Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Invisible Cities [UPDATED]

A few days ago, I started thinking about a piece I read many years ago in the New York Review of Books. It was an essay about a certain little pocket park at the meeting of Broadway, West 106th Street, and West End Avenue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Though I rarely venture to that part of town these days, Straus Park has been well-known to me over the years. I worked with an opera coach on the Broadway side of the park, and collaborated on some art song recitals with an excellent pianist who lived on the West End side. In fact, there are dozens of voice teachers and repertoire coaches centered within a half-mile radius of the park, and several close friends from my past, mostly dispersed now, also lived nearby. I can't count the number of times I've walked past the park on Sunday evenings in all seasons of the year, but the memory of the park in summer stands out for me the most. (In fact, summer always seems to me to illuminate, even to gild, the city in all its dirt and noise. In summer, there's a strange phenomenon of absolute quiet that descends upon even the busiest streets at certain moments of the day; it's as if the summer brings oases of silence and solitude to the city, which, though they are of only a few seconds' duration, seem to buzz and hum with a kind of active peace.)

I couldn't remember either its title or its author, but I was able to locate the article, "Shadow Cities" by André Aciman, through a full-text search of the database of the New York Review, available through my university's library (unless you're a subscriber, the link will only allow you to access a portion of it, but the essay is also published in Aciman's collection False Papers).

Aciman describes little Straus Park and its environs as a place laboring under the weight of memory. He himself, like so many others, came to New York as an exile (he is an Egyptian Jew whose family was forced from their homeland in the 1950s). He relates his association with the semi-decrepit patch of concrete ringed by benches, which began when he was a doctoral student at Columbia:

I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past . . . . I hate it when stores change names, the way I hate any change of season, not because I like winter more than spring, or because I like old store X better than new store Y, but because . . . . [in] the disappearance of small things, I read the tokens of my own dislocation, of my own transiency. An exile reads change the way he reads time, memory, self, love, fear, beauty: in the key of loss. . . .

This was the year I rediscovered the Busch Quartet's 1930s recordings of Beethoven, and I imagined its members playing everywhere in those Old World, pre-war living rooms around Straus Park. And by force of visualizing them here I had projected them onto the park as well, so that its benches and the statue and the surrounding buildings and stores were, like holy men, stigmatized by Beethoven's music as it was played by a group of exiles from Hitler's Reich. . . .

Here you could come sit, and let your mind drift in four different directions: Broadway, which at this height had an unspecified Northern European cast; West End [Avenue], decidedly Londonish; 107th [Street], very quiet, very narrow, tucked away around the corner, reminded me of those deceptively humble alleys where one finds stately homes along the canals of Amsterdam. And 106th, as it descended toward Central Park, looked like the main alley of small towns on the Italian Riviera, where, after much trundling in the blinding light at noon and the stagnant odor of fuel from the train station where you just got off, you finally approach a sort of cove, which you can't make out yet, but which you know is there, hidden behind a thick row of Mediterranean pines, over which, if you really strain your eyes, you'll catch the tops of striped beach umbrellas jutting beyond the trees, and beyond these, if you could just take a few steps closer, the sudden, spectacular blue of the sea.

I distinctly remember, when I read this essay in 1997, feeling exhausted and irritated by Aciman's somewhat strained, I thought, comparison of the streetscapes of the Upper West Side to places like London and the Italian Riviera. First of all, I told myself, it doesn't look anything like that. And secondly, why couldn't he just be in the moment, just be where he was? Why must everything be overlain with the patina of loss, seen through the lens of regret?

In the intervening years, however, I have come to feel much as Aciman does. I am not an exile in the physical, geographical sense; I've been a New Yorker for the past twenty-three years. But my New York is like every tourist's Rome: a city built upon layers and layers of the past. My New York does not conjure images of other cities, but rather ghosts of my own life within its borders. A corner like 106th and Broadway is like a memory vault for me: in fact, there are hundreds of street corners in the city which, if I took myself on a walking tour of my past, would cause me to shed tears of grief, regret, embarrassment, loss, and resignation.

A city like this is a tabula rasa for those who come to it in varying states of exile. For those of us who come to maturity here, it becomes a palimpsest, a pentimento, upon which we attempt to write our lives, scratch them out, and start over again.

The historian Karl F. Morrison has written:

Conversion is often portrayed as a positive event, a turning toward. It also has a negative aspect, a turning away. The event of formal adhesion [to the new faith] may consist of this flight toward the future and from the past. But . . . . the old life overshadows the understanding of the new. The event may produce a transformation; but something resistant to change informs understanding it, and retention of the old may indeed have been a condition without which there could have been no change.

As much as I have wished to turn away from the old life in my ongoing conversion, I can never be free of it. My hope now is that it will remain not only as a thorn in my flesh in the Pauline sense, but that some beauty might be born of it.

(The statue pictured above is the guiding spirit, so to speak, of Straus Park: a memorial to a married couple who perished on the Titanic, it is called "Memory.")

UPDATE (correction): Aciman's family went into exile in the 1960s, not the 1950s, as I have it above.


Andre aciman said...

I am in Paris this week, after spending a few days in Rome. I love your entry... and am totally grateful. Thank you.


Pentimento said...

How kind of you to comment on my post. I am grateful for your beautiful essay, which, in my maturity, I have fallen in love with. I wish you safe and peaceful travels.