Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The streets of once and future New York?

I'm in Manhattan, where it's a balmy sixty-something degrees and people are walking around with the pleased but fretful look of kids sneaking candy--they're sure they're going to get their hands smacked for it, but it's so good while it lasts. I half-expect to see palm trees and giant mosquitoes, or maybe a diplodocus breaching the lagoon.

For a while this afternoon, however, the subway insulated from the lovely weather, and Edith Wharton plunged me right back into winter--and the turn of the twentieth century--with the descriptive passages that open her story "A Cup of Cold Water." Everyone knows Wharton as a keen chronicler of society and the psychological chafing of the individual within it; what I'm learning is that she is just as attentive to the physical world.

I'm going to quote a bit more than I usually would, because I think you need all three paragraphs to get a sense of how Wharton renders the cityscape with precision and invests it with the soberly pessimistic perspective of its observer:
It was three o'clock in the morning, and the cotillion was at its height, when Woburn left the over-heated splendor of the Gildermere ballroom, and after a delay caused by the determination of the drowsy footman to give him a ready-made overcoat with an imitation astrachan collar in place of his own unimpeachable Poole garment, found himself breasting the icy solitude of the Fifth Avenue. He was still smiling, as he emerged from the awning, at his insistence in claiming his own overcoat: it illustrated, humorously enough, the invincible force of habit. As he faced the wind, however, he discerned a providence in his persistency, for his coat was fur-lined, and he had a cold voyage before him on the morrow.

It had rained hard during the earlier part of the night, and the carriages waiting in triple line before the Gildermeres' door were still domed by shining umbrellas, while the electric lamps extending down the avenue blinked Narcissus-like at their watery images in the hollows of the sidewalk. A dry blast had come out of the north, with pledge of frost before daylight, and to Woburn's shivering fancy the pools in the pavement seemed already stiffening into ice. He turned up his coat-collar and stepped out rapidly, his hands deep in his coat-pockets. As he walked he glanced curiously up at the ladder-like door-steps which may well suggest to the future archaeologist that all the streets of New York were once canals; at the spectral tracery of the trees about St. Luke's, the fretted mass of the Cathedral, and the mean vista of the long side-streets. The knowledge that he was perhaps looking at it all for the last time caused every detail to start out like a challenge to memory, and lit the brown-stone house-fronts with the glamour of sword-barred Edens.

It was an odd impulse that had led him that night to the Gildermere ball; but the same change in his condition which made him stare wonderingly at the houses in the Fifth Avenue gave the thrill of an exploit to the tame business of ball-going. Who would have imagined, Woburn mused, that such a situation as his would possess the priceless quality of sharpening the blunt edge of habit?
I absolutely love the image of the streets of New York being mistaken for ancient dry canals; it's the sort of vision that can change your whole way of looking at a street--especially, I suppose, on a day like today that, however lovely, in its aberrant mildness seems to be screaming, "GLOBAL WARMING! GLOBAL WARMING! LOOK OUT! FLOODS AND PLAGUES TO COME!!!"

But enough with the gloom and doom. I'm going to go find someplace where I can drink a martini . . . outside . . . in January!

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