When I moved into my apartment twenty years ago, a few of the quasi-bohemians who’d bought their apartments when the building first went co-op lived here still. In the 1970s, when they moved into our five-story walk-up, Chelsea was considered dicey; nearly every lower-floor apartment’s metal window gates were welded into place. They paid a few thousand dollars each, and if they ever had mortgages they paid them off long before I came along, and dwelled in a genteel poverty nearly impossible in Manhattan now. Pam, a therapist, saw clients in a parlor carved out of her dark ‘floor-through’, an apartment that occupies a whole story of a building, often with windows only in the front and the back. Her cats perched on the back of the sofa, or threaded the shadows beneath a long-untouched upright piano. She was president of the co-op for forty years, and from her first-floor peephole kept a sharp eye on comings and goings at the building’s front door. When she announced in one of our regular meetings, ‘If you have a visitor in the night, well, good for you, but PLEASE escort him out and make sure that door is locked behind him,’ I knew it was me she was addressing. On the top floor lived Brian, a mostly out-of-work actor who went to auditions in an aging houndstooth jacket and a whiskey-toned fedora, trailing vapors of spirits and tobacco down the stairs behind him. If we met on the landing and stopped to talk a minute, he liked nothing better than to lower his voice to a stage whisper and make some camp and cutting remark about Pam. Sometimes I think I still hear his emphysemic ghost coughing, paused somewhere in the middle of the five flights up to his apartment, and some nights I sense Pam’s phantom, disapproving eye fixed behind her old apartment’s metal door.
If they linger here, they dwell beside three generations who’ve come after: middle-class owners like myself, then young residents whose parents have subsidized their down payments while they study opera or investment banking. Most recently a fellow who owns a pair of nightclubs bought two apartments, gutted them to the bricks and made a spacious duplex. The building’s a palimpsest; remodelers found an old dumb waiter shaft that used to send food upstairs from the kitchen during the building’s brief time as a single family home, then as an increasingly down-at-the-heels rooming house. Fallen plaster revealed a mysterious arched doorway that led into the building next door, for reasons no one knows. The whole place sags a little toward the spot where the original staircase was removed, and when I bought new shades to replace venetian blinds that must have been fixed in their position at least as long as Pam, I learned that each of my windows was a bit atilt, not one corner square.
For all its brawn and money, New York seems especially ephemeral. From its rough beginnings, it has staked its fortune on making itself new again, an ambitious, engaging monster whose nature is to grind up the wreckage of itself and toss up something new. At intervals along major avenues, the city has recently installed digital ‘kiosks’, a twenty-first-century version of a phone booth that indeed offers a phone without a booth one can use to call for help, a charging station, and, most prominently, a screen on either side offering ads, artwork, old photos, or trenchant observations on urban life, as if the city has decided to annotate its own sidewalks. The words or images change every thirty seconds or so, and I often near the end of a message just as the words dissolve into the next thing. But this one I read entire, a quotation from Colson Whitehead that appeared a few feet in the air above Eighth Avenue: You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is there now.
What was there before in my neighborhood was a low skyline, buildings restricted to five stories save for those at the four corners of intersections, apartment towers from the 1920s and 30s that anchor the blocks with an elegant flourish. They end in step-backs to allow more light to reach the streets below. Height restrictions are gradually being overridden as developers want to push higher and produce enough units to cover the extravagant cost of construction, as well as ever more lavish penthouses. My little building contains just eight apartments; no one would build something that size now, unless the apartments were grand indeed.
I could narrate my neighborhood’s relentless transformation, but you already know the story. Gone: Bright Food Shop, the Big Cup, Eighteenth & Eighth, David Barton Gym, Petite Abeille. The clothing shop of Raymond Dragon, a porn star and designer who made very small bathing suits. A shop that sold only striped French fabric. A ramen place on Sixth run by a group of very friendly young men who wanted you to like them, and made good soup, though they seemed to be playing the part of cafe staff in an extended, laddish prank. The Peruvian barber shop that trimmed my head for a decade, then became the office of a gelato parlor next door, and then a purveyor of rolled, unappealing slices of pizza, then nothing. The gelato place is gone too. Nothing is more common now than it used to be, since landlords learned they can ask for rent so high almost no one can pay it, then deduct the resultant losses of income from their taxes, engineering zones of absence that sometimes empty most of a block, and riddle even prosperous neighborhoods.
You can’t attach memory or affection to vacancy. Though the shop was shuttered years ago, I remember distinctly the touch of the senior barber’s hand on my neck, and the dark chocolate gelato flavored with the juice of mandarin oranges sold next door. I recall these gone places in details both sensory and intimate: a restaurant’s warmth on a bitter night, or the startling apparition of a spotted fawn in my gym. A drag queen and her boyfriend, on the way back from upstate, had found the creature in the woods, and thought to rescue it, which it did not need, and now the hapless beauty stood on four skinny legs atop the front desk, utterly bewildered.
What was there before offered a rewarding sense of life in the particular: participation, comfort and strangeness. Perhaps if the old place engaged, startled or moved you, you’re less likely to have such experiences with whatever has replaced it. It’s often true that replacements are bland or uninteresting, as the local and particular are paved over by the corporate and general. What can Proustian imaginations do, after all, with nothing to work with but a sea of identical franchises?
In the random blur of cities we require allegiances. Loyalties make a place a home, and cannot shift as swiftly as the fevered economies of real estate. That barber shop has dimensionality to me, I can see and hear still the three barbers; I can re-enter the place imaginatively, down to the metal combs gleaming in jars of blue – alcohol? It is very difficult to do that with, say, any of the seemingly endless number of Duane Reades, where fluorescent lights bathe aisles of candy and makeup, and locked plexiglass cases of condoms and products to whiten the teeth. And it is impossible to enter into a full imaginative engagement with, and thus to remember, over many years, an empty storefront. What was there before will always be more real.
Vanished places are present to me, which is why I’m often not sure what’s taken their place. Imagine mapping, on a computer screen, an atlas which would reveal the lost places beneath the now present. Suppose I could merge my maps with those of others: we’d be representing one thing this city really is, a shimmering hive, a vast structure of overlapping interiorities.
I used to get requests for donations from a group dedicated to the reclamation of a disused elevated train track that angled its way along the West Side all the way from the old railroad yards behind Penn Station down to the warehouses and small former factories of the Meatpacking District and the far western edge of Chelsea near the Hudson. What made the tracks intriguing was the way they passed through the second stories of buildings, creating dreamy, unlikely passageways out of de Chirico, and second-story bridges between buildings that seemed like multiple New York versions of the Bridge of Sighs. The disused tracks were crumbling and weedy. I understood that this was a neighborhood effort to make a cozy park out of these odd spaces, so whenever they wrote I’d put ten dollars in an envelope and mail my contribution.
What was in the works was a long, narrow and elegant concourse, high enough above the street to freshen the air and perspective, low enough to make the view intimate, full of human detail. It would soon be considered one of the finest new urban spaces in the world. The world comes to see it; some days every third person on the sidewalk seems to carry a map. They stop randomly and turn the colored page, seeking orientation. Because I am often out walking with my dog, I am assumed to be local. Some ask me for directions in elegantly shaped English sentences; others say, hopefully, in one of the beautifully various accents of earth, ‘Highline?’
The other inescapable new presence is Barneys, a sleek store that displays, across two rather sparsely stocked floors, clothing, accessories and jewelry priced at such an empyrean level that I am challenged to appreciate the allure of, say, a $1,000 pair of sneakers, a $5,000 purse. Small, sculptural pedestals suggest that what’s for sale aspires to the condition of art, a sense reinforced by the floors’ expanses of travertine. The space was Barneys decades ago, but by the time I moved here it had become a discount outlet, with wide circular racks of clothes bearing tags that indicated how the price declined with time, inviting customers to play an exasperating game: it might be cheaper if you wait, but it also might be gone.
I can see a corner of the store from my apartment window, and I liked following the grim old outlet’s transformation. Above the newly enlarged windows and doors appeared an awning of stainless steel, delicately curved upward, and polished day after day until it gained the steely sheen of a spring sky verging on rain. Below it, they sheathed the front of the building in matte-black marble, which looked sensational until for some reason they tried to polish it. Much effort yielded a smeary, scumbled mess, the stone more and more obscured. Oddly, they put the jewelry department in a prominent corner, where big windows allowed a look inside from two directions. The cases inside contained bling you couldn’t see from the street, maybe just a flash of a silver chain in halogen light, or the quick apparition of an aquamarine. These were the opposite of display windows; they announced the presence of something swathed, too precious for you on the sidewalk to even know what it was.
When the store first opened, the homeless used the beautiful awning as a shelter. They’d spread cardboard beds, boxes that hours before held subzero refrigerators or stoves or huge televisions. They would lie with their heads beside the glass and at least keep their upper bodies out of the rain. I often think of them, their bodies lined up along the sidewalks like stems laid parallel, the tops of their heads nearly touching the window glass. Did they know that a few feet from their skulls rested necklaces made of platinum, and jewels hung on chains so supple they felt liquid on the skin? How did the store ever banish them?
Barneys’ troubles were in the news this summer, but word on the sidewalk had it our store would be saved. They painted on the windows, in tabloid letters that veiled the mannequins behind them, we are not closed and spend $ here. An announcement emerged from a hidden speaker, the kind of recorded female voice, both firm and calmly vacant, that might deliver instructions to be played in an emergency, or narrate a work of performance art. The first time I noticed it Seventh Avenue was crazy with sirens, so I could hardly make out a word. Then late at night, over a rising and fading rush of subway air through sidewalk grates, I heard it clearly.
I’d listen again, in a day or two, and understood it plainly as We are not closing, we are still here. What I heard that night was You are not a ghost, you are still here, as if Barneys would ever say such a thing.
The membrane between the living and the dead is generally understood – at least by daylight logic – to be permeable in one direction only. The living move into what Hamlet says is an ‘undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns’. But by the time the famous depressive speaks those words, he’s already seen and heard his father’s ghost, so he knows that versions of the departed do return – at Elsinore, at least, rather frequently. The body doesn’t return, the whole self doesn’t walk back into the daylight – but to be dead isn’t to stop having a presence in the world. We engage every day with the language, ideas and belongings of the dead. A fiction-writing friend contends that the huge industry of yard sales, secondhand shops, flea markets and the like exists to manage the vast property of the dead, which otherwise might drown us in an awful, random tide.
There are a great many ways to be a ghost, or to partake of a quality of ghostliness.
Does it make you a little ghostly yourself, when what’s gone is more present for you than what’s here? The number of those who share your memory or affection will never increase. Who really wants to listen to the nostalgia of others? When I returned to Provincetown for the first time after I’d moved away, half the houses, every cafe and wedge of harbor view recalled a moment, an encounter with someone no longer living. It felt extraordinary to me, as though I walked through a full-sized version of a Renaissance memory palace, those structures built in the imagination to allow one to remember a complex argument or a long text by associating what one would see, walking through that dream-palace, with movements in the text. My memories – most often of people who were lost in the bitter crisis years of the epidemic – emerged with such force and clarity that I found myself describing them to the man I was with then, who soon had enough. He said, Can’t you be in the present?
The answer was obvious. I felt flustered, and sorry if I were being rude to him, and at the same time put off; it wasn’t rude, it wasn’t my fault if the reanimated host of people I knew in those murderous hours were more vivid presences to me than my companion. He might have seen this as an opportunity to know me better, or might have found resonances in his own life, instead of complaining that my very real sorrow inhibited his holiday. I didn’t articulate that at the time; I just tried, without much success, to keep my apparitions to myself.
Ghost, in the new digital landscape, has become a verb.
I met a man in his early forties, a striking, compact guy who’d recently moved to New York. One of his parents was from Jaipur, the other from Guatemala. He had the smooth confidence of the children of well-to-do exiles; educated, impeccably polite, he worked in corporate law. We met online. I went to his place, on the sixty-seventh floor of a new high-rise in Midtown; his furniture had not yet arrived, so there were only yoga mats and pillows on the floor. When he slipped out of his shirt and slacks, I was startled by the beauty of his body, supple and handsomely muscled, nothing showy or overdone about it, just the lean and rippling form of a man who looked a dozen years younger than he was, and seemed to wear his skin like a well-tailored suit in which he was supremely comfortable. And this man desired me? Ardently, it seemed. We had energetic, good-spirited sex on the floor beside a huge square window that faced west, so that we could look out, when we stopped to catch our breath, at shreds of clouds veiling the highest towers, the city gorgeous from that height, and riveting. Though that square panorama of my restless city didn’t distract my attention from the liquid body I was lucky enough to lie beside for long.
We saw each other two more times. It was clear – I thought it was clear – that we were each interested in an unfolding erotic relation, and that nothing was expected beyond this pleasurable prospect. The second and third encounters were as lively and fresh as the first, and flavored too by what seemed the beginning of a friendship. I liked his sculptures, metal pieces he made as a relief from the meticulous focus of his work time; I liked talking with him, telling each other stories when we came up for air.
After our third time, at my place, he disappeared. I doubt anything terrible happened. He vanished from the hookup site on which we met; he might have canceled his membership, or might simply have blocked me so that I would no longer see his profile. He seemed to have blocked my phone number so I couldn’t call or text. Gone as if he’d never been there. I was startled that I spent so much time wondering why. I wasn’t in love with him. I had lost nothing but a still-tentative friendship, which was only a few weeks old. Why did I feel so hurt?
The absence of an explanation, the fact of no knowable cause left me with a kind of gap, something I’d keep revisiting. He absented himself for a reason I have no means of knowing, so of course I imagine reasons: had he wanted a kind of relationship with me that I wasn’t available for? Was it age difference; would his family or friends question why he had a sixty-six-year-old friend? Did he decide to go back to an old partner? Had I said or done something to offend?
No amount of this sort of thinking avails. The blank space where my understanding of his motive should be is likely a permanent one. Had he said why he was disappearing, I would likely have forgotten about it in a little while. But like most ghosts, he said nothing, and the story persists in memory because it has no satisfying outcome.
No wonder this behavior’s called ghosting. I read reports on a study of children who’d lost friends this way, and maybe for other reasons as well. Doctors found the children’s pain at the loss of their companions was physical; you could treat it with aspirin. An absence you can explain is one thing; to be even a little haunted by what you can’t know is an oddly persistent feeling with a different sort of ache to it.
A young woman on my block pauses on the sidewalk, a few feet from the corner where I’m waiting for the walk sign, phone held to her ear. She steps off the curb, as though she’s just heard something so incredulous that she has to quit the flow of pedestrians to respond. ‘You’re not listening to me,’ she says.
And then, ‘You’re not listening to me.’
Then, ‘You’re not listening to me.’ Pause. ‘You’re not listening to me.’ One more time, the fifth, this time the whole phrase louder.
Then, ‘Why should I listen to you?’ Not once, but five times.
Then, ‘You don’t get what I’m saying,’ five times.
It’s around the second set of repetitions that I think, who would listen to this? No one, of course, there’s no one on the other end of the line, no other end, probably no line. The young woman’s frantic, enraged performance is so ritualized that it might be an assignment from her acting class, or a social experiment. The strict pattern makes her easy to spot. But in truth I encounter someone doing more or less this on the street almost every day, with spontaneity or its semblance, with conviction or what resembles it. Sometimes they shout into one of the remaining pay phones, and thus give themselves away by using machines everyone knows don’t work. But the shouting itself reveals their game: we are the audience, and the goal of the speaker is to tell, without apology or consideration, the endless litany of reprehensible things that you, you, you did to ME. Sometimes that’s a refrain: I can’t believe you did this to ME.
No one on the street is expected to respond; the lamenting or raging ‘caller’ is a desperate, hungry ghost, wheeling her monologue through sometimes startled but permanently indifferent streets.
My dog Ned and I wait at the corner on Ninth Avenue for the light to change. In that barely conscious way one does in the city, we take note – we both take note – of the man who’s walking in our direction, his spiky beard and hair like charcoal lines drawn on his face and skull to express his interior field of crackling electricity. He’s striding forward muttering in the direction of whatever it is his eyes are fixed on, something that is and isn’t there, and immediately I’m thinking of that famous and dazzling outdoor sculpture in New Mexico, The Lightning Field, a stretch of desert set with metal towers intended to attract lightning. That’s what this guy is carrying in his body, a lightning field.
He isn’t close enough to touch us or to lunge at us, though he will be. I don’t want him to know I’m looking at him, so I turn my face back to the crosswalk and the walk sign as if my gaze could make it change. Ned turns with me, a little nervously, to face the street. I wonder if I should walk right out into the street, against the light, but it would be obvious that I was trying to get away from him.
While I’m weighing this, he screams. A shriek, really, that seems it could tear the morning open; the phrase I think of is Hart Crane’s: A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene. As if the fabric of the day, the collectively constructed sense that we’re all more or less all right, has been just a painted canvas, and his scream is the blade that has hacked the flimsy thing right down the middle.
I can’t keep myself separate from it. For a moment, a moment only, I tell myself I’m not him, his scream isn’t mine, nor his fury, or his inability to do anything but scream like a mortally wounded creature on the sunny Eighth Avenue sidewalk. The walk light’s green, ordinary things require my attention. I have a dog to walk.
Our fear of ghosts, thought Lafcadio Hearn, isn’t so much of seeing or hearing them; the terrible thing is they might touch us.
If what’s vanished is more real than what remains, then what’s gone is a kind of extension of the self, a city of the self, since what has disappeared exists now only in memory. And memory – not history but private memory, associative, metonymic, saturated in feeling – lives only within the head or the spine, or the cells. And in books. C.P. Cavafy speaks to his hometown of Alexandria, in Edmund Keeley’s translation, with extraordinary intimacy:
I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.
And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.
The powers that seem to steer the course of our lives in the twenty-first century thus far also want to build impressive, technically marvelous means of recreating experience, but their aim is to sell to us not only devices but the sort of lives they imagine for us. New York seems a premier proving ground for such experiments. Times Square, formerly a kind of sexual agora of old movie houses, video arcades, boothstores and strip clubs where people, mostly men, could meet in spaces that largely took down barriers of class, race and respectability to allow a kind of free zone for Eros: seedy, sometimes liberating, not infrequently awful, though what was dispiriting about the scene was also pungent: here the wraps came off the culture’s weirdly contradictory and barely articulated desires.
Gone, of course, all that, and workers in uniform hired to sweep up, and cops hustling away anyone who tries to revive an old shell game or trick passersby with some ancient scam of a card game. The funny thing is that it doesn’t feel cleaned up; it’s crowded and ugly and the tourist hordes seem to carry a restless anger in their chests, even if they’re not aware of it.
Because there’s nothing there. Nothing to see. Just the blazing lights of huge screens advertising TV shows, movies, devices, stylish goods with the manufactured aura of ‘luxury’ about them. The light of these enormous images seems to hang in the air over the streets, blending into a kind of unfamiliar presence. Or not unfamiliar; it’s the light of car lots at night, blazing mercury lamps intended to reveal any kind of movement, or the light of office buildings, left on for the men and women who empty trash cans and polish floors. The light is so pervasive you can take pictures anywhere, using one of the devices hawked on the big dreamy screens up above. That’s what people do, the poor more or less local kids who’ve taken the train down from the Bronx, the white kids who’ve come in from New Jersey, the tourists from everywhere, everyone moving in their packs: they take pictures, many posted there and then on Instagram. They pose dramatically or flirtatiously, postures they already know how to assume without embarrassment, fulfilling their parts in a place that is nowhere, despite the expensive souvenirs.
The beautiful Highline reworks the artifacts of industry into a series of viewing points, picturesque stops along a path. Down there, where they made leather goods or automotive mirrors, or worked marble into thresholds and basins, those are galleries now, and further south, the lockers, where the meat was hung to age, are torn down for condominiums, and the door to a club where men used to strip naked and writhe against each other in a dim red light – Reader, I have haunted these corridors myself, I slipped down their throats like a thief, I married them, and I am not dead, as so many are, though I am a ghost – that door now leads, I am not making this up, to the boutique of Christian Dior. One becomes a phantom when what you remember is more real than what is, or one becomes a phantom when what you are is yearning for those invisible qualities that are suggested by an object that does not in itself possess them. This hat, these shoes, these gloves are gestures in the direction of a life held up as desirable. Bring them home and unwrap them from the handsome boxes and tissue in which they have been presented to you, what do you have? The moment of unboxing is so full of promise, so enviable that we record it in videos logged, stored, there for anyone to see. Barneys is closing and everything’s 50 percent off. A steal, to pick up a 44,000 tote bag for 42,000! It’s as if the old discount place has re-emerged, come back from beneath the seashell curve of the spiral stair. Racks of marked-down stuff, whatever glamour the place could boast gone. They pay people to walk up and down the avenue wearing sandwich boards, some illuminated, reading store closing. The sign bearers are supposed to pass out flyers that no one wants; I’ve seen one exasperated worker simply throw her pile in the trash. And half another’s sandwich board thrown down, discarded, an obstacle to anyone walking tonight’s damp sidewalk.
My dearest friend will say, after he’s lamented something that troubles him, ‘First World problems.’ A handy bit of shorthand, that: he deflates his own importance, relativizes his difficulty, stands at an ironic bit of distance, and is ready to move on. The people who shout into phones, performing rage or misery, the men who fume or scream on the street, the homeless couple camped behind the steel supports of scaffolding between the Seventh Avenue sidewalk and the oversize windows of Starbucks, with their boxes and blankets and their dog. (Imagine sleeping, as they are this cold late morning, between those two audiences.) Not ready to move on, any of them. Me either, sometimes. At the end of a day in New York City one might stop to consider the great stream of faces that have passed by us on that day, how many of those never or only barely registered, and which ones are still inscribed in us. The city places us in relation to one another, then both underscores and erases those connections. Just a few from today: my homeless friend, a kind and weary black woman, hurried across Seventh Avenue to ask me for money, calling my name from halfway across, and I had to wave her off because I was late for a session with my trainer at the gym. The two well-spoken kids who stopped on the street to pet Ned; the boy recited facts about golden retrievers in the somewhat puffed-up way of children who have accumulated knowledge they will someday need, and I was entirely charmed. The heavy man on the train, surrounded with what I guess were his worldly goods, who fixed his attention solely on me and shouted, halfway down the car, YOU CAN SUCK MY DICK. A small community of sparrows, in a leafless shrub in Union Square, leaping from branch to branch like random thoughts.
At this point in history, in America at least, even minor connections between people are endangered. The kind of simple interactions that form an essential social fabric allow one’s perceptions to be validated or challenged, and collectively enable something like consensus, a reasonably accurate understanding of what’s going on. We’re less likely to speak to strangers; you don’t know what you might be starting. The small businesses where I actually recognized or knew owners or clerks are mostly gone, some replaced by franchises whose employees travel hours to get here and don’t know the neighborhood, and don’t tend to keep those jobs for long. The devices that are supposed to bring us together do so, with chosen groups of the like-minded. But they also make us more alone, as we form connections that are easily broken, or fall under the spell of a singular viewpoint. It’s difficult to become a white supremacist or a jihadist on your own. How would you sustain it? But if you have an internet connection you can be alone and find like-minded souls, however dark they may be. Or you can use the rich array of world-shifting electronics to take the expected pictures of yourself and your friends in photographable places, and post them online as we do, having purchased what was, before the last two decades or so, usually free: memory, visibility, a feeling of legitimacy, a sense of being real to ourselves.
But ‘the world is wily’, as the poet Susan Mitchell writes in a poem in her book Rapture, ‘and doesn’t want to be caught’. Nor does it want to be theorized; the city’s too big, too inclusive and random to submit to singular interpretations. As much as the attention-grabbing power of the virtual and the glittering net of capital can feel seamless here, encompassing, I love this city for its insistence on allowing for the anarchic and the genuine. Something is always breaking through, if only in some momentary constellation of meanings, or in some unmistakably human gesture that spills out and for a while transforms the climate of whoever receives it. The most powerful of these are almost inevitably the ones not particularly meant for you; they arrive, as joy mostly does, out of nowhere.
I don’t think ghosts experience joy; they hover with their faces turned toward the past, and cannot attend wholly to the moment in which something might revivify them. Most living people become ghosts for a while. The trick to spending less time as a phantom is to give attention to attention, aware of your physical self now, alert to whatever arises in this moment and the shining edge of the next sliding into view.
Or sometimes you just have to be tired, and not preoccupied, and caught off guard. As I was, a few nights ago in Penn Station. That underground, unwindowed, unloved place is a hall of doom after dark, the commuter hordes gone, whatever cheer that might have been generated by their eagerness to get home, their beers and bags of popcorn, their shouted ‘good nights’ all dissipated now. There are a few guards, a few police officers, sometimes armed soldiers in desert-colored fatigues, and then there’s everyone who lives here, or tries to. Some sleep on the floor, some stand awkwardly in the corridors, asking for help or muttering private litanies. Always the same awful encounter with what you can’t begin to change, with pain and need you can’t ever address. I’d come from a dinner with friends in New Jersey, and wearily made my way toward the A train. When I came to the wide descending hallway that leads to the turnstiles, the air filled with a dense, brassy music, confident and driving, a great propulsive swing to it. Half hidden behind a column, a man sat on a high wooden stool, body wrapped around the long golden shape of the saxophone he played with a superbly controlled abandon. No one in the corridor but me, and his music swelled like a warm golden current. I recognized the tune, though I couldn’t name it – an upbeat jazz standard, something from a musical? It didn’t matter; it was a song about the will and nerve to go forward, to walk out into the night with the sure knowledge that more awaited you than exhaustion and loss. There is in us, the music said, refusal, will, momentum, joy. I was startled by what it called to mind – the watercolored drawings I’d seen weeks before in London, elongated women and men veiled and rayed in warm yellows, layers of golden light: the human form divine. Halfway down the corridor I turned back, walked to where the musician sat and dropped the two dollars I had into the open instrument case at his feet. He didn’t look up or otherwise acknowledge me. Maybe a very slight tip of the head? Either he didn’t care or was pouring himself entirely into those passages, making a corridor of his own out of this burnished splendor made with his own breath. A corridor I walked down, all the way to the A, and felt warmed by even after the doors of the train car closed.
Photograph © Joel Sternfeld, from Walking the Highline