. When we parked our U-Haul on the side of our street during our move, a fire truck actually came partway down, realized it couldn't get by, and then just backed all the way back out without a complaint! You see it on the sidewalks, where people not only take care to allow everyone room to pass, no matter which side of the way they happen to be on, but do it gracefully as well. Whether walking around in a crowded store, entering or exiting through a jammed portal, or simply waiting to board an approaching train, people always seem to take just a little more care and express a bit more courtesy towards others than most other places I've been.

What about tolerance of viewpoints, and customs? This subject I can say less about, not having met and spoken with a sufficient number of random strangers here yet, but my belief, perhaps idealistic, but not completely so, is that as with one portion of one's attitude towards other people, so with another. Although New York is not known for unsegregated residential living, I've seen more mixed-race couples here than anywhere else. And New York is known for being one of the most liberal-voting populations in the country. Even Republican party candidates here would be difficult to distinguish from Democrats anywhere else.

But to return to the city itself. The streets are incredible not just for the variety of people on them (and the fact that there are people on them, not just cars) but the architecture. Where does one even start with this? Just considering Manhattan, first of all, there is a tremendous variety of neighborhoods. While the general character of an area stays the same over, say, a 5 x 5 block vicinity (there being 150 or so of these in Manhattan), changes over just the space of a block or two can be surprisingly significant. Partly the reason is simple geometry. Tall buildings and relatively narrow streets being what they are, you cannot even see anything that distant from a given point, let alone hear it or be disturbed by it. The character of a block on the other side of a wall of buildings does not affect that of the block you are on. All it takes is a few small differences in the average height of buildings, the distance of their entrances from the sidewalk, or the styles of their facades, to completely transform the feel you get walking down the street. Compounded to this is the fact that often a row of buildings along one block will tend to share some features. Whether this is typically due to the most obvious cause of the same developer being responsible for all of the structures, or something more complex and intriguing, such as a general desire that new structures "fit in" with the old, acting over successive generations of construction, I do not know. But the fact remains that you can find on one block a row of tall brownstones with bay windows of a certain type, with their entrances elevated from the street by stately staircases, a single gas lamp burning elegantly in each square, stone-paved courtyard, while on the next is a series of shorter, squared Russian houses built of brick and wood, with raised, covered patios declaring themselves almost rustically in the courtyards' stead.

And what is perhaps most unexpected, and difficult to realize, but yet surely contributes to everyone's earliest impressions of what it means for a place to be a city, is the inexhaustible variety of human artifice that is on display. For each and every building is the living record of countless human decisions and artistic efforts -- ranging from the carvings of a door lintel to the choice of window panes to the outlines and structure of the entire building itself. Archictects, designers, craftsman, and artisans join in an outpouring of creativity, the purposes and entire careers of each bound to the idea of producing things original, or at least aesthetically pleasing, these people specialized in that regard, producing that which is beautiful to see just as as the engineer produces that which works -- not always successfully to be sure, but making the effort none the less. And anyway it is the sum total of all of this purposeful creation, constrained by context yet free within these constraints: the variety, diversity, and sheer amount of detail that abounds, that makes the city so different from the suburb, and in fact, surprising though this may be, like the forest.

Well, that's it for now, sister Bessie. I've had more impressions than this, but as I said digesting them takes time, and writing them down even more so. I hope everybody is doing all right back home. Give my best to Mom and Dad, and little Jimmy for me.

much love,