Monday, January 3, 2011

Love & Hate in 4/4 Time

Love & Hate in 4/4 Time

" New York is a great apartment hotel in which everyone lives and no one is at home." Glenway Wescott

I moved to the Borough of Manhattan in August of 2007. There were any number of reasons for the move; career, art, culture, family and I suppose the need for a life change. For the first few months I was here, I was frequently asked two questions:
1. Why did you leave California?
2. What do you think of New York?

The answer to question one is simple enough. For the better part of the previous 10 years I had lived in San Diego; a beautiful, temperate, coastal city that is only about an hour and a half from where I grew up. As much as I loved living there, and being close to kith and kin, I am a restless soul. I have found that even heaven can wear on you after too many years. There is something about contentment that chips away at a man’s resolve. Like that statue in the park, so noble and striking when it was erected. It should always stand magnificent and proud but in time it becomes just another thing to be shit on by migrating birds and ignored by passers by.

The second question was much harder to answer in a way that could truly convey what this place is like for me. I have spent hours trying to capture the essence of Manhattan in my poetry, but I have only managed to give very small glimpses of New York life. Most of the time I fail miserably, only able to create weak one dimensional images that have no breadth, depth or texture. The complexity, vibrancy and frustrations of this city exceed my all too inadequate vocabulary. I remember the first time I came to New York some years ago. I was in DC on a business trip and decided to take the train up for the weekend. If you have never been here do yourself a favor and come by train to Penn Station. The overwhelming of the senses as you walk out of the station and into the shadow of Madison Square Garden will stay with you for a long time. The enormity of the city is difficult to grasp until you pop up smack in the middle of it all. I think I now have an idea of what Garcia Lopez de Cardenas must have felt the first time he saw the Grand Canyon.

My impressions of New York are intimately tied to music because I walk almost everywhere I go and I’m never without my trusty iPod. A good MP3 player is the perfect defense against panhandlers, lost tourists and subway serenaders. This synergy of music and cityscape has created a living sound track to my life here. Music shapes and colors my interpretation of the city, people and places I encounter.

When I first arrived I was living in a hotel in Midtown near Central Park. It was summer and every day after work I would ride my bike through the park. For 5 weeks the only time I ever went outside was for my nightly ride. I like the energy when I ride so my cycling play list is comprised of metal, hip hop and industrial music. Because of how I came to know the place, I don’t think of Central Park as pastoral, I think of it as angry. The roads of the park to me became a place to release the day’s stress, as I aggressively cut through leisure riders, runners and skaters, pushing harder with each stroke of the pedals. Imagine the snarl of Metallica’s “Ain’t My Bitch” blasting in your head as trees and pedestrians blurred past. It is not a place of peace and beauty; it is a desperate and pathetic attempt to connect with nature and the earth. When the weather is nice, or at least warm, the park is over run with men, women, children and dogs all hiding from the prison walls that surround us every day. As a visitor several years ago I remember thinking how wonderful it was. It was December and I was on a leisure weekend. I strolled down snow covered paths holding the hand of my future wife and wanted time to stop so I could always be in that place. Today I just stay away so I can avoid the crowds and the ever present aroma of horse shit.

The soundtrack has helped shape many positive memories too. I wish I could bottle the peace I felt one Saturday morning as I walked up Broadway from the 79th street A-Train station. I was listening to the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony 40 in G minor and the world just made sense. My stride fell in sync with the music, the sun reflected off the buildings and lit the path as I walked. I saw wonder in the eyes of the children I passed and I could taste the spring blossoms in the air. The city loved me that day and I could not help but love it right back. When New York is good there is no place better on earth.

I’ve walked down 7th Avenue with Jay-Z’s sample laden rap “Heart of the City” repetitively pulsing in my head and felt every word on the back of my throat, “Where’s the Love?” indeed. I have felt Adam’s angst as I contemplated “A Long December” walking home through Madison Square Park in the dead of winter. New York can be a place rife with sadness and regret and sometimes those things hold your hand and follow you home. I have The Counting Crows back to back with Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”. When they sing “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why” I connect with the words and can see them on the faces of the city. The daily crush of millions wears on the citizenry like the abrasive winter wind. Sometimes looking for a smile in this town is as fruitless as Abraham’s search for 10 righteous men in Sodom, but I still look.

In the end, I guess the answer to that question is that New York is place that I love and hate. It is a city that makes you believe that all things are possible and then does not blink as it steps on your dreams. It is a place where dancing shadows slide between the buildings during summer sunsets, squirrels chase morsels in the parks and men and women freeze to death alone on the city streets at night. With all its contradictions, callousness, and confusion, I still miss it when I leave. It is sad, beautiful and dysfunctional but it is where I live so I embrace it as home. I know I will leave this place someday in the not too distant future, but I don’t think it will ever leave me.



Anonymous said...

It’s almost as though you’re seeing the city in opposites. Colors in a prism. You’re obviously trying to force your work, without realizing this piece explains it all. This is poetry, Steve. The park is magical, and yet you see anger. The station is hell, and you see the Grand Canyon. Joseph Haydn once asked Beethoven how he felt concerning his own music in regard to his hearing loss. Beethoven responded by saying that the vibrations had become the music and the memory the sound. There is something very sobering and intense, when you can exit Penn Station, having known the lamp light district at 2am, with the pounding surf in the background, as your basis for comparison. The Park would piss me off as well, if I knew the city loomed over my moment in paradise. But that’s fucking poetic if you ask me. -Kenny

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Steven. It's not a poem but you can tell it was written by a poet. That's my favorite line from America. I don't think you do yourself justice as a poet in the beginning of the article. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing it.

Ruby Apolline said...

Fascinating piece, lyric and elegiac, like you're mourning yourself, your alleged lack of talent and, I dunno, the nature of things. Tells me a lot more about you than New York, which is more interesting anyway.

There's a lot here and I have to go to a pinche meeting but I want to say now (I'll be back) your discussion of contentment and restlessness struck a familiar chord with me. Stupid old contentment. How I want it and how I hate it.

AngelaEJKoh said...


This is a great post and answers a lot of questions for me. Currently, I live in Orange County and have been thinking about MFA programs in New York.

Coming across your post was just great timing. Thank you for sharing your experiences and mostly for being so honest about your difficulties, your struggles, and also your inspirations.

Hope you talk about this again soon. I'd love to hear more.


amyeverett said...

Wow you can't get the city more 3-D than that. I think I was in New york today... This should be a reality Add in a high gloss magazine. Beautiful story . I picture you those days and the nights. Wonderful. I will re read this again... even now. Just to take the trip from California.