My home base is Santa Fe and my experience is entirely different, my view the slightly jaundiced one of a writer never really at home here; Manhattan reminds me, once again, that I am another of the group of great, unknown authors.
Never mind that. The city repels and fascinates me about equally, and is most nearly available to me, visually, although I never bring my ubiquitous camera here. I don’t want to compete with the iconic photos—by Stieglitz among may others—and I don’t feel I have to.
So my visual recordings are written in words, not images, as part of my new venture which is called, “You Travel, You Write,” the workshop I’m designing to encourage women to take their travel writing seriously. We are the great travelers now, after all, and we have many things to write about our experiences—if we take them seriously—with the essential grain of humor, or at least irony.
Actually, it is our point of view, as travelers, we need to take seriously. We don’t need to be bound by guidebooks or travel sites; we can write with new eyes as new travelers in an old world.
I began my visual recording of Manhattan today, in bright, warm sunshine, looking up at the second floor windows of neoclassical limestone townhouses on side streets in the East Eighties.
Often the second floor windows in these houses are French windows, gracefully curved at the tops, that open onto narrow wrought-iron balconies giving into the relatively quiet side streets of this quintessential white upper-class neighborhood. It’s not a coincidence that two well-known private girls’ schools are rooted on these blocks.
These French windows remind me of the windows in a Right Bank hotel in Paris and in a townhouse near the Bois de Boulogne, where for the first time living in a city I experienced the combination of freedom and containment those windows gave me: freedom to open them, step onto the narrow balcony, and feel the breath of the city—yet containment because there is no exit from these balconies to the challenging streets below.
I call this combination law and order, and find it reassuring.
But the only way I survive six days of this relentless noise and hurry is to walk every day in Central Park, the reseeded meadows green, damp and fresh, and free now of the dog manure that made them off limits when my sons were small.
Sitting on the grass with my shoes off, I connected for a moment with the earth that grounds us all.
I also connected with scenes from decades ago when, desperate for escape into the outdoors, I pushed an overloaded stroller into the park. It had a desolate air, then, before the Central Park Conservancy took over and refurbished everything; the park was grimy, the benches were broken, the water fountains didn’t work, and the playgrounds contained dilapidated swing sets and jungle gyms—these last no longer tolerated because of falls. The splintery old sea saws, also no longer tolerated, were a particular hazard; my oldest son broke his arm when he was sitting on the low end and another child jumped on the high end, knocking him off onto the concrete; this was before all those safety mats were installed.
One day when I was pushing the stroller near the 79th Street park exit, I saw one of my earliest friends, sitting on the grass with her three small sons. In the tumult and confusion of early marriages, we had lost track of each other; now here she was, the girl I’d known so well, almost a stranger among the babies and paraphernalia of her new life. I must have seemed a stranger, as well.
We soon found our way back to our friendship and remain devoted friends to this day.
So that image of a young woman sitting on the grass with her sons is one of my visual reminders of the city. The homeless sitting on the sidewalks are another; one creative young woman moves her place every day, and every day writes a new version of her sign: “Hoping for a Miracle” is replaced by “Praying for a Miracle,” perhaps due to her increasing desperation.
I always leave money in her cup. We owe it to these travelers, as desperate if less colorful than the gypsies my grandmother, as a girl, saw in Northern Ireland, who gave her her first taste of wildness.
Then there’s the saxophone man, who celebrated my donation with a sprightly rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”—a tune that always brings tears to my eyes.
Fall is coming some time soon, and so the sidewalk venders have wheeled out their knit caps and cashmere (maybe) scarfs at prices so low they assure that the items were made in sweat shops. Also, and this is new, some enterprising scissor-wielding artists have created elaborate pop-up cards of city landmarks; I may buy one for my grandson tomorrow.
All this color doesn’t distract from the hideous amount of noise and the crowds so thick on the midtown sidewalks we are all constantly weaving and maneuvering to avoid collisions. Everyone is absorbed in her iPad and her ears are blocked with buds and yet by some sixth sense she avoids crashing into the oncoming herds.
At the end of the day there is the calamitous loneliness of my hotel room, filled with the subdued roar of air-conditioning somewhere in the building which can’t be turned off. My visual record of a mid-town hotel room is a tall window obscured with bars and covered with blood red curtains, our of which it is impossible to see the sky because it opens on an air shaft.
I long for the blue skies and the fresh air of my home in New Mexico, yet I will continue to walk and record in this city whenever I have the chance.
You do the same. Adopt as your motto, “I travel, I write.”