I love cities. I love my home town so much I blew it up. Really. The Stone War, published in 1999, was at its root a discussion of love of place and love of person (and where they intersect) and a mash note to my hometown and favorite city in the world, New York.
I know New York is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people don’t care for cities, no matter how glorious. Not everyone born a New Yorker loves it: my brother was born there and hates it. Not everyone from out of town hates it, either. Some people get off the bus or the train or the helicopter and take a breath and just know they’re home. The Stone War was, in part, my attempt to to describe what I find so profoundly lovable about NYC. If you don’t have time right now to read an entire novel, here are Five Things to Love About New York:
Its compression. New York isn’t a small city, but compared to many cities without its geographical limitations it’s compact. That’s part of why it’s such a vertical city–when you can’t spread out, you spread up. New York is like a field of caves and canyons and mesas, all man made. The city uses all its space–below the ground (as they say in the song, the people ride in a hole in the ground) up into the sky, packing more art, life, food, confusion, beauty, ugliness, and generosity in a square foot than you’d think the laws of physics would allow.
Its structures. The protagonist of The Stone War is an architect for good reason. I wanted someone who could walk around the city with a sense of its structure and physical beauty. Every city has architecture: New York has, with the possible exception of wattle-and-daub cottages and igloos, just about every imaginable kind of architecture, from every year of the last 300 or so, jumbled together, full of surprises. The city’s a palimpsest, bits of forgotten architecture and culture shine through. When a building is being razed, look at the walls of the structures next to it and you’re likely to see a 1920s painted advertisement or a bit of lost ornamental detail. The house I grew up in (seen in the watercolor above painted by my father) was built in 1837. Down the street were buildings older and newer. The city changes constantly and stays the same.
Its people. The myth, perpetuated by sitcoms and movies, is that New York is a scary place full of nasty, hardbitten people. New Yorkers are like M&Ms–hard shell and a melty core. Living in a place as chock-full of humans as it is, you have to develop a bit of a shell. Pierce that shell, ask for directions, say, or lose a contact lens, and suddenly you’ve got people coming out of the woodwork to help (when my older daughter was very young and still dealing with potty training, it wasn’t her babysitter who got her to leave the sandbox in Central Park to find the bathroom; it was Katie Couric, who was in the playground with her kid and intervened when she saw Julie doing the potty-dance). Cultures? Neighborhoods? Foods? Whaddaya want? Yeah, we got that.
Its weird. I was working on 53rd and Lexington a couple of decades ago when, around Christmas time, I saw a young, preppie-looking guy on the sidewalk with a bunch of bullwhips around his neck like a wreath. Rather laconically, he was switching one and calling “Whips! Perfect stocking stuffer. Whips! Bring one home to the wife or girlfriend. Whips…” And no one batted an eye. There’s the strange guy with the world’s most beat up saxophone who used to get on a subway car, mangle the first couple of bars of the theme to The Twilight Zone, then announce that the Aliens in his Head would force him to keep playing unless unless we contributed a little something to his Operating Fund (this guy wasn’t crazy, just canny). Or the guy whose panhandling come-on was “Can you spare $27,000,000 for a Boeing 747? No? How about a dollar for some coffee?” New York does colorful in its own distinct way.
Its courage. When I was a kid and there were blackouts or blizzards or subway strikes, the city managed to make kind of a party out of it. My father directed traffic at 53rd and Madison, where he worked, for two hours during a blackout, then walked 40 blocks home and was smiling when he got there. Civic improv, you might call it, and New Yorkers are pros at it. Even when things get really grim. On 9/11 what I remember is the little things…going to the market that day and watching as, over and over, people approached a staple–bottled water or toilet paper or milk–and hesitated, and then took just what they needed for now. In the days afterward, people kept going to work and living their lives. My daughter had a soccer game the first Saturday after the Event, and the city had been eerie and quiet for days, but there all of us were on a perfect autumn day, watching our five-year-olds play clusterball and willfully not looking at the sky.
When I go back to New York I become livelier and more relaxed, more myself. In Greek myth, Antaeus was the son of Gaia; he was hard to beat in a fight because every time you knocked him down, he was revived with contact with Mother Earth, bounced right back and waded in, swinging. New York City is my Mother Earth, every gritty, crowded, chaotic, insanely human bit of it. There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and for a writer, that’s paradise.
Madeleine Robins, New Yorker by nature and nurture, now lives in San Francisco.