DEAN CODY CASSADY OFFERS A SECOND EXCERPT FROM HIS USA TRIP.
On the Greyhound, halfway to New York City, south on Interstate 95. Crystal blue sky over the Smalltownvilles of America: railroad complex hunkered flat, low, wide; billboard signs like jungle flowers high over telegraph poles and wires; roadside eateries like scattered stones, flat on the edge of the Freeway, lit up high by Denny’s lozenge signs on sticks.
Sign for Queens and Long Island: still an hour out of New York. Man, I need a coffee. The occasional smell of cinnamon ebbing down from the back of the bus: cake or drink? I can’t tell. Been coming down over me since we crossed the Massachusetts state line.
First sight of Manhattan: the city waiting there like a silver tiger, lying in the glass and metal grass, watching us over the river.
Entering the city through Harlem. Slowly being swallowed up by the place. Slipping down its throat.
Down 5th Avenue: even on a Sunday this place is struck truckpacked full with yellowcabs and people. I get a fleeting glimpse of ordinariness, of this being a place populated by people after all, instead of images or robots or . . . what?
Yet the city, legend in itself, almost has a life of its own. The Manhattan Monster. The silver tiger skulking. Something dark and gothic: in the realm of legend, lore and the fantasy of NYC. It’s an ordinary place. Yeh, right. Capital of the world.
Ian says, ‘Hey, look: Times Square,’ but I’m too busy writing.
Downtown, round Wall Street and Battery Park: brick-built warehouses and tenements; old colonial buildings scattered like gemstones; wave after wave, Uptown, of progressively taller, thinner, metallic, glassy stacks of shards, like the city is an animal after all.
This place feels weirdly natural though. Walking through Greenwich Village, there are all sorts of people, all mixed up: Spanish, Jewish, Chinese, Polish, Russians, Irish. NYC’s rebounding off the waters: in geography, geology and demographics.
The subway: tangled New York sub-city web. Subterranean maps like they’ve been washed in coffee, wrapped in ink, crumpled out, chewed. Mixed up sour mash of Downtown Uptown routes. Tubes, pipes, open ductways writhe beneath: like a mirror image of the rational surface place; like the subway’s New York through the looking glass; like it’s a kingdom of its own.
Washington Square, like a ‘Thinking Well’: wide, shallow concrete pit, a fountain not turned on; denizens sit like leaves blown up against the edges. I’m whispered at by a dealer ghosting past: ‘Smoke?’ Maybe the thinkers are Dopeheads; maybe they see things on the sunken hologram stage. Maybe the Thinking Well is the Non-Thinking Well.
Walking Downtown, feeling the noise, not so much loud, but constant: the dull hot throbbing, padded pulsing of yellowcabs, buses, horns, nauseous wave after wave of people. Into Wall Street, the stone and glass bank canyons act as a natural air conditioning unit. Cool soft air flows through the Downtown machine, slipping down deep channels where the sun doesn’t reach; shadows spread like spilt chilled white wine.
Ian finds a speakeasy, though he’s never been to NYC before. He sees a door like any other. We follow him, find ourselves in a subterranean place; old name-carved wooden tables.
Up the Empire State: it’s so high that your ears pop in the elevator. It’s not as wide up there on the balcony as when I watched Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle! The camera never lies!
The Chrysler Building shining silver toothtipped and easily the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen.
What happens in these buildings, squares, parks with their legend names? A city has its monuments and its ‘toothpaste’ (streets squirt like infill between the blocks). In NYC even the streets breathe like monuments do: 5th Avenue, Broadway, 42nd Street, Wall Street, Madison.
Walking on the back of the silver tiger, all its streets and monuments breathing, I didn’t realise Manhattan wasn’t perfectly flat (it’s a bucked beast: curved-up land, Downtown, Uptown, Crosstown).
East down 42nd Street, in amongst the tide of a Crosstown million people, swarming round us; us up against the flow; us in the flow; both at once. It’s like swimming through flesh.
On the morning TV: man got shot on the Lower East Side, where we’d been. This is a real place after all, not just the fantasy Metropolis I write it as. I don’t feel unsafe, but something at the back of my head warns me, quietly.
NYC was always a patchwork legend to me: a fusion of years of TV, film, newspaper images. It is a patchwork city: pastel purples, blues, greens on tourist gridmaps (blockpatches of Chelsea, Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown, Lower Manhattan, Central Park); threaded together at the edges by the East West Street stitches (‘Greenwich Village’, says one book, ‘traditionally starts at W14th Street with its southern boundary at W8th or 9th’, like it doesn’t really know for sure); people jammed together, a patchwork quilt, side by side in the multi-million stitch peopletide of Jewish, immigrant street beggars, Hispanic, Latino, European, Americano melge.
Bumping north on Interstate 95, two hours from Boston, I’m almost sad to see the back of New York City. I’ve walked on the back of the beast, down at the base of its spikes, along the breathing streets, over the silver tiger lying low between the glass grass reeds. I’m no longer afraid of the fantasy city legend told me I should be anxious of.
– Dean Cody Cassady