Our Town downtown
December 3, 2006
This big city can look good from all sorts of angles. If the photo books you've seen don't capture all of the vantage points, some exhaustive photo web sites do. There's not a view blushing unseen in this town.
There are a lot of spots that satisfy my eye. Most of them involve apartment buildings with stoops and fire escapes. None of them involve new buildings. When I first moved here, I made the observation to the friends I'd left behind in the Midwest that the people here were just the same as they were back there; they just had better looking buildings as backdrops to their activities here and that made them look more interesting. I said that in part to make them not feel left out, but I really did mean it. It's been brought home to me many times since—when I'm on a bus or in a cab cruising by Penn Station or the Garden. NO ONE looks interesting in front of those places. The same people back in their neighborhoods, walking in front of a row of apartment buildings with fire escapes and stoops, look cool—and look like they’re on their way to more cool.
Here's why that's on my mind today. I just returned from a few days in Jackson, Wyoming where I was visiting my youngest daughter, who has lived out there for 10 years already, and members of my extended family who happened to be there for Thanksgiving. It’s like being in another country at first, but once I got acclimated to some stunning visual differences, and acclimated to being around my daughter in the flesh instead of by e-mails and photos of her propped against books on my shelves, I loved it like everyone who goes there does, and I saw New York from there as being as cramped and crowded as a weekend movie theater. My eyes were stretched by the vastness of the place, and the daily sights of the Tetons and the majesty of the Elk Refuge redefined for a few days what beauty was.
Oh, I got into it. I wanted a Carhart jacket and an old Subaru station wagon with two dogs in the back, or at least I wanted the women who were driving them. I wanted to know how to ski, though I’ve been saying that for 10 years. I even thought of fishing and hunting. The people there looked independent to me and they looked good going about their day with the mountains as a backdrop (in front of Penn Station who knows).
If you figure the people who left their country and came to America must have been wilder-eyed than their neighbors who just stayed put there, you have to figure the folks who left Vermont to go out to Jackson Hole must have a wild-eyed look too. They do.
On the bus to Salt Lake City the last day out there (the planes were grounded because of snow), there was a guy in front of me who was 69 years-old, with a wide jaw and wire-rims and wild eyes and thick hair, who worried that he might not make his plane connections to Buenos Aires where he was meeting a friend and a guide to go hiking in Chile. He had a wife who was 27 years younger, and that wasn’t working out he said. He sat there in a blue watch cap reading a Penguin paperback of The Canterbury Tales. I wanted to know more people like him and didn’t want to leave just yet. But the plane taking me and two other daughters and one son-in-law was leaving for Newark later that day.
The ride from Newark to my apartment didn’t shake me out of missing the views of Jackson Hole. Neither did the single-lane, under-repair trip through the Holland Tunnel. But once we emerged out the other end, there it was, there they were—the fire-escape apartments and the stoops in front. Up the block were bars and newsstands and small restaurants with neon signs. It felt like home. There was nobody at home waiting for me. But these buildings and the way they were arranged were warm enough just then.
-- Bill Gunlocke