Thursday, January 10, 2008

Old New Yorks

In his 1948 essay "Here Is New York" E. B. White wrote that "To a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing." What a visitor like me sees is countless New Yorks of the past living on in everything from the thrilling shine of the Chrysler Building--triumphantly shouting, "Progress!"--to the accidental decoupage archaeology of rock show handbills in the Village--derisively sneering, "Throw it all away." And New York seems to be always, aggressively, doing both.

As I've wandered the city this week, I've also wandered earlier New Yorks in books, traces of which remain visible in the streets around me. I've already written briefly about one of those, Edith Wharton's New York of carriages, balls, and finely delineated social strata. But I've also lost myself in E. B. White's exuberant postwar Manhattan and Lawrence Block's beat-era Greenwich Village.

{52nd Street, 1948, from the Library of Congress's American Memory project.}

White's essay needs no introduction; it's generally regarded as an essential portrait of the city. White writes not so much about specific places as about certain moods and typical scenes: the wrestle for a cab, Bowery winos bedding down, the casual attention of the crowd at an outdoor performance in Central Park. This is the city as gliding complexity and atmosphere:
It is seven o'clock and I reexamine an ex-speakeasy in East Fifty-third Street, with dinner in mind. A thin crowd, a summer-night buzz of fans interrupted by an occasional drink being shaken at the small bar. It is dark in here (the proprietor sees no reason for boosting his light bill just because liquor laws have changed.) . . . The owner himself mixes. The fans intone the prayer for cool salvation.
The prominence of the whispering fans in that scene is a reminder of how much of what White writes about is now lost: "Here Is New York" is a summer essay, written in the days before air-conditioning was widespread, and there is much in it of the street life and overheard intimacy generated by open windows and inescapable heat. The arrival of air conditioning is a seeming small thing relative to the scale of a city, yet it leads the windows, transoms, and back doors to be closed, people to be sealed off just a tiny bit more from one another and from the city they make together.

If White is writing about the city as one big agglomeration of individuals, Lawrence Block, in A Diet of Treacle (1961) is writing about how those individuals try to define themselves in opposition to that mass. It follows a trio of young people through beat-era Greenwich Village: Joe, who returned from Korea with emotional damage that expresses itself as a vague inability to do; Anita, a Hunter College student who visits the Village to escape the square life she can already see stretching before her; and Shank, the sociopathic pot dealer who will quickly get them in over their heads.

A Diet of Treacle was probably fairly provocative at the time it was published: it's full of scenes of pot-smoking and sex, and the characters show increasingly little regard for social conventions. But now it's more an interesting artifact, even a work of reportage, an account of the lingo and poses of late-1950s hipness, full of "cats" and "squares" and "bread." The portrayal of pot as a phenomenally powerful, life-changing drug is particularly quaint at this distance, but pot is an important part of what defines these kids: knowing it and using it marks them as different.

In his novel Lucky at Cards, Block portrayed the tug-of-war between the allure of the criminal life and the reliability of the straight side. In A Diet of Treacle, he shifts the terms a bit: though he demonstrates with the luridness of a school filmstrip the dangers of a life consumed by, for want of a better term, criminal hipness, he doesn't pretend that the straight life holds any real appeal for these kids, either. As Block portrays them, they really are stuck, their only safe choice being to sink back into the stultifying conformity of 1950s America.

Wandering Greenwich Village today you still see kids trying to make that choice--or, even more, trying to simply frame it, to decide what's conforming and what's not, what's hip and what's not, what's selling out and what's staying true. I find it almost painful to watch, but maybe I shouldn't. Should I instead take heart in the way that generation succeeds generation down there--and that despite (as the great blog Pinakothek lamented a few weeks ago) the ever-greater ease of buying a hip identity, every generation sees some of those kids slip through, shed poses, and find what truly matters to them? Should I take heart that, so far, Greenwich Village, despite changing and changing and changing, is still in some essential way there for them?

Meanwhile, I continue to wander today's city that will be different tomorrow, dressed as usual like an anachronism in my old suit, overcoat, and fedora, which I discovered yesterday must make me stand out from all the other oddities that comprise a New York street scene--enough at least to draw the attention of a contemporary iteration of one of Block's hipsters: as I walked down 25th Street just past Madison Square Park, a baggily-dressed long-haired teen, lost in the music of his headphones, raised his head just enough to see me, cocked a finger, and said, with an air of approval, "Fedora." Then he bopped on, going about his business, and disappeared into the crowd.

1 comment:

  1. I love the EB White quote as well as the photo (when I enlarged it I saw it was Charlie Parker playing at the Three Deuces. (Who's Margie Hyam?))

    It sort of segues into "The Clock" which playing now on TCM.