Monday, September 04, 2006

first (we/re) take (on) manhattan

Ten blocks down from where I live is the massive, still unfinished, gray stone hulk of the cathedral of St. John the Divine, under construction for over a century, and not expected to be completed for another forty or fifty years. It’s the second largest Gothic cathedral in the world, with the carven faces of saints and gargoyles, kings and queens, looking out unseen, unexpectedly from the corners and keystones of the massive, pointed arches; the whole structure rising, rising, grim and gaunt into the sky.

‘Too new,’ said the Italian friend I had gone to see it with. Too new, indeed, the idea of the Gothic, five hundred years past its time, still being built in the New World. The current buildings of Columbia University were also built at about the same time, in the 1880s and 1890s, and again the hankering to be of the Old World, to be part of the European tradition of knowledge, to belong to that intellectual history, is made obvious in stone. The Butler Library’s front, saved from being kitsch only by its age, has incised in loud Roman capitals, the names of those Greeks. Sophocles, Homer, Herodotus…

Bury my heart at wounded knee, is the phrase that goes through my head. And memories of Robert Pirsig’s book Lila, in which he says that democracy comes to the Western world not from the Ancient Greeks, but from the Native Americans. It would be hard to believe that from College Walk, looking south.

A street away from where I live is Morningside Park, essentially a set of steep, heavily wooded cliffs, which survives as a park because its terrain was too rough to fit into the ordered grid that the rest of New York was fit into (and which makes it the easiest big city in the world to navigate –if you’re an English/Spanish speaker). There is a definite sense of wilderness here, of woods lovely, dark and deep; pristine. Morningside was also the site of one of the most important political moments in Columbia’s history, when the students protested the building of a gym with separate entrances for people from Harlem, and for students from Columbia, on the site of the park.

Morningside is still a ‘buffer zone’ of sorts between Morningside Heights/Columbia and Harlem, the black neighbourhood. And looking up at the massive buildings of Columbia from the other side of the park, looming huge and unreachable, built on ground a hundred feet higher than where you’re standing, the city seems to be collaborating in its own stereotyping, High and Low like in the Kurasawa film. Black and white. Yes, the jokes about ‘higher education’ have already been made.

Don’t walk through Morningside at night is one of the first things they tell you at Columbia.

They should add, don’t walk with umbrellas in the rain. New York has been getting some miserable weather the past week, crazy torrential rain. The grid funnels the wind at the rain into something even more ferocious, and crossing the street, at the mercy of crosswinds, is a definite umbrella killer. Saturday evening was littered with umbrella corpses, broken black wings lying in puddles and trash cans along Houston Street, where I was coming out from watching a very New York movie. (I kept getting excited everytime I sawAmsterdam Avenue on the signs the taxi in the film was passing. ‘That’s where I live! That’s where I live!’) I took a couple of forlorn umbrella photos from a friend’s borrowed camera, will post them up when they are mailed to me. (Whenever I get my own camera, there’s going to be a lot more of photos on my beloved junk thematic.)

Sunday morning made up for it. Old friend from Delhi, Emma, was up from DC for the Labo(u)r Day weekend, and we joined flatmate Ivor and two other Irish lads to catch the Irish National Hurling finals on a tv in a bar. Too early for the bar to be opened, so we tried and failed to get a seat at Tom’s Restaurant, familiar to Seinfeld and Suzanne Vega fans. Spent a couple of hours hanging around over breakfast talking about everything from black holes to American politics to bad horror movies. Then we realized that the weather outside was a gorgeous sunlit day, so we all upped and went to Morningside Park, where the wind and the light and the blue blue sky, and the waterfall made for a perfect day, like Delhi in February. We spent nearly an hour, entranced, watching turtles sunbathing on a floating plastic lily pad. (If you use that as the first line of a song/book/story – do give credit.)

Then delicious Senegalese food in Harlem, in an area known as mini Senegal, and distinct from everything around in the music playing, the Ghanaian Nigerian videos, the bright robes the people wear. Emma and I tried to read the Arabic script of the signs, and at a religious bookshop the proprietor smiled when she saw us reading, and showed us more books and posters. Some of the books were printed in Bombay.

I felt at home then, like I don’t think I’d let myself this far, missing the sound and the language of Delhi. And today, walking through Union Square , in the sunshine and wind of another perfect day, I had a sense of the heft and weight of this city, like all cities, the millions of lives lived to build it, to keep it going, each brick a history of its own. And then just a moment of perfect contentment, and the thought, ‘I am here now. Where I need to be.’

Classes begin tomorrow.

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