I have come to New York to help one of my sons who has had a serious accident, who was first hospitalized for surgery and then immobilized at home. The city is in the midst of a blistering heat wave. The heat absorbs into the buildings and the roadways and converts them into the reflective surfaces of an oven. Sweaty stickiness and feelings of exhaustion are the order of the days and nights.
In Manhattan, where the hospital is, businesses cope with the heat with air conditioning. Every establishment the son who accompanied me and I walked into, from hospitals to fast food places to restaurants to bookstores to movie theaters had the air conditioners turned on full force. This had the odd effect of making us feel cold most of the time, and wishing we had brought jackets or sweaters. During my son’s surgery, which lasted about five hours, we ducked into a movie theater to pass the time, and our enjoyment of the film was impaired by the frigid air around us. It was ubiquitous, this big chill. We couldn’t get away from it. We began craving the hot air in the streets. I wondered how much money could be saved if the businesses all turned down their air conditioners to a comfortable level – surely millions of dollars if not tens or hundreds of millions considering how many such machines there are. It struck me as the madness of excess. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to air condition a building in the summer, but only that the temperature should be kept at a tolerable level.
Contrast this, though, with the subways. The New York subways, at first encounter, seem formidable mazes, but as you get used to them they get easier and easier to navigate. The trains shoot through the tunnels like roaring dragons in which you are swallowed alive, only to be spit out at your destination. The bowels of the beasts have air conditioning and are cool havens where the denizens surreptitiously stare at each other as they await their destinations. The stations and waiting areas, though, are open to the heat. And like in most underground caverns the deeper you descend the hotter it gets. The first time my eleven-year-old and I had to take the subway we had to go down three levels to our train. The first level was not bad – it was not much hotter there than up in the streets. The second level was considerably hotter, and by the time we reached the third level, deep underground, I thought of Hades, the inferno, hell, the underworld, and I understood why ancient writers represented the land of damnation and torment as a place of fiery heat. Who can dwell for long in such a location? It drains the strength, saps the will, encourages destitution and despair. And I thought of those far above in their chill palaces of wealth, prosperity, and power and marveled at the contrast. Money buys them respite from the torment of heat, at least temporarily. But there are many more in this teeming metropolis who have to suffer the heat than can afford mechanical solace from it. Manhattan with its ice palaces is surrounded by those who must endure the sweat and the stink and the slow burn.
In Pacific Beach, San Diego, where I lived until recently, people are very conscientious in keeping the regulations about crossing only at intersections and only at the green light. If you transgress the police are quick to bust your ass with an expensive ticket. In New York, by contrast, pedestrians ignore street lights. If there is much traffic they will await the light as the only means to safely cross an avenue, but if the traffic is sporadic they will wait for a break and go no matter what the traffic signal says, even right in front of a police station. This struck me as significant, somehow, though I am not sure exactly what it signifies. That it reveals something special about the characters of those who live in the eastern and western portions of the country is certain. Or perhaps I make the field too broad. Perhaps it is only New Yorkers who have this distain for rules and authority. I know that it takes something special to be able to survive in New York. It is too crowded, too violent, too anarchic, too filthy, too confusing, too smelly, too schizophrenic, too inscrutable, too impenetrable for most people, myself included. But some thrive here. Some wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I wouldn’t presume to understand why until I had lived here many more years, and that’s not likely to happen.
These are surface impressions, nothing more, born of the necessity of plunging myself into New York without preparation. But is there any possible way of preparing for immersion into the Big Apple?