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You can't resettle me! A defense of New York by a stubborn inhabitant.


Dr. Rexford G. Tugwell has aplan for moving people out of crowded cities into model villages where they will be comfortable. He believes that most of the inhabitants of a place like New York City live there needlessly and might better be somewhere else. He is beginning by transplanting workers in the needle trades, but it won't be long before he gets round to me. I am a resident of New York, and I could conceivably be shifted to a more plausible environment, but I don't want to be. I have no desire to be resettled. Hightstown, New Jersey, may be more comfortable than Manhattan Island, but I don't want to be comfortable. I just want to live in New York. However, I realize that this may sound stubborn of me, perhaps even un-American; and I feel under some compulsion to explain and justify my unnecessary presence in New York--if not to Dr. Tugwell, at least to myself--and to examine critically needless and beloved surroundings.

Hightstown's Loss

Live where one may, there is a kindof needlessness about it. This quality in life I find important to my health. New York is such an unlikely spot that the very implausibility of one's existence there lends a heroic flavor to the adventure, nourishing and sustaining a man through his sunless winters, his airless summers. Besides, your confirmed New Yorker not only regards the city as indispensable to his own life, but he secretly believes himself indispensable to the life of the city. Were I to allow a benevolent government to transplant me and my possessions to Hightstown, New Jersey, I would fully expect to catch, in the still country air, some distant sounds of metropolitan falling off, caused by my having quit the place.

I don't know that I particularly approveof New York, yet that is not a sufficient reason for moving away. I have heard it said that New York offers cultural advatages, but these are sought not so much by us residents as by transients, who ravish the town in a three-day orgy and go home tired. The theater, the music, the art are not responsible for New York's dense population; quite the reverse, they are the by-products of congestion. The twisted millions who flourish on the island are no seekers after culture and art. They seek--and many have found--money, a congenial abiding place, a home. Their ability to discover, in an expensive and unventilated apartment, the soil for the roots of life reveals a special sort of character, a special sort of need.

The world is full of all kinds ofpeople, and it appears that some of them have to live in town to be happy. There is the type of person, for example, who needs company at mealtime. Temperamentally, he is unequipped to eat anywhere save in a restaurant. To eat quietly in the privacy of his dwelling makes him restless and gives him a sense of defeat. Obviously, for such a person, the perfect place is New York, where one may dine in a different restaurant every night of one's life, or where one may simply pick out one restaurant and dine there, never varying it and always being sure of meeting a friend. I know one lady in New York who has lived and worked in the city for a score of years; I don't suppose in that entire period she has eaten a dozen meals at her own board. In fact, I very much doubt that she owns a board that has ever groaned under so much as a poached egg. During the few intervals when she was too sick to get up and go out to a restaurant, she simply transferred herself to a hospital and was fed from a tray until she regained sufficient strength again to sit upright in her old haunts.

Fourth-Street Castle

And there is the oppositetype, from whom New York seems equally well suited; the mousy little body who never took the slightest interest in her mother's kitchen back in Tannersville, but whose domestic instinct suddenly flowers in the exquisite inconvenience of preparing a meal for two on a gas flame in a tiny bathroom in West Fourt Street with the paint flaking off the walls and sifting gently down into the mashed potatoes. Every night in the year, in the great city, unbelievable culinary excesses are committed in nonhousekeeping one-room apartments, in closets and behind bathroom doors wide open so that one dines in full view of the plumbing. I have had many a meal in New York--and some rather memorable ones--amid such unwholesome surroundings; and I once dined with a happy couple who could pass from the kitchen to the living room only by the incredible contortion of stepping over a sunken bathtub an ingenious landlord had installed, like a moat, between the two rooms. The oddity of this arrangement seemed to enchant the host and hostess and gave their lives point. (This was some years ago. I now insist that all bathroom vistas be closed off by screens when I come as guest, for I am getting old and am not so keen as I once was.)

Because he has denied himself theabundant life that would be his if he lived anywhere else--sunlight, trees, grass, limitless sky, white snow, the revolving seasons, wind in the branches, flowers--the New Yorker frantically invents the urban equivalent of his natural inheritance. He becomes a gardener, a nature lover, a nudist, and a member of a ski club. There being very little greenery in his world, he paints the walls of his apartment green and tortures an ivy plant and several hot little cactuses into a steamy existence over a radiator. There being almost no opportunity to exercise in a normal way, he mounts a rented horse at great expense and gallops through the park along well-defined trails or plays tennis feverishly beneath glaring lights in an armory on a surface badly chewed up by motor lorries and small cannon. He approximates earth's fertility with a tank of guppies and a paper-white narcissus. He is hyperconscious of the seasons and, being at the mercy of florists, is always two or three jumps ahead of Nature herself, his living room full of pussy willows at Christmas, forsythia on Lincoln's Birthday, and lilacs at Easter. Indeed, to the city dweller the countryside, when he occasionally gets out into it, always appears slightly laggard, for he sees repeated again the blooms that flourished weeks ago in his own vases in town.

Roof-Garden Farmers

I think Dr. Tugwell, in stressinghow needless my habitat is, fails to appreciate how completely New York satisfies the need of persons who require that life be in concentrated form, an in a capsule. I am such a person, and mine is a real emotional need. When the physical properties of my existence are most concise, when they are collected and arranged in a few cubic feet of space, as in a one-room apartment or a 30-foot boat, I am happiest with them and understand them best and love them most consumingly. Give me a 16-room house in the middle of 50 acres, and with so much to command I would find my attention scattered, my love attenuated. Among hundreds of trees, I do not come to know one. In the city, a house--for the average resident--simmers down to a room, a garden to a geranium plant, a wood lot to an ailanthus tree. Life, concentrated as by a sunglass, comes to a point and burns with an intense fire.

My neighbor across the court,who may have been brought up in Montana or Texas for all I know, discovers a patch of roof eight by ten feet outside his window; it becomes, for a spell, the compelling force in his life, awakening in him an undreamed-of propensity for seedtime and harvest. With the first warm days of March he is out thre, seeing to his fences. On his ten-foot ranch he feels in command of the situation. This year, perhaps there will be a pool, made of tin, to harbor goldfish under conditions manifestly unbearable to them. They will be part of the plan. I understand my neighbor's emotions and share his pride and his fervor. Horticulturally, I, too, am a monogamist. I can plant a bean and lavish upon the growing vine an attention little short of fanatical, but give me a whole row of beans an I lose interest. I am unable to cope with large-scale enterprise. New York, with its extreme space restrictions, by allowing me only one bean vine satisfies an urgent need of my simple nature--the need of boiling life down. I respect people who are more expansive and who are able to enjoy and cope with whole rows of vegetation, but I cannot be like them, and mine must be a small domain. Once, in West 13th Street, a window box outside my ledge produced a feeble creeper that, in due time, bloomed. Later, with the brooding days of August, wild grasses arrived, and a surprised and grateful caterpillar. Here was fertility of a high order. The grasses sang with all the winds that ever blew, and they were wet by great and important rains. Above them in the burning sky, like yellow suns, the L trains rose and set.

It is when I am temporarilyaway from the city that I appreciate how necessary it is to my existence. As I write these words I am sojourning in the country--not in Hightstown, to be sure, but in a spot even farther removed from Manhattan. I can feel the city over all these miles, and it is as though I were there. I can be anywhere I want to, in imagination, and know just how it is. I am in bed. It is a mid-summer morning in town, before the heat of the day has become quite real, while it is still a threat. The night has been

unendurable. Families from the uptown tenements of the East Side, by the railroad tracks, have stayed out late in Central Park, lying out on the grass patches, the children yelling their games after dark, all sounds brighter and more painful, fellows and girls stretched in the bottom of rowboats on the pond, kissing, the beer in the cafes warm before it reaches the drinker, drugstore fountains jammed, the air saturated with the smell of syrups, the soda jerkers' white coats wilted with perspiration. Then the sleepless night, and now the cracking bright day.

There is something passionateabout the early hours of a scorcher in town, a vibration, as though something fierce were brewing, a thunderstorm of the sense. At eight o'clock, from the doorway of a dress shop, a porter appears carrying a bottle of viscous liquid he proceeds to rub listlessly on the bronze nameplate, smearing it carelessly, so that after the polishing is done a stain is left on the surrounding wall. I know everything as though I were there. I can hear the bells of Madison Square tumbling sweetly down on the ears of converters of cotton fabrics in East 21st Street. I can feel the coolness of tellers in banks on the hot morning, their gray-linen jackets, the high, cool room full of accuracy and interest silently compounding, an oasis in the heat, for deposit or withdrawal. I am descending the L stairs at 42nd Street, into the east-west undertow. I am sucked under, behind a thin, greasy old man who is being carried west. Despite the heat, he is wearing an old yellow army overcoat, for being without any home where he can leave a coat from winter to winter, he wears it the year round, as he wears his skin. I turn north on Sixth Avenue, toward the employment bureaus and the shops that sell cheap luggage.

The Sidewalks of New York

From a penny arcade comes thesnap-snap of a .22 rifle--some jobless pantryman buying a last chance to regain his sense of importance by hitting a moving duck on a breathless day. At Lewis & Conger I pause vacantly to examine the latest miracle in household furnishing, knowing that when the first crisp day of fall comes, a fossilized lady of a fine old New York family will step out of an antique limousine and enter the store to limousine and enter the store to track down a super moth chest or an electric eggbeater. I am speeding into town at the wheel of a car approaching fast and hot via the Pulaski Skyway--it's my way--high over Jersey--a sky conqueror, the city in full view, the swift tire tread singing too loud in the hot lanes, the ridiculously scant interval between my speeding car and the speeding car just ahead, a fabulous approach, entering the Land of Oz at 55, at 60. I know how it feels to slow up for the ticket booths at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, the clutch out, the hand fingering in the sticky damp pocket for the 50[ piece, the loud underwater passage in the white-tiled cavern--a dream bathroom--the policeman goading me on with an impatient sweep of the arm to even greater and more fantastic and perilous passage.

City of the Present Tense

I often suspect that, were the matterlooked into, it would turn out that New york City is so popular a sanctuary because it compensates for the deficiencies of one's character. There's a theme for Dr. Tugwell: The Relation of the Metropolis to Character Weakness. I do know this: for many people, the town gives to life, as nothing else does, the illusion of significance. That is an important factor in getting through the day. The mere presence on a small island of so many people up to so many tricks, in so many attitudes of attention or despair or connivance, somehow suggests that life, perhaps, has some mysterious meaning after all--otherwise the citizens would disperse of their own accord and go someplace where it is comfortable. The restlessness of the town is both convincing and contagious. The whole city quivers; even inanimate objects of art in hushed museums move slowly across their shelves in the course of a year, feeling the universal vibration. I like to think of them, as I trot down the avenue at a good clip. I am a faint-hearted voyager in this world, and I require--or at any rate, I am grateful for--any assurance, however spurious, that my journey means something. The city in some intangible way gives me that assurance. Descend, if you please, into the great hall of the Grand Central Terminal at quarter to nine of an October morning; the room probably contains more persons on errands of doubtful import than any other place in the world, yet I defy anyone to miss the air of great goings on. Under the stars of its dome, among the shifting bulletins that flap the news of destinations, life becomes charged with a heavenly disturbance, and the heart fills and responds as to a blood transfusion. Luckily, I am content to accept this suggestion of meaningful existence without analyzing it; and if at length the room seems too terribly chock-full of meaning, think of the choice of exists--down a ramp to an oyster stew, up a flight to a frosted chocolate, through a door to the Yale Club, down a hatch to the shuttle, along a corridor to a taxi, down a stairway to a ten-cent private dressing room, or through some palms to the lobby of the commodore.

New York has nother guilefultrick: It accents the present. When I lie by the sea at the foot of a dune, or browse in a pasture during the carnival of grasshoppers, or walk in the dreary outskirts of a suburb in midafternoon where the red salvia stands guard over the straight front paths to the white front doors, I almost always hear in the wind intimations of great times long dead and eternities ahead, the rumble of centuries, the long sigh of forever. But when I walk in Fifth Avenue, cheerful among the shops, or recline in a deck chair atop the RCA Building, I receive no news of the past or forecast of the future, but instead feel a glad, almost childish, recognition of the present. New York has many moods, but most of them deal with Now. Only occiasionally, as on certain holidays such as Washington's Birthday, when the stores are closed, the trucks silent, the residents in their apartments closeted with radio, the sky and the parks forlorn, does one slip into another tense. Thus, by sticking to the present, New York panders to another weakness in our character; only the strong can remember the past and listen to the future as a steady diet. The city gives us today, and the evil thereof, as diveting and soothing as a game of Canfield.

"How can you live in New york?"people ask, their voices full of surprise and pity. I have had commuters ask it--men who have worked in the city every day of their lives without ever having discovered what the place is like after hours, without ever having heard it on a foggy night, lying in bed, the boat whistles full of the ominous grief of departures, liners crying good-by from the piers, freights wailing farewell on the West Side. I do not understand commuters. Imagine coming to the greatest fair in the country in the morning, spending the day, and then turning tail and running at the end of the afternoon, merely because dinner is waiting at the other end of 30 miles of railroad track.

Adventures of an Amateur Sleuth

If I am to play fair with the reader--andwith Dr. Tugwell--I supposed must admit that I also love New York because it is the best city for following people in. I am a follower. I follow men, women, and children unbeknown to them. It is a habit I have never tried to break myself of because I know how innocent I really am in my shadowing. I have no motive. There is nothing either dark or sinister in may curiosity, nothing predatory. I turn in behind someone on the street because he or she is queer, or beautiful, or said, or lost, or troubled, and I skirt along furtively at a little distance in the crowd, never observed by the person followed, wholly engrossed--for the brief moment--in his life. His destiny and his destination become mine, suddenly. A hundred times I have stopped dead in my tracks on seeing a face that demanded to be followed. I have gone dozens of miles off my course, paid untold subway fares in the pursuit of my subject, quite satisfied at length to have my quest end with my man or my woman ringing a doorbell in Brooklyn, or buying a book in a Washington Heights drugstore, or keeping a rendezvous at the automat. Never have I been caught at my game. It is one of the coziest feelings a man can experience, to sit opposite someone in the BMT and keep tabs on him unobserved, like a private detective. I have often wondered whether other people are followers, too, and whether I have ever been followed.

I have been absent from New Yorklong enough. Pure country air has anesthetized me--I am as fat and quiet as a pumpkin. I miss the stimulation New York gives; I know that when I return, the city will be as insistent as the tug of the Pullman porter's hand through the curtains in the early morning. I am afraid that it is mere pose to say that the city satisfies some specialneed--I am trying to hide my nostalgia by making it seem a more subtle and less sentimental emotion. The truth is, I miss all the places and things I know well. I miss Admiral David Farragut, who, through some hilarious idiosyncrasy of the park department, was left stranded two years ago on the roof of a shack in Madison Square, looking like an overdressed house painter who had forgotten his brushes. I miss Turkish halvahs and coconuts, and the camouflaged gas tanks of the North River, and the Vanderbilt Avenue taxi entrance, where gas fumes welcome the stranger to town and give him a taste of what's to come. I shall like to hear again the quavering sound of my neighbor's flute playing French nursery songs at midnight, shall like to see again old women wheeling baby carriages full of pretzels. I shall like the simmer and buzz of fall twilights, the cool drafts from the underground vents, the bedroom mosquitoes that hatched in the stagnant toilets of the apartment while I was gone. The seasons roll quickly in my mind's eye, in my mind's ear. It is the full of the moon and the telescope man waits sullenly by his car, his telescope sheathed, waiting for the clouds to drift away and reveal his peekaboo planet. In the rutting season I see taxis locking fenders in the great forest, as bucks lock horns in mortal combat, unable to separate after a desperate struggle for supremacy. I see Christ reborn prematurely in November in all the department stores, and ragamuffins on Thanksgiving Day on the Avenue, clutching at the gentlemen's coats, smoking the gentlemen's butts. I hear the scratching and the roar of snow-removal squads on still, cold nights when the streets are caked after an ice storm. From a seat in the Side Arena I watch red, white, and blue hockey players beating one another fiercely with sticks on the coffee-colored ice of the Garden, under the big lights, under the big Canterbury-bell amplifiers. In the empty morning hours I am getting home from someplace on the subway, and the two men across the aisle from me--one of them wears a shirt with purple-flower design and semistiff collar--study me with a too close attention, so that I get up and move into another car, knowing that they know that I suspect them. From the top of a springtime bus I look down and see a young Communist girl, in red marching pajamas, wending happily homeward after the May Day parade, arm in arm with her radical lover, flaunting sex freedom in the forthright way of young thinkers. I know where, under the green willows of the Park, the two electric launches Artemis and Athena lie, full-bodied in the spring. I turn into the public library on a dozing June afternoon, and again the old, sweet question engages my fancy: Will it take me to the north hall, where I will sit facing south, among the oaken tables and the beetling brows and the whispered love? Or will it take me to the south hall, where I will sit facing north, among the oaken tables and the dreaming faces, under the long shafts of golden light?

I am sure Dr. Tugwell, for all hishigh hopes of a better world, will not begrudge me these small necessities.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:White, E.B.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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