In a series of statements that explore the essence of belonging and of living in New York City, former Akademie Schloss Solitude fellow Enos Nyamor reflects on appearance and disappearance in a metropolis. In a place like New York, arrival and departure are constant, and with it the vacuum of memory and reinvention. The following are abstractions on history of and culture in New York City.
After dark, the New York City skyline glistens on the calm East River like ice. The full moon trapped at a corner, now entangled and now free, glides over the breathing city. The city breathes. You breathe. Stars are silent, ten thousand of them, but sirens blast and fire engines hum day and night. Someone is dying; call the police.
There are two versions. Only the first is magical: You enter New York City; other faces enter yours, and from that instant all your burdens scatter. Those who come to meet this city through the filtered lenses of Hollywood films will be forever enamored by the texture of the sunlight, and the imposing skyscrapers, whose glass façades, awash in gold, glitter with strokes of sunlight. But it does not end there.
If the first account is intoxicating, awakening a desire, then the second version is a plea for reversion. Give me back my bliss and take your reality, you may cry. But once you enter New York City, the next step is to become a New Yorker, to make the city accept you as you are, with all the flaws and buffing. There is a place for everyone.
What you will never see on the silver screen, hidden from a tourist’s innocence, will plunge on you like thunder.
There is an express train that runs from the southern tip of Manhattan, rides and never stops, and in it is all the flotsam and jetsam of the Big Apple. If the train stops, it does so because the station is ugly, wall paint peeling, pipes leaking, and healthy rats meander between the rails. The rail cars reek of two weeks’ urine.
When it rains, as it often does, the skyline is shrouded in fog. The mist dangles in the air and wraps the conical crests. Some say everything that juts from the ground is the phallus. Sitting by the windowsill, enraptured, you follow each bead crawl down the window pane. It is warm and cozy. And when the snow falls, swirling in the air, and on the ground, piece by piece, it coagulates into a mound. Nature reclaims her home, molested by steel and drills and concrete, and when it fails, it unleashes her wrath on the unsheltered on the pavements – those who are homeless, live on cardboard, and whose material wealth is packed on a rickety trolley.
New York was an accident. Henry Hudson, an English adventurer and sailor, was sailing across the Atlantic, with a mission to find the backdoor to Asia. He attempted to sail up the Hudson River, which today marks the western boundary between the State of New York and New Jersey, but the river did not lead too far. He failed miserably and years later he would, together with his son, freeze to death after a mutiny. Still, he discovered the river, as if the natives had never seen it, and claimed it for the seven Dutch provinces, then embroiled in the Eighty Years’ War with Spain.
Then came the first and the second Anglo-Dutch War. First it was New Amsterdam, and then the English, threatening to unleash chaos, wrested control from the slavetrading Dutch West India company, and then renamed it New York – in honor of Prince James Stuart, Duke of York.
When you listen carefully at night, ears pressed on a tear and sweat-sodden pillow, you will feel the city breathing. Sounds are felt, and they appear and disappear with the rise and fall of each second. The old city is vanishing, and the new, sprouting from the ground, overhauls all fragments of memory. Pieces of Amsterdam are gone, but the ghosts are in buildings – three or four floors above the ground – with narrow windows. There is no canal, but the faces of older buildings, are embroidered with arches that are disintegrating. As they crumble, they become irreplaceable, and in their place only grey plaster flourish.
Suppose you were to embark on an adventure to the Antarctica, fleeing from something, but you don’t know what. You will run in circles, and then your feet, trembling with age and decay, lead you back to where you started. This city will not belong to you. It belongs to no one. The graveyard around the corner from which you marked your steps, is vanished and desecrated, and has become the municipal parking lot. Memories are concealed in the basement, where they gather layers of dust in the dark. You belong nowhere. You belong to the earth.
Perhaps it is only when it rains that it is possible to weep over the vacuum. Tears dissolve in rainwater, filling the puddles of desires. Melancholy is shame. You want grief; you want to be left to your misery, but there is nowhere to hide. Weeping is profane when the sparkling department stores can suspend anguish just by one more day. You want to weep today, why not tomorrow.
As you roll in a train, in the underground, faces lit by the reflections of smartphones avoid eye contact. The rail and the wheels clank. Necks bent but shoulders touching – a small price to pay. Stand clear of the closing doors please. I will step on your toes and my eyes will dig through your skull. I don’t love your gaze; you are violating me. Your flowing, fluffy hair is in the way, take it off me.
It takes seven years or more to be a New Yorker, someone whispers in my ears at party. I want to try my luck elsewhere, maybe somewhere sunny and less crowded. Which bridge are you taking on your way out? You say you are leaving Monday, why not Tuesday?