The infinite city, cont’d.

Andrew Sullivan quotes this passage from Lewis Lapham’s meditation on cities, in the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly:

[O]n a cloudy afternoon in Central Park […] I came across two men seated on a bench, each with a fanciful parrot resting on his shoulder, engaged in intense discussion accompanied by decisive gestures and rapid changes of expression. The parrots were identical; the two men were as unlike one another as a ferret and a panda—on the near end of the bench a small and heavily damaged white man in a threadbare raincoat, early seventies, not many teeth, sunken chest, furtive demeanor; at the far end of the bench a handsome and handsomely tailored black man, gold jewelry, stylish hat and brocade vest, broad-gauged grin, majestic presence.

In answer to my questions, I was told that the parrots were the only two of their particular species ever to have made it north of the Panama Canal, that the two men had met by accident while out walking their birds on 125th Street, that each had come to regard the other as the only man in America with whom it was possible to hold an important conversation.

A wonderful moment, and it illustrates perfectly the improbable serendipities that abound in the city.

There’s more. Lapham doesn’t shy away from New York’s ugly side:

When seen at a height or a distance, from across the Hudson River or from the roof of Rockefeller Center, Manhattan meets the definitions of the sublime. At ground level Manhattan is a stockyard, the narrow streets littered with debris and laid out in the manner of cattle chutes, the tenements and storefronts uniformly fitted to fit the framework of a factory or a warehouse. The modus vivendi under the boot of the modus operandi. The commercial imperative comes with no apology. Like most other American cities, New York is a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, built on a standardized grid, conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos, much less as an expression of man’s humanity to man, but as a shopping mall in which to perform the heroic feats of acquisition and consumption.

But neither is this the entire picture. Like Walt Whitman, the city’s greatest poet, New York happily contradicts itself, containing multitudes, offering light alongside dark:

Fortunately, there’s also the other side of the coin and the story, and if my own view of the city is at odds with the threatening camera angles, it’s not only a matter of optics but also the result of my early reading of nineteenth-century French and English novels in preference to the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Born and raised in the province of California, I imagined New York as did the young David Copperfield seeing London from a distance as “an amazing place…I vaguely made it out in my own mind to be fuller of wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth.” The rumors tended to be confirmed in The New Yorker magazine by Dorothy Parker, A. J. Liebling, John O’Hara, Alexander Woollcott, and E. B. White. They didn’t shy away from the notion of a gladiatorial arena (neither did Honoré de Balzac or Charles Dickens), but they made space on the bloody sand for the artist, the actor, and the musician, as well as for the stockbroker and the merchant. For the free play of the mind as well as for the indentured service to a market.

The essay and the entire issue are dedicated to an exploration of the notion of “The City,” gathering perspectives from many writers in many cities across all historical epochs: Sophocles alongside Borges, Jules Verne alongside Groucho Marx. Lots of excellent reading.

(Image via BrooklynParrots.com)

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