Hamilton, NJ, the Transit Hub
There is a disturbance, then a roar. The Amtrak tube lashes through, shaking the foundations. You glimpse it in a blur. It diminishes, it is gone, and the birdsong is loud in the aftermath. The birds have made their nests around the platforms, indifferent to the power and the glory of the trains.
No attendants on duty. You buy your ticket from a touchscreen and you read the signs. The slower NJ Transit trains use the two outer tracks, the Amtrak goes on the inner two. Concrete sleepers covered in grey rocks under the wires stretch away to both horizons, and that is all.
The NJ Transit
Not newer models, the trains. Mass transit is about efficiency of access and unencumbered transportation: this is what they do, in measurable, great quantity. Trains have their own way: they glide and have their sounds: the rush, the clack of slowing down, the lonely whistle, the hum. Three seats on one side, two on the other on the one-tier trains. Old plastic, scratched windows, the conductor only occasionally friendly and all business. The intercom squawks semi-intelligibly.
It feels like a step back in time, except that everybody is using small screens. No newspapers, no magazines, no books, just little screens and wires into the head.
New Jersey flashes by between stations. Princeton Junction, New Brunswick (Rutgers), and then the industrial wasteland and marshes. New Jersey, as you approach New York, seems like a place where they tried but failed to extend the city. Eventually you descend into darkness.
The darkness that leads out of New Jersey brings one to the dim underworld of New York. Pennsylvania Station is a functional place, and down on the platforms a dreary location indeed. The dead trudge up the stairs into the waiting areas of that underground complex. They spread out toward the various exits and join the living on New York’s teeming sidewalks. I Tiresias have walked among them. I have seen the wires coming from their ears, connecting them to their batteries, carrying them through the lower regions.
In the evening ticket holders wait for a track to be announced, and then rush down as soon as they can to get each man his seat down in that dim underworld, in the humming train that will bear them back to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
There was pizza. $1 for a cheese slice, and $3 for the other options. Warm pizza of the morning. The attendants speak to the customer in the customary English, and then shout at each other in Spanish. Efficiency is the rule in New York City. Don’t dawdle, don’t hang back, don’t be dumb. Know thy mind, if indeed thou hast one, thou idiot. The beckoning small pizza places angle into the structure of the city, wedged away in slices.
A low place where tall structures are in demand, a breach in the ramparts surrounding Central Park, the Frick. A lawn even, and more unusually, a lawnmower. Inside: the bag inspection, the coat check, the inefficient dispatch of tickets, the guard who lectures and indicates, and after all the preliminaries the collection. It is a house of treasures: Vermeer, Gainsborough, Reynolds, van Dyck, Corot, Holbein (More and Cromwell), and two magnificent enormous Turners. The dead creep through it, listening to handheld devices, sitting often, dressed variously but mostly well, upscale. Good lighting on the art and a dimmer building, the sense of a house: dining room, hall, library, gallery, oval room, etc. The Frick has nothing contemporary, for it was Frick’s own collection made one hundred years ago or so. I Tiresias, blind seer of Athens, looked on what had been.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A tourist destination. Crowded stairs, slow entrance, bag inspection, statistical registration I Tiresias did avoid, unnoticed as at Thebes below the wall. Throngs of the dead like autumn leaves there. These dissipate. The dead congregate in the impressionist galleries, but not in the remoter 17th Century galleries. A vast place and somewhat seedy for seeing so much volume, so many dead. No meager collection, but functional galleries, and some living moments in galleries where the statues are about to come to life, impatient with the dead. The worn parquet, the foot-high ropes, the tramp of feet and murmur, the indescribable pastel paint on the walls is mostly all. The dead blow though, watched by the drowsy guards. The fierce statues disdain to exhibit life, waiting for the dead to pass. I Tiresias stared into those souls, stared into the round eyes of quintuped Assyrian cherubim. What a race, the Assyrian: beards and wings and bunched calf muscles.
I went as the swallow goes, to get a sense of it. If one is going to see the Met and absorb anything at all, one has to stay in the city, one has to arrive early and late, one has to have copious time if one is not to see it as the dead do. The dead file past the statues, up the staircases and down. I went among them, I Tiresias, and when I had finished drifting along with them I emerged, not even a statistic for the quantitative.
Lexington Ave. Crammed against a panel of glass facing the sidewalk. Ajiaco, maracuya, aguepanela, sancocho. Sweet corn—so out of place—and auyama. Good green sauce, authentically Mexican in a Colombian restaurant. The usual incongruity. A Brazilian waiter, solicitous, trilingual. Quick service, Colombianly awkward.
New York Public Library
Of its many locations, I went to the classical building that hove into view a few blocks west of Park Ave. The steps were thronged for a medieval event: an outdoor performance drawing great applause. The living congregated there, and the dead were on the fringes, hoping to understand. A line led in, a bag inspection, a splendid building, some celebrants. Steep stairs, a well-kept place. The dead milled in it, sat pointlessly at the top, engaged the desperate memorial of photography with their little screens, gesturing on their surfaces. I Tiresias watched their wish to even wish anything at all dismayed. Backstairways lead to vast hallways, past the reliquaries and into the world of life again.
Juan Valdez Coffee
The stark modern interior, of a dark variety. The attendant who did not speak audibly. The latte they call café con leche. The old lady sneaking in to use the counter without buying anything. The hulking transvestite. The attendant coming to stare at the impertinent old lady. The young woman going through her email on a mackintosh computer. The Slavic conversation of some emotion. The light roast from Huila in the red packaging. The leg of Tiresias fell asleep.
Grand Central Station
They go with purpose under that vast canopy, those wells of light, that spacious crossing of the paths of all the world. Ramps lead to the bowels of the city. Wrought and industrial iron, marble, the everlasting sound of throngs that move with purpose.
Is it not one of the consolations of the age? A limited menu, three Asian girls, the wait, the crowded premises, the odd machinery. Good strong black tea, the creamy milk, the tapioca bubbles, the ingenious large straw and the sealed package. The chewy slugs are soft and swift, and the moment passes. There are few urban consolations like straightforward bubble tea.
150, and the Sidewalks
From 30th north to 86th, south to 10th and back up to 30th = 140 blocks. From as far west as Columbus Circle to Lexington Ave in the east, another 10 in zigs and zags. With musea and other distractions, a good days of walking = 150 blocks at least. I Tiresias have seen the city, and there is enough of it. The surge across the streets with all the living intermingling and so many different embodied souls to see can be endlessly repeated. I have seen Jewish gentlemen in a comfortable interiors that advertise kosher chicken soup. I have been among the smoking hot-dog stands with kebabs and emanating middle-eastern music. I have noticed glasses and cloth napkins, plain and elegant booths, counters, steaming trays of food, pretzels and pizza, coffee, donuts and animated conversations. The buildings rise, rank upon rank, various, splendid, curious, dull, and renewed as the city renews itself, that strong, great city. New York City Ferrari, art supplies, instruments of music, oysters for $1, theaters, billboards and vast churches.
And I know that what New York City doth not have, doth not matter.