Saturday, January 12, 2008

A New York Saturday morning

Looking out my hotel room window this Saturday morning on the deserted office building across the street, I am reminded of another passage from E. B. White's "Here Is New York":
On weekends in summer the town empties. I visit my office on a Saturday afternoon. No phone rings, no one feeds the hungry IN-baskets, no one disturbs the papers; it is a building of the dead, a time of awesome suspension. The whole city is honeycombed with abandoned cells--a jail that has been effectively broken. Occasionally from somewhere in the building a night bell rings, summoning the elevator--a special fire-alarm ring. This is the pit of loneliness, in an offices on a summer Saturday. I stand at the window and look down at the batteries and batteries of offices across the way, recalling how the thing looks in winter twilight when everything is going full blast, every cell lighted, and how you can see in pantomime the puppets fumbling with their slips of paper (but you don't hear the rustle), see them pick up their phone (but you don't hear the ring), see the noiseless, ceaseless moving about of so many passers of pieces of paper: New York, the capital of memoranda, in touch with Calcutta, in touch with Reykjavik, aways fooling with something.
I love the way White uses parentheses to modulate the sound of that last sentence, separating the sights (seen) from the sounds (unheard): the parentheses effectively muffle the sounds you aren't hearing, creating the silent distance he describes.

White, along with William Strunk Jr. wrote the book on prose style, so he is known for his careful, clear, and memorable writing, but it's a treat to encounter anew every time nonetheless. Like the prescriptions of The Elements of Style itself, White's prose wouldn't be well suited for every type of writing--a noir novel, for example, would be difficult to lift out of parody under White's guidance (though it would sure be fun to watch him try!). But a man who can write a sentence as balanced, assonant, and whimsical as this one--
Doormen grow rich blowing their whistles for cabs, and some doormen belong to no door at all--merely wander about through the streets, opening cabs for people as they happen to find them.
--need never apologize for what he can't do.

No comments:

Post a Comment