What it’s like living here
by John Proctor
Every Monday and Thursday during the school year, I get up at 4:30 and commute via subway from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal, the Metro North commuter train from Grand Central to White Plains, and the Bee-Line bus from White Plains to Purchase, New York, where I teach at Manhattanville College. Having a wife and child while trying to maintain my pre-offspring reading and writing schedule can be difficult, and the train gives me a chunk of mostly unaccosted reading and writing time. Also, I’ve found that I’m rarely so aware – of my thoughts, of my surroundings – as I am at 5:00 in the morning in a moving vehicle that I don’t have to steer.
For the first time since I moved to New York City in 2000, I live in a neighborhood – Park Slope – that rarely makes me feel physically unsafe. It’s a popular site for movie shoots that want an “old Brooklyn” feel, but the only hint of crime that I’ve experienced are break-ins of my car if I leave it unlocked.
No matter the time of year, whether the waning days of summer at the start of the school year or the dark heart of winter when the second semester is just getting underway, I exit our three-story brick apartment building into a near-total darkness, broken up every 50 feet or so with the dim yellow arcs of streetlamps. Our block is mostly old three-story linoleum-sided buildings, with a sprinkling of ultra-modern condos that sit half-empty, waiting for the housing market to recover. We hope the market stays bad forever, so we’ll always have streetside parking. Some blocks near ours have actual gaslight lamps. These lamps seem to be in keeping with the “historic district” designation that Park Slope shares with Beacon Hill in Boston and New Orleans’ French Quarter.
This is all to say that the darkness of my 5:00am walk to the subway feels a lot like a movie set in Brooklyn. While the walk to the N train is a couple blocks shorter, I always walk the extra two blocks to the F. Eschewing 4th Avenue with its monstrous, crouching, half-built condos and Fort Hamilton Drive’s view of the industrial core of Brooklyn and wind that can drive a person backward, I choose the narrower Brownstone-lined thoroughfares that never threaten my own fragile sense of my neighborhood’s smallness in the guts of Gargantua.
Walking down 7th Avenue and looking into its coffee shop, bar, and boutique windows on the way to the subway, I’m reminded of being a pre-teen in Lawrence, Kansas and sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to go downtown. To get there, I had to cross the bridge over the Kaw River, which my mom always said would swallow me up in a giant, devouring whirlpool if I went near it. She reinforced this with stories of drunks staggering out of Johnny’s Tavern determined to swim to the other side, never to be heard from again. When I walked the bridge over the river on my clandestine trips downtown I’d look over the edge, see the dam churning below me, and get dizzy, then I’d run as fast as I could to get across. But getting to Massachusetts Street, the thoroughfare of downtown Lawrence made it all worth it. The dim lights of the streetlamps, the bars with college students bursting out of them, the storefront windows beckoning, like the cheese shop that seemed to be open all night where they’d slice me off fifty cents’ worth of smoked gouda. I ate it slowly, delicately, savoring every bite like it was one of the fine stinky cheeses I now buy from the Brooklyn storefronts on 7th Avenue.
In his 1995 essay “Take the F,” Ian Frazier recounts taking the same train commute that I take these mornings. And when I say that, I mean the exact same trip, getting on at the 7th Avenue stop in Brooklyn and getting off in Midtown Manhattan. He writes of the way the F elevates from below ground after our stop on 7th Avenue skyward to the highest point on the subway system two stops later at Smith & 9th Street where, out the west-looking window, one is level with the soaring Verrazano Bridge on one side and the Manhattan skyline on the other. He spends a seemingly inordinate amount of words on this short time the train is above ground – it descends below the surface just three stops after it comes up for air at 9th Street – but I understand why. It’s the best part of the ride on the F. At 5:20 in the morning the deep purple sky – there are never any stars out in Brooklyn – recedes behind the huge, ancient Kentile Floors sign, the compass-like clock tower, and the monstrous spider-like cranes sorting garbage near the Gowanus Canal. The train is so high above the ground that it gives the illusion of being part of the landscape of Brooklyn, if only for two stops on the train. And below the tracks, the thick, oil-slick Gowanus Canal, just last year designated a federal Superfund polluted area roughly 25 years too late, continues gathering detritus. And then the train descends back underground. But just before going under, if you’re paying attention, you’ll see the same clotheslines, tiny plots of turf, and hot dog stands, even into garden rooftops and the first lit windows that, bathed in the purple light of a 5:20 pre-dawn, assume a mystical, mythical character. This is Brooklyn, the quaint string of neighborhoods and the industrial juggernaut.
When I moved to New York, the most difficult adjustment I had to make was sublimating myself to the rhythms and schedule of the mass transit system. I was entirely dependent on the subway and bus lines, which many native New Yorkers – many of whom have never driven – will tell you is the way it should be. Nowadays, I only ride mass transit to work on the two days a week I teach. I think it’s either for this reason or the fact that I now juggle having a family, teaching undergraduate courses, and writing that I look forward to those two and a half hours of crowded solitude.
At the 42nd Street/Bryant Avenue stop, I take the 7 train to Grand Central Station. The escalator from the 7 train platform up to Grand Central Terminal is one of the longest on the subway system. The escalator is located at the far rear of the train platform, so I make sure to board the last car on the train. I then go to the last door on the last car, and wait for it to open. When it does, I sprint out the door and up the escalator, two steps at a time. This mad sprint briefly makes me feel about 20 years younger, like when I was in high school and would spend my summers running all the steps around Kansas University’s Memorial Stadium. I made the entire, exhausting trudge up and down, up and down, getting to the end, looking back over the breadth of the stadium I’d just traversed, then started over again. I did this with other athletes at my high school – as a challenge, but not as a race. The point wasn’t to finish, but to do it the longest. As if every step we took, every up and down, was a cycle of life, and by continuing running we were cheating death. Now, after I run up that long escalator, which would constitute a tiny fraction of a stadium circuit, my legs ache and I realize I’m a lot closer to death.
Grand Central Terminal itself, where I transfer to the Metro North, is my way-station, where I buy my coffee and stop to look around, gather myself, and remember why I live in this city. Sometimes, when I get off the 7 train, I’ll saunter outside to get an amNew York or, if I have an extra dollar burning a hole in my pocket, a New York Times, and watch the taxis whiz by. Sometimes I’ll run downstairs to the crossroads between the food court and the oyster bar, and if there are any stray kids I’ll show them how, due to a magical, probably intentional quirk of construction, if you whisper into one corner of that particular crossway, your voice will skim the surface of the ceramic arches to the person in the opposite corner about twenty feet away, like the corner is whispering in their ear. These arches share the classical architecture of New York City with such landmarks as Ellis Island, the Queensboro Bridge, and numerous Catholic cathedrals designed by the father-son team of Rafael Guastavino and Rafael Guastavino Jr. near the turn of the Twentieth Century. But only in this corner of Grand Central is its scale so intimate as to carry a sigh. Charles Mingus played his bass there for the acoustics, and also proposed to his wife there in a whisper. Sometimes, like here, the motives can be a bit less romantic:
I always get into Grand Central with about 20-25 minutes before my Metro North train leaves. The local to North White Plains leaves from Track 29, which always has me singing a song I learned from my grandpa:
Pardon me boys, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?
Boy, you can gimme a shine
My grandpa was a prisoner of war in a Nazi camp. On the rare occasions when he talked about it, he would get quiet and pensive before telling of being brought out each morning and having a battery of guns pointed at him, of every now and then seeing a fellow soldier shot in the back. He expected to be dead without having a chance to repent or beg. But most of the time, his recollections were of songs he heard in boot camp, or in France or England. Though his favorite back home was Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, he danced with the ladies overseas to recordings of Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band. Later on, when I rediscovered Miller during the swing revival of the mid-90s, I surprised myself and impressed my dates at swing clubs by singing along with “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and the rest of the songs Grandpa used to sing along with.
On the second leg of my commute, I try to get on the Metro North early so I can get my favorite seat – five cars up, mid-car, with the window facing east so I can see the sunrise over the Harlem River right when the train ascends above ground around 100th Street. Depending on the weather and the time of year, the sun may just be rising or the view may be still lit only by the dim yellow glow of the streetlamps. After the Harlem stop, when the train crosses the Harlem River, I get to catch a fleeting, eager glance – not more than two or three seconds before it’s obscured by the highrises and elevated highways of the Bronx – at the most haunting, aptly named bridge in all of New York City, the Hell Gate. An immense, singular steel arch connecting two perfectly symmetrical concrete abutments with cathedral-like watchtowers, the bridge does in many ways look like the entrance to Hades. Most people, even people living in the city, have never heard of it, and you can’t drive or walk over it, as its only traffic is Amtrak. I only recently traveled over it for this first time, on the Vermonter on my way to Montpelier, but have always been awestruck at its obdurate gothic beauty since I saw it in a picture book of New York bridges as a child in Kansas.
The Hell Gate Arch was, even at its opening in 1917, a dated structure. The New York Times, on the day of its initial run, published an editorial predicting the demise of the railroad as the automobile gained in popularity and use, and two days before that Congress had declared war on Germany, nationalizing railroad operations for the war effort. Because of this, the bridge now has a bifurcated nature. Because people mostly see it only from a distance, it has the air of an ancient ruin. But it also remains the strongest steel arch bridge in the world, which means that in the event of a large-scale disaster, it would undoubtedly be the last structure in the city standing. This dual nature is, I think, what makes it so haunting – the Hell Gate Arch is, to most eyes, a dead structure, yet it’s the closest a man-made bridge could come to immortality.
As the Metro North straightens its course due north through the Bronx and Yonkers on its eventual path to White Plains, the Bronx River’s slender path meanders across and under the tracks of the Metro North. The Bronx River dumps into the Harlem River, and the Harlem River, like the Hudson on the other side of Manhattan, is part of a larger estuary system connecting through the Verrazano Narrows with the Atlantic Ocean. Both the Hudson and the Harlem Rivers, depending on the time of day and tidal cycles, could be running in either direction, which is important to nautical navigation and gives us the derivation of “Hell Gate,” the tidal strait that the Hell Gate Arch crosses and the cause of so many shipwrecks in the port. The tidal crossroads at that juncture of the river actually creates random whirlpools that have sucked down so many vessels over the last 300 years that scuba divers still plunge the depths in hopes of finding the sunken ships and buried treasure there. The most famous of these legends is that of the H.M.S. Hussar. The New York Times, as recently as February 17, 2002, published a piece about the continued fascination with the Royal Navy ship with a crew of 100 and a supposed wealth of gold aboard that was sucked into the bowels of Hell Gate:
The Hussar has loomed like a massive galleon in New York’s imagination, the flagship of the city’s desire and mythmaking. The tale, like the ship, lies buried in the detritus of history, every so often glittering again like the edge of a gold coin through a scrim of salt. As with any story, time has etched many imperfections in the tale of the Hussar, and the truth is often no more visible than the waters at the bottom of Hell Gate.
As I move continuously forward on my own cyclical journey, I don’t think it’s coincidental that I link rivers and estuaries with the merciless currents of time and space. But while my body is pushed along toward my destination, my mind rebels. Every word I’ve read, all the conversations I’ve had, the people I’ve come into contact with, all the experiences, hopes for the future, past hauntings – they all gather in the headwaters of my mind, swishing back and forth, dictated by shifting currents that seem random but eventually push these divergent things together until they converge into my own personal mythology. With words I can only hint at what’s below the surface, churning, slowly decomposing in the fathomless depths of memory while I tell stories about those things from up here.
At this point in the trip and my thoughts, my mind inevitably wanders to my wife. In the documentary Rivers and Tides Andy Goldsworthy, one of her favorite artists, says:
I want to understand that state and that energy that I have in me…the energy in life that is running through, flowing through, the landscape. It is that intangible thing that is here, and then gone.
Growth – time, change – and the idea of flow in nature. The two big influences in my work – the sea and the river, both water. You would think that time would be more compatible with the tide – time and tide, this daily up and down – but somehow, I think there is a lot to be learned about time by the river.
Goldsworthy creates “sculptures” not from brass, steel, or any other synthetic material, but from icicles, twigs, leaves, and other material he finds in the natural world. And, except for rare commissions he takes to pay the bills, he creates his sculptures in nature, takes pictures of them, and leaves them there. Perhaps this is the strength of his work: the internal conflict between his mythic world – artful, artificial – and the world as it exists without him, where the primary judgment on anything is whether it can withstand time and tide.
Jane Jacobs, in her seminal The Death and Life Great American Cities, defends cities from the charge that they are somehow removed from nature, saying, “The cities of human beings are as natural, being a product of one form of nature, as are the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters.” My wife, an artist herself, created a body of work similar in intent and aesthetic to Goldsworthy’s work in the “natural world” when she first moved to New York City, before we met. To better understand the city’s ecosystem, she spent a year or so recording cell phone conversations on the train, along the sidewalks, in public spaces. She then took those conversations, of which she only ever heard one side, and wove them digitally into cacophony of voices, all vying for attention in the crowded streets of her mind, and the listener’s, in a piece she titled “Conversations in the City.” These conversations became the subtext of her natural world, the narrative connecting herself to the city through time and space. Maybe that’s all art is – a conversation back and forth between ourselves, our mythologies, and the natural world that informs both.
Whatever the sun’s position at the beginning of the trip, morning arrives inevitably by the time the train reaches White Plains. Sometime in the walk from the train station across the street to the bus station, as the day brightens a bit of the morning’s magic fades. Maybe it’s having the veil of half-light removed, maybe it’s my increased awareness of my destination (work), maybe it’s the knowledge that I’ve now moved out of the steady flow of mass transit-friendly New York City into the riptide of Westchester County’s Bee-Line bus system – whatever the reasons, there’s little room for metaphysical rumination from here on. That’s not to say that it’s boring – there are the Stepinac High School boys smoking on the benches at the station, waiting for the Bee-Line 60 to Mamaroneck, which is technically pronounced Muh-MARE-uh-neck but I call Momma Rowneck to the Stepinac boys, acting like she’s my great lost aunt. And then there’s the Bee-Line 12, my bus, which is on perhaps the most illogically planned route in the tri-state area. This summer, obviously in some sort of deal with Morgan Stanley and MasterCard, who have ginormous corporate metroplexes adjoining the college, the Bee-Line 12 route was extended to traverse every nook and cranny of both complexes, stopping at each of the different entrances and adding about a half hour to the trip. I get an extra bit of reading in, or talk to Clarence, the security officer at my college with whom I usually share a seat. At the beginning of the summer, Clarence explained to me the changes on the Bee-Line in three words: “Somebody’s gettin’ paid.”
So goes my morning commute. When I step on campus in Purchase, I promptly forget everything I was thinking about on the subway, Metro North, and bus, and get to the work at hand. My first class starts at 8:20, ten minutes after I arrive; then breakfast, three more classes, a late lunch at 2:30, and a 3:00 return trip to Brooklyn. The exact same trip, in reverse – only not the same trip. Not even close. The return trip never has the same magic of that morning commute – by then I’m too tired to appreciate much, outside the work I’m trying to leave behind me. The day by then has arranged itself into a series of tasks, I’m on the downhill of my To Do list, and I’m grading essays, or reading something not for the joy of reading it but because I’ll be teaching it soon. There’s also the matter of destination – unlike the morning commute, my destination is now home, where my wife and daughter await. I’m no longer putting off arrival but eagerly awaiting it, as time and tide bring me back to where I started.