I am a New York City booster. And I travel its streets with all its positives and negatives crammed into my head, coloring everything I do, everything I see, everything I feel.
I am very familiar with the city. And I love the sheer unpredictability of it, the Mad-Hatter kinetic energy. The zany atmosphere, the zany people, the zany sense that anything can happen that permeates this cramped little island pleases me greatly.
But none of this, or perhaps all of this, prepared me for the sight of Lower Manhattan looming out of the mist one fine, but very ordinary, day as I chugged into port on the Staten Island Ferry.
It happened a long time ago, so some of the details may have been slightly reshaped by that mysterious telescope of time. But the vivid image, stamped so indelibly into my mind at that time, has resisted every mental and emotional interference.
It was early evening, the time of day (or night) the French like to call “l’heure bleu”. The sky was hovering indecisively between a pinkish mauve and a deep, intense blue. Stars were flickering faintly, and a silvery bit of moon was perched impudently just to the right of the Statue of Liberty. Lights had begun to appear along the coast line – everything seemingly timed and synchronized by a master scenic designer.
Leaning over the railing, staring at the dark blue water lapping noisily against the side of the boat, I had, for some time, been unaware of anything outside the inner walls of my head. My thoughts were turning totally inward, concerned only with the conflicting details of a meeting I had just attended on Staten Island and trying to keep at bay the conflicting details of another meeting I was to attend in Manhattan in just one hour.
I shifted my gaze from the water, surprised to see a world shrouded in a strange shadowy mist. And suddenly, there it was, emerging melodramatically out of the dusk like some reinvented Shan-gri-La or a newly-risen Atlantis.
Much has been said, and even much more written, about the heart-stopping sight of Lower Manhattan when approached from the water. Immigrants speak of a first sighting filled with hope and awe and fear. Passengers on fashionable ocean liners speak of its charm and elegance. Returning serviceman must experience something we can’t even understand.
But this was me, a jaded, cynical New Yorker. I was familiar with its spiky, angular beauty. I knew all its peaks and towers and turrets – the squared-off, supremely confident Twin Towers, the stoic Empire State Building, tall and stalwart in its second-place importance, refusing to be overshadowed by anything. And my absolute favorite, the brave and beautiful Chrysler Building, defiantly thrusting its outrageously gorgeous hub-capped head into the sky for all to see.
I had seen it all before, been moved by it all before. But suddenly, perhaps it was the hour, a trick of lighting, or simply fatigue – but I no longer saw just that beautiful picture, that flat, one-dimensional world-famous snapshot. My imagination had begun its preliminary drumbeat, tugging at everything I knew to be behind the brilliant façade.
Manhattan was not just a collection of tall buildings, however much the ad-men would like the world to believe it. Within its narrow borders were other buildings, smaller buildings, buildings made of glass and steel and granite and wood. There were offices and apartments, shops and restaurants, churches and schools and theatres and tenements.
And there were streets, long, impressive avenues, numerical cross-streets marking off sections like Chelsea and SoHo, Tribeca and Greenwich Village and Harlem. There were even crooked little paved-over lanes with names like Pine and Cedar and MacDougal and Malden Lane, mementos of a New York long vanished.
And there were people – millions and millions of people – the sum total of an all too often desperate human migration from every desperate corner of the globe.
All of this swept unrelentingly over me as I stood transfixed on the Staten Island Ferry. My brain spun wildly round and my heart stumbled at the pure living theatre of it all – the magnificent set and ingenious lighting, the gorgeous scenery, the fascinating cast, and the depth and drama of its story-line.
My brain sauntered casually into this brief turbulence, offering reasonable, rational, soothing sounds – it was my over-active imagination tugging once again at its moorings. And so it was. But just this one time, I made no effort to stop it.
Dorothy Jaroschy's entire career has been in the field of Classical music and has included Assistant Programming DIrector of Lincoln Center's Great Performers Series and Mostly Mozart Festival. She also worked as a fledgling booking agent in several small but profoundly hardworking concert bureaus!