My car arrived in the darkness before dawn: a darkness that is never really quite convincing in this city that tolerates the night more than accommodating itself to it. I looked out my window on the quiet Manhattan street below. It seemed pent up with an unnatural energy, biding none-too-patiently for the first magic rays of gold that would break the spell and waken it to bustling, incorrigible, indefatigable life again. There is no press of humanity like the crowded sidewalks of New York City, tourists and natives alike all going and being and doing with such a frenzied intention—and never for a moment forgetting the wild wonder of where on earth they are.
My sister came with me to the curb to see me off and we hugged fiercely one last time in the murky gloom of the streetlights. Four days of laughing till we cried and breakfast at noon and comfortable silence and endless things to say. The long leisure of serious talk and the equal luxury of levity. Old inside jokes and new beautiful memories all heaped with such wealth I staggered under the glad burden.
“Who would have thought that four days in The City That Never Sleeps could leave me so rested?” I wrote her later.
And yet, it was true. Admittedly tired in body, a little sleep deprived and slightly over-caffeinated, yet I was restored and refreshed in so many ways by my time with my sister in her city. She loves it so much; it is evident in every gesture and every look, in the way she strides down the thronging sidewalks with a sense of modest possessiveness and threads the indecipherable maze of the subway. You can hear it in the way she speaks of “The Village” and “The Res” and “The El” without the least hint of affectation. Spurning what she calls the “transplant mentality”, she embraces New York frankly for what it is and with the candid eye of affection accepts its enigmas and frailties along with its towering, titanic superlatives.
“It’s not perfect,” she said, as we walked past a row of tree-shaded brownstones on the Upper West Side. “And it’s not better than home, or any other place people happen to come from. It’s just different—it is what it is.”
It’s New York—the most incomprehensible city on earth. I feel that the essence of all that is best and worst about American culture can be found here in undiluted intensity. Times Square, where I was cat-called, “Hey, Blondie!” and had something unidentifiable spilled in my shoe, is the most garish monument imaginable to a consumer society. Last time we were there I was so over-stimulated I was looking for the exit. Knowing how I feel about it, Liz took me through as a little joke, en route from Port Authority to the subway.
“I thought you needed a sensory overload,” she laughed.
And yet, the real overload for me is always Central Park. I can never believe that it’s really that lovely, or that the original 1850’s designers would really have had the remarkable foresight to set aside 700 acres in the midst of what would become a city of eight million people.
“What would New York be without it?” I asked my sister as we sauntered along the Reservoir in the shimmering haze of a summer afternoon.
The rushes were gold-tipped along the fringe of the water and the buildings of Central Park West across the way glistened with silver like a celestial city. There was some exquisite fragrance abroad, and the old trees beneath which we passed were heavy with crabapples, heralding autumn. As at any other time I’ve ever set foot in Central Park, I felt I needed to be looking in all directions at once; there was too much beauty to rest my eyes long in any one place. Everything New York does, it seems, even a cultivated wilderness in the heart of a concrete jungle, is on the grandest scale imaginable.
Liz had told me we’d need a month to do all the things she had in mind, but despite a rather languid pace, we managed to knock a good chunk off of the list she had composed for my visit. We hit her favorite coffee shop in Union Square and had a sidewalk brunch at the French Roast I love on Broadway. We had tapas in Hell’s Kitchen and ice cream overlooking the Hudson. An aperitif and appetizers in the rooftop garden of her building and a shared falafel under an awning in the rain.
At the Neue Galerie on 5th Avenue, we had the most exquisite Viennese encounter with pastries and kaffee crème (she had the linzertorte and I put away a schwarzwälder kirschtorte) at the famed Café Sabarsky inside the museum. I thoroughly enjoyed the Klimts and the early twentieth century decorative art of the exhibit, but I have to wonder if the art of the humanity around us in the café was not even more interesting. It truly felt like a glimpse of Old World Europe, with a gentleman perusing a German newspaper on one hand and a party consuming a hundred dollar bottle of champagne on the other.
We also managed to do a considerable amount of damage in the shops of SoHo. I’m not a big fan of shopping in and of itself (my husband may respectfully disagree, citing the relative size and overflow of my closet to his), but shopping with my sister has always been a different matter altogether. With her it’s an adventure and an event; to the plebeian need of a brown cardigan or practical walking shoes has always been added the thrill of the hunt and the spice of triumph. Then, of course, there are always the things that you don’t need, and that’s when her gifts are really invaluable. There’s no one else on earth who will give me so devastatingly honest an opinion. But there’s also no one whose sense of style I trust more entirely. When I walk out of a dressing room and my sister greets me with an, “Ugh, no,” and a dismissing wave of her hand, I know there’s no use arguing. But when she tells me that a jersey frock with an impossibly ruched bodice and bishop sleeves looks like something Cyd Charisse would have worn, I know, amazingly enough, that it’s a go. Particularly when it’s ridiculously on sale.
“But you know you can’t wear it to a wedding,” she reminded me as we left the shop and reentered the throng of Broadway. “It’s white.”
You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl.
I think Liz is always secretly amused by my gaping admiration of her city, but something about New York awakens a shameless wonder in me. I can’t ascend the steps of the Met without a thought of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and her two young friends that once lived there so ingeniously. I can’t cross Park Avenue without stopping in the median to admire it, or walk down 5th without remembering Judy Garland in her diaphanous bonnet, promenading on the arm of Fred Astaire. Bleecker Street always gives me a turn, and I still think that Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh made a hot dog lunch by the seal pond in Central Park seem like the most romantic date in the world.
“I know I’m a dork,” I said one night, coming back from a late dinner with Liz and her husband Marshall, “but I can’t see 42nd Street on a signpost without geeking out a little.”
“Miracles happen here every day,” Marshall quipped in feigned profundity.
“That’s 34th Street, silly,” my sister rejoined. “42nd Street is where the stars are born.”
“It’s even got its own song,” I added.
One never quite knows how such things happen, but the next instant we were all singing and dancing our way down the sidewalk to a 1930’s show tune. I can’t be sure, but I think Marshall even broke into a harmony.
Which only goes to show that, though my life and my sister’s are as different in externals as that of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse, there are some things that will never change.
“You could never live here,” she laughed one afternoon after a full day of adventuring together.
No, I’ll admit that. And I could never make the success of it that she and Marshall have. Our callings call for settings as distinctive as our personalities. I need my wide green spaces and my friendly beasts and long stretches of unbroken silence. I need to hear Southern accents in my ears every day and, strange as it seems, I think I might even just need our humidity.
I couldn’t live in New York.
But it certainly is magical to visit.
I can’t wait to go back and retrieve the part of me that I left there with her. For that, of course, is the greatest charm in a city of enchantments.
My sister is there.