I haven't been back to the city yet, but here's what I miss: the corners. The average Manhattan corner is a conjunction of lines and forces as potent as any that allegedly converge on, say, Stonehenge. I'm not referring to the unearthed electrical wires, which are another, much scarier, story in the news lately. Rather, I mean the geomancy of the grid.
The shape of a city turns a simple walk into not just an expedition, but a transformation. Slicing my way through the pedestrian traffic in Tokyo, I used to imagine that I was a fish, one of those mouthy, swishy, muscly koi you see in the ponds at temples and in parks. They swerve around each other, a tangle of orange and white and black, carefully maintaining their own personal space, and miraculously no fish ever bumps into another.
New York, with its sheer angularity, feels different. You become a chess-piece, an implacable rook proceeding uninterrupted down one of the broad north-south avenues, surfing the light-changes, getting where you need to go in a nice straight line. Or you're a knight, zig-zagging at the last minute into or out of a side-street. Or you can slide down Broadway through midtown, cutting across the other avenues at an angle as rakish as a bishop.
Whether you're walking north-south or west-east, each intersection is a square-dance, in which you do-si-do with as random an assortment of partners as you’ll find anywhere, then swing yourself along to the next (or pause for a moment to curtsey and bow: stories of new lovers or old friends who meet while waiting for the lights to change are a sweet New York cliché). An irregular intersection, like Straus Park at 107th St, feels like a jazz step, a syncopation that takes a block or two to reintegrate into the rhythm of your walk.
And each corner offers a multiple choice list of vistas in four directions: a, b, c, d, or, if you spin around quickly, all of the above. Emerging from a side street, you encounter the broad avenue to left and right, offering you views uptown and down, as well an instant lesson in perspective. Who needs Brunelleschi? There’s your vanishing point, right there. Or, glancing off the avenue into a cross-street, you find a shaded lane, a glimpse of the park or the river, or as we used to every day, the façade of the world’s biggest cathedral.
Even the side streets sometimes have side streets, like the elegant, cobbled Washington Mews, near Washington Square Park, or the curious Pomander Walk, behind Symphony Space between 94th and 95th Sts, a tiny street of half-timbered houses with window-boxes full of flowers. It’s like a stage set. Funnily enough, it was, in fact, inspired by a stage set.
On that note, I also miss the theatricality of city life, the way you leave the apartment and assume a role for the day, thus achieving anonymity and personality in a single stroke. What’s your real name? Who cares? You’re a roving pair of eyes looking for an in, or an out. It’s like a massive game of theatresports: someone will throw you a line or a situation, and you jump in, wait your turn, or sit it out and watch. There’s plenty of action on the boulevards, but it’s often the side streets that often provide the strangest moments.
One of Busytot’s favourite NYC books is the odd How Little Lori Visited Times Square, written by Amos Vogel and illustrated by that disturbing genius Maurice Sendak. It’s the story of a little boy who suddenly realizes he’s never been to Times Square, and his many, futile efforts to get there. The subway drops him off at South Ferry. The train takes him to his uncle’s place in Queens. The taxi driver kicks him out because he doesn’t have the fare. A horse and carriage only gets him as far as Central Park. Finally, he meets a friendly turtle who -- speaking veeeery slowly, with only two words to a page -- offers him a ride.
Not to give the ending away, but the book wraps up with a line that is both funny and creepy: “And that was four months ago, and nobody has seen them since...” (I confess I sometimes change it to “And they’re still not there yet,” which is marginally more reassuring to the parental soul).
Anyway, just before we left the city I realized that Busytot hadn’t actually been to Times Square for a long long time, certainly not recently enough to have a feel for what the mystery destination in the book might actually be. Although I can’t help thinking that my little breastfed toddler would have appreciated the topless ladies of the pre-Giuliani Times Square more than the cleaned up Toys R Us Disneyfied version, it seemed a sin to merely read about it without making a field trip, especially when it was just a single train ride away.
So we cleverly arranged to visit Times Square en route to meet his Dad at Grand Central Station (as seen in Maira Kalman's busy, fizzy Next Stop Grand Central), thus making for a double-header book-related pilgrimage. We came up out of the subway at 42nd St to the expected riot of brilliant lights, running news tickers, flickering neon and eddying whorls of thrilled and appalled tourists. "Voila!" I said. "Times Square!" And then we looked down a side street and saw a wailing, flashing convocation of fire engines. Hey, no contest.
We stood with the crowd for half an hour, as rescue vehicles came and went, and a portly, long-suffering cop herded the hovering rubberneckers (us) across the street like a flock of unruly sheep. Emergency workers hauled a buzzsaw up a ladder and cut a hole in wooden sheeting. Someone, it transpired, had fallen from a nearby building and was stuck behind the scaffolding. Unaware of the human drama, Busytot was mightily impressed with the equipment, although I explained to him that it was all in the service of rescuing a person. Rumour buzzed up and down the street, New Yorkers called each other on cellphones, and sidewalk superintendents of one stripe or another kept up a running commentary on the action.
Then a red double-decker tour bus rounded the corner (the same line that loops up past the Cathedral a dozen or more times a day). Like a synchronized swimming team, the camera-wielding tourists turned, as one, from the glitzy gleam of Times Square proper to the unreadable spectacle on 42nd St, elbowing each other out of the way, pointing and commenting and recording it all for posterity.
“Wouldja lookit that,” came a snicker from someone at my elbow. “Tourists.” Like we weren’t? But of course we weren’t. We were just citizens doing our duty, daily extras in the film of a day in the life of New York, spear carriers in the vast metropolitan opera, happy to turn up, turn a corner, and stand on our marks.
Now, whenever we read the Little Lori book, Busytot notes to himself, “Guys cut a hole in the wall. Rescue a person. That what Time Square.” After our gruesomely fun-filled outing, he has his own native memory of a legendary spot. Not quite “Remember when they had topless gals and peep shows for a quarter and you could get a sandwich and a coffee after at the automat?” -- but close enough.