This could be a list, really:
flesh of thighs, the light touch in the crowd.
bodies everywhere, burning, thirsting.
Shade. Supine. Benches and cool wrought iron.
Sun. Sidewalk, faces glow with sweat.
This could be a novel, too. It has been a novel, many times over. The city is a trap for the creative, the driven, the beautiful and talented. It is a trap, it feels like a trap, on the skin, in the mind. The horizon: buildings. Perhaps water. The city catches you, and you flow with it, like undulating ink in liquid. Unlike, say the great metropoles of Hong Kong of San Francisco, or Barcelona, or Milan. Or, of course, Paris. Paris deflects, she is too beautiful for you, she does not invite you, readily. You must be ready with your offerings, and your manners. Lest she be offended.
In New York there is no offending, only the offensive. The smell of rot and beer and metal from the trash, constantly piled high and higher still on every sidewalk. The smell of piss, even in the entry ways to the impenetrable townhomes in the West Village. Piss and, in the subway corners, shit, and animals, and homeless sick humans, bent over, muttering and overdressed in black sweaters, pants falling down. The mentally ill are always cold. Someone told me why once. I cannot remember now.
Today I saw a an onyx skinned wraith dressed in woolens and a priest’s robe. It was 90 degrees in the shade. I didn’t know whether to bow or move to the other side of the street, or perform both actions at the same time, wrathful underworldly creature, emerging from the depths of some tunnel, where he is probably King.
So yes, the smells. They come, they don’t really go, so one cannot describe them as waves. They are part of the architecture of the grotesque and grand city, an invisible pillar that adds to the sense that once one is on the streets of New York one has entered a body, some huge organism, and the humans and rats and squirrels and birds and dogs (god how many dogs) and babies (god, the babies, how do they afford it) who inhabit this place are mixed together, limbs atop limbs, voices on voices, smells layering smells.
And then, the noise. I am quiet, I’m from hicksville, I am a yogini, I love Paris and bookstores and Dvorak piano quintets. The noises of the city are a constant assault, a never ending presence and commentary and screech. Voices human. Voice of the child, rarely happy. Except, I noticed on the Upper East Side, where the really, really good nannies live. Voice of the machine. Car. Phone. Honking. Angry honking, that increases with the temperature, noticeably. Voice of the subway, rushing, frightening, yes this is why Mr. Scorsese used that sound when the exquisite young Pacino – excuse me – Michael, was making his first kill in the Godfather. The sound of the subway. Listen. It is terrifying. It’s always coming for you.
The voice of the Jersey people. Awful. The voice of the Bronx people. Wonderful. Worst, though, is the voice, the cawing, entitled, never ending voice of the tourist.
Here is my rude secret. My hypocritical rude secret: I hate groupings of tourists with a passion that borders on pathological. Which is obviously hilarious and stupid, because I love to travel. Therefore, I am a tourist much of the time. Actually, I’m a tourist all the time, given how totally out of place I am in Colorado… But the tourists here, from middle America, from down the coast, from wherever: they drive me mad. The collective song of the tourist, always asking, always bumbling, always in the way of the local, always pointing and gawking, everything on show, just for them. Oh dear. I sound bitter. Yes, lately I have been a bit… astringent. Perhaps it’s the weather. Or that tourist who stepped on my lovely new ochre leather heel yesterday.
Today I saw a group of them. The mother, in badly fitting white shorts and a dirty tee shirt, and, of course, a ponytail, was wearing a sequined red hat. It matched her daughter’s. The father was busy taking photos, and the boy, the bored eldest, was lagging behind. I am allowing myself total honesty, as wretched as it makes me out to be: they were an interruption. I saw them on the street and then I saw them, incongrously, in Washington Square Park. They were in the way of bikes and students. They were in the way of my visions through time of my Greatest God, Henry James. The boy reached over a fence and started grabbing at a fat squirrel. They gawked at New York. I gawked at them. But in that way we fit together perfectly: everyone here, with the exception of the truly beautiful, who need to keep their heads down, stares, and they stare without apology or self-consciousness.
Tourists here are an irritant, a flaw, but of course a required flaw, in the canvas. To me, they are an interruption to the unstoppable flow of erotic and crazed, Dionysian energy that animates this place. Groups of tourists also help to define New York; there’s no big grand city I suppose without them. It is not their dress (universally, embarrassingly horrible, with an almost religious disregard for aesthetic value, as if to wear something lovely would make them worse Christians or something) that I find so difficult, or their loud voices, voices that seem to have pointer fingers attached to them, but something more subtle: it’s a lack of participation.
The city, with its odd inhabitants from every corner of the earth, to me seems made up of connected veins and limbs, a linked strong torso like a dirty but well carved statue, a blooded beating heart, many beating hearts, and flesh of every hue and texture. One must join, at least as one can, the body, while one is here. Otherwise, no experience. Just the gawking.
And in the summer no one is shy about the body, even, frankly, those for whom it would perhaps be advisable to be a little, no, a lot, more wary of physical revelation. But that is all part of the joy, the oddness, the sexiness, of this place: it’s a place for the nudity of the self, of, yes, the flesh too. It is a place with morphing borders and a place that celebrates, above all, exhibitionism in every form.
Sometimes, the breath is like a sigh, as when evening finally comes, the noise slows, one catches the sound of heels on cobblestone. That sound, mixed with the sight of a slender blond woman, pushing her hair back, revealing shoulders that glisten from the fading heat. That breath, it is the breath of anticipation.
And sometimes, the breath is a loud heavy force that stops the throat. Emerging into the intensity of this July heatwave, sirens and lights pushing their way through the impossible streets. Bodies clogged, clustered, lingering. Fights. So often, fights. The homeless, the fucked-up, the angry. There is a lot of anger in this city. There is so much… force. I see how one gets swallowed by it, sometimes maybe not even voluntarily. I see why so many millions think, “Where else? Where else could I find a place that has this pulse, so close to the loins?”
I notice women much more than I do men. I always have. But in this city, the men are (extremely loud) background noise. It is the women who define the real and literal erotic pull of this town. In the subway today, going uptown, I saw a latte-colored woman with a long, shoulder length afro. She was tall and perfectly proportioned. Her fingers were as long as river reeds and her arms were sculptural, but tiny. She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. And the sexual appeal of her: a halter top that revealed the sides of her small breasts, ear buds in her ears, listening to some music far away, swaying.
No one looked. Well, except me, but I’m a tourist. No one looked because there are women like that everywhere; they occupy the landscape as commonly as deer in the Colorado foothills in a September twilight. Extraordinary. And ordinary.
This is a strange, difficult, totally American and totally unique city. But it does seem, to me, to writhe, sometimes in suffering – the mentally ill are more present here than anywhere I’ve ever seen – sometimes in beauty. Often in both.
I’m going home tomorrow, and I’ll return to the bright blue of the Colorado mountains. Where I live the air is cleaner than Denver’s, and the sunsets glow with an electric, pink voltage; the vistas stun. But there is little force there, and certainly none of the erotic sort. Every day people dress like they are going to yoga or hiking, even when they are going to Starbucks and Target. And the hipsters look desperately like they want a New York, but certainly don’t want to pay for it.
I suppose it’s all interesting, it’s all strange. Every place has its own skin and those who love the feel of that particular sort of flesh. For me, I am nowhere, I live nowhere, except, perhaps, in the uncomfortable dream between memory and unsatisfied desire.
PS: Prince, wherever you are, I am sure New York already misses you.