The city seen for the first time

There are fewer and fewer things I can do for the first time, and the list became one smaller this week when I drove across the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan at night, behind a windscreen starred with a fine rain that made the illuminated spires of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State blur and streak and stretch like bright swords.

It’s the same drive that Nick Carraway made into the city on a hot afternoon with Daisy and Gatsby and Tom Buchanan and Jordan Baker, looking for relief from themselves. “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge,” he says, “is always the city seen for the first time in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world. Anything can happen once we’ve slid across this bridge. Anything at all.”

It felt that way this week too, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s because I’ve read The Great Gatsby, or because it’s true. Maybe there’s no difference between the two things. The stories people tell about a place create an extra dimension, and the place becomes more than it is – it becomes the bright unfolding ripples of how people dream and how they see themselves.

I arrived on Halloween weekend, the night before the marathon. The wind up the avenues felt like it blew in over lakes made from frozen steel. I walked the streets of midtown surrounded by witches and zombies and at least one mini-skirted Ebola virus. I sneezed as I crossed Sixth on my way to the Algonquin Hotel, and a hot-pantsed devil said “God bless you” as we passed.

The best part of being here is other people’s conversations. New Yorkers talk enthusiastically and with commitment and all the time. They talk to the person beside them or the one across the street or on the phone or sometimes just to themselves, and I’ve spent the last four days alternately speeding up or slowing down to try hear the end of any of eight million stories flowing past me like a river of gifts from the generous gods of narrative.

It’s not so remarkable that everyone in a New York has a story – everyone everywhere has a story – but New Yorkers tell theirs with such confidence and faith in the value of the tale, and with such ambition to tell it well, that to walk down 2nd Avenue or up East 33rd Street feels like randomly turning a dial across an old-fashioned radio loaded up with old-fashioned radio plays: squawks and static and patches of dead air interspersed with sudden bursts of suspense or absurdism or drama.

“It was a pumpkin! Damn, who knew you could do something like that with a pumpkin!”

“Remember that gift my cousin gave you last week, the one he said you mustn’t open by yourself? Well, guess what?”

“He won a swimming scholarship so he only had to pay three grand and he can’t even do that, so where does this idiot think he’s going to find twenty-six grand?”

“And the cop said to me … no, wait, I should tell you this – first I said to the cop …”

A few weeks ago I listened to a radio piece about Emilie Gossiaux, a New York visual artist who was struck by a vehicle while walking, fell into a coma and woke from it entirely blind. She has been involved in testing an experimental device that runs electrical current from camera-like sensors down wires to a stamp-sized titanium plate on her tongue, which prickles like bubbles of champagne as the stimuli arrive. Since the neural pathways between her eye and her brain have been damaged, the idea is that this device reroutes the electrical signals via her tongue.

And it works, she says. Once her brain had learnt the new way of doing things, she began to see again, tasting the sights as she walked the city streets. She doesn’t have perfect clarity of vision: she can see the shapes of people around her, but in a kind of soft, gaseous, plasma-vision. She says they are like glowing jellyfish, pulsating deep-sea creatures that move in and out of shade and bright bars of sunlight. She is often transfixed by the beauty of it, feeling herself pulled as though by a current through a soft-lit undersea world through sunken canyons and seabeds of sidewalk.

It’s a gorgeous image, and I thought about it this week as I drifted along following words like bright fish into half-flooded portals of story. I wish we would tell our own stories more, small stories even more than big, in our own voices and accents, and tell them well and listen to them well, alive to the wild promise of all the beauty and mystery of the world.

Times, 5 Nov 2014