I lived in New York City for two years, and if you read my reminiscencesabout that time, you would think that every moment was magical, but, of course, it was not so. There were long, sad stretches, even worse, there were just long stretches neither sad nor otherwise, that I would have experienced no matter where I was living.
My tiny fifth floor apartment was often miserable, despite a great view of the Empire State Building. For some reason, snow would blow in under the skylight in my bathroom, but rain would not, so when it snowed, I had to wear a hat while brushing my teeth. What made me most miserable was seeing my neighbor who had moved there some thirty years earlier, who now tried to get through a week with no more than two trips down and back up the five flights of steps. (Yes, five flights to the fifth floor. The first floor was not numbered.
My life in New York City was torn between my joy in attaining my goal of living there and my realization that I would not stay there. That realization made me take advantage of being in the city and of getting out to see and to experience as much of it as I could. When I arrived at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, once, I caught a bus to go to the Tibetan arts museum (more), but I remember more vividly the people on that bus with me, most of whom were going to visit family and friends at a prison on the route.
My job with the American Center of PEN, the international literary organization, gave me a chance to meet fascinating people, but I shall resist the temptation to drop names. When I would attend the monthly cocktail parties, I usually stayed away from the guests of honor, preferring to search out older people who were sitting alone, looking, as Dylan Thomas once said about his guardian angel, “a little down at wing.”
One evening, I sat with an elderly writer whose name I remembered seeing on a membership list, but I did not know anything else about her. During the quarter hour or so that we talked, I learned that she had a writer’s gift for encouraging people to talk about themselves. I told her that I had planned to give myself two or three years in New York City. “Ah, yes,” she said. “When I was about your age, I said I would give myself three years in New York City, and now, some fifty years later, I’m still here.”
I know people who have lived in New York City all their lives, and yet, they have somehow kept the magic, the sense of wonder, alive. I did not know if I could do that, and I did not know if it would be worth living in New York City without the magic.
One day, I had gone a block or two from my office to run an errand. I was standing at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twentieth Street to cross Fifth Avenue back to my office. The light changed, and we began to cross the street. An elderly woman ahead of me shuffled along with a cane. Just as she got in front of a cab, stopped for the light, the cabbie blew his horn.
The light had not changed. I do not know why he blew his horn.
But, it was too much for her. A lifetime of frustration and abuse, a growing awareness that her life would never get better, maybe just too much noise in her life, suddenly broke her. Sobbing, she lifted her cane and slammed it down onto the cab. A torrent of obscenities came from the driver.
She rushed across the street, faster than I could imagine that she could walk, head down, as if she did not want the universe to know that she was still there.
Before I reached the other sidewalk, I very clearly heard the opening line of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats: “That is no country for old men.” (Text.)
The next day, I began to plan how I could leave New York City. Now, like the little gold bird in the poem by Yeats, I sing “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
You can find an index to all my unforgettable New York City stories, “My Experience of Unforgettable New York City,” here.