March 8, 2012

Lovely Characterization



Aaah, “the little shocks of good that crawled out from underneath the everyday.”

I’m reading Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, and in it is a fabulous characterization of NYC.  Just amazing. I love beautiful rambling characterizations, as I’ve mentioned before.

The theater began shortly after lunch.  His fellow judges and court officers and reporters and even the stenographers were already talking about it as if it were another of those things that just happened in the city.  One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days.  New York had a way of doing that.  Every now and then the city shook its soul out.  It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.
He had a theory about it.  It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history.  Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past.  The city lived in a sort of everyday present.  It had no need to believe in itself as a London, or an Athens, or even a signifier of the New World, like a Sydney, or a Los Angeles.  No, the city couldn’t care less about where it stood.  He had seen a T-shirt once that said: NEW YORK FUCKIN’ CITY.  As if it were the only place that ever existed and the only one that ever would.
New York kept going forward precisely because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it had left behind.  It was like the city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder.  Two pillars of salt.  Long Island and New Jersey.
He had said to his wife many times that the past disappeared in the city.  It was why there weren’t many monuments around.  It wasn’t like London, where every corner had a historical figure carved out of stone, a war memorial here, a leader’s bust there.  He could only really pinpoint a dozen true statues around New York City—most of them in Central Park, along the Literary Walk, and who in the world went to Central Park these days anyway?  A man would need a phalanx of tanks just to pass Sir Walter Scott.  On other famous street corners, Broadway or Wall Street or around Gracie Square, nobody felt a need to lay claim to history.  Why bother?  You couldn’t eat a statue.  You couldn’t screw a monument.  You couldn’t wring a million dollars out of a piece of brass.
Even down here, on Centre Street, they didn’t have many public backslaps to themselves.  No Lady Justice in a blindfold.  No Supreme Thinkers with their robes wrapped around themselves.  No Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil carved into the upper granite columns of the criminal courts.
Which was one of the things that made Judge Soderberg thing that the tightrope walker was such a stroke of genius.  A monument in himself.  He had made himself into a statue, but a perfect New York one, a gard for the past.  He had gone to the World Trade Center and had strung his rope across the biggest towers in the world.  The Twin Towers.  Of all places.  So brash.  So glassy.  So forward-looking.  Sure, the Rockefellers had knocked down a few Greek revival homes and a few classic brownstones to make way for the towers—which had annoyed Claire when she read about it—but mostly it had been electronics stores and cheap auction houses where men with quick tongues had sold everything useless under the sun, carrot peelers and radio flashlights and musical snow globes.  In place of the shysters, the Port Authority had built two towering beacons high in the clouds.  The glass reflected the sky, the night, the colors: progress, beauty, capitalism.
Soderberg wasn’t one to sit around and decry what used to be.  The city was bigger than its buildings, bigger than its inhabitants too.  It had its own nuances.  It accepted whatever came its way, the crime and the violence and the little shocks of good that crawled out from underneath the everyday.
He figured that the tightrope walker must have thought it over quite a bit beforehand.  It wasn’t just and offhand walk.  He was making a statement with his body, and if he fell, well, he fell—but if he survived he would become a monument, not carved in stone or encased in brass, but one of those New York monuments that made you say: Can you believe it? With an expletive.  There would always be an expletive in a New York sentence.  Even from a judge.  Soderberg was not fond of bad language, but he knew its value at the right time.  A man on a tightrope, a hundred and ten stories in the air, can you possibly fucking believe it?

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