Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Most Fatally Fascinating Thing in America

On first visiting New York, James Weldon Johnson wrote: My blood ran quicker, and I was just beginning to live. To some natures this stimulant of life in a great city becomes a thing as binding and necessary as opium to one addicted to the habit. It becomes the breath of life; they cannot exist outside of it; rather than be deprived of it they are content to suffer hunger, want, pain and misery; they would not exchange even a ragged and wretched condition among the great crowd for any degree of comfort away from it. (The Auto-Biography of an Ex-Colored Man)

This makes me think of: beautiful grimy studios in the Lower East Side; the old remorseless ascent of London property prices which made the idea of ever owning my own home seem faintly ridiculous; the push of people into crowded restaurants while their neighbour stands forlornly empty; the hum of Manhattan's streets and the more subtle syncopation of Brooklyn's tree-lined avenues.It makes me plot my own history from village to small town to university city to big city to foreign capital to London to New York and wonder where next I can go when I need a bigger hit of urbanity. New Delhi? Hong Kong? Beijing?

For it is the cities themselves I love, not the crush of humanity in them. In a crowd my heart starts to race and my breathing quicken; I look around for an escape, and all I can see is blank faces and pushing bodies, just as deadly and impersonal as any other animal stampede.

So what exactly is it, then, that makes up the base elements of this "breath of life" that animates this playground of steel and shops and people and toy dogs and hot-dog stalls and parks which are like the countryside but better kept and more alive? It is a calm, open sense of possibility amidst the chaos, a freedom that no endless horizon could ever offer, the chance to disappear but also to carve yourself out a small world from the sprawling, unmanageable one you've gotten lost in.

And I like all the happy hours.

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