The city has a way of enforcing its rules on the unwary that even the Wall Street protesters might find oppressive: a way of dressing that implies a way of being, a way of talking that depends on a certain kind of conformity—the reason, in addition to the expense of living here, that writers and artists get out.
This is only true of Manhattan, of course, the great money-eating and money-spewing reptile that devours its young. Carl Sandberg had some choice words for Chicago—“Hog butcher of the world,” and all that, but ended with a peon to the laughter of laboring youth. The ferocious aspect of New York, its crowds, its incessant, soul-battering noise, its worldliness that is not so much cynicism as a simple refusal to ask the questions life demands, has its representation in art in Georgia O’Keeffe’s early work.
Her haunting “City Night” brings back some of the melancholy beauty I felt, rather than saw, when as a child coming east for August we got off the train in Grand Central. Of course it was a quieter and smaller city then. Now it is impossible to find the gleaming newness O’Keeffe caught in that painting, as though the city deserved a capitol letter, as though it was indeed the greatest city in the world.
Shadowy, now, the remains of that mystery lurk in the dark corners of St. Patrick’s cathedral, where people still kneel at all hours to pray, light candles, pray again, and pass on. The city has no word, no space for the spirit, yet it does endure, in that great edifice, next to Saks Fifth Avenue and across the street from Abercrombie’s where the half-naked male models gyrate and the crowd lines up behind barriers, waiting for a chance to get inside. Abercrombie’s used to sell fishing creels and fitted picnic baskets.
I remember how the old way endured, fueled with money, when I attended a memorial service for the father of my oldest son. Our divorce divided me decades ago from his certainty, but as a writer and a woman, I was already outside that charmed circle. He influenced many people in the literary and philanthropic worlds; he also took them fishing and hunting, introducing an element of sanity and continuity perhaps as important as the work they did together. That is, for the most part, gone, since it depended on the continuation of an aristocratic tradition that has always been at odds with our attempt at maintaining a democracy.
Walter Issacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs will be out on Monday. People are excited about it for reasons I don’t entirely understand. Perhaps Jobs is the new edition, leading with innovations in technology; I doubt if he ever took his mentees fishing or hunting.
Nor do I. But the leading I do depends on writing, and empowerment—on words, and words will always seem fragile compared with things, whether the things are I-pods or fishing rods.
Still, St. Patrick’s cathedral is here, and although the wretched scandals that have shaken the church continue to vibrate and always will, there is some kind of enduring faith that propels us onto our knees. Perhaps that is the last vestige of humanity, in midtown where no one gives anything to the omnipresent beggars, where we jostle each other mercilessly on the wide sidewalk but carefully avoid looking or speaking, except into cell phones.
While I am in the city, the city moulds me, enforcing its rules. Two more days, and I will get out.